Friday, May 9, 2014

Vanity Fair on Snowden

I have to admit that I found myself pretty enthralled by the rather long read Vanity Fair has provided on the life and times of Edward Snowden. But it wasn't because it was anything like a great John le Carré novel. Perhaps its the recovering therapist in me - but I was trying to garner some answers to questions that have gone unanswered in all our obsession with him - like "what were his motivations?" You see, I don't buy the great hero narrative he and his supporters have tried to sell.

What I will say about this piece is that - for the first time - I think the authors approached this without an agenda to sell. They seem uninterested in making a case that he's either a hero or a villain. In quoting their conversations with Snowden, its the first time he occasionally sounds unscripted by his handlers. So its worth a read for that perspective alone.

But the account only intensifies the questions that remain. For example, on the one hand the story is about a very young man who is savy enough to contact three different reporters (Gellman, Greenwald and Poitras) in order to protect himself...what Snowden calls his "checks and balances." But on the other hand, we're told that he was naive enough to head to Hong Kong with a hope (no plan) of ending up in Iceland without an alternative if that failed. An anonymous source identified as "someone who knows Snowden well" is quoted as saying:
Part of him is very naïve. I think he thought the world would see how fucked up what the N.S.A. was doing is and give him a part in a parade.
Holy shit! No one can be THAT naive, can they?

There is also not much to reconcile Snowden's rant on the Ars Technica message board about leaked security documents when he says "They’re reporting classified shit. Who the fuck are the anonymous sources telling them this? Those people should be shot in the balls," with the guy a close associate describes as:
...an “I.T. genius” who took his martial arts very seriously. She described him as “kind and sincere,” “introspective,” and “a bit prone to brood.”
In one of the most absurd tales included in the article, we find out that Snowden regularly showed up for his job at Dell doing contract work for the NSA wearing an Electronic Frontier Foundation sweatshirt (yeah, go check that link and you'll find their tag line "Defending your rights in a digital world"). That sure doesn't reflect well on Dell. But how naive/grandiose (chose your word) is that for Snowden?

The authors of the article don't claim to know what motivated Snowden to steal classified documents. But they tell one story as an interesting possibility.
It was that summer of 2012, Ledgett [NSA's Deputy Director] says, when Snowden made his first illegal downloads. According to the N.S.A., one of those documents was the agency’s technical employment test, with the answer sheet. Snowden later took the test, and “aced it,” according to Mike McConnell, a former director of the N.S.A. and now the vice chairman of Booz Allen. Sometime in the fall of 2012, Snowden allegedly applied for a job at the N.S.A., got it, and then turned it down because he wanted a higher rank. “They offered him a position, and he said, ‘No, no, I don’t want to be a G.S.-13. I want to be an S.E.S.,’ a much higher rank,” McConnell told The Wall Street Journal. According to this account, when the N.S.A. rebuffed Snowden, “that’s when he turned.”
So...the first time Snowden steals documents from the NSA its to cheat on a test. And then he gets mad that he didn't get offered the job he wanted. Interesting. Of course, Snowden denies the part about why he turned and suggests that a Booz Allen employee simply told this tale to get back in the good graces of the NSA. Who are you going to believe? The cheating hacker or the guy who was stupid enough to hire the cheating hacker? Tough call.

In the end Vanity Fair didn't really give me much by way of answers. But I'll give them this...at least they validated the questions. Is Snowden a sincere brooding introvert, or a narcissist who rages against lazy seniors on Social Security? Is he a savy genius or a naive fool? Is he a disgruntled employee or an ideologue about privacy? Regardless of the answers to these questions, Snowden is the guy who took it upon himself to decide what is/is not in our national security interests. Given this portrait of him, that's more than a little bit frightening.

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