Pay No Attention to the Leaker Behind the Iron Curtain
Two new statements that surfaced on Monday evening offer a tiny bit more Edward Snowden for the world to pore over. One, a translated plea to Ecuador seen by Reuters; the other, an odd message posted at WikiLeaks. They are little fragments of the most interesting news story in the world, but they only shed light on the least important part of that story.
Two new statements that surfaced on Monday evening offer a tiny bit more Edward Snowden for the world to pore over. One, a translated plea to Ecuador seen by Reuters; the other, an odd message posted at WikiLeaks. They are little fragments of the most interesting news story in the world, but they only shed light on the least important, most knee-jerk part of that story. Which is a disservice.
Snowden is dramatic. That is meant in both the traditional sense of the word as well as its more modern form, a truncation of "melodramatic." That a 30-year-old is dramatic is neither a surprise, nor relevant to the documents he has turned over to the press. The documents, too, are dramatic, but in the quiet way of inanimate objects. No matter how much or what Snowden says, no matter if he spends the rest of his life in a Supermax prison or a superb Ecuadorean beach, there will always be a distinction between his personal drama and the significance of his revelations. That distinction gets lost quickly. Sometimes it is obscured intentionally.
In the letter to Ecuador — apparently seen only by Reuters and reported in dribs and drabs on Monday in the late afternoon, following a day of conflicting reports about his extradition request, Putin included — Snowden most notably writes that he "remain[s] free and able to publish information that serves the public interest." While the Guardian and the Washington Post have all of Snowden's files (as Glenn Greenwald reinforced today), Snowden could of course leak any information he wants at any time. As he has, to eager new audiences like the South China Morning Post and, over the weekend, Der Spiegel.
The more dramatic part of his statement precedes that.
While the public has cried out support of my shining a light on this secret system of injustice, the Government of the United States of America responded with an extrajudicial man-hunt costing me my family, my freedom to travel, and my right to live peacefully without fear of illegal aggression.
This is a translation, heard third-hand. But it's still over-the-top. In another section, Snowden apparently wrote that he was dedicated to the fight for justice, "no matter how many more days my life contains." This echoes his statement during the interview in which he was introduced to the world. Then, he said that the CIA "is a concern I will live with for the rest of my life, however long that happens to be." Not necessarily inaccurate, but certainly dramatic.
The WikiLeaks statement is dramatic in a different way — a way that seems somehow very WikiLeaks-y. "This kind of deception from a world leader is not justice, and neither is the extralegal penalty of exile," he writes of President Obama. "These are the old, bad tools of political aggression. Their purpose is to frighten, not me, but those who would come after me."
The letter continues:
For decades the United States of America have been one of the strongest defenders of the human right to seek asylum. Sadly, this right, laid out and voted for by the U.S. in Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is now being rejected by the current government of my country.
It's an odd formulation, as Slate's Farhad Manjoo notes.
Did Edward Snowden really write this? No American would use plural verbs for America -- the United States "have been" http://t.co/gxEBBtBoj2— Farhad Manjoo (@fmanjoo) July 1, 2013
Snowden was dramatic and used weird language before he got involved with WikiLeaks, of course. In his live chat with the Guardian and a large, curious audience last month, he offered the famously weird question-and-answer, "If I were a Chinese spy, why wouldn't I have flown directly into Beijing? I could be living in a palace petting a phoenix by now." That chat, though, didn't have odd, twitchy non-American language the way the new WikiLeaks statement does. So did he write it, or did a WikiLeaks lawyer? Or, as is certainly possible, did Julian Assange? Who typed those words?
This doesn't matter. It doesn't matter literally; the post was updated to read "the United States of America has been." It doesn't matter in a practical sense; countless CEOs put their names on documents they didn't write every day, but they represent their corporate will. More importantly, it doesn't matter in a functional sense. If Snowden wrote the WikiLeaks statement or the Ecuador one or his live chat — that doesn't change what the documents say, any more than the discovery of his teenage web presence does. The questions about Snowden are not questions about the documents that have been released, vetted by journalists, and verified by the United States government. They are distinct.
We can enjoy two dramas at once. But we have to be careful not to blend their significance. The melodrama and the drama should stay distinct.