The trouble with Edward Snowden

The whistleblower has readily spoken up on many things, except on Putin’s war.

Former contractor of U.S. National Security Agency Edward Snowden is seen on a screen during his interview presented via video link at the New Knowledge educational online forum in Moscow, Russia September 2, 2021. REUTERS/Olesya Astakhova
Former contractor of the US National Security Agency Edward Snowden is seen on a screen during his interview presented via video link at the New Knowledge educational online forum in Moscow, Russia on September 2, 2021 [Olesya Astakhova/Reuters]

Edward Snowden is brave – to a point.

His decision in 2013 to leak a cache of documents revealing the halting scope, reach and ubiquitous nature of the international cob-web of spies who watch and eavesdrop on you and me was a courageous act.

It was a courageous act because Snowden knew the blunt, life-altering risks he faced for sharing with the world the covert, often illegal, work done by spies at the National Security Agency (NSA) and sister intelligence services across the globe in the malleable name of “security”.

In defying his oath to keep the secrets he exposed secret, Snowden established himself as a man of conscience who was determined not only to speak truth to power, but to do so with uncommon eloquence and conviction.

Lately, however, the endearing construct of Snowden as a principled voice who speaks truth to power has been questioned in light of his sometimes circumspect response to Vladimir Putin’s barbarous invasion of Ukraine, which continues to cause such pervasive carnage and suffering among so many innocents.

Before delving into Snowden’s laconism on Putin’s war, it is important to point out the prickly, unenviable circumstances that the former NSA contractor and his young family confront.

Since June 2013, Snowden has found safe haven in Russia. The US government had made it clear that it intended to use its influence and powers not only to dissuade a slew of other nations from offering him asylum but to prosecute Snowden for telling citizens the truth about what “is done in their name and [what] is done against them” by the vast, unaccountable surveillance state.

In 2020, Snowden shared his reasoning to seek dual citizenship on Twitter.

“After years of separation from our parents, my wife and I have no desire to be separated from our son. That’s why, in this era of pandemics and closed borders, we’re applying for dual US-Russian citizenship,” he wrote. “Lindsay and I will remain Americans, raising our son with all the values of the America we love – including the freedom to speak his mind.”

On September 26, 2022, Putin granted Snowden – now a father of two sons – Russian citizenship by decree, making it impossible to extradite the ex-spook to any country and separate him from his kin, a shameful injustice already experienced by imprisoned Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange.

But Putin’s direct involvement in making Snowden part Russian – at a time when the former KGB officer has used his country’s might to not only pummel Ukraine into darkness and despair but to try to produce a famine – rankles, to put it charitably.

Snowden has done a careful rhetorical dance since the prospect of all-out war between Russia and Ukraine emerged.

At first, he ridiculed official American warnings that Russia would launch an invasion as media-propelled fear-mongering. Later, to his credit, he made plain his opposition to what he described as “military aggression”.

On February 16, 2022, Snowden wrote: “’Russia should not invade Ukraine’. The reason I don’t say it more is because it’s a non-statement: everybody agrees with it, even Russians. The only people who think slogans solve the problem are people who don’t understand the conflict.”

Alas, Snowden has not, to my knowledge, moved beyond the 280-character limit confines of Twitter, to share his, no doubt learned, insights to help the rest of us “understand the conflict”.

As for sloganeering, Snowden’s Twitter account is littered with evidence that he is as guilty as his detractors on this intellectually lazy score when the impulse strikes.

On November 10, Snowden blasted the Biden administration as “opportunistic serpents” for suggesting, apparently, that the imploding crypto currency industry requires regulation.

When he is challenged to denounce the Russian president’s wholesale destruction of Ukraine, Snowden prefers, it seems, not only to adopt euphemisms but to argue that his reticence to call Putin an opportunistic serpent, for example, is an act of “humility”.

“I’ve already expressed my opposition to the fighting in Ukraine, and pray it ends soon. The difference between us is that when *I* realized that sharing my thoughts on the matter did more harm than good, I found the humility to stop,” Snowden wrote on October 23.

Snowden rushes to Twitter – often several times a day – to “share” his cryptic “thoughts” on all manner of serious “matters”. His spasm of “humility” surrounding the “fighting” in Ukraine has – to borrow a word – an opportunistic whiff to it.

Snowden was asked earlier this year whether he can “speak freely” about Russia. He said that he had answered that question “again and again”.

“These narratives are driven by what people want to hear,” Snowden said. “We lose nuance. And one of the reasons I haven’t talked – sort of – about the Ukraine crisis in depth is because I know that my comments are not going to be covered, like, appropriately. They are not going to be covered in context”.

That is a convenient dodge.

First, anyone as busy on Twitter as Snowden is, cannot claim to be a champion of “nuance”. The micro-blogging site is the antonym of “nuance”. Twitter is a blunt instrument. Snowden understands this. Hence, his tweet about “opportunistic serpents”.

It is instructive to note, I think, that Snowden has failed to use that blunt instrument even to scold his patron, Putin, by name for turning Ukraine into a killing field month after hellish month.

If Snowden – who lauds others for speaking the “hard truth” – were moved finally to call a war criminal a war criminal, his belated indictment would, I suspect, receive more than “appropriate” coverage.

Instead of doing that, Snowden insists that those of us outside of Russia and Ukraine who have “strong feelings” about how Putin is turning Ukraine into a wasteland are not only victims of “information bubbles” but think “they understand exactly what’s going on”.

The inference, of course, is that Snowden – the saintly whistleblower turned geopolitical authority – has avoided falling prey to “information bubbles” and has a clear, irrefutable understanding of “exactly what’s going on”.

Poor, misguided us.

Snowden has said that he is writing a more fulsome account of the “Ukraine crisis”.

“I haven’t published it yet,” Snowden says. “I will, eventually.”

When and if he does, I will be anxious to see if Snowden puts aside his grating hubris and surprising timidity and acknowledges publicly that Vladimir Putin is a grotesque thug who should be in the dock for his crimes against humanity.

I will wait.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.