Edward Snowden was a portrayed as a frustrated worker who clashed with colleagues, failed workplace training, and exaggerated his credentials in a report by the United States House of Representative Intelligence Committee. Most damningly, it alleges that he has passed on classified information to the Russian government. In the words of Bombs + Dollars editor Sumantra Maitra, “This is rough.”
The House Intel Committee began investigating in 2014 in order to analyze the damage Snowden’s leaks did to U.S. national security and how to minimize the risk of it happening again. It is worth noting that the Intel Committee has their own point of view. The 4 page report available to the public is but a small summary of the classified 36-page report, with information selected to best make their case. The committee’s investigation avoided interviewing individuals who may be witnesses as a possible trial of Snowden and in some cases interviewed second- or third-hand sources who had reviewed reports of interviews with Snowden’s colleagues, rather than the colleagues themselves. Nonetheless, much of the information is in-line with what has been reported in journalistic and non-governmental sources about Snowden, though some of the House’s claims are worded in a sensationalistic manner.
First, the report states that Snowden caused “tremendous damage to national security.” The information he revealed that Glenn Greenwald and other journalists published about U.S. intelligence programs both domestic and abroad is, of course, available to anyone with an Internet connection. That is a necessary consequence of a journalistic expose, and journalists can only control the degree to which they minimize the most damaging information, but it is sometimes justified for public knowledge.
Yet a large amount of the information published had nothing to do with spying on American citizens–or even foreign citizens. The U.S. tapped the phones of foreign leaders, for example, and conducted espionage on its rivals during diplomatic and trade negotiations, it was reported, based on Snowden’s leaks. “[T]he vast majority of the documents he stole have nothing to do with programs impacting individual privacy interests,” the report says. Snowden has already admitted that he didn’t even read all the documents he leaked.
Next, it is claimed that Snowden never made an effort to voice his concerns to relevant authorities in Congress or oversight authorities. As such, it is stated that he wouldn’t qualify as a whistleblower in the House’s determination.
A third claim is that Snowden had an argument with superiors shortly before he started downloading documents en mass. It is not said directly, but the implication appears to be that the committee was labeling him a disgruntled employee who might have been doing it in part as an act of revenge. Yet it was reported by Reuters in 2013 that he began downloading documents while working at Dell in April 2012, one month before he started working for Booz Allen and three months before the alleged workplace dispute for which he was reprimanded.
While the dispute over his motives could get to whether or not he should be considered a whistleblower, it ultimately doesn’t change the veracity and import–whatever one thinks of them–of the documents. However it could go to his credibility. In fact, Snowden has previously claimed that he was inspired by then-Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testifying before Congress that the NSA didn’t collect data on masses of Americans.
This goes to the next point, that Snowden is accused of being “a serial exaggerator and fabricator.” Snowden’s statements about why he left the army, whether he obtained a GED, and what level of authority he held are all put up for question. He was even accused of doctoring performance reviews. I was a little bit amused that Congressional investigators also made sure to include the undisputed lie he told his bosses before he ran off to Hong Kong with the documents; it is easy to find fault with his plan to leak classified documents to the press in such a manner, but if one already has decided on that course of action, then it only makes sense to lie to the authorities about it.
Along these lines, Snowden has been accused before of exaggerating what his position was and exaggerating the scope of his revelations. For example, former CIA case officer and current national security commentator Robert Baer said his claim to be a “spy” was a joke:
‘I think we all know by now he was a systems administrator,’ he said. ‘When he worked in Geneva, he was a communicator – that means he sits in an office and relays messages back to Langley. That’s not a spy.
Now we get to what could be the most damning accusation: Did Snowden provide top secret information directly to the Russian state? The House report includes a quote from a Russian parliamentarian that “Snowden did share intelligence” to the Russians. The full quote, as Bombs + Dollars has already pointed out, is not so clear. “Let’s be frank, Snowden did share intelligence. This is what security services do. If there’s a possibility to get information, they will get it,” Russian lawmaker Frants Klintsevich was quoted by NPR as saying.
That Russian guy? Speculation presented as fact. NPR accidentally omitted the speaker's "Ya dumayu" (English: "I think") in the translation.
— Edward Snowden (@Snowden) September 15, 2016
Snowden added on Twitter that he felt the NPR quote (and translation from Russian) left out the phrase “I think,” but even the quote, as presented by NPR, is far from confirmation that Snowden shared intelligence or even that the lawmaker was aware of Snowden having shared intelligence.
The House report also seems to be worded in such a way as to leave the misleading impression on some readers that Snowden had shared intelligence with Russian allies visa via Russia.
“…the deputy chairman of the Russian parliament’s defense and security committee publicly conceded that conceded that ‘Snowden did share intelligence’ with his government. Additionally, although Snowden’s professed objective may have been to inform the general public, the information he released is also available to Russian, Chinese, Iranian, and North Korean government intelligence services; any terrorist with Internet access; and many others who wish to do harm to the United States.
They might as well have said that the information he released is available to the Canadian, British, and French intelligence services. The whole point of releasing information to the public is to put it in a place where the public can access it. (Also, “internet” shouldn’t be capitalized anymore.)
Still, the circumstances look bad for Snowden. U.S. Naval War College professor Tom Nichols wrote in The Federalist circumstantial evidence strongly points to WikiLeaks and Snowden both being used or exploited as Russian fronts. Robert Baer told the Daily Mail that the CIA needs to be concerned over whether Snowden was recruited by the CIA while working in Geneva in 2007.
Snowden fired back on Twitter, calling the report “artlessly distorted” and “a serious act of bad faith.” He disputes a number of the claims specifically.
Whether or not Snowden was right to leak as he did, he can be credited with raising awareness about information security. Computer programs are upping their security, and individuals are increasingly using encrypted apps for communications. These apps aren’t just useful for criminals, but also for citizens of and workers operating in repressive countries and people who don’t want to get hacked. I have argued here at Bombs + Dollars that Americans have the right to encrypted devices.
Government computer security is far behind the times, too, as the report itself noted. Not only was no one able to realize the extent of Snowden’s data breaches, government computers have also been hacked by foreign governments. Hillary Clinton could tell you a thing or two about how important computer security is.
Feature image taken by Flickr user Gage Skidmore at the Edward Snowden speaking at the 2015 International Students for Liberty Conference.