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20 January 2014

Would you feel differently about Snowden, Greenwald, and Assange if you knew what they really thought?

High-profile leakers have largely set the terms in the debate over transparency and privacy. But do they deserve the prestige and influence that has been accorded to them?

By Sean Wilentz

This article first appeared on

We live in the age of the leaker. Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, and Julian Assange are celebrated as heroes on op-ed pages and across glossy magazine spreads.

By exposing the secrets of the government, they claim to have revealed its systematic disregard for individual freedom and privacy. Theirs are not the politics of left against right, or liberals against conservatives, or Democrats against Republicans, but of the individual against the state. To oppose them is to side with power against liberty, surveillance against freedom, tyrannical secrecy against democratic openness.

What’s astonishing about their ascent to heroism is the breadth of their support. The embrace of the antiwar left and the libertarian right was to be expected. But effusions of praise for the leakers can also be found throughout the liberal establishment. The New York Times, which has come to rely on the leakers as prize sources, is now crusading on Snowden’s behalf. Its editorial page has celebrated him for having “done his country a great service” and supports clemency for the crimes he has committed. A stellar array of liberal intellectuals and pundits, from David Bromwich and Robert Kuttner to Richard Cohen and Ezra Klein, have hailed Snowden, as have elected officials, including Senators Bernie Sanders and Ron Wyden. To criticise the leakers, as the legal journalist Jeffrey Toobin and a few other writers have done, is to invite moral condemnation. Even mild objections to their methods are dismissed as damning proof of either corruption – “principle-free, hackish, and opportunistic,” in Greenwald’s words – or outright complicity with Big Brother.

So far, the adulatory treatment the leakers have received closely mirrors their own self-presentation. But important caches of evidence have gone largely unexamined by the media. Documents are, of course, the leakers’ stock-in-trade – and they have produced quite a few documents of their own. The internet houses a variety of their writings for message boards, blogs, and magazines. Much of this writing was produced before the leakers entertained the possibility of a global audience. They are documents in which one can glimpse their deepest beliefs and true motives. What they reveal is at odds with the flattering coverage the leakers have received, and goes beyond personal eccentricities or dubious activities in the service of noble goals. They reveal an agenda that even the leakers’ most dedicated admirers should question.

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Snowden, Greenwald, and Assange hardly subscribe to identical beliefs, and differ in their levels of sophistication. They have held, at one time or another, a crazy-quilt assortment of views, some of them blatantly contradictory. But from an incoherent swirl of ideas, a common outlook emerges. The outlook is neither a clear-cut doctrine nor a philosophy, but something closer to a political impulse that might be described, to borrow from the historian Richard Hofstadter, as paranoid libertarianism. Where liberals, let alone right-wingers, have portrayed the leakers as truth-telling comrades intent on protecting the state and the Constitution from authoritarian malefactors, that’s hardly their goal. In fact, the leakers despise the modern liberal state, and they want to wound it.

Edward Snowden has presented his decision to steal nearly two million files from the National Security Agency (NSA) and release them to the world as a simple tale of a political awakening. He recounts the story this way: While working for the CIA in Geneva in 2007, he began having serious misgivings about the Bush-era surveillance state. Even then, Snowden considered leaking classified material. He stayed his hand because of the election of Barack Obama, who had vowed to reform the intelligence system. When the changes he had hoped for didn’t arrive, he became bitterly disillusioned. “[I] watched as Obama advanced the very policies that I thought would be reined in,” Snowden later told the Guardian. “I got hardened.”

That’s when Snowden hatched his plan for crippling the NSA. According to a Reuters report, in April 2012, while working as an NSA contractor for Dell, Inc., he began downloading information about eavesdropping programs. Then, last March, Snowden took a job in Hawaii with the government contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, intending to steal an even vaster collection of classified material. “[The job] granted me access to lists of machines all over the world the NSA hacked. That is why I accepted that position,” he later confessed to the South China Morning Post. Of course, as he explains it, he undertook his illicit mission with the most principled of motivations. The NSA’s activities pose “an existential threat to democracy,” he said. Closer examination of Snowden’s background, however, suggests that his motives were more complicated.

Snowden’s history is very difficult to piece together, not least because the CIA and the NSA are prohibited from confirming or denying details of his work for them. Still, there is enough information available to assemble a provisional profile.

By 1999, a 16-year-old Snowden had moved with his family from North Carolina to Maryland. He had dropped out of high school in his sophomore year and become enamored with computers. Snowden spent increasingly large swaths of his time on Ars Technica, a technology news and information website for self-described “alpha geeks.” Soon, he was posting regularly in the site’s public chat rooms under the user name “TheTrueHOOHA.”1 Snowden, it seems, mostly engaged in postadolescent banter about sex and internet gaming – and occasionally mused about firearms. “I have a Walther P22,” he wrote. “It’s my only gun, but I love it to death.” The Walther P22, a fairly standard handgun, is not especially fearsome, but Snowden’s affection for it hinted at some of his developing affinities.

In May 2004, Snowden enlisted in an Army Special Forces program. He did so, he later told The Guardian, because he felt “an obligation as a human being to help free people from oppression.” But he failed to complete the training and was discharged five months later. (He broke both of his legs in a training accident.)

After his discharge, Snowden found work as a security guard for the NSA at its Center for Advanced Study of Language at the University of Maryland, and, later, as an I.T. security specialist for the CIA. In 2007, he was posted to Geneva. Writing on Ars Technica, he described Switzerland as “pretty cool” but also “horrifically classist.” (He was, however, impressed with the country’s Nigerian immigrants: “Motherfuckers have been there like eight months and speak all three languages.”)

Snowden has traced his political conversion to the Bush years. And by the end of Bush’s second term, Snowden certainly held the president in low esteem. But not, apparently, his intelligence policies. Nor, it seems, was he drawn to insiders who exposed details of these programs. Quite the opposite: Snowden vilified leakers and defended covert intelligence ops. In January 2009, Snowden lambasted the New York Times and its anonymous sources for exposing a secret Bush administration operation to sabotage Iran’s nuclear capabilities. Such infuriating breaches had occurred “over and over and over again,” Snowden complained. The Times, he railed, was “like wikileaks” and deserved to go bankrupt; sources who leaked “classified shit” to the Times ought to “be shot in the balls.” When an online interlocutor suggested that it might be “ethical” to report “on the government’s intrigue,” Snowden replied emphatically: “VIOLATING NATIONAL SECURITY? No.” He explained, “that shit is classified for a reason.”

The Ars Technica posts also complicate Snowden’s narrative about Obama. It seems as if he never invested great faith in him. It is true that, during the 2008 election, TheTrueHOOHA compared him favorably to Hillary Clinton, whom he called a “pox.” But in the end, he voted for an unspecified third-party candidate.

And nearly as soon as Obama took office, Snowden developed a deep aversion to the new president. TheTrueHOOHA reacted furiously when Obama named Leon Panetta as his new director of central intelligence. But it was Panetta’s credentials he objected to, not his stance on surveillance matters. “Obama just named a fucking politician to run the CIA,” Snowden erupted. And he became furious about Obama’s domestic policies on a variety of fronts. For example, he was offended by the possibility that the new president would revive a ban on assault weapons. “See, that’s why I’m goddamned glad for the second amendment,” Snowden wrote, in another chat. “Me and all my lunatic, gun-toting NRA compatriots would be on the steps of Congress before the C-Span feed finished.”

At the time the stimulus bill was being debated, Snowden also condemned Obama’s economic policies as part of a deliberate scheme “to devalue the currency absolutely as fast as theoretically possible.” (He favored Ron Paul’s call for the United States to return to the gold standard.) The social dislocations of the financial collapse bothered him not at all. “Almost everyone was self-employed prior to 1900,” he asserted. “Why is 12% employment [sic] so terrifying?” In another chat-room exchange, Snowden debated the merits of Social Security:

save money? cut this social security bullshit


Yeah! Fuck old people!

 social security is bullshit

let’s just toss old people out in the street

Old people could move in with [User11].


they smell funny

 Somehow, our society managed to make it hundreds of years without social security just fine

you fucking retards

Magically the world changed after the new deal, and old people became made of glass.

Later in the same session, Snowden wrote that the elderly “wouldn’t be fucking helpless if you weren’t sending them fucking checks to sit on their ass and lay in hospitals all day.”

Snowden’s disgruntlement with Obama, in other words, was fueled by a deep disdain for progressive policies. The available postings by TheTrueHOOHA do show concerns about society’s “unquestioning obedience to spooky types,” but those date to 2010. Contrary to his claims, he seems to have become an anti-secrecy activist only after the White House was won by a liberal Democrat who, in most ways, represented everything that a right-wing Ron Paul admirer would have detested.

After Snowden revealed himself as the NSA leaker, the high-tech and legal expert Joe Mullin published an in-depth investigation of his Ars Technica postings, which concluded, “The Snowden seen in these chats is not the man we see today.” Mullin was referring to Snowden’s views about leaking government secrets, and to that extent, he was certainly correct. However, there is no reason to doubt that, when Snowden stole the files from the NSA, he still held many of the same views that he expressed as TheTrueHOOHA. Snowden’s politics seemed to still be libertarian-right: He sent Ron Paul two contributions of $250 during the 2012 presidential primaries.

Other evidence challenges Snowden’s trustworthiness. Snowden implied that, despite his lack of formal education, he had won posts of considerable authority within the NSA, due to his advanced skills as a programmer. But as Reuters has reported, Snowden gained access to mountains of classified material through more prosaic means: obtaining log-ins and passwords from a small number of highly trained co-workers, some of whom have since been fired from their posts. One of Reuters’s sources suggested that Snowden acquired the log-ins by telling his colleagues that he needed them “to do his job as a computer systems administrator.”

Reading Snowden’s selection of writings on Ars Technica, it’s hard to see evidence of a savvy – or even consistent – mind at work. Snowden doesn’t seem like a man prepared to become a global spokesman against government surveillance. And the posts certainly don’t indicate a man with a master plan. But over a year ago, he began communicating with Glenn Greenwald, a blogger at the Guardian, who possessed precisely the sophistication about politics and media that Snowden lacked.

In the mid-’90s, Glenn Greenwald was an associate at the prestigious corporate law firm of Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, where he had a reputation as a hard-knuckled combatant. But the job bored him – he would later admit to spending hours at work devouring political commentary on the web.

Greenwald had the background of a conventional liberal. Raised in modest circumstances in South Florida, his first role model was his paternal grandfather, a local city councilman with a socialist bent. At New York University Law School, he was an outspoken advocate for gay rights. Yet in his online travels, he gravitated to right-wing sites such as Townhall, where he could engage in cyber-brawls with social conservatives. Over time, he met some of his antagonists in the flesh and, to his surprise, liked them.

By 1996, Greenwald had co-founded his own litigation firm, where he would spend the next decade. The firm did well, although by Greenwald’s own admission, many of the cases he worked were “shitty.” It was in his pro bono work that Greenwald discovered his true passion: defending the civil liberties of extremists.

In several cases over a five-year span, Greenwald represented Matthew Hale, the head of the Illinois-based white-supremacist World Church of the Creator, which attracted a small core of violently inclined adherents. In one case, Greenwald defended Hale against charges that he had solicited the murder of a federal judge. Hale was eventually convicted when the federal prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, produced the FBI informant with whom Hale had arranged the killing. Greenwald’s other clients included the neo-Nazi National Alliance, who were implicated in an especially horrible crime. Two white supremacists on Long Island had picked up a pair of unsuspecting Mexican day laborers, lured them into an abandoned warehouse, and then clubbed them with a crowbar and stabbed them repeatedly. The day laborers managed to escape, and when they recovered from their injuries, they sued the National Alliance and other hate groups, alleging that they had inspired the attackers. Greenwald described the suit as a dangerous attempt to suppress free speech by making holders of “unconventional” views liable for the actions of others. His use of a euphemism like “unconventional” to describe white nationalists was troubling, but on First Amendment grounds, he had a strong case and he made it successfully.

Greenwald’s pro bono work is not evidence of anything more than a principled lawyer providing hateful people with constitutionally guaranteed counsel. “To me, it’s a heroic attribute to be so committed to a principle that you apply it … not when it protects people you like, but when it defends and protects people that you hate,” he recently told Rolling Stone. But Greenwald soon grew restless with litigation of any kind.

In 2005, Greenwald wound down his legal practice and launched his own blog, Unclaimed Territory, producing the sort of impassioned political writing that had fascinated him for a decade. His early postings included detailed accounts of the unfolding Valerie Plame affair and unsparing criticism of Lewis “Scooter” Libby. The blog’s chief interests – intelligence policy, civil liberties, media criticism, and national security – were largely the same as Greenwald’s today. So was its style: several lengthy, deeply informed postings a day, pitting the forces of light against the forces of darkness; mixing lawyerly analysis with bellicose hyperbole. Greenwald seemed to take pride in attacking Republicans and Democrats alike; hence, presumably, the title of his blog.

It wasn’t long before Greenwald had acquired a dedicated following. In 2007, he became a regular columnist for Salon, where his slashing attacks on the Bush White House made him very popular on the left. Over the coming years, he would win enthusiastic praise from, among others, Christopher Hayes, Michael Moore, and Rachel Maddow, who dubbed him “the American left’s most fearless political commentator.”

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