Considering Edward Snowden

Edward Snowden’s high-profile disclosure of US intelligence collection methods has provoked widespread anger at the United States and won some support for the former National Security Agency employee, both in America and overseas. Snowden’s case raises important issues and deserves serious discussion; unfortunately, however, much media attention has been misplaced and simplistic. In view of what is at stake for the United States and others, we should think more seriously about what we have learned.

In Over His Head

©Laura Poitras/Praxis Films
©Laura Poitras/Praxis Films

First, it is widely agreed that Edward Snowden the man is clearly in over his head, with no clear plan and little understanding of the implications of his activity. A more sophisticated individual might have traveled to his intended destination and applied for and received asylum before beginning his disclosures, for example, avoiding his bizarre extended stay at Moscow’s Sheremetevo airport.

Someone more committed to his principles might have stayed in the United States, seeking to use his trial to provoke debate and change policy. Advance planning could have helped here too; a wide array of domestic civil liberties organizations, as well as liberal and libertarian politicians, could have defended him if he were more careful in his approach to his goal.

Likewise, Snowden’s dramatic flight and his unexpectedly long stay in an airport the international arrivals area have meant more American media attention to Edward Snowden and his fate than to the policies he apparently sought to challenge. This is too bad.

No Whistleblower

Second, Snowden is no “whistleblower.” Much reporting and commentary on the case describes him this way, but being a whistleblower requires disclosing illegal conduct. As has become clear in the wake of Snowden’s revelations, US surveillance operations have been entirely legal. Whether the methods and extent of the surveillance programs are appropriate is a separate question—but that is a public policy issue, not a legal one.

A consequence of this is that Snowden has indisputably violated the law. He has also publicly acknowledged that he planned his violations in advance, stating that he deliberately took a job with government contractor Booz Allen Hamilton in order to obtain the information that he released. [1] The US legal case against him appears quite strong.

Third, the Obama administration appears to be applying heavy pressure on foreign governments to enlist assistance in returning Edward Snowden to the United States, to obstruct his further travel, and to block his efforts to obtain asylum. While it is impossible for publics in America or other nations to know what Snowden may have, the US response suggests that US officials are deeply concerned.

For example, American officials did not deny a role in a search of Bolivian President Evo Morales’ official airplane in Vienna in early July, or in what looked like refusal by some governments to allow the plane into their airspace, as Mr. Morales returned from an international natural gas producers’ summit in Moscow. As this is a massive breach of standard diplomatic practice, top US officials must have believed the stakes to be quite high. (They also appear to have been willing to take considerable risks without much evidence, in a manner that has damaged the US international reputation, especially in Latin America.)

Lack of Options

Fourth, the episode has demonstrated both the extent and the limits of US power. On one hand, the United States has successfully stranded Snowden in Moscow for an extended period and appears to be steadily whittling down his options—it is precisely Snowden’s lack of options that have forced him to remain in the Sheremtevo airport. America’s European allies have been willing to go to great lengths to help the United States—despite domestic anger in some countries at apparent US intelligence gathering there—as made clear in the Morales incident.

Similarly, all but the most anti-American governments have been unwilling to consider harboring Snowden; he had to leave Hong Kong quickly, and is clearly an unwelcome guest in Russia, where the government is in the unhappy position of not wanting to keep him, not wanting to turn him over to Washington, and not having somewhere else to send him. Conversely, Washington has been unable to extradite Edward Snowden and seems unlikely to be in a position to do so.

While Snowden’s fate remains far from clear, recent reporting suggests that he is coming to terms with his lack of options and may seek to remain in Russia—even at the price of agreeing to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s terms: “He must stop his activities aimed at inflicting damage to our American partners.” [2] That would appear to prevent Snowden from any further participation in the debate that he tried to start in the United States. The future of that discussion is even less certain than Edward Snowden’s.

1. South China Morning Post , “Snowden sought Booz Allen job to gather evidence on NSA surveillance,” June 25, 2013,

2. Politico , “Vladimir Putin: Edward Snowden must stop leaking secrets to stay in Russia,”

Paul J. Saunders

  • Senior Fellow in US Foreign Policy at the Center for the National Interest

    President, Energy Innovation Reform Project