BROOKE GLADSTONE: On Friday in Davos, Russia announced that it would be extending asylum to master leaker Edward Snowden. On Thursday, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, an independent federal watchdog, released a thick report deeming the NSA's bulk collection of phone records, revealed by Snowden, illegal and calling for it to stop. Meanwhile, a new Pew Research Center poll found Americans taking an increasingly dim view of those NSA surveillance programs, since the big reveals about them leaked last June. But how passionate are we? Pew found that 91 percent of us heard nothing, or just a little, about President Obama’s recently-announced changes in the programs, and roughly three-quarters of us believe that they won't matter anyway. But we do seem to have strong opinions about former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Here's Rep. Mike Rogers, speaking to David Gregory on Sunday's Meet the Press.
MIKE ROGERS: This was a thief who, we believe, had some help, who stole information. The vast majority had nothing to do with privacy. Our Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines have been incredibly harmed by the data that he has taken with him….
[SOUND UP & UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Then Rogers took the gloves off.
MIKE ROGERS: I don't think it’s – it was a gee whiz luck event that he ended up in Moscow.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, Rogers’ views cleave closely to that Pew poll that found your view of Snowden can be predicted, in large part, by your age. People over 50 are far more likely to think that Snowden harmed the public interest. The younger you are, the more you approve of what he did. However, Pew’s senior researcher, Juliana Horowitz, says that tbe generational split shrinks considerably when the issue of criminal charges comes up.
JULIANA HOROWITZ: Among the 18 to 29-year-olds, 57 percent say that Snowden served the public interest with these leaks; 35 percent say he harmed the public interest. But they’re split evenly: 42 percent say the government should pursue a criminal case and 42 percent say it should not.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Among the 30 to 49-year-olds, nearly half of the respondents, 48 percent, think Snowden served the public interest, but even more than half, 56 percent, thinks that the government should pursue a criminal case against him.
JULIANA HOROWITZ: You can dislike NSA programs and also dislike Snowden, and you can think the Snowden served the public interest but still think that what he did was criminal. It’s a more nuanced story than simply Snowden's a hero or not.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: On Thursday, Atty. Gen. Eric Holder told a University of Virginia audience that the government is open to talking to Snowden, on the condition that he plead guilty to criminal charges.
ATTY. GEN. ERIC HOLDER: The notion of clemency was not something that we were willing to consider. But as I said, were he to go back to the United States, enter a plea, we would engage with his – with his lawyers.
DOUGLAS BLACKMON: And, presumably, that would be a guilty plea to something.
ATTY. GEN. HODLER: Yeah.
DOUGLAS BLACKMON: Right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That same day, Snowden was engaged in a live Twitter Q&A, courtesy of the website. FreeSnowden.com. He said that the law he's charged with breaking forbids a public interest defense, which means, quote, “There is no chance to have a fair trial and no way I can come home and make my case to a jury.” Recently, the nation's most revered whistleblower, Daniel Ellsberg, called Snowden a hero. When the President spoke about the NSA programs last week, he said he wouldn't dwell on Snowden's actions or motivations, but –
PRESIDENT OBAMA: If any individual who objects to government policy can take it into their own hands to publicly disclose classified information, then we will not be able to keep our people safe, or conduct foreign policy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And, certainly, not only did Snowden expose unconstitutional intrusions into the privacy of Americans, he also revealed our spying operations abroad, which presumably are what intelligence services the world over are created to do. Did he act to protect the rights of Americans or dismantle what he considers a surveillance state? Does it matter why he acted? Does it matter why journalist Glenn Greenwald brought Snowden's leaks to the world or why WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange helped Snowden get to Russia?
New Republic Contributing Editor Sean Wilentz has just written a cover story asking the question: Would you feel differently about Snowden, Greenwald and Assange, if you knew what they really thought? Sean, welcome back to On the Media.
SEAN WILENTZ: Great to be here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So that was quite an in-depth piece, but before we get to it, I just want to disclose that in it you cite a column by Slate writer Fred Kaplan, to whom I’s married. That said, some have described your piece as a smear job on Snowden, Greenwald and Assange, but that's not how you see it. So why did you write it?
SEAN WILENTZ: Well, I wrote it because I think the story was not being covered. This is a very polarized story, distinctions like he is a traitor or, or is he a hero? And that doesn’t strike me as a very useful way to go about thinking about this story. You can be both, [LAUGHS] but the main problem was I didn’t think that the story was being covered.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Although you took almost everything in your piece from previously published reports.
SEAN WILENTZ: Well, exactly, but it’s all scattered and, you know, if you establish the chronology, you see things look much more interesting. The first thing was the discrepancy between Snowden’s narrative of how he came to be a secrecy activist and what, in fact, his writings actually showed. Some of his writings turned up on a site called Ars Technica, and his story whereby he got very angry at the intelligence under Bush, and then Obama was coming in and he thought Obama would change the intelligence policies, and he was very angry when that didn’t happen. The chronology of his postings doesn’t corroborate that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what story do his postings on Ars Technica tell?
SEAN WILENTZ: Stuff that shows that he is very much against leakers. He would like to have them castrated – I’ll put it that way.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: He thought that leakers should be castrated when Bush was in office.
SEAN WILENTZ: In 2009, just before Obama's being inaugurated, that’s when that post dates from, so something he wrote does not match up with the story that we’ve got.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What about the Russian business?
SEAN WILENTZ: Yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There's been some incredibly irresponsible speculation by Congress people –
SEAN WILENTZ: Right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - on our major Sunday bloviation shows.
SEAN WILENTZ: [LAUGHS] Yeah. Well, look, accusing somebody of being a Russian spy and going in and doing what Snowden did, without any evidence, is terribly irresponsible. The question is, why does he go to Russia? He had talked about wanting to, you know, be in a country, very, very nobly, that, you know, was a free country, so he could do his work. Russia’s not exactly the place that you would have chosen off the top of the list, so how did he end up there? Then there’s a back story which I discovered about Assange’s connections with the Putin regime. So the whole thing begins to take on a new light.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Assange did say that he was hoping Snowden with his legal case, right?
SEAN WILENTZ: Well, that’s right. But, more than that, in getting out of Hong Kong and over to Russia, Izvestia actually reported that Russian intelligence worked with WikiLeaks to make that possible.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You suggested that you can't really understand Snowden without understanding Assange –
SEAN WILENTZ: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - and that it was important to put the three of them into one piece. And why is that?
SEAN WILENTZ: These are three very different men, very different temperaments, very different backgrounds, very different ideas, but they have some things in common. Many of their supporters believe that their object is to try and end these malefactors from ruining American democracy. But I think there’s something deeper. I think there’s a view of national security which is paranoid. And I try to show in the piece how that common thread shows up in their writings and what they’ve talked about, and so forth.
I do think that a lot of people on the left don’t understand the libertarian background, especially of Ed Snowden. But this is information that was on the Web. Anybody could have reported it. And it throws a different light on Edward Snowden than I think a lot of people on the left might imagine it to be.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It may, but why does it matter? The world is full of problematic people doing things that ultimately enhance the public good. An unsympathetic defendant in a court case could be a terrible poster child for a cause, but he could still help set precedents and establish excellent law.
SEAN WILENTZ: I’m not trying to disgrace Edward Snowden. I’m just trying to say, who is Edward Snowden? It, in no way, diminishes the value and the importance of some of what has come out about the NSA, which is very disturbing. But that’s part of the story. It’s not the whole story. There are reports that I’m drawing, on the basis of what we know, that show that Snowden, in particular, has a series of ideas which are very much a part of the libertarian right. Now, they’re ideas that he had some years ago. We don’t know how he’s developed, except he did support Ron Paul in 2012, with a couple of contributions. That’s where he seems to be coming from.
With Greenwald, he’s a complicated character, but he has views that, from what I’ve read, that are just at the point where the radical left and the radical right can meet. I don’t think he’s simply a libertarian. I think he’s more complicated than that. But the libertarians will tell a young hippie or something, we should legalize marijuana, and then he’ll tell a businessman, no more regulations. The point is to bring together the libertarian right and a section of the American left into some kind of popular front, if you will, against the surveillance state, or whatever you want to call it. I just want to know where he’s coming from. With Assange, I mean, the Assange story is bizarre, but there, it seems to me, that, you know, the fact that he is – has a TV show on Putin’s network and so forth, what it suggests to me is that he’s much more tight with the Russians than anyone has yet found out.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You wrote that the value of some of their revelations does not mean that they deserve the prestige and influence that is been accorded them, and then you go on to say, the records they leave suggest they really aren't interested in reforming our intelligence operations. They really don't think there should be any intelligence operations.
SEAN WILENTZ: Well, it’s hard to see what kind of intelligence they would be able to accept, especially if they’re going to be saying that what the NSA has done is an attempt by the US government to know everything that you have ever done in your life. It just doesn’t make sense. That’s the paranoia that I’m talking about, that there’s a way in which people think that this dark surveillance state is capable of any wrongdoing and will only be engaged in wrongdoing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It’s an interesting story and, from a historical point of view, it's an important story but in terms of the immediate consequence, does it really matter who these people are or what they believe, if the information they provide helps us examine and improve our democracy?
SEAN WILENTZ: Of course, it matters. That is not to say that the revelations that have proven to be true are not useful. So, for that, we can congratulate them. But that’s not all that matters, ‘cause we’ve had a tremendous breach of national security here. So what are we to make of that?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You told our producer, Sarah, that the distinction between motives and outcome is a false distinction.
SEAN WILENTZ: Mm-hmm, yes, because I think that you can’t understand a story of an event happening without understanding motives and outcome. You can’t separate one from the other. That’s not to say that finding out about motives should in any way diminish the importance of those revelations, not one bit! But I think to say, “Look there, look there, look there, don’t look there, don’t look there, only look there” is not the way that we go about being an enlightened democracy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay. Sean, thank you very much.
SEAN WILENTZ: Oh, thank you for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sean Wilentz is an American history professor at Princeton University and contributing editor at the New Republic. His latest cover story for the magazine is titled, “Would you Feel Differently about Snowden, Greenwald and Assange If You Knew What They Really Thought?”