Page 1 of 2 America's Edward Snowden problem
By Peter Lee
The main problem for Edward Snowden is that he ran away. That's not Edward Snowden's problem; it's America's problem.
The idea that Edward Snowden decided to flee overseas in order to deliver his revelations of massive US government surveillance is awkward for the United States politically, and difficult for a lot of Americans on the emotional level.
Some complain that Snowden did not do what might be characterized as "the full Ellsberg", bravely and patriotically staying in the United States to face the legal music as did Daniel Ellsberg, the leaker of the Pentagon Papers, did in 1971. Tim Weiner, a former national security reporter for the New York
Times, made the case in a Bloomberg op-ed:
Snowden should have the courage to come home, to fight in court, under the law. He has damaged his cause by fleeing to China, then to Russia. Why seek refuge in bastions of repression? Why contemplate asylum in Ecuador, a country with one of the worst records on free speech and free press in the Western Hemisphere? Why does he act like a spy on the run from a country he betrayed?
He does his cause no good by hiding. If he stood trial, as Daniel Ellsberg did after leaking the Pentagon Papers, he could try to justify his disclosure of national-security secrets. He conceivably might even win, if only a moral victory. 
This is apparently not an opinion that Daniel Ellsberg himself shares.
Speaking on the Scott Horton show on June 20, Ellsberg said:
But meanwhile, the treatment of him, and the pronouncements by everybody here, like - I'm talking about Snowden now - have convinced Snowden, and I think very realistically, that if he wanted to be able to tell the public what he had done and why he had done it and what his motives were and what the patterns of criminality were in the material that he was releasing, it had to be outside the United States. Otherwise he would be in perhaps the same cell that Bradley Manning was, and that's a military cell.
The NDAA, National Defense Authorization Act, permits military custody indefinitely of an American citizen who's a civilian, and Snowden could very well find himself at Quantico, naked perhaps like Bradley was for a while, and be really incommunicado, as Bradley has been for three years with the single exception of being allowed to make a statement when he pled guilty to 10 charges. And that's the only chance he had to speak out. So I think Snowden has learned from that example. 
It might be pointed out that it is still not too late for Snowden to win the grudging respect of the nation's national security pundits with some post-revelation self-immolation. After all, Daniel Ellsberg did not fling himself into the fire of US justice at the first opportunity.
Ellsberg, a distinguished member of the national security establishment who routinely hobnobbed with senators, Henry Kissinger, and a sympathetic cohort of reporters who shared his first-hand experience and revulsion with the Vietnam War, at first declined to identify himself as the source of the leak. Instead, he went into hiding for 13 days after the New York Times broke the Pentagon Papers story in order to evade "the largest FBI manhunt since the Lindbergh kidnapping", avoid questioning, achieve the maximum publicity for his disclosures, and circulate the Papers to as many media outlets as possible.
After the Justice Department finally collected enough evidence (from Ellsberg's ex-wife) to justify issuing an arrest warrant, Ellsberg held off surrendering for another two days to make sure he could finish distributing the last of the Pentagon Papers copies in his possession.
So Edward Snowden still might have a chance to redeem himself in Tim Weiner's eyes - after he's milked his laptops for all they are worth.
Weiner also makes the argument that Snowden is discrediting "his cause" by "seeking refuge in bastions of repression".
This argument was echoed by Ken Roth, the Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, who did his organization no favors by peppering Snowden's travels with a series of dismissive tweets and retweets:
ian bremmer @ianbremmer 23 Jun: Edward Snowden, martyr for online freedom and privacy, now passing thru Moscow? Say hi to Alexei @Navalny while you're there.
Retweeted by Kenneth Roth @KenRoth, 23 Jun: If Snowden's reported itinerary is true, China-Russia-Cuba-Venezuela is hardly an archipelago of free expression.
Kenneth Roth @KenRoth 5h: As Snowden proceeds on his itinerary of govt censorship, it's an opportunity to blow the whistle on their repression.
Weiner also went the extra mile and called Snowden a coward - "maybe".
[Snowden] had a fight-or-flight moment. He fled. I don't think he is a traitor. But I do think he may be a coward.
It seems rather perverse to demand that Snowden, in addition to the difficulties he has already experienced, eschew any potential haven and offer himself up as a human sacrifice in an attempt to demonstrate the worthiness of himself and his cause to his most determined critics.
Some people also have a problem with Snowden's statement that he took employment with the consulting firm Booz Allen for the purpose of collecting more documents. It appears that for some observers Snowden's whistleblowing are understandable and forgivable only as ungovernable moral outrage, a spasm of uncontrollable insanity, and not a calculated effort to document for the US public the almost unimaginable reach of the US surveillance apparatus.
The most interesting expression of the "impulsive dingbat" meme is the one that accuses Snowden of almost criminal naivete in carrying his four laptops of US government secrets into the lair of America's enemies (of course, we are not at war with China or Russia, but that is a complication that the press has largely chosen not to address).
As the China newsletter Sinocism reported, identical language was deployed in two backgrounders designed to place the onus on Snowden to prove he was not a spy:
Regardless of how Snowden came to land in Hong Kong and then Moscow, US intelligence agencies must assume that China and Russia have debriefed Snowden and now have all the digital information he brought with him, said one of the officials. Such a debriefing could have been direct or through intermediaries that Snowden may not have known were giving what they learned to a foreign intelligence agency, the official said. 
Considering that the US government does not even know where Snowden is, let alone to whom he is talking, this exercise in pre-emptive accusation achieves Bush-in-Iraq levels of factless innuendo that must be a source of perverse pride to the Obama administration.
In its invocation of "all the digital information" (as opposed to "all the documents"), the White House talking points also slide over the interesting issue of encryption, something that Snowden, as a former NSA employee, is presumably well-aware of, but does not fit in with the public framing of Snowden as an impulsive, destructive, and self-destructive naif.
The successful 1990s battle against US attempts to curb the export and extensive use of encryption technology is one of the few instances in which, depending on your point of view, the public was able to fight the surveillance state to a draw-or the bad guys won. Today, 256-bit encryption is good enough for US government Top Secret classification data. It's also probably good enough for Snowden's laptop.
Breaking encryption is one of the NSA's holy grails. Currently, there is reportedly no computer fast enough to handle brute force decryption - though the NSA is working on that, too, thanks to several billion of America's tax dollars. NSA decryption gets help from "side-channel" attacks that pick up information leakage from the encryption process and use it to assist the massive NSA computers.
In the area of dirty pool, there is keylogging, surreptitious entry, and even rumors that the US government has corrupted the open source software commonly used to generate the random numbers used in the encryption process, thereby reducing the universe of used numbers to make cracking more feasible. If one has access to the physical person of the encrypter, there is also the less elegant "rubber hose cryptanalysis" - using coercion to obtain the encryption key from somebody who knows it.
Long story short, if Snowden has encrypted his laptops, even if the Russian and Chinese security services were able to copy the hard drives (access "all the digital information") and get to work on them (and there is no evidence as yet that this has occurred), it is unlikely that they would be able to decrypt them (retrieve "all the documents") unless they have sustained access to, and active cooperation from, Snowden.
If the United States is really concerned about this happening, that might be a good reason to make some deal with Snowden to bring him home, not to let him continue to hang around Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow under the interested eyes of Russia's FSB.
The good news is, Snowden has encrypted the data on the insurance files he has salted around the Internet, and it is a safe assumption that he has done the same for his hard drives.
Per the Daily Beast:
The former NSA systems administrator has already given encoded files containing an archive of the secrets he lifted from his old employer to several people. If anything happens to Snowden, the files will be unlocked... [Glenn] Greenwald [the journalist with Britain's Guardian newspaper who broke the news of Snowden's flight with secret information] added that the people in possession of these files "cannot access them yet because they are highly encrypted and they do not have the passwords." But, Greenwald said, "if anything happens at all to Edward Snowden, he told me he has arranged for them to get access to the full archives." 
This information provides an interesting perspective on Snowden's travails in Hong Kong. Apparently, he left Hong Kong because it appeared he would be detained for a prolonged period of time while his extradition and/or asylum case wound its way through the courts, and he could not be assured of access to his laptops during this period.
According to [Hong Kong lawyer Albert] Ho, Snowden was upset to learn that he may have to spend years in prison during litigation over whether he would be granted asylum in Hong Kong or be sent to the United States. He was particularly scared that he could lose access to his computer.
"He didn't go out, he spent all his time inside a tiny space, but he said it was OK because he had his computer," Ho said. "If you were to deprive him of his computer, that would be totally intolerable." 
One of Snowden's critics on the liberal side of the blogosphere sneered at Snowden's anxieties: going offline - it's the new waterboarding.