I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.
On the day of Nathan Hale’s execution, a British officer wrote of Hale, “he behaved with great composure and resolution, saying he thought it the duty of every good Officer, to obey any orders given him by his Commander-in-Chief; and desired the Spectators to be at all times prepared to meet death in whatever shape it might appear.” Nearly ten years ago, I viewed Edward Snowden as a slightly nerdier, yet similar patriot to the greats. I wanted to believe he was serving his country, and was unfairly targeted by the state for standing up for those beliefs. Much of tech did too, which is why this is an important discussion to have. It’s affected how the tech community views and interacts with government in many ways, with all of the prejudices it brought into play. For all the pontificating since then about freedom that Snowden has done, his taking up permanent citizenship in Russia, and his silence since the beginning of the war with Ukraine (except, more recently, to criticize the US once more), today I rather see the pattern of a common deserter in Snowden, rather than the champion of free speech that some position him as. If Snowden is to set the narrative for how tech views and responds to government, then our occasional criticism of his own behavior should be fair game.
During his time in Russia, we have seen the whistleblower system work effectively here at home. The details of Trump’s Ukraine call, and the subsequent freezing of security aid seems rather relevant today. More impressively so, this same whistleblower system Snowden criticized worked against a sitting president having no capacity for restraint. The fruits of it were significant, and the process brought both public dissemination and a full press by congress to protect the whistleblower. Mr. X, whose identity is still somewhat contested, was a hero. He stood up to the bully, knowing better than most how lawless the tyrant was, and of the angry mob he commanded. What happened to X? Very little, certainly far less than the charges Snowden brought on himself or the freedoms he gave up by not using the right channels. Instead of following process, Snowden fled the country under the Obama administration, who was a teddy bear compared to Trump. Snowden rejected this government process, insisting the whistleblower system was corrupt, using it as justification to leak classified documents, shortly before departing the country. In 2020, he asked us to excuse him again while he applied for Russian citizenship “for the sake of his kids”. Yet even in being proved wrong by a true hero like X while the country lived under a tyrant, Snowden continues to hide from the consequences of this terrible miscalculation.
This miscalculation snowballed into numerous bad decisions that ultimately led Snowden into situations where the stakes were even higher, and doing the right thing became progressively harder. Today, Snowden can’t be found anywhere. Are we really to believe a former NSA contractor somehow can’t figure out the Internet in Russia? Clearly not. Yet what the world needs right now are people to speak out, to disseminate information, and to use their influence to inform and persuade the world – something Snowden is quite capable of. Yet it will now cost him too much; a result of his own decisions, so he has been reduced to a mere pundit and critic of the one country he’s betrayed. Rather than use his influence to invoke others to action, or to bring light and a lens to recent events, or even speak out against the atrocities of his host country, Snowden has chosen the path of silent compliance with Russian law, and in doing so traded in the same free speech he has so hypocritically called America to task for over the years. One cannot act the part of hero and claim to have convictions, only to then run away from every form of accountability. Snowden’s silence is the second time he has run away from putting his convictions to the test; the first was when he abandoned America.
What kind of example is it to set for those children- acts amounting to nothing short of cowardice and abandonment of one’s country. Is this someone who deserves the support of America, or to be hailed a hero in The New York Times? Modern day so-called patriots have seemingly forgotten the real sacrifices offered up by our ancestors, who fought against their own government for freedom from actual tyranny, welcoming death to do what was right. Snowden, by contrast, in all of his pretend cloak and dagger patriotism, is no hero. He’s simply a deserter who made immature decisions about government process. The most boring type of leaker, at best. He could have had more impact had he chosen to remain in the US, which would have led to congressional investigations, public testimony, better understanding of truly awful and ambiguous powerpoint slides, and possibly change. It’s hard to argue a whistleblower system that recently led to an impeachment would somehow have been ineffective had Snowden ever correctly used it. He could have had more impact today as well, on both the world’s stage and with the Russian people, but while thousands in Russia are being violently arrested for protesting the invasion, Snowden won’t even stand with them, nor lift a finger to send so much as a tweet. He chooses abject compliant silence as an alternative to standing up for a single morally right belief.
If I could reach him today, I would tell Snowden to come home and face the consequences of his actions, and set an example for his children of what patriotism really is… it is not fleeing to Russia. Ideals are meaningless without sacrifice. Alas, Snowden will never come home of his own volition. He will never come home, because he already is home.