Does it matter if Edward Snowden is a Russian spy?
We already know that Edward Snowden is dependent on the Russian government to keep him out of reach of the American justice system. But accusations have recently been made that Snowden's relationship with the Kremlin goes much deeper than we previously suspected.
On Sunday, House Intelligence Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) strongly suggested that Edward Snowden stole NSA secrets with help from Russia, though Rogers declined to provide any evidence to back that suggestion.
The following day, The New Republic's Sean Wilentz published a harsh profile chronicling the backgrounds of Snowden and his muckraker allies Glenn Greenwald and Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, discerning a common thread of "paranoid libertarianism" that has paradoxically intertwined these self-proclaimed defenders of human rights with a brutal Russian autocracy.
And while Wilentz stops short of accusing Snowden of espionage, Business Insider's Michael Kelley also explored Snowden's ties to Russia, eventually asking, "Is the fact that his life is now overseen by a Russian security detail more than an extraordinary coincidence?"
It bears repeating: No one has produced evidence that Snowden was on Russia's payroll when he stole the NSA's secrets. But suppose he was — would it matter?
To answer that question, we need to separate two different controversies surrounding the world's most famous whistleblower.
First, to resolve the debate over whether Snowden deserves some form of clemency, his motivations and actions are integral. If it is found that he passed national security secrets to Russia or China, that would completely outweigh whatever benefits he has provided to Americans in better understanding the scope of NSA surveillance. Since that question is far from resolved, the New York Times editorial board and others are premature in promoting clemency.
Indeed, Slate's Fred Kaplan, in his argument against clemency, flagged that Snowden has not leaked "any documents detailing the cyber-operations of any non-allied countries, especially Russia or China," even though he presumably would have had access to NSA information regarding their operations. He even leaked information about American operations against the Taliban, which, as Wilentz noted, has nothing to do with protecting American civil liberties, but instead helps Snowden and his allies "damage their bugaboo national security behemoth."
As Wilentz argued, Snowden, Greenwald, and Assange possess an extreme libertarianism, driving them to undermine American foreign policy. The three, wrote Wilentz, "have unleashed a torrent of classified information with the clear intent of showing that the federal government has spun out of control...an imperial power, drunk on its hegemonic ambitions."
On the flip side, if Snowden could somehow prove that he is an American-as-apple pie idealist who simply wants to share information with his fellow citizens, the argument for clemency gains more weight.
However, to resolve the debate over what forms of surveillance are constitutionally sound and effective at counter-terrorism, Snowden's motivations are fundamentally irrelevant. One could simultaneously believe that Snowden deserves the electric chair for aiding foreign powers, and that the NSA'sbulk collection of metadata violates the Fourth Amendment. Or, that Snowden acted in good faith, yet what he uncovered merely shows an NSA properly focused on terrorism and operating within the bounds of the Constitution.
Yet the latest revelations about Snowden may help clear a path to having a more rational debate about the NSA. The latest reporting suggests that his motivations are at least ideologically suspect and possibly unpatriotic, which makes it easier to sideline Snowden and simply focus on the NSA itself.
Most Americans, regardless of their views on the NSA, don't possess the reportedly extreme views of Snowden, and don't see America's actions on the global stage as deserving of more scorn than Russia or China.
Much is at stake, both in terms of our liberty and our security, as we discuss whether President Obama's NSA reforms are either appropriately mild or insufficiently drastic. It is in our interest to premise the discussion on what the NSA is doing — not what is being imagined by political extremists, or just possibly, anti-American spies.