Stars of Hollywood, civil liberties groups, and Congress align. The American Civil Liberties Union and Amnesty International launched their movement to win amnesty for Edward Snowden on September 14th. The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) released its review of Edward Snowden the next day. And the day after that, Hollywood released Oliver Stone’s Snowden. It’s no strange coincidence. The confluence is worth noticing because of what Congress’s move implies about the HPSC’s strategic communications objectives.
THE Snowden REPORT
After two years work, the HPSCI delivered four pages of text and five conclusions. It begins with a very brief history of Snowden’s actions, provides a one-over-the-world description of the Committee’s processes (which advanced on information from the intelligence community without consulting any opposing perspectives), describes the Committee’s approach to its investigation, and then highlights the extensive documentation of the Committee’s findings—that we’ll never see, because pages 5-36 are classified.
The five conclusions establish that “Snowden caused tremendous damage,” that technically speaking what Snowden did was not by-the-book whistleblowing, that there was one incident of e-mail rage between Snowden and a supervisor a couple of weeks before Snowden started downloading information, that Snowden’s side of the story is inaccurate, and, finally, that the intelligence community has so far failed to do anything significant to prevent another Snowden event. That’s it.
In short, the report is disappointing. It sheds no new light on the facts of the Snowden story. It admits that it is a terribly one-sided version of the events that transpired in June 2013 and beyond. And any graduate student in journalism could have reached the very same conclusions sucking Wi-Fi from the Starbucks over an all-nighter after a weekend of frat parties. However, it promises that even these superficial conclusions are substantiated with facts, just facts the public will not see for a very, very, very long time, or at least until the HPSCI is hacked, and there’s probably somebody on that right now.
Perhaps the most important and relevant review of the short report comes from The Century Foundation’s Barton Gellman. Gellman won the Pulitzer Prize (his third, by the way) for leading the Washington Post’s coverage of the Snowden leaks. Adding to the credibility of Gellman’s critique is The Washington Post’s editorial recommending Edward Snowden, the source of its Pulitzer Prize on Snowden, be jailed. The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald writes, “In doing so, the Washington Post has achieved an ignominious feat in U.S. media history: the first-ever paper to explicitly editorialize for the criminal prosecution of its own source — one on whose back the paper won and eagerly accepted a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.” You have to admit it’s a little backhanded.
Barton Gellman writes of the HPSCI report, “The report is not only one-sided, not only incurious, not only contemptuous of fact. It is trifling. After twenty-five months of labor, the committee’s ‘comprehensive review’ of an immensely complex subject weighs in at thirty-six pages.” We see four pages.
That the HPSCI would release its report so near the release of Snowden is not coincidence: the HPSCI wanted to get its version of Edward Snowden out first in order to deflate whatever success Stone’s version may achieve, essentially hoping to beat Stone to the punch.
THE IRONY and the Legacy
The timing of the HPSCI’s thin report reinforces the sense that there’s a fight going here on for Snowden’s legacy, and the intelligence community is worried. I do not believe that Snowden will ever be pardoned, and I doubt that he’ll ever come back to the United States to stand trial. So I do not think the HPSCI is too worried Oliver Stone and the civil libertarians will spring Snowden. All the HPSCI could achieve—but fails to achieve—is a convincing critique of Snowden that makes clear the significant damage he caused for nothing.
The problem is, for those who defend Snowden, it wasn’t for nothing, though the damage was significant. For those on the fence, the failure of the HPSCI release nudges them over to the Snowden side.