So Much For the Narrative of Edward Snowden as Whistle-Blower

Reuters reports on an interview that Glenn Greenwald recently gave about about Edward Snowden to La Nación, a newspaper based in Argentina:

“Snowden has enough information to cause more damage to the US government in a minute alone than anyone else has ever had in the history of the United States,” Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian journalist responsible for publishing some of Snowden’s first leaks, told Argentina-based newspaper La Nación. . . .

He added that Washington should be exercising care in dealing with the Snowden because he has the potential to do further damage to the US.

“The US government should be on its knees every day begging that nothing happen to Snowden, because if something does happen to him, all the information will be revealed and it could be its worst nightmare,” he said.

Greenwald suggests that Snowden has ensured that this “worst nightmare” scenario will occur if anything happens to him:

When asked whether he believed that someone would attempt to harm or kill the whistleblower, [Greenwald] said that Snowden has “already distributed thousands of documents and made sure that several people around the world have their entire file,” stating that it would not be beneficial for anyone to attempt assassination.

He added that the US should be praying that no one would attempt to take Snowden’s life. “If something happens, all the information will be revealed, and that would be [America’s] worst nightmare,” he said.

To be sure, Greenwald says that Snowden does not actually want to inflict “its worst nightmare” on the United States: “[T]hat’s not [Snowden's] goal. His objective is to expose software that people around the world use without knowing what they are exposing themselves to, without consciously agreeing to surrender their rights to privacy.” But given that Snowden has said that he obtained employment with Booz Allen in order to get the NSA’s secrets, why would Snowden copy and retain secrets that would “cause more damage to the US government in a minute alone than anyone else has ever had in the history of the United States”? And if Snowden is just a whistle-blower, why would he share that information with “several people,” with instructions to release all the information if anything happens to him, so that the United States should be “on its knees begging” that nothing happens to Snowden?

Of course, it may be just a bluff. But either way, it doesn’t sound like the kind of thing we normally associate with whistle-blowers.

UPDATE: Some commenters point out the obvious, that Snowden has taken this strategy as an insurance policy. But I would make the point more specifically: It’s a hostage-taking strategy. When a person facing arrest or armed guards takes on a hostage, he obtains some high-value item that he is not entitled to obtain and then issues a threat: If anything happens to him, he will destroy the high-value item. For example, the hostage-taker might grab an innocent bystander and threaten to kill the bystander if the government makes a move. In the case of Snowden, he has obtained a high-value item he is not entitled to — information that if released would allegedly cause grievous harm to the United States and that is unrelated to any whistle-blowing. He has then issued a threat: If anything happens to him, the high-value item will be destroyed. That is, the extremely harmful information will be released, and the grievous harm will occur.

Some VC commenters see this hostage-taking strategy as evidence that Snowden is a hero and that the U.S. is to blame. For example, commenter “captcrisis” argues that Snowden is “a brave, patriotic American” because he has not released the information. But that’s like celebrating the kindness of a hostage taker who has taken a hostage and made a threat because he has not (yet) killed the hostage. Other commenters see the fact that Snowden took these steps as proof of the U.S.’s outrageous response to Snowden. Whatever Snowden did, that reason, it was the U.S.’s fault. The U.S. forced Snowden to do this by aggressively seeking to prosecute him for his crimes. Among the problems with this theory is that Snowden stole the relevant information before the U.S. had any reaction to his acts. Finally, some commenters say that Snowden was right to use a hostage-taking strategy because it’s in his personal interest. But I tend to think of whistle-blowing as involving acts taken in the public interest, not acts that threaten grievous harm to the public interest to further one’s personal interest.