Originally published on the Leftist Critic blog on May 12, 2016.
Recently, I was pursuing Twitter when a recent interview with celebrity whistleblower Edward Snowden popped up. I’ve criticized Snowden before on this blog as supporting Apple, a company that collects much data but claims it is “pro-privacy.” This post looks at a recent Q&A with Snowden in the Columbia Journalism Review which was promoted by the Freedom of the Press Foundation, a foundation which has Daniel Ellsburg, Glenn Greenwald, Snowden himself, John Cusack, John Perry Barlow, Laura Poitras, Micah Lee, Rainey Reitman, Trevor Timm, and Xeni Jardin on its board of directors. This organization, founded in 2012 also thinks Pentagon projects like Tor are just great. This post could examine this foundation, but since Snowden, as he admitted himself, is already a celebrity who has wide influence it is best to look at his words and their symbolic meaning.  In sum, I read it, as Tarzie would say, so you don’t have to.
Snowden, of course, in his privileged position, can talk about the bourgeois media from afar. He claims that there is a “changing nature of the public’s relationship to media” with the media “strong” but less willing to “use that sort of power and influence because of its increasing commercialization.” He goes on to say that back in the past, the media culture assured that media was “intended to be a public service” but now that is lost because of “the 24-hour news cycle.” This “observation” fundamentally misses the role of the bourgeois media in and of itself. Snowden by almost acting nostalgic in acting like media in the past served the public is almost in line with the speech by Edward R. Murrow in 1958 saying that television “can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire…[but] only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box” which arguably removes the role of television in capitalist society. Even if one pushes that aside, it is silly to say there is a “changing nature” of mass media in US society considering that the bourgeois media has always been tied to the profit motive to sell more papers (in the case of newspapers) and garner a bigger audience, while keeping in place the existing capitalist system.
Worst of all is Snowden’s comments on The New York Times. He almost acts aghast that even the Times, which he implies is a paragon of virtue, is not challenging the government. As the Times‘s own media kit shows, their audience is predominantly male, over 35 years old, college graduates, and in a professional/managerial position, along with total expenditures for the audience as a whole in the hundreds of millions. If that’s not enough, the International Business Times has similar data showing a predominantly male and college graduate audience with differing political perspectives mostly ranging from moderate to liberal. Similarly, the International New York Times has even more high-level audience with a high percentage in senior management and a household income over $367,000 a year. This shows that Times basically has a bourgeois audience to give it “All the
News Lies That’s Fit to Print” which shouldn’t surprise anyone.
Snowden goes on to claim that competition in the media environment means that “institutions are becoming less willing to serve the public to the detriment of themselves.” He further adds that this role is “typically exercised through the editors” and that “the distance between allegation and fact, at times, makes all the difference in the world.” This “observation” makes a number of assumptions. For one, it implies that bourgeois media outlets have a “duty to the public.” That is utter crap and he knows it. Any capitalist or capitalist business that does not make a profit will go out of business. Secondly, his focus on editors is misleading. I say this because he NEVER mentions the role of advertisers in determining media content, as even Noam Chomsky has outlined in his Propaganda Model. This shows the weakness of his analysis and how it fails to take into account the reality of bourgeois media.
There’s more horribleness. Snowden goes on to say that there is more competition in the current media environment despite the fact that six corporations control 90% of the media in the US (also see here), and that even as a reformist NGO notes, “massive corporations dominate the U.S. media landscape.” He claims that such competition among publishers has led to “hybrid publications” like BuzzFeed, which in his words creates “an enormous amount of trash and cruft” with their “content…engineered to be more attention getting, even though they have no public value at all” and that “they have no news value at all.” He later tempers this by saying that “if it’s not going to be BuzzFeed, it’s going to be somebody else” and that “this isn’t a criticism of any particular model” and that these outlets “don’t have a journalistic role, it’s a reportorial role.” I think he actually has a good point about BuzzFeed. However, I think his description of attention-getting content and having no public value applies all of the Celebrity Left personalities, including myself. Hence, his own words could be used to describe his own Twitter stream, which has, as he said about BuzzFeed, “no public value at all.” After all, aren’t secretive oligarchs basically controlling media and social media?
Snowden goes on to talk about about the James Rosen and AP cases of course. He argues that this is “suddenly chilling” because it silences “the traditional work of journalism” but then claims that journalists need to use tradecraft used by the CIA because using VPNs could “get you in real trouble in these areas of the world” like Bangladesh. Yet again, this perpetrates the idea that the “West is best” and even justifies the CIA as something to model after. This shouldn’t be a surprise since he admits that before he came out as the NSA whistleblower he had “never talked to a journalist in any substantive capacity” and that he worked as an intelligence officer for the CIA and NSA, saying “everything is a secret and you’ve got two different kinds of cover.” This is disturbing to say the least because it makes it seem that Snowden is proud of what he did for the NSA and CIA, not calling them out and even calling for them to be abolished, at minimum. What he did for the CIA for SIX YEARS he hasn’t talked about much, if at all. Remember when he said this in 2013: “I am not trying to bring down the NSA, I am working to improve the NSA. I am still working for the NSA right now. They are the only ones who don’t realize it.” What utter bullcrap is that anyway. Anyway, the most laughable thing he says is that “the secrets are becoming public at an accelerated pace.” I doubt that very much. After all, as Cryptome reported in February at the current rate “it will take 20-620 years to free all documents” gathered by him, with governments and business benefiting the most, along with media and NGOs benefiting as well. I’ll get to the Panama Papers later.
It doesn’t get any better. Snowden states that the government may even engage in prior restraint and that there need to be “institutions working beyond borders in multiple jurisdictions” so that “that the journalists could play games, legally and journalistically more effectively and more quickly than the government.” He then goes on to engage in one of his many self-congratulatory statements claiming that “I was, in fact, quite famous for criticizing the press.” Putting aside his ego-supporting statement, the fact that he supports journalists “playing games” is worrisome. It basically means that journalists can just be pawns in “challenging” the government.
From here, there are a number of self-congratulatory and hence egoist remarks from Snowden himself. He claims to be surprised by the “impact” of his revelations, claims they are special, claiming that unlike in 2006 when “there was a warrantless wiretapping story in The New York Times” and that his revelations “transformed” the public debate. Then he tries to act humble by saying “I personally see myself as having a quite minor role” and that “I was the mechanism of revelation for a very narrow topic of governments,” that he didn’t have access to court orders from the Department of Justice. He then goes on to boast that he predicted how people would treat him, that the media were useful in making an argument and reporting his leaks. He then almost claims like he is an authority who can tell journalists how to report a story and says that “my ultimate goal was simply to get this information back in the hands of the public” despite the fact that much of what he found has NOT been released as of yet. He then goes further and claims that he believes in “traditional American democracy” whatever that is, a term that refers to an idolized form of bourgeois democracy in the US. He even goes further and says that “if I had stayed in place at the NSA as a source and they had asked me for this document…[it] actually brought risks upon them that could have led to new constraints upon journalism.” That’s so nice of him to look out for the NSA. Not! Snowden also claims that working with journalists changed his “understanding of journalism” and that “public knowledge of the truth is more important than the risks that knowledge creates for a few.” I don’t even think is worth analyzing what he says in a self-congratulatory fashion as it is all wrapped up in puffing up his ego like a puffer-fish blows itself up to take in air or water so they aren’t as vulnerable to predators.
His self-congratulatory statements couple right with those in which he says that Glenn Greenwald and co are great. In his magical view, Glenn Greenwald. Ewan MacAskill, and Laura Poitras, along with the Washington Post‘s Barton Gellman, “simply represented a system that I did not believe could be overcome before the story could be put out. By the time the government could get their ducks in a row and try to interfere with it, that would itself become the story.” Once again, this implies that all of these writers are somehow adversarial, a view that is utterly laughable. Its about as bad as the “glowing” response they had to the new fawning Snowden movie by Oliver stone. Lets not forget that Greenwald was once a lawyer for Big Tobacco companies. As Mark Ames writes,
And this is where whistleblower-irony becomes so dense, it collapses on itself: Because one of Wachtell Lipton’s young associates working on the Philip Morris lawsuit against ABC-TV was a lawyer by the name of…Glenn Greenwald. We know Greenwald worked at Wachtell Lipton’s New York office at the time of Wachtell’s lawsuit because Greenwald himself has talked about working for Wachtell, beginning in 1993 as a summer associate, then joining out of law school in 1994, and staying on until the end of 1995…Perhaps Greenwald had no idea that the law firm he chose to work for was representing Philip Morris in the most talked about case of 1994. That even though his own boss, Henry Wachtell, was a regular on national TV news defending their tobacco clients, he was still oblivious. Greenwald perhaps didn’t watch television. Or read newspapers? It’s reasonable to assume Greenwald—ever the diligent researcher—must have joined Wachtell fully aware that they were helping gag whistleblowers and threatening journalists: Greenwald says that he chose to work for Wachtell in 1994 after being recruited by over a dozen top law firms. But of course that doesn’t necessarily mean he worked on the specific Philip Morris case. Except that a billing ledger discovered in the tobacco library shows Greenwald’s name in a Wachtell Lipton bill to Philip Morris…Other Wachtell Lipton memos show Greenwald’s name prominently displayed on the letterhead in aggressive, threatening letters against ABC-TV, against whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand, and against whistleblower Merrell Williams…One Wachtell letter to ABC’s lawyers with Greenwald’s name up top, dated December 14, 1995, warns that Wigand’s testimony in a Mississippi tobacco trial is “in direct defiance of a Kentucky Court order”— and demands that ABC turn over their source’s private testimony to Wachtell Lipton…Greenwald’s name appears on the Wachtell Lipton letterhead of threatening legal letter after letter—targeting ABC-TV and tobacco whistleblowers …the question is, why has he never said peep about Wigand and Merrell Williams? Greenwald styles himself as the most fearless outspoken defender of whistleblowers today—and yet he has absolutely nothing to say about the most famous whistleblowers of the 1990s, a case he worked on from the other side…Again, in the two decades since, whistleblower champion Glenn Greenwald has never said a single word about this case or about the role his law firm played in crushing TV investigative journalism. As far as our research can tell, Greenwald has never taken a position on tobacco laws or spoken about the horrific death toll smoking is taking…Besides Greenwald’s belief that Big Pharma should be able to sell all of its drugs to any adult who wants them, a very tobacco-industry-esque argument—there’s little to suggest anything like regret, remorse, or any reaction whatsoever to his work on behalf of Philip Morris’ lawsuit against adversarial journalism and whistleblowers. Quite the contrary, Greenwald went on to a close friendly (and paid) relationship with the CATO Institute, one of the tobacco industry’s most active friends in the think tank world.
Back to Snowden, he claims that “the more powerful the institution, the more skeptical one should be,” talks about Daniel Ellsberg, how Greenwald represents the “purest form” of journalist that that he doesn’t see it as a problem that he has “too much faith” in the press. He goes on to say that what need to be changes are “the values of the people in these institutions that are producing these policies or programs.” Yet again, this pseudo-change sentiment is a joke. Snowden of course does not want the system to crumble and there to be a more just one or to even challenge entrenched bourgeois values. But neither does Greenwald or any of the other Celebrity Left personalities.
Most interesting of all is what he says about Twitter, claiming that “individuals can build audiences to speak with directly” which is deceptive because inherently some will be able build bigger audiences than others. He claims that “whether it’s a hundred people or a million people, individuals can build audiences to speak with directly” which is a way that new media actors and “malicious actors” end up exploiting “what are perceived as new vulnerabilities in media control of the narrative.” He goes on to say that on Twitter “there are a lot of celebrities out there on Twitter, but really they’re just trying to maintain an image, promote a band, be topical, remind people that they exist. They’re not typically effecting any change, or having any kind of influence, other than the directly commercial one.” Once again, like what he said about BuzzFeed, this analysis can easily apply to himself and other Celebrity Left figures. Arguably they promote an image and aren’t really making any change, at least not that which matters. At the same time, these personalities do have an influence and he is wrong to say that celebrities do not typically have an influence because they definitely do. For instance, if Beyonce did not have the influence she did, supported not only by her own wealth but thinkpieces across the internet, then there would be no one pushing her songs and image as pro-“feminist” or “black power.”
Near the end of the interview, Snowden claims that there is much that can be done to move forward, at least in the way he wants. First of all, he does not call for eliminating espionage laws, but he claims that there should be “an international framework” for protecting whistleblowers, and claims that the way to implement this is “culture” and a “press that’s more willing and actually eager to criticize government than they are today.” He goes on to say that countries across the world “are embracing the idea of state secrets” and that “we’re increasingly monitored and tracked and reported, quantified and known and influenced” while politicians are “becoming less reachable and also less accountable.” Yet again, Snowden is acting like everything will work out and that capitalist governments will serve their subjects. This is patently absurd. Additionally to claim that the media will criticize the government, he is once again pushing away the importance of the profit motive, a motive that shows that no one can just push for the bourgeois media to be reformed as it is a press that is fatally flawed.
Beyond his self-congratulatory message that his revelations has an impact on “the publication on the culture of government,” his laughably optimistic (and incorrect) ideas that “secrecy will not hold forever…the secrets are becoming public at an accelerated pace,” he then goes into almost defending Facebook. He claims that everything will be find if companies like Facebook are “selective” about certain posts to take down and have no restrictions whatsoever, but then asks if private companies should determine “the limits of public conversations.” He then goes on to spew some words which aren’t important to mention here. At the end of his Q&A Snowden claims he has an answer: moving to “public policing”:
“The real solutions here are much more likely to be in terms of entirely new institutions that bound the way law enforcement works, moving us away from the point of military conflict, secret conflict, and into simply public policing. There’s no reason why we could not have an international counter-terrorism force that actually has universal jurisdiction. I mean universal in terms of fact, as opposed to actual law.”
Regardless of his qualification about what “universal” means, even if it doesn’t mean this, this proposition of an “international counter-terrorism force” is ridiculous. After all, he is naive to think such a force would not be used for imperialist purposes. At the same time, he may think his idea is fine since he is ignoring and/or doesn’t recognize where power lies in capitalist society and in capitalism worldwide: with the bourgeoisie.
We finally move onto the Drone Papers. Snowden claims that “releasing” these “papers” was an “extraordinary act of public service on the part of a whistleblower within the government to get the public information that’s absolutely vital about things that we should have known more than a decade ago.” He goes onto say that these papers are “things that we really need to know to be able to analyze and assess policies” but that this was denied by “major” media outlets like the Times but that The Intercept “saved” the day as “one journalistic institution that breaks the story.” To be honest, this is utterly ridiculous. For one, as Cyrptome’s most recent tally shows, at most, 15.24% of data/files of the Panama Papers have been released but more accurately, the percentage released to date is .0021%. If Snowden, Greenwald and co actually had courage they would call for all of the documents to be released and put in a searchable archive like the Cablegate search, which now includes cables from the 1970s and 2000s.
There is more I’d like to say about the Panama Papers here. For one the whistleblower who revealed the information frames himself almost as a crusader for justice and goes on to explain his ideas, along with claiming he is bringing about a “digital revolution.” which fall into the bourgeois political spectrum nicely. But then at one point he declares the following:
For the record, I do not work for any government or intelligence agency, directlyor as a contractor, and I never have. My viewpoint is entirely my own, as was mydecision to share the documents with Süddeutsche Zeitung and the InternationalConsortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), not for any specific political purpose,but simply because I understood enough about their contents to realize the scaleof the injustices they described.
To me this almost seems like a dodge. He is claiming that he is independent of such forces. However, even if he did not work such entities it is still possible one could say that he could be manipulated, I don’t see why not. Let us consider before going forward that VOA, a US government propaganda outlet promoted the Panama Papers with a guide to read them. Also, we should recognize that one of the organizations that is releasing this information, the Center for Public Integrity, is funded by big foundations such as the Open Society Foundation and Ford Foundation along with George Soros’s Open Society Institute. Should we ignore the views of Swiss banker whistleblower Bradley Birkenfield who said the following to CNBC:
“The CIA I’m sure is behind this, in my opinion. The very fact that we see all these names surface that are the direct quote-unquote enemies of the United States, Russia, China, Pakistan, Argentina and we don’t see one U.S. name. Why is that? Quite frankly, my feeling is that this is certainly an intelligence agency operation.”
Should we ignore that USAID is basically funding ICIJ and by extension this Panama Papers release? After all, USAID is basically an appendage of the murderous empire. Should we ignore how media, such as The Guardian, which Snowden would laud with praise, twisted the revelations to implicate Russian President Vladmir Putin in corruption? Should we ignore how the liberal media outlets like Truthdig, Slate, New York Magazine, and PBS News Hour are promoting the Panama Papers? Should we ignore who funds the Center for Public Integrity or how Wikileaks and Greenwald are promoting the releases? There is much more on the Panama Papers, but it can be convincingly argued that the releases and the papers themselves are a form of negative propaganda.
I could go on with this post, even citing some of the articles by Douglas Valentine, but I think what I have said so far is sufficient. Perhaps I could have said more, but this post is just one of the many criticisms of Snowden and celebrity left personalities, something that few do because they are sucked in by the allure of celebrity or their veneer of being adversarial. That is all.
 In a fawning interview with The Nation, this exchange ensued:
he Nation: Speaking of films, we understand that in addition to Laura Poitras’s documentary Citizenfour, a couple of others will be made about you.
Snowden: Anything to get people talking about the issues is great. I’m not a movie guy. I don’t know all this stuff that comes with celebrity. I don’t know who the actors will be and stuff like that. But anybody who wants to talk about the issues—that’s great.
The Nation: You already are a celebrity.
Snowden: People say that, but I’ve only had to sign autographs for “civ-libs” types. And I autograph court orders.
The Nation: Maybe, but you need a strategy of how you’re going to use your celebrity, for better or worse. You own it. You can’t get rid of it.
Snowden: [laughs] Well, that’s kind of damning!