The Edward Snowden leaks were not wholly contemptible. Unlike – it’s now thoroughly clear – Edward Snowden himself.
As tens of thousands of Russian troops threatened Ukraine, Snowden on Thursday played a set piece in Vladimir Putin’s latest act of propaganda, appearing on a televised question-and-answer session with the Russian president. Snowden began with a denunciation of U.S. data collection practices and then asked Putin a timid question about Russia’s policy on Internet surveillance. Putin responded, misleadingly, that Russia has laws restraining state security agents and judicial and political oversight of surveillance operations. The Russian president said he hopes – hopes! – that Russia never conducts intrusive data collection.
The Washington Post’s Adam Taylor followed this exchange with a blog post listing many of the ways Putin’s answer is dishonest about the unchecked Russian security state. But Putin’s circle has been on a campaign to portray Russia as a bastion of freedom and respect for human rights, relative to Western governments’ arrogant behavior against their rivals and their own people. It is theater, reminiscent of the way Soviet authorities used to sell the Russian people barely disguised lies about the West and about their own miserable system, deployed to mask Russia’s outrageous behavior in Eastern Europe. Snowden just lent his star power to the act.
Lest you wonder whether the National Security Agency leaker simply took the best opportunity he had to ask an honest question, consider the circumstances: Heavy state control over the airwaves in Russia, especially programs on which Putin appears, surely makes these sorts of things more staged than a professional wrestling match. And if Snowden had really wanted to press Putin, he would have listed any of the variety of human rights abuses and abridgments of free speech – or the suspicious murders of journalists – the Russian state has been implicated in rather than devoting his preamble to U.S. policy.
It is one thing to break an oath to keep U.S. secrets. The U.S. government persistently over-classifies material. Even if not all of Snowden’s revelations were helpful, some leaks are necessary. But Snowden surrendered any remaining shred of dignity Thursday. If he had any choice in the matter, he should have declined to appear. If he did not have a choice, he should have surrendered to the U.S. embassy before humiliating himself. If he could not do even that, he should have protested when it was his turn to speak. Instead, he revealed his bankruptcy of principle.
• Stephen Stromberg is a Washington Post editorial writer.