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Column: Snowden versus the dragons

Protesters supporting Edward Snowden, a contractor at the National Security Agency (NSA), hold a photo of Snowden during a demonstration out
Protesters supporting Edward Snowden, a contractor at the National Security Agency (NSA), hold a photo of Snowden during a demonstration out

By Jack Shafer

(Reuters) - One measure of our culture's disdain for whistle-blowers like Edward Snowden can be culled from the pages of a thesaurus.

Beyond "source" and "leaker," few neutral antonyms exist to describe people who divulge alleged wrongdoing by the government or other organizations to the press, while negative synonyms abound — spy, double-agent, rat, snitch, informer, fink, double-crosser, canary, stoolie, squealer, turncoat, betrayer, traitor and so on.

We bristle at the scent of whistle-blowers for atavistic reasons: They've violated the norms that bind the group together and must be scorned and punished, and their only allies are like-minded individuals who've deserted the pack—or joined opposing packs—and portions of the press, which occupies a floating niche somewhere between the individual and the group that allows it to thrive on such principled perfidy.

But even the press in aggregate is not a friend to whistle-blowers, as its recent treatment of Snowden attests, what with the deep dives into his teen years (including photos), his education and employment history, his reputation as a loner and a "brainiac," his pants-down hijinks, his online scribblings, his dancer girlfriend, his predilection for (in his own words) "post-coital Krispy Kremes." Squeezing every possible query at every known commercial database, journalists worldwide have aped the National Security Agency's snooping skills to track down Snowden's friends, associates, neighbors, schoolmates, relatives and colleagues to instapaint his portrait.

No matter how generously you read the team portrait, Snowden comes off as a bit of a cocky know-it-all. And how could he not? He did a bodacious, criminal thing. He threatens to commit additional acts of criminal bodaciousness. He maintains the cool-customer persona in his video and print interviews. And he comes off as a little squirrelly and ego-swollen.

But what mortal wouldn't come off a little squirrelly and ego-swollen after non-stop scrutiny by the press, even if they hadn't leaked NSA secrets? I guarantee you that if the press ever gets around to vacuuming your every posting, scrapbooking your most dishy teen pix, and interviewing all the people in your past, it will depict a creep of some variety. Not because you're a creep but because the language and methodology of journalism are ill-equipped to capture normalcy, even when its subjects project normalcy. Journalism is about finding flaws and magnifying them, and surely someone who would spill massive loads of state secrets must contain a few broken parts, right?

Whether Snowden is more psychologically integrated than your average 29-year-old makes for stimulating conversation and fun clicks, but it's not really germane to the secrecy "debate" that even President Barack Obama claimed to "welcome" last week. Once we (the press and readers) exhaust ourselves on the Snowden, "Up Close and Personal" angle, the debate will likely be interrupted, just as the debate about the Pentagon Papers was interrupted by the White House back in 1971, when Daniel Ellsberg dumped them to the press.

About two weeks after the New York Times began publishing the papers in June 1971, President Richard Nixon told National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger and Attorney General John Mitchell that he didn't want Ellsberg to get a fair trial for leaking. "Let's get the son-of-a-bitch in jail," Nixon said. "Don't worry about his trial. Just get everything out. Try him in the press. Try him in the press. Everything, John, that there is on the investigation, get it out. Leak it out. We want to destroy him in the press. Is that clear?"

As Tom Wells wrote in his 2001 book, "Wild Man: The Life and Times of Daniel Ellsberg", "The FBI pursued leads on Ellsberg's past, personality, and lifestyle." The White House could easily tag Ellsberg as a sex maniac because he had loads of sex and liked to talk about it; a pervert because he collected pornography; as nuts because he saw a psychiatrist; and a swinger because, as Gay Talese wrote in "Thy Neighbor's Wife", he swung. This, of course, had nothing to do with the substance of the Pentagon Papers, but it was the weapon Nixon, who was bragging to his White House underlings that he had convicted Alger Hiss in the press "before he ever got to the grand jury", liked to stockpile.

Nixon's men planted with conservative columnist Victor Lasky the baseless smear that Ellsberg had given the papers to the Soviet Union, as well. In a memo to Nixon aide John Ehrlichman, White House special counsel Charles Colson wrote of his disappointment with the response to Lasky's column, "which got the predictable reaction because of its author," and of the similar briefings he'd given to Howard K. Smith of ABC News and Jerald terHorst of the Detroit News to "develop the Ellsberg conspiracy." I suspect we won't have to wait long for the "Snowden conspiracy" to manifest itself. Just the other day, Bill Gertz of the Washington Free Beacon reported Pentagon "concerns" that Snowden might give intelligence secrets to the Chinese. (He rejects the notion that he's a Chinese spy.)

Compare Ellsberg's treatment to early press coverage of Snowden's personal life, which injured his standing. Not for a moment do I allege that the Obama White House has assigned a "plumbers" unit to spread the hype. I allege something much worse — the readiness of some in the press to contort into something bizarre the sort of behaviors and personal history they would shrug off as "normal" if exhibited by a family member. Is Snowden paranoid? Well, yes, they're after him, aren't they? Wouldn't you be? Is Snowden a tad grandiose in his interviews? Well, yes, but if you were the leaker and had never taken media training classes, you'd probably sound grandiose in your interviews. Do his statements seem unsatisfying and inconsistent? Well, wouldn't yours if you were attempting to describe the entirety of the national security state in such limited space?

Although Snowden has been exiled for breaking the compact he made with his employers and his government, his rebellion rings too many notes from heroic literature for us to automatically dismiss him. How many times have we read the story (or played the video game) about the brilliant and brave young man who hears the call, defies the established order, goes on a sacrificial quest to a magical place where he defeats evil monsters that menace mankind, battles madness, and after many, many tests (and at some personal loss) finally returns with a boon for all mankind? The rebel in this version even has a pole-dancing princess that he's been separated from! Snowden combines elements of Luke Skywalker, King Arthur, Frodo Baggins, Harry Potter, Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, Jesus Christ, and Neo from The Matrix into one modern tale. Being an egomaniac and a narcissist are just part of the job description.

As a student of anime and a cultural child of the Star Wars saga, Snowden can't help but notice that by stealing the NSA documents and flying off to Hong Kong to share them, he's living our most enduring myths, following the instructions laid down in church, in books, at the cinema, on television, in comic books and in video games. And unlike earlier whistle-blowers, who ordinarily suffer for decades for their transgressions, Snowden appears to be working from a complete script in which he's the ultimate victor.

(Jack Shafer is a Reuters columnist but his opinions are his own.)