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July 01, 2013 3:32 PM How Can I Forget You If You Don’t Go Away?

By Ed Kilgore

Throughout the NSA/Snowden saga, critics of the government’s surveillance programs have often accused defenders of these programs of focusing on the motives of Snowden himself (or of the journalists who have publicized his revelations) rather than what he has revealed.

That’s a fair and important point. But we are fast approaching the time where this complaint should be addressed more to Snowden than to his enemies.

As McClatchey’s Hannah Allam aptly notes, Snowden’s serial self-revelations (and his actual and potential travel itineraries) have kept the spotlight on him in ways that have undermined his credibility:

Even as Snowden is stuck in the transit lounge of a Moscow airport, his public image is constantly evolving, through the publication of his Internet chat logs, statements from his father, live online conversations and an interview he gave to a Chinese newspaper.
Snowden undoubtedly remains a polarizing figure, but both his supporters and detractors have received some curveballs as details of his life are revealed and in many ways eclipse the trove of government secrets he risked everything to expose.

Most unsettling in terms of his initial reputation as a man driven to whistle-blowing by the enormity of what he was asked to do by his superiors has evolving doubts about when he began gathering the information he is disclosing:

While pro-transparency activists were quick to bestow Snowden with the title of “whistleblower,” that might be a stretch given some of his admissions to a Chinese newspaper. While in transit in Hong Kong, Snowden told the South China Morning Post, an English-language publication, that he’d staked out a job as a contractor at the firm of Booz Allen Hamilton in order to gain “access to lists of machines all over the world the NSA hacked,” the Morning Post quoted him as saying. The interview, said Aftergood of the Project on Government Secrecy, “did not strengthen his case. It made him look devious and calculating rather than conscience-driven.”

One might add that it made him look more like a spy than a whistle-blower, an impression that is strengthened by his semi-public negotiations for asylum with various countries hostile to his own. It’s hard not to observe that had Snowden put as much time and effort into disappearing as he did into preparing the rollout of his revelations, we might be far more focused on NSA than on him.

I keep half-expecting to see protesters of this or that government here or abroad begin replacing their Guy Fawkes’ masks with the visage of Edward Snowden. But in terms of converting his leaks into an effective lever to bring more transparency and accountability to NSA and other purveyors of questionable U.S. policies and practices, I don’t think a Snowden cult of personality is going to be terribly helpful.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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