Edward “Call me Ed” Snowden wants to come home and, regardless of what you think about what he did, there are very good reasons why the US needs him back. Snowden, now living in Moscow under the protection of Vladimir Putin’s government, told NBC Evening News anchorman and managing editor Brian Williams that he wants to come home when the two men sat down together in a Moscow hotel a week ago. In a one-hour NBC special aired on Wednesday evening, condensed from approximately four hours of videotaped conversation, Williams led Snowden through an intense analysis of what Snowden did, why he did it, and what he thinks the future holds for him.
What Snowden does not want to do is return home to the certainty of a long, drawn-out court battle followed by a potentially long prison sentence such as the one that former soldier Bradley, now Chelsea, Manning is serving. This is really the tale of two men who have done essentially the same thing, only to receive very different treatments from the government and the press.
Snowden, 30, a high school dropout with a community college GED, enlisted in the United States Army in 2004 and tried out for Special Forces under a special accelerated program. A soft-spoken, slightly-built and somewhat reclusive North Carolina native, a self-described ascetic who is reportedly both a practicing Buddhist and vegetarian, Snowden was a poor match for the red meat eaters in the Special Forces teams. He washed out after four months, having reportedly broken both legs, which suggests that he may have landed badly during parachute training.
In 2005, Snowden began working an unusual assortment of jobs, in positions for which he had neither the requisite education, nor the subsequent job credentials, beginning with a security specialist slot at the University of Maryland’s Center for the Advanced Study of Language. From there, he went to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), where he became a systems administrator and telecommunications systems officer, a position he claims to have earned by virtue of being a “computer wizard.” In 2007, the CIA sent him to Geneva, Switzerland, as a computer network security officer. While in Switzerland, according to Wired Magazine, Snowden was ranked as the top cybersecurity expert in that theater of operations. In 2008, according to published reports, he was assigned to provide technical support for President Obama during that year’s NATO meeting.
In 2009, Snowden, perhaps under pressure from negative comments in his work file, left the CIA, and took a job with Dell, which placed him inside a National Security Agency (NSA) facility at the Yokota U.S. Air Force base in Fussa, Japan, a position he held until 2013. He then he moved on to Booze Allen Hamilton, another security consulting firm with close ties to the government, taking a $80,000 pay cut from the $200,000 salary at Dell.
The most interesting thing about Edward Snowden’s employment history is that he was able find and keep these jobs through the most difficult job market in recent U.S. history, while many better educated and more highly qualified job applicants were unable to find work. It is also interesting that Snowden reportedly took the job at Booze Allen specifically to gather evidence against the NSA…and no one noticed or considered it important that he voluntarily took that pay cut in order to move down to a lesser position, something that almost never happens in that line of work. If there is one lesson to be learned from Edward Snowden’s experiences, it might be that it is much too easy to get a job inside the American security establishment, arguing Snowden’s point that he should never have been able to get where he got, or do what he did, on the basis of his credentials.
Bradley Manning’s story could not be more different. While Snowden was growing up in a suburban middle class family, Manning was the product of a troubled home, with absent alcoholic parents. Mistreated before birth (Manning appears to have symptoms of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome), the diminutive ex-soldier was born in Crescent, Oklahoma.
Openly gay from his early teens as a young man, Manning was harassed, bullied and, having been passed back and forth between relatives, virtually homeless on several occasions. He enlisted in the U.S. Army in 2007, encouraged to do so by his father to qualify for military educational benefits, where he was harassed, bullied and ostracized again. Then, like Snowden, without any visible credentials to explain his success, he was sent to an advanced Army training unit, where he was trained as an intelligence analyst, and received a coveted Top Secret clearance for Sensitive Compartmental Information, which was precisely the same clearance that Snowden had received. There are approximately 1,000 people with this security clearance, making them members of a very exclusive club.
Real security analysts who, as usual, would only speak off the record, have explained this pattern as intentional, not accidental.It seems that marginalized people, and especially those who have unusual lifestyles that subject them to prejudice and abuse, are unusually sensitive to potential threats, both real and imagined. This sensitivity makes them adept at ferreting out threats and identifying dangerous behaviors.In effect, then, the American security establishment is actually sorting for people with these kinds of backgrounds, and puts them to work looking for security breaches and potential threats.
So, the presence of two such “fragile” personalities in the middle of two separate spectacular security failures may not be an accident at all. It may be a side effect of an intentional government policy, one that has led to unfortunate consequences. The problem with hiring paranoids to protect America’s secrets is that it is impossible to determine what those paranoids are going to be paranoid about.
In Snowden’s case, it appears that his secretive personality was outraged by the invasions of privacy he observed during his tenure a s security specialist. As someone charged with protecting America’s secrets, he found himself working for an organization that was systematically stripping Americans of their privacy, the very privacy that was the cornerstone of Snowden’s unusual life, working way above his educational and experiential achievements, a weak link waiting to break.
In Manning’s case, having spent years under unrelenting criticism for his lifestyle choices, after coming into the military while “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was in the process of being challenged, the gay soldier was already living a double life, while also contending with life-long gender identity issues. Sent to Iraq, experiencing the palpable effects of a war in which Manning felt like an oppressor rather than a member of the oppressed, Manning was in a pressure cooker situation that required relief. Manning loved the military because it was the first secure home she had ever known, and hated the military because she was always on the verge of losing that security should his secrets become known.
It becomes obvious from this analysis that Snowden had much to lose but relatively little to be gained from the fallout caused by his disclosures. Manning, however, little to lose from his disclosures and virtually nothing to gain from them. They could be two unhappy people looking for attention, or they might just be two born and bred American kids who happened to believe America’s propaganda about itself, and were unwilling to accept the cognitive dissonance between that idealized image of America, and the reality in which Americans were spying on Americans in direct contravention of the Fourth Amendment, or lying to the American people about the manner in which US wars are being waged.
There are, however, significant differences in the manners in which these two whistle-blowers blew their whistles. Snowden was a highly-regarded “cyber-warrior,” who was widely admired as a “computer genius,” and lived a comfortable upper middle class lifestyle on his $200,000 salary from Dell. When he decided to leak the documents in his possession, he left the relationship he was in and just about everything thing else when he fled the country to avoid prosecution. Rather than simply going on the lam, Snowden actually authorized the release of his identity, before he was safely out of the country, thus precipitating the avalanche of media coverage.
The median salary for someone with Manning’s rank and time in grade was around $25,000 annually, although both men had the same level of security clearance. Manning’s motivation appears to have been rooted in deeply seated personal problem. His personal relationships had collapsed. His teammates in his Army unit considered him too difficult to work with. Superior officers were so concerned about his mental state that they removed the bolt from her duty rifle. Her gender identity issues as a transgender person in the military were coming to a head. Still living under the constraints of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, she was nevertheless talking about her gender identity issues with an Army mental health counselor in November of 2009, just two months before she started releasing stolen documents to Wikileaks, in January of 2010, which she then considered the low point of her life. At one point, she went to her commanding officer and recommended that she be relieved of her duties because of her emotional instability.
Like Snowden, Manning eventually precipitated his own discovery by approaching a well-known “gray hat” hacker, Adrian Lamo, asking for support, and revealing that she was the one responsible for the Wikileaks disclosures. Lamo, offering him cover as both a journalist and a minister, assuring Manning that his confidentiality would be protected. He then shopped Manning to the authorities, reporting the chatroom conversations to the Army’s counterintelligence command, which promptly arrested Manning on multiple charges on May 26, 2o1o.
As far as their value to investigators is concerned, Manning is a dry well. Everything he had in his possession was dumped onto Wikileaks in 2010, and the only questions Manning could help answer would be about how not to choose the people we put in charge of sensitive information. It may be locking the barn door after the horse has left the county, but Manning’s career as a leaker makes it clearthe systems themselves have to change to prevent unauthorized access.
Ed Snowden chose a different approach. He distributed the material in his possession to a number of different “trusted” news organizations, with sufficient clout to protect themselves against government pressure. When he initially approached news organizations anonymously, he asked them to include coded identifiers into the material so that, if he should want to step forward and claim responsibility, he could do so. They declined, but every news organization Snowden provided with stolen materials agreed to be circumspect about the releasing the documents to the extent of consulting with government stakeholders before releasing documents.
Chelsea Manning is currently serving a 35 year prison sentence. With time served before and during the trial, and time off for good behavior, she will not be getting out of Leavenworth until 2022. The harsh sentence was widely considered a message to other hackers in the military, who might be thinking about the same thing: do not do the crime if you cannot do the time. This message has not been lost on Snowden, who has had the advantage of watching what has happened to Manning before going public himself. Snowden wants to come home, but he wants to play “Let’s Make a Deal,” the first round of which was played out during his interview with Brian Williams. Snowden appears resigned to the idea that he will end up doing some time for his crime. The answered question, then, is not if or whether, but just, “How much?”
The U.S. needs Snowden back because, as long as he is wandering around the world, there is always a chance he might cough up some more documents he held back, as bargaining chips if negotiations around his return bogged down and because the U.S. still doesn’t know exactly what Snowden took.
By Alan M. Milner, National News Editor