The U.S. media yesterday completely invented a false narrative out of whole cloth and then used it to tout self-serving and propagandistic lessons.
Most sentient people rationally accept that the U.S. media routinely disseminates misleading stories and outright falsehoods in the most authoritative tones. But it’s nonetheless valuable to examine particularly egregious case studies to see how that works. In that spirit, let’s take yesterday’s numerous, breathless reports trumpeting the “BREAKING” news that “Edward Snowden now wants to come home!” and is “now negotiating the terms of his return!”
Ever since Snowden revealed himself to the public 20 months ago, he has repeatedly said the same exact thing when asked about his returning to the U.S.: I would love to come home, and would do so if I could get a fair trial, but right now, I can’t.
His primary rationale for this argument has long been that under the Espionage Act, the 1917 statute under which he has been charged, he would be barred by U.S. courts from even raising his key defense: that the information he revealed to journalists should never have been concealed in the first place and he was thus justified in disclosing it to journalists. In other words, when U.S. political and media figures say Snowden should “man up,” come home and argue to a court that he did nothing wrong, they are deceiving the public, since they have made certain that whistleblowers charged with “espionage” are legally barred from even raising that defense.
Snowden has also pointed out that legal protections for whistleblowers are explicitly inapplicable to those, like him, who are employed by private contractors (rendering President Obama’s argument about why Snowden should “come home” entirely false). One month after Snowden was revealed, Daniel Ellsberg wrote an Op-Ed in the Washington Post arguing that Snowden did the right thing in leaving the U.S. because he would not be treated fairly, and argued Snowden should not return until he is guaranteed a fully fair trial.
Snowden has said all of this over and over. In June 2013, when I asked him during the online Guardian chat why he left the U.S. for Hong Kong, he said: “the US Government, just as they did with other whistleblowers, immediately and predictably destroyed any possibility of a fair trial at home . . . That’s not justice, and it would be foolish to volunteer yourself to it if you can do more good outside of prison than in it.” In January 2014, AP reported about a new online chat Snowden gave: “Snowden said returning would be the best resolution. But Snowden said he can’t return because he wouldn’t be allowed to argue at trial that he acted in the public interest when he revealed the National Security Agency’s mass surveillance programs.” In that chat, he said: “Returning to the US, I think, is the best resolution for the government, the public, and myself.”
In his May 2014 interview with NBC News’ Brian Williams, Snowden said: “I don’t think there’s ever been any question that I’d like to go home.” That led to headlines like this one from CBS News — on May 29, 2014, more than nine months ago:
For many months, it has also been repeatedly reported there have been negotiations between the DOJ and Snowden’s lawyers for the terms of his return, though those negotiations have gone nowhere. In April 2014, the New York Times reported that Snowden “retained a well known Washington defense lawyer last summer in hopes of reaching a plea deal with federal prosecutors that would allow him to return to the United States and spare him significant prison time.” In June 2014, Bill Gertz reported that “Federal prosecutors recently held discussions with representatives of renegade National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden on a possible deal involving his return to the United States.”
Snowden’s U.S. lawyers have repeatedly said the same thing. In April 2014, New York magazine — under the headline “Snowden Hired Lawyer to Negotiate a Plea Deal” — reported:
Government officials said negotiations with Snowden’s lawyers remained at an early stage, and it doesn’t appear that there’s any deal on the horizon. However, Ben Wizner, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who represents Snowden, said he is still “interested in returning home” from Moscow, where he has temporary asylum. Wizner continued:
“He is and always has been on America’s side. He would cooperate in extraordinary ways in the right circumstances. But he does not believe that the ‘felon’ label is the right word for someone whose act of conscience has revitalized democratic oversight of the intelligence community and is leading to historic reforms.”
Yesterday, in Moscow, Snowden’s Russian lawyer Anatoly Kucherena held a press conference to promote his new book, was asked about Snowden’s case, and said exactly what has been known for almost two years: “He has a desire to go back, and we are doing everything possible to make that happen.” Kucherena added that lawyers in various countries have been working on Snowden’s behalf to negotiate terms for a fair trial.
Various media outlets then took these redundant, anodyne comments and distorted them into some brand new BREAKING!! event — as though Snowden suddenly decided for the first time he wants to Come Home — and then proceeded to extract from this fake narrative a series of utterly misleading, false and propagandistic claims about Snowden, Russia and the NSA. The first instance I saw of this was yesterday morning, from Politico’s digital editorial director Blake Hounshell, looking as always to generate Politico clicks by hyping empty garbage:
That was retweeted by dozens of journalists and others, treating it like some sort of new confession on Snowden’s part that he’s suddenly “ready to return” home. Over and over, print and television media outlets then spent the rest of the day screeching that Snowden has now decided he wants to come home!!! “Snowden Seeks to Return Home,” proclaimed the headline of the New York Times, while the article strongly suggested this was a new desire created by life in Moscow: Snowden “would like to return to the U.S. after nearly two years of exile in Russia.” The NSA-allied website Lawfare cited the article to claim: “Edward Snowden wants to come home.” ABC pronounced: “NSA Leaker Edward Snowden Wants to Return Home.” Reuters: “Fugitive ex-NSA contractor Snowden seeks to come home: lawyer.” And on and on and on.
Countless cable shows similarly treated this like some sort of breaking, revealing news about Snowden’s life in Russia and his desperation to return to the Land of the Free — all based on things that happened over and over during the last 20 months. The most hilariously inane was this CNN discussion of “BREAKING NOW” news hosted by Wolf Blitzer, involving his know-nothing panelists: CNN “counter-terrorism analyst” (i.e., former CIA counter-terrorism official) Phillip Mudd, the Washington Post’s David Ignatius, and Newt Gingrich, all of whom put on their Serious Expert Faces to spout utter idiocy. Let’s look at some of what they said:
Mudd: “I don’t understand why someone who is one of the most remarkable leakers we’ve ever seen gets to flee overseas, and then talk to the Department of Justice about what he wants for his trial. Come home, son, and spend your 30 years in jail. He’s cooked.”
CNN’s “expert” is apparently unaware that the DOJ very frequently — almost always, in fact — negotiates with people charged with very serious felonies over plea agreements. He’s also apparently unaware of this thing called “asylum,” which the U.S. routinely grants to people charged by other countries with crimes on the ground that they’d be persecuted with imprisonment if they returned home.
Also, with this prevailing mentality being spewed by former government officials and current news network “experts” — “come home, son, and spend your 30 years in jail. He’s cooked” — does anyone have difficulty seeing why Snowden believes he would not get a fair trial?
Ignatius: “It must be very difficult to be Edward Snowden, living in the Moscow of Vladimir Putin, at a time when Putin’s opposition is being murdered in the streets, so I can’t help but think that Snowden wants out, and the fact that he’s willing to negotiate, which he said before he wouldn’t do, is interesting.”
It’s hard to overstate how false and misleading this is. Snowden had never said he wouldn’t negotiate for his return; as I’ve demonstrated, he’s been negotiating this through his lawyers informally for a long time, and his position has always been the same: he’d like to return home if he could be assured a fair trial. David Ignatitus just made all of this up, all based on this fake news item that Snowden has had some sort of sudden change of heart.
Then there’s the bit about living in the Russia “of Vladimir Putin.” For more than 60 years, U.S. elites have been eager to tell Americans that anyone living in Russia is inherently miserable. That’s particularly true of Western dissidents: the apocryphal stories of British defector Kim Philby being destroyed by a dark, lonely, miserable existence that culminated in his drinking himself to death are often invoked to suggest that a similar fate awaits Snowden (who doesn’t drink, who lives with his longtime girlfriend, who is regarded as a hero by millions and millions of people around the world, who receives awards and prestigious appointments, and who is incredibly gratified and fulfilled both by what he did and his current life).
That’s all Ignatius is up to with these claims, all based on the obvious media-created fiction that Snowden has suddenly realized how desperate he is to leave Russia. Again, this entire conversation — like the whole media blitz yesterday about this story — is all based on utter fiction.
This “everyone-in-Russia-is-miserable” line has been a staple of U.S propaganda since the end of World War II, and remarkably, nothing has changed. Indeed, the climate created by our New Cold Warriors is, in some respects, even more desperate than the “he’s-a-Soviet-shill” tactics pioneered in the 1950s (yesterday, BuzzFeed investigated a journalist for the Thought Crime of writing articles which BuzzFeed’s blogger Miriam Elder deemed to be “pro-Russia,” and thus smeared him with evidence-free innuendo as a likely paid Kremlin agent). Yes, many political rights are severely abridged in Russia, but there are over 140 million people living in Russia and some of them are fulfilled human beings living fulfilled human lives (BREAKING!) while there is substantial human misery in the U.S. as well.
Snowden did not choose to live in Russia. He was forced to remain there when trying to leave because the U.S. government revoked his passport and bullied the Cubans out of offering him safe passage on his way to Latin America. But whether jingoists like David Ignatius can comprehend this or not, Snowden (as most people would) actually considers living in Moscow with his girlfriend and freely participating in the vital global debate he provoked to be preferable to withering in a cage inside the repressive U.S. penal state.
Blitzer: “What do you think, Mr. Speaker? He could spend the rest of his life in Moscow — it might be chilly there in the winter — but it’s better, presumably, than jail?”
I can’t overstate how many times I’ve heard people say that Snowden must be miserable in Moscow because of how cold it gets in the winter. Leave aside the bizarre view that climate is the greatest factor in determining how happy and fulfilled someone’s life is, and further leave aside the notion that all 140 million Russians must have a horrible life because it’s cold during the winter. There are other places — such as Canada, North Dakota, Sweden, Boston — that are also extremely cold; do people believe that residents there are, as a result of the weather, inherently doomed to horrible lives?
Gingrich: “I think if we can find a way to get him home, get the rest of the documents that he has not leaked . . . it’s worth doing, but I think he’d have to serve jail time, and it’d probably be fairly lengthy. I don’t think the country would tolerate this level of betrayal, not having some very significant jail time —
Blitzer: “You say lengthy. What do you think?
Gingrich: “I’m not an expert in this, but I’d say more than 10 years.”
Where to start? First, Gingrich’s belief that it’s possible to “get the rest of the documents that he has not leaked” is simply adorable. Second, Gingrich is a fascinating choice for CNN to have pontificate on proper punishments given that he is the first House Speaker to ever be punished for ethics violations, for which he was fined $300,000. Third, David Petraeus was just allowed to plead guilty for leaking extremely sensitive secrets — not out of a whistleblowing desire to inform the public but simply to satisfy his mistress — and will almost certainly spend no time in jail; Gingrich, Blitzer, Ignatius and friends would never dare suggest that the General should go to prison (just as DC’s stern law-and-order advocates who demand Snowden’s imprisonment would never dare suggest the same for James Clapper for having lied to Congress).
Most important, if you were Snowden, and you constantly heard U.S. political and media elites consigning you to prison for a decade or longer before your trial started, would you remotely believe assurances that you’d get a fair trial? What rational person would ever willingly submit themselves to a penal state that imprisons more of its citizens than any other in the world, run by people with this mentality?
And when you examine case studies like this of what U.S. media is not just capable of doing but eager to do — concoct a completely false narrative based on fictitious events and then proceed to spend a full day drawing all sorts of self-serving and propagandistic lessons from it — why would anyone regard what comes spewing forth from them with anything other than extreme suspicion and contempt?
Photo: Bryan Bedder/Getty