NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and WikiLeaks’ former editor Julian Assange have a complicated relationship. On the one hand, they share important similarities: both are perceived as dangerous enemies by the United States government, and both have been documentary subjects of filmmaker Laura Poitras. On the other hand, they clearly disagree when it comes to the means of achieving government transparency and accountability. After all, if Snowden had agreed with Assange about publishing practices, it is likely that he would have followed Chelsea Manning’s example and sent the NSA documents he collected and disclosed in 2013 to WikiLeaks.
The recent publication of Permanent Record, Snowden’s 336-page memoir, takes the Snowden-Assange dynamic to new—and problematic—heights. When Assange was forcibly dragged out of the Ecuadorian embassy in early 2019, Snowden was among the leading voices condemning the arrest of the WikiLeaks founder, calling it a dangerous assault on journalism. But in his memoir, Snowden uses rhetorical tricks to present Assange and WikiLeaks as his deceitful and irresponsible foils in a blatant and seemingly self-serving effort to highlight his own trustworthiness and accountability. Indeed, reviewers at the Washington Post and New Yorker have already seized upon Snowden’s anti-Assange rhetoric to serve their own anti-Assange agendas.
Proponents of press freedom have become accustomed to Pentagon and national security state attacks on Assange, but Snowden’s puzzling claims about the white-haired Australian and his transparency organization are exceptionally dangerous because they come from an otherwise highly respectable and trustworthy source, and at a time when there is otherwise a virtual media blackout on WikiLeaks. To be sure, Snowden deserves recognition as a courageous whistleblower and as a global champion of privacy rights, but in Permanent Record, Snowden appears willing to use a political prisoner for personal gain, deliberately distorting the truth and perpetuating the imperialistic propaganda that threatens not only Assange’s health but also his very life—just like the corporate media and national security state he exposed in 2013.
Snowden first distinguishes himself from Assange in a discussion of hacker handles, or online pseudonyms used by hackers so that they can conduct their online affairs without detection by authorities. When Snowden first made contact with the journalists Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, he used a series of disposable handles, such as “Cincinnatus” and “Citizenfour,” so that he could hide his true identity until he was confident that he could trust them with his cache of classified NSA documents. “The final name I chose for my correspondence,” Snowden explains, “was ‘Verax,’ Latin for ‘speaker of truth,’ in the hopes of proposing an alternative to the model of a hacker called ‘Mendax’ (‘speaker of lies’)—the pseudonym of the young man who’d grow up to become WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange.”
Snowden’s play on Assange’s youthful handle implies not only that Assange is deceitful but also that Assange intends to be deceitful. This insinuation is curious, given that WikiLeaks’ has published over 10 million documents, all of which have been authenticated. Nevertheless, Snowden’s remark is, ironically, not meant to be truthful; instead, it is meant to establish a rhetorical heuristic between Snowden-as-trustworthy and Assange-as-untrustworthy.
Assange took inspiration for his handle from Horace, a Roman lyric poet from the first century BCE whose writings became extremely popular during the eighteenth-century Enlightenment in Europe. Enlightenment philosophers found in Horace’s writings many Latin phrases, such as sapere aude (“dare to know”) and carpe diem (“seize the day”) that proved useful for their time.
Following the Enlightenment philosophers whom he admired so much, Assange adapted one of Horace’s Latin catchphrases to create his online identity. “Every hacker has a handle,” Assange writes in Julian Assange: The Unauthorized Autobiography, “and I took mine from Horace’s splendide mendax—nobly untruthful, or perhaps ‘delightfully deceptive.’ I liked the idea that in hiding behind a false name, lying about who or where I was, a teenager in Melbourne, I could somehow speak more truthfully about my real identity.”
From his own perspective, Assange chose the handle “Mendax” not because he wished to “speak lies” and deceive the public, as Snowden’s interpretation suggests; rather, Assange chose the handle “Mendax” because it described what he conceived of himself doing, namely, disguising his identity to more effectively speak the truth. “Untruthful” applies not to the content of his speech but to his identity as the speaker. After all, a true statement is true regardless who says it, and if true statements can be made more easily by hiding one’s identity, then the motto splendide mendax, to be untruthful for a good cause, is perfectly fitting.
Snowden’s rhetoric, therefore, reveals his ignorance of the true meaning of Assange’s handle. By willfully ignoring the origins and connotations of Assange’s “Mendax,” Snowden transforms Assange into the vicious foil against which he measures his own virtue.
Snowden distinguishes himself from Assange a second time, in his explanation for why he chose not to publish the NSA disclosures through WikiLeaks. Describing the WikiLeaks of 2010—which he claims “operated in many respects like a traditional publisher”—Snowden praises Assange’s organization for partnering with The New York Times, The Guardian, and Der Spiegel in its reporting on the documents leaked by whistleblower Chelsea Manning.
According to Snowden’s history, however, WikiLeaks lost its way after publishing the Iraq and Afghanistan war logs and the U.S. State Department Cables. “Due to government backlash and media controversy surrounding the site’s redaction of the Manning materials, WikiLeaks decided to change course and publish future leaks as they received them: pristine and unredacted.” Because Snowden had already resolved to make sure his NSA documents were redacted to protect sensitive information, he concluded that WikiLeaks’ “switch to a policy of total transparency meant that publishing with WikiLeaks would not meet my needs.”
The first problem with Snowden’s account is that he offers an inaccurate and superficial history of WikiLeaks’ publication practices.
An accurate generalized history of WikiLeaks’ publishing goes something like this: Before the Manning leaks, WikiLeaks largely self-published unredacted materials. But in working with corporate media outlets to publish the Afghanistan War Logs, WikiLeaks came under criticism from the U.S. government, corporate media, and other imperialistic detractors for failing to redact sensitive information. So, when it came to publishing the next batch of Manning documents, the Iraq War Logs, Assange allowed redactions and agreed to hold back a portion of the documents for extra review. A similar policy was used for the Cablegate publications (though, the State Department cables were eventually published in after when a foolish Guardian journalist disclosed the password to the document archive in his book).
Snowden also ignores the fact that the corporate media journalists and editors that WikiLeaks worked with to bring us the news from Manning’s leaked documents were quick to throw him under the bus once they were finished profiting from his document cache. One only need to read the 8,000-word screed that then-New York Times editor Bill Keller published as a means of distancing himself and the “paper of record” from, as he puts it, a smelly, rogue Assange. Not only does he reduce Assange to a “source,” Keller even goes so far as to out Chelsea Manning as the likely culprit for the leak, thus violating the core principles of journalistic ethics.
Such inept, negligent, and self-serving behavior on the part of Keller and others who benefited from Assange’s work only to turn their backs on him is completely absent from Snowden’s account.
The second problem with Snowden’s account is that he completely disregards the principles that inform WikiLeaks’ publication practices.
Assange generally opposes redacting documents for two reasons. On the one hand, Assange views redaction as a form of censorship, “a rather dangerous compromise” and “a very, very dangerous slippery slope.” He observes that corporate news media frequently redact documents not to minimize harm but to either protect people in power from embarrassing revelations or protect themselves from government backlash. In Assange’s view, such self-censorship is the main problem with contemporary news media, and he does not want WikiLeaks to go down that path.
On the other hand, Assange opposes redaction because, unlike mainstream journalists who believe that journalists have the skills and the prerogative to decide what the public should know and how they should know it, Assange believes such authority rightfully belongs to the whistleblower, not the journalist. When pressed on the issue, Assange says: “We’d put the weight on the people sending us the material: you exercise your judgment about what you send us, but everything you send us we will publish.”
Snowden, of course, sides with mainstream journalism against Assange on this issue. As he explains in one interview: “I was very careful when I came forward to make sure that I never revealed a single secret. This I believe quite strongly is the role of a free press in our society. This is why the First Amendment is first. They’re charged with making these decisions about what we should know, when, and how. They should contest the government’s monopoly on controlling information, particularly in classified spaces.”
There are two problems with Snowden’s view. The first problem is the assumption that journalistic prerogative to decide “what we should know, when, and how” is sanctioned by the First Amendment. It isn’t. The First Amendment prohibits the government from interfering with journalists’ work, but it does not give them the power to determine what the public should know, when, and how. Though Snowden suggests otherwise, there is nothing in the First Amendment that favors his emphasis on journalists over Assange’s emphasis on whistleblowers.
The second problem with Snowden’s position is that he doesn’t seem to actually believe it. If Snowden truly accepted the principles that journalists were empowered to decide “what we should know, when, and how,” then he would support the decision of Bill Keller, the former New York Times editor who covered up the NSA spying program STELLARWIND in 2004. But he doesn’t. In fact, Snowden cites Keller’s decision as the very reason he did not contact the Times when blowing the whistle in 2013.
By criticizing Keller and the Times, Snowden is forced to adopt a different principle: the principle that sometimes a private citizen (himself) knows better than the press (Keller) what should be disclosed. But Snowden claims to reject this same principle when it is offered by Assange: the principle that sometimes a private citizen (the whistleblower) knows better than the press (Assange) what should be disclosed. Snowden’s anti-Assange rhetoric, then, paints him into an incoherent corner.
Principled disagreement about the role and prerogatives of journalism is perfectly acceptable, but Snowden’s discussion of WikiLeaks’ publishing practices and the principles that inform them is not intended to be principled. Instead, just as with the hacker handles, Snowden’s rhetoric distorts the truth, positioning Assange as the irresponsible antithesis to his own conscientious conduct.
Snowden does praise one person associated with WikiLeaks, and that is Sarah Harrison, the investigative journalist who helped Snowden earn asylum Ecuador and who accompanied him on his way there before he was stranded in Moscow. Praising “her integrity and her fortitude,” Snowden expresses his sincere gratitude for her help and support and for her friendship.
To be sure, Harrison’s efforts to help Snowden are nothing less than heroic, and she deserves our respect and admiration. But in an effort to balance his close relationship with Harrison with his antipathy for Assange, Snowden also takes pains to artificially distance Harrison from Assane.
Though Harrison has long been a close advisor to Assange, Snowden insists on her radical independence from Assange’s personality. Implying that Assange oversees WikiLeaks in an authoritarian manner, Snowden praises Harrison as “one of the few at WikiLeaks who dared to openly disagree with Assange.” He also explains that Harrison “was motivated to support me out of loyalty to her conscience more than to the ideological demands of her employer. Certainly, her politics seemed less shaped by Assange’s feral opposition to central power than by her own conviction that too much of what passed for contemporary journalism served government interests rather than challenged them.”
Snowden’s attempt to distance Harrison from WikiLeaks is curious. For one thing, Harrison’s assistance to Snowden may have been partly motivated by personal reasons, but it was also an institutional effort on the part of WikiLeaks. There is no apparent difference between Harrison’s and WikiLeaks’ attitudes regarding Snowden’s safety. Furthermore, Snowden believes that Assange wanted to help him to freedom not for selfish reasons but on the principle that whistleblowers should be protected. As Snowden writes, “It’s true that Assange can be self-interested and vain, moody, and even bullying—after a sharp disagreement just a month after our first, text-based conversation, I never communicated with him again—but he also sincerely conceives of himself as a fighter in a historic battle for the public’s right to know, a battle he will do anything to win.”
Snowden seems quite determined to say almost anything to distance himself from Assange and WikiLeaks. In the Acknowledgements, Snowden expresses gratitude for being “welcomed into an extraordinary and ever-expanding global tribe of journalists, lawyers, technologists, and human rights advocates to whom I owe an incalculable debt.” Though he expended WikiLeaks’ resources to help Snowden to safety, Assange is apparently not a member of that tribe.
There is, then, an unquestionable contradiction between Snowden’s opposition to Assange’s arrest and the rhetorical games Snowden plays with Assange’s character in his memoir. If Snowden truly believes that Assange’s arrest and persecution pose a grave threat to journalism, why does Snowden offer his readers the same image of Assange that the corporate media use to justify that arrest and persecution? The corporate media unflinchingly approved of Assange’s arrest when he was charged with conspiracy to commit computer intrusion, but once the Espionage Act charges against Assange were unsealed, the same corporate media came to his defense in the name of shallow self-interestedness. Where does Snowden fall in all of this?
In the end, Permanent Record offers a very strange tale of heroes and villains. Snowden’s primary nemeses are the likes of Bill Keller (who canned a 2004 story about the NSA surveillance program STELLARWIND), James Clapper (who lied to Congress about NSA surveillance programs), Michael Hayden (who was a leading critic of Snowden after the 2013 revelations), and the Bush and Obama administrations that together coordinated sixteen years of illegal wars, drone assassinations, and secret mass surveillance. From this perspective, Snowden has the same enemies as Assange.
Nevertheless, as soon as Assange enters the narrative, the plot changes. Now Snowden—wittingly or unwittingly—takes up the same rhetoric as Keller, Clapper, Hayden, and Obama, implying that the WikiLeaks founding editor is a deceitful and irresponsible player in the geopolitical publishing game. He uses Assange as a foil in a rhetorical attempt to position himself as a responsible, honest, and humble figure.
Sadly, Snowden does not need to disparage Assange to appear responsible, honest, and humble—unless, of course, his audience is not the global millions of his adoring supporters but instead the same national security state functionaries he exposed six years ago. If this is the case, perhaps Snowden isn’t as far removed from the United States’ imperialistic project as many of us had hoped.
Patrick D. Anderson is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Grand Valley State University. His research and teaching interests include Political Theory, Africana Philosophy, and Digital Ethics. He also writes for Black Agenda Report. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
* This article was automatically syndicated and expanded from Mint Press News.