Edward Snowden: Not the Hero We Wanted, But One We Needed Anyway


Two important bits of news for you. Firstly, The Rolling Stones — now in their Golden Jubilee year — have headlined at the Glastonbury Music Festival. Secondly, Edward Snowden has reversed his decision to seek asylum in Russia after Vladimir Putin insisted that he must not do anything to "damage" Russia's "American allies." This article is, I'm afraid, mainly about the increasingly bemusing Snowden saga, but Jagger fans please stick around anyway.

For both "Snowdenistas" and "Snowden's nasties"  the news that the former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor will not be getting asylum from Russia is likely to come as a relief. For Snowden's opponents, the possibility that he might sit in Moscow's pocket providing propaganda points and intelligence was a worrying prospect. Equally, for those who initially welcomed what Snowden's exposure of the PRISM internet surveillance program, his willingness to throw in his lot with Russia was an embarrassment.

Indeed, the way Snowden has behaved has convinced many that he is either intent on harming America or on securing personal gain. If Snowden is really the champion of liberty he claims to be, why would he choose to reveal his story to the world while sheltering behind the totalitarian Chinese state in Hong Kong? If he cares for human rights, why seek shelter in repressive Russia?

Those of us who believe passionately in open and accountable government had high hopes for Snowden. We hoped he'd be a Hollywood hero: the loyal "company man" who discovers the dirty secret and, disgusted, risks everything to tell the world. Hollywood Snowden would have escaped abroad too — probably somewhere sunny and with ballerina girlfriend in tow — but he wouldn't have ended up the guest of a corrupt autocrat so heavily botoxed that he has to use his hands to change facial expressions.

Snowden is no hero. However, he did make a brave choice by going public about internet surveillance. And can we really blame him for his refusal to show us the light and then jump on the bonfire? Self-aggrandizing egoist or not, he would no doubt have preferred to make his stand from a leafy European city. But he must have known that before he'd finished chewing his first croissant the extradition papers would be signed. And the fact that he didn't relish the prospects of decades in an American jail does not imply that he is malicious or even selfish.

Snowden chose to go to China and then Russia because he knew they would not be persuaded or bullied into sending him back to the U.S. He may have hoped to move on to a slightly more palatable choice (such as Ecuador), but with those options not looking promising, he probably felt he had little choice but to try his luck seeking asylum in Russia.

With so few options left to him, Snowden's apparent refusal to accept Russia's price for granting him asylum is striking. The Russian authorities want a propaganda tool but not an unpliable loud-mouth who might upset U.S.-Russian relations beyond the Kremlin's comfort zone. It seems likely that he could have done well for himself in Russia if he had assured them that he was prepared to play their game. If he really has refused to do this, then he has again proved that he is made of steely stuff.

Edward Snowden is not the hero we wanted. He has compromised like no Hollywood hero would. He has failed to ride through the uprooting of his entire life unsullied. He has been prepared to shake hands with scum in order to stay free. However, at great personal risk, he revealed a potentially dangerous creep in surveillance that government had not felt fit to explain to us.

I guess the Rolling Stones have the last word on the issue then. "You can't always get what you want," I hear them say. But in Edward Snowden we found what we needed.