What if the point of Edward Snowden wasn’t to trigger reforms of the US intelligence agencies but to divide Western countries for the strategic benefit of Russia? What if the impact of coverage of Snowden – despite the whistleblower’s best intentions – wasn’t about documenting abuses by US spy services, or run amok intelligence agencies engaged in “mass surveillance”? Instead, what if the true purpose of Edward Snowden, as coopted by Russia, was to be a cause célèbre himself?
What if the case of Edward J Snowden was fashioned to be an issue that all right-thinking, intelligent, principled citizens of Western nations felt strongly about? It might explain both the reaction of the affected governments and the strange silence on the issue of Snowden’s role in Russia in a time when that country has revealed itself as a serious challenge to the West after two decades of post Cold War dormancy.
The scenario of Snowden as cause célèbre may also explain why, when the eye of the media and public begins to drift from the subject, the media campaign of Snowden, Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras gets revived. (Viz: the Snowden doco Citizenfour, by Laura Poitras). The underlying message in it all: Snowden, Greenwald, Poitras and friends are principled fighters, working for us, for the good cause, to expose the hypocrisy of the United States, Britain and the “Anglo-Saxon” countries that maintain this surveillance ability.
This hypothetical scenario of Snowden would be far-fetched if this wasn’t the modus operandi for Russia in the first part of the 20th Century, when the Kremlin routinely cultivated cause célèbres, front organizations, intellectuals and even staged mock trials to sway public opinion in the West. And they were incredibly effective, because like the case of Edward Snowden, real partisans with real points of view are much more effective in changing public opinion than the traditional variety of geopolitical reputation-trashing embodied in propaganda networks of RT and Sputnik. It’s far better that intellectuals are guided into decisions, places, roles, events and publications that served the unspoken cause of supporting Russia’s position in international relations.
Like Snowden, “innocents” of the 1920s and 1930s could do much good for Russia while never straying far from their authentically held beliefs. To cite a famous case: Ernest Hemingway really did want the Republican side to win the Spanish Civil War – and so Ernest Hemingway would appear in Communist-backed films and lend credibility to events that, in their ultimate aim, did little for Spain but much more for Russia’s position in the 1930s.
Another famous example: Sacco and Vanzetti. In the early days of the Soviet Union, worldwide opinion about the virtues of communism was divided. The biggest obstacle in selling Communist Russia’s vision of itself as a worker’s utopia was the competing idea that workers could emigrate to capitalist America and make a life there, writes author Stephen Koch, in his book Double Lives: Spies and Writers in the Secret Soviet War of Ideas Against the West. The case of the Italian-born anarchist immigrants Sacco and Vanzetti was already underway when the Russia-directed communists got a hold of it and converted trial into a cause célèbre, with the fate of two men, allegedly wrongly accused and judged guilty in a biased, racist courtroom.
As early as 1958 research out of East Germany confirmed “the European protest movement at the time of Sacco’s and Vanzetti’s execution was organized, led, and directed by the Communist Party [despite] the myth of the workers of Europe demonstrating their spontaneous indignation against American capitalist injustice.”
Upon being put to death in 1927, Sacco and Vanzetti, were celebrated – and still are today – as martyrs to the Left, symbols of American hatred of the foreign, the poor, the left-leaning. Under the surface the campaign around the trial was doing what we would call today, brand damage to the US. “To undermine the myth of the Land of Opportunity, the United States would be shown as an almost insanely xenophobic place, murderously hostile to foreigners,” writes Koch.
But there is substantial evidence that suggests the pair in fact received a fair trial and at least Sacco was guilty of the crime for which he was convicted, whereas Vanzetti was possibly guilty. In other words, it was in no way a crystal clear case of US injustice toward the meek and poor.
There were other cause célèbres, such as the Scottsboro Rape case in 1931 in which African-American youth were falsely accused of rape of a white woman in the segregated South. Communist Party- backed organizations descended on the case, wrested it out of the hands of the NAACP, raised millions in donations worldwide for their legal defense – of which hardly any reached the actual defendants — while turning the accused into martyrs in the world’s eyes. (citation here – full article here). The Scottboro Boys were innocent.
But the Russian-backed group’s goal wasn’t about securing the accuseds’ freedoms, rather it was about converting them into martyrs in a event that would bring wider condemnation of the US. So today, what better way to undermine the notion of the freedoms of liberal democracies in the West, than through a case like that of Edward Snowden, a living martyr for the cause of privacy in the digital age? Snowden may sincerely hope for reforms in the US, UK and elsewhere, but it’s unlikely that’s what the Russians want.
They most likely want divisions between Western allies that make for a good distraction from the other big news story of the day: Russian efforts to pry Eastern Ukraine away from Kiev. So it’s astounding to watch as the Snowden case floats separately in Western media, disembodied from the whole revanchist Russia story. This is so even as Snowden’s revelations damage ties among allies who need to be united in the face of Russia’s aggression. But isolating an issue in the minds of the public was a key feature of Soviet efforts in the 1920s and 30s, too. Koch writes:
If Americans in the adversary culture understood that the oppression of blacks was the society’s great institutionalized crime, Stalinism [the Russian view] would take the highest of the high ground on the ‘Negro question.’ No matter that Stalin ruled a country where a significant part of the population languished in slave labor camps…The net effect was to bind Stalinism to the self-evident truths of a given adversary culture, and make that Stalinism feel indispensable to an enlightened life. The role of this “denial within” could be very potent. It could be addictive. (p 21)
Likewise, if Americans have grown justifiably leery of the power of technology for evil ends, the Russian-backed campaign takes the highest of the high ground in the subject of digital rights. For the real reformers in the West, the issue becomes one of defining struggle for the times. It looks and feels like a very real battle for privacy in cyberspace – that doubles as a wedge between the kind of powers that could effectively stymie Russia.
The Snowden case has luster too for technologically inclined Westerners who tire of the ignorance of relative Luddites who often hold political or corporate power. In Russia, meanwhile, any blogger who attracts more 3000 hits a day must register as official media, so they can be held liable for crimes. Journalists are threatened. Or worse. The gulags are still in use. Snowden has no public views on these things, like he has no view on Russia menacing Ukraine. In fact, for all of Snowden’s words, it’s the image of his face being beamed in on big screens into gatherings in the West that holds the real power.
What could be a clearer indictment of the West’s notions of freedom and democracy than its most celebrated privacy advocate living in exile in Moscow. What does that say about freedom in liberal democracies if one of freedom’s self-selected spokesman isn’t even free? The image says it all. That’s what made PBS Newshour Jeffrey Brown’s question to Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras so apt. Discussing the documentary Citizenfour, he asked: “What did you want the film to do that the steady drumbeat news revelations could not do?”
The short answer: keep stoking the flames of the Snowden uproar. Or at least, that’s how the Russians would have done it nearly 100 years ago. They would have ensured that intellectuals of consequence in the West had a view on Edward Snowden, and were given ample and frequent opportunity to air that view, at events, speeches, prize ceremonies. Heck, even the Oscars. So frequent, in fact, would these views be aired that those who espouse the values of liberal democracies may begin to see democracy as a sham, particularly at a time when other very real issues, like pervasive inequality, color the picture.
The Russians of nearly 100 years ago would assure that there are two sides: either you support the arguments of the Snowden crowd (“the highest of the high-ground” – how can Glenn Greenwald not come to mind?) or you are an apologist for state surveillance.
You can’t be anything in between.
You can’t be someone who recognizes the need for democracies to have effective oversight of their intelligence services in a time of ever increasing technological ability and who also wonders why we are all singing from a songbook held by a hostile and anti-Western Russia?
It brings to mind a writer who knew well these sorts of contradictions cultivated by the Russians in his own time. George Orwell in 1946 wrote: “We are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right.” How can the Snowden story live independently of the bigger story of Russia against the West? I’m not sure it can. But the contradiction recalls another Orwell quote: “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.”