Traitors, loners, and pornographers: These are just some of the ways Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald have been smeared by their critics over the past month. And now the NSA leaker and Guardian journalist have discovered a way to return fire. Call it the Great Snowden Hype Campaign.
In a pair of interviews over the weekend, the outlines of this new media strategy emerged. Speaking with the Associated Press, Greenwald claimed that Snowden is in possession of "blueprints" for the NSA. "In order to take documents with him that proved that what he was saying was true he had to take ones that included very sensitive, detailed blueprints of how the NSA does what they do," Greenwald said.
In another interview, this one with the Argentine paper La Nación, Greenwald described the harm Snowden could do to the United States in apocalyptic terms. "Snowden has enough information to cause harm to the U.S. government in a single minute than any other person has ever had," he said. And if anything should happen to Snowden, it will all be released. "The U.S. government should be on its knees every day begging that nothing happen to Snowden, because if something does happen to him, all the information will be revealed and it could be its worst nightmare," he added.
The remarks have unleashed a flood of criticism accusing Snowden of blackmailing the United States. "The Snowden ‘worst damage’ dead man’s switch threat seems to suggest that Snowden has plans to destroy America by some sort of hacker attack or release of harmful information if he doesn’t get his way," Elaine Radford wrote at the Inquisitr. File that comment away under "willful misreading" and "Snowden smear campaign," but the tenor of the remark gives a sense of just how vitriolic the Snowden debate has become.
Reflecting on the outrage over his remarks, Greenwald explained that his comment about the potential destructiveness of Snowden’s documents was actually meant to illustrate Snowden’s good intentions. The fact that he hasn’t released these devastating documents, Greenwald argues, is proof positive that Snowden is a man of good faith — one out to correct overreach at the National Security Agency and not commit an act of treason, which is how Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the powerful California Democrat, has described his actions.
Over the course of the past month, two predominant strains of Snowden coverage have emerged: the nitty-gritty reporting on the NSA’s activities and the far more salacious coverage of Snowden and the journalists to whom he has provided documents. The former has been held up as a more pure form of journalism, the latter as a jaunt into tabloid coverage. (In the category of tabloid coverage, the New York Daily News‘ article on Greenwald’s brush with the porn business stands out.)
But now Greenwald has muddled this distinction. Prior to this weekend, Greenwald was miraculously handling his dual role as pundit and journalist rather well. The facts that he marshaled about the NSA’s spying activities spoke for themselves and backed up an argument that he has been making for several years — that the government has amassed an enormous amount of power at the expense of individual privacy.
Now, he’s doing something else entirely — by teasing the explosiveness of documents to come and documents that will presumably never see the light of day. While Greenwald has preemptively hyped Snowden before, his more recent comments go a step further. In late June, for example, he previewed an upcoming story and told a crowd at the Socialism Conference in Chicago that the NSA has the ability to "redirect into its own repositories one billion cell phone calls every single day." But now he is dangling a carrot that his audience will never receive. After all, as Greenwald himself argues, Snowden’s motives are too pure to disclose these massively damaging — and, presumably, extraordinarily interesting — documents.
On Tuesday, Greenwald went even further in his effort to burnish Snowden’s reputation, releasing email correspondence between himself, Snowden, and Gordon Humphrey, a former Republican senator from New Hampshire. "Provided you have not leaked information that would put in harms way any intelligence agent, I believe you have done the right thing in exposing what I regard as massive violation of the United States Constitution," Humphrey wrote, addressing Snowden.
Greenwald appears to have realized that because of Snowden’s decision to go public, the credibility of his reporting largely hinges on Snowden’s ability to maintain his own credibility. As a result, it should come as no surprise that Greenwald does interview after interview to speak on behalf of his source and the outrages that together they have exposed. Greenwald’s argument in favor of Snowden’s credibility largely rests on the idea that his revelations have done no material harm to the United States. As Greenwald knows full well, that’s an argument that he hasn’t yet fully won in the court of public opinion.
Greenwald has now escalated this argument by hyping the potential destructiveness of some of the documents Snowden possesses, making sure to point out that Snowden hasn’t released them.
But that’s a subtle argument — one that’s unlikely to trump an explosive headline: "Snowden documents could be ‘worst nightmare’ for U.S."