Brooklyn is the hipster heaven of New York, which is perhaps why it was there that a bust of Edward Snowden was unveiled yesterday. Not that it stayed long. The bust of the former National Security Agency contractor was put on a pedestal sometime on Monday with the word ‘Snowden’ glued on the base at the Prison Ship Martyrs' Monument at Fort Greene Park. It was taken down a few hours later by parks and recreation employees.
I don’t want to read too much into this, but the brief deification and bringing down of Snowden’s image does seem apposite. When the Snowden leaks were first publicised the left-wing press – in particular the Guardian and the New York Times – hailed him as a free speech hero, as though free and ‘protected’ speech was now generally agreed to include leaking vast quantities of national security secrets to terrorist groups and enemy states before fleeing to Vladimir Putin for sanctuary. But the ‘Snowden is just so hip’ theme did stay up for a while. Earlier this year Hollywood gave an Oscar to the interminable Citizenfour documentary, which they cannot possibly have done for the film’s artistry or watch-ability.
But for Hollywood the leaking of NSA and GCHQ secrets was still just so hip. The US film industry may have been less than amused last year when a studio was subjected to a hack and leak – and all that told us was that one studio exec didn’t think so highly of Angelina Jolie. But it seems that so long as the secrets released damage British and American security, rather than cause any major A-list celeb rift, then it’s all cool.
And yet - perhaps a more real-world understanding of the wreckage that Snowden has caused is finally emerging. The questioning from the popular political left of Snowden’s claims seems to have finally begun. On Sunday night in the US the comedian John Oliver’s interview with Snowden was broadcast on HBO. The interviewee has clearly become used to the softball interview techniques of his various fawning media groupies and FSB handlers. Indeed he seemed slightly affronted to be on the receiving end of any hostile questioning at all.
But among the revelations in Snowden’s interview was an admission of what some of us have said for some time – that he cannot possibly have read through the mass of information he leaked to the world’s press before he leaked it. Whilst conceding this he did insist that the journalists from the Guardian and other papers who he worked with were ‘using extraordinary security measures to make sure this is being reported in the most responsible way.’ Except they weren’t.
For instance, as Oliver said, there was the case of the New York Times slide which wasn’t redacted properly and which was able to be recognised after publication to be about an operation relating to al-Qaeda in Mosul. Thank goodness he gave them the head-up on that. Snowden concedes ‘That is a problem’. Oliver counters that no it is in fact a ‘fuck-up,’ and Snowden concedes that yes, indeed, it might be, but that ‘these things do happen.’ He goes on to say, ‘In journalism we have to accept that some mistakes will be made. This is a fundamental concept of liberty.’ I must say that Snowden is sounding more and more like the crazed attic-dweller and rape-trial avoider Julian Assange. He too started off by doing everything he could to damage Western security interests. He too was praised to the skies by the left-wing press. He too was soon shown not only to have done terrible damage but to be remarkably blasé about the lives of others, not least those Afghans who wanted their country not to be run by the Taliban. And he too, as he began to lose friends, started to talk in increasingly hyperbolic terms about big subjects he’d clearly not thought about before.
The further away from the original Snowden revelations we get the more we are learning about the damage this whole episode has caused. Barely a week passes now when we do not learn something more. Just recently there have been further admissions of the way in which terrorist groups have altered their modes of operating to take into account what Snowden so kindly showed them.
That bust of Snowden in Brooklyn came down in a few hours. Perhaps it will take a little longer for the real person to be brought down from his pedestal. But it will happen, and it may be for surprising reasons. There will always be those who think that damaging Western security is cool, but even these people must find Edward Snowden’s current location an embarrassment. Dismissing the risk and harm he has caused to the lives of countless others, he said on Sunday night that it was just one of those things you have to live with. ‘You will never be free from risk if you’re free. The only time you can be free from risk is when you’re in prison.’ He says from his home, somewhere in Russia.