Should Edward Snowden Come Home?

The Interop Book Club debuts with “No Place To Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State” by Glenn Greenwald.

I’m launching the Interop Book Club with “No Place To Hide” by Glenn Greenwald. “No Place To Hide” details Greenwald’s encounters with Edward Snowden, the now-infamous leaker of NSA documents that detail many of the agency’s surveillance efforts, including programs that target American citizens.

Because I can’t have all of you in my living room to discuss the book (the snacks and wine alone would bankrupt me), I thought I’d try it online instead. You can participate by sharing your comments and questions below, and engaging with other participants both here and through social media.

I’ll post updates on the book as I read it to keep the conversation going. And if you happen to attend Interop New York this fall, I’ll host an in-person meet-up for book club participants (with snacks).

I chose the book because I’m alarmed by Snowden’s revelations. The NSA’s capability and willingness to gather huge troves of information on American citizens, often in concert with major telephone and Internet companies, should trouble anyone concerned with civil liberties and a free society. I wanted to find out more about Snowden and the information he exposed, and about the people Snowden chose to help him disseminate the documents.

Snowden and Greenwald are polarizing figures. Many have called Snowden a whistleblower, a patriot or even a hero. Others are repelled by Snowden's actions; venture capitalist Marc Andreessen called Snowden a textbook traitor in an interview on CNBC.

As for Greenwald, he fiercely believes that his efforts to share Snowden’s revelations, particularly around domestic spying, are unambiguously right and just. For Greenwald, the stakes are immense:

“Converting the Internet into a system of surveillance…turns the Internet into a tool of repression, threatening to product the most extreme and oppressive weapon of state intrusion human history has ever seen.”

While I share Greenwald’s anxiety about the rise of a surveillance state, the fact is he can be bombastic and aggrandizing. Michael Kinsey, reviewing Greenwald’s book in the New York Times, writes “Greenwald seems like a self-righteous sourpuss… .”

But personalities aside, Greenwald’s book raises a host of compelling questions. I’ll kick off the book club with this one:

Should Edward Snowden come back to the United States to face the consequences of his actions?

I ask because there are several points in the first couple of chapters of the book where Snowden acknowledges the gravity of actions, and says he is prepared to deal with repercussions. According to Greenwald, Snowden wrote “I’m not afraid of what will happen to me. I’ve accepted that my life will likely be over from my doing this. I’m at peace with that.”

Greenwald says Snowden insisted over and over that he was at peace with the consequences of actions, be it “a lengthy prison term” or something worse.

I think Snowden could demonstrate the strength of his convictions by returning to the United States to face trial. His presence in Russia casts instant suspicion on his motives. Is he really an idealist who wanted to expose mass domestic spying, or just a spy?

Snowden certainly didn’t help his case by appearing on Russian television in April to ask Vladimir Putin if Russia spied on its own citizens. Putin, of course, gleefully answered in the negative. Snowden later defended his participation in what was clearly a Russian publicity stunt by claiming he wanted to get Putin’s lie on record. Snowden may have achieved this rather dubious goal, but at great cost to his own credibility.

If Snowden returns to the U.S., he dispels suspicions about his motives and demonstrates that he truly is willing to accept the consequences.

Certainly he would face trial and likely be convicted of a multitude of crimes. He would likely spend a very long time in jail. However, as a prisoner of conscience in the United States, Snowden becomes a much more potent figure. I think the gravity of his sacrifice would carry more weight with Americans who might otherwise dismiss what he’s done.

And what he’s done is expose, in detail, a surveillance apparatus that can reach into the most private corners of our lives.

Greenwald reports that Snowden’s greatest fear wasn’t capture. It’s that “people will see these documents  and shrug. The only thing I’m worried about is that I’ll do all this to my life for nothing.” Let’s hope not.

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