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Snowden as ‘Accused’ or ‘Alleged American Spy’ & Whether His Fears of Returning to US Are Justified

Charles B. Pierce of Esquire has been regularly updating on the effect of former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing on United States government surveillance programs. A recent update highlights NBC News’ Lester Holt describing Snowden as an “alleged American spy.”

Pierce wrote, “That’s an order of magnitude beyond anything that has been said about Snowden even by the administration. A spy is working for someone. A spy has to be spying for someone. Unless you’re counting the American public, Snowden’s revelations didn’t indicate that he was spying for anyone. If that’s the shorthand through which the American mega-media is going to describe him, then the story has changed, and it has gone to a very dark place indeed. NBC should be rather nervous about what it did last night.”

He also noted that the conversation had typically been whether Snowden is a leaker or a whistleblower and that referring to him as an “alleged American spy” took the rhetoric against him to a new level.

But, Holt is not the first person in the US news media to refer to Snowden with this description. On August 2, during CNN’s “Around the World” program, Suzanne Malveaux said the following:

…So he walked out of Moscow’s airport. This happened yesterday. Legal papers in hand. This was after more than a month camping out there as a stranded traveler. Well today we know that the accused American spy spent his first night — who actually put him up and what the Russian people think about their newest resident…

On July 21, Anderson Cooper reported on CNN, “We begin with breaking news on Edward Snowden who is believed to be hiding somewhere in Hong Kong. He is now officially an alleged spy,” after the criminal complaint against Snowden leaked.

During ABC News’ “World News with Diane Sawyer,” on July 12, Brian Ross said, “Tonight, the one-time American spy turned fugitive is trapped.” And on ABC News’ “Good Morning America,” that same day, he was referred to as the “American spy fugitive.”

Interestingly, on “Good Morning America” on July 15, Snowden was called the “American spy whistleblower.” He was described this way again on “Good Morning America” on July 24 and on August 1.

In Canada, CTV has referred to Snowden as an “accused spy.”

Media organizations using this term appear to be mostly limited to broadcast news. That some media outlets adopted this description is understandable (although not entirely appropriate).

Snowden is accused by the United States Justice Department of violating the Espionage Act. The Justice Department has used this to pursue leakers or whistleblowers as if they are spies and that is the case here with Snowden. Media have interpreted this as Snowden being accused of spying.

The key problem is former CIA officer Aldrich Ames, prior to conviction, was an “alleged spy.” He was made tens of thousands of dollars working for the KGB uncovering Soviet agents of the CIA and other American and foreign services known to him. He provided Russia with a “huge quantity of information on United States foreign, defense and security policies.”

There were quite a few speculative reports in media, especially CNN, in late June about how Russian security or intelligence services would want Snowden’s information from the NSA and they had probably gained access. So, to use the phrase, “alleged spy” could lead one to interpret that as a suggestion that he has turned against the US and is now working on behalf of Russia.

However, if one looks at how ABC News went back and forth from “spy fugitive” to “spy whistleblower,” it seems the “spy” could be an expression of the fact that he worked at the NSA and the NSA engages in spying as part of its mass surveillance operations.

Either way, it is quite a loaded description to call him an “alleged American spy,” even if I think Pierce ascribed significance to what he heard Holt say that was not necessarily merited.

*

The New York Times editorial board published an op-ed on Wednesday, where they condemned Russia for granting Snowden asylum and suggested Snowden had nothing to fear if he returned to the United States that would make him qualified to receive asylum.

Russia’s decision was provocative. Asylum is for people who are afraid to return to their own country because they fear persecution, unlawful imprisonment or even death because of their race, their ethnicity, their religion, their membership in particular social or political groups, or their political beliefs.

Mr. Snowden undoubtedly fears returning home because he would be arrested and prosecuted. But those fears do not qualify him for asylum. And does he really feel safer in a country where Mr. Putin, an increasingly authoritarian leader, has jailed and persecuted his critics?

Few key points about this op-ed, which Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald highlighted multiple times on Twitter yesterday.

Putin may be “increasingly authoritarian” as a leader and he may jail and persecute lots of people, but that does not diminish Snowden’s decision to request asylum. Snowden has very limited options for asylum and his only priority is to be in some country that will grant him some semblance of freedom of movement so he can live, since he is someone wanted by the United States. Russia appears to be that country for now.

The Times editorial board limits what they think Snowden fears to being arrested and prosecuted, omitting the fact that he cited the case of Pfc. Bradley Manning when requesting asylum.

There is a distinct possibility that, while in pretrial detention, he would be subjected to conditions of solitary confinement like Manning and that would violate his human rights. The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Mendez, has suggested solitary confinement should be banned in most cases and referred to the practice as “cruel” and “inhuman” treatment. To not address this concern is negligent on the part of the editorial board.

As to whether the decision was “provocative,” any decision to grant asylum to a person the United States considers to be a fugitive would probably be “provocative” to the Times.

What about decisions by the US to grant asylum to over 11,000 people last year? Countries around the world may have wanted to jail some of these people. Were any of those decisions “provocative” on the part of the US?

Whether one considers it “provocative” does hinge upon how one views Putin’s opposition to the United States, but, obviously, it also stems from the belief that Snowden has no justifiable fears.

Altogether, these conclusions indicate willful ignorance on the part of the Times. The newspaper is regularly covering the government’s crackdown on leaks. It has covered whistleblowers. Its own reporter, James Risen, has had his reporters’ privilege targeted by the administration of President Barack Obama, which has tried to force him to testify against his alleged source, former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling.

Another one of its reporters, David Sanger, has probably been ensnared in an investigation into who leaked information on cyber warfare against Iran, including details on Stuxnet. His sources have likely been targeted for talking to him.

The editorial board should consider all this before proceeding to write another editorial that echoes the Obama administration’s party line on Snowden and not for the editorial board’s sake but for Times journalists, who still want sources to be willing to come forward and share information with them so they can have scoops to report.

Writing op-eds that appear to enable the Obama administration’s zealous pursuit of a whistleblower and major source of incredible news stories published by The Guardian‘s Glenn Greenwald does not send a good message to future and potential sources. In fact, it could be argued that it contributes to the “chilling effect” on news gathering, which drives sources with scoops to flee the United States, like Snowden, or send their information to leaks-based journalistic organizations like WikiLeaks instead of traditional news media, which is what Manning did.

Image by DonkeyHotey under Creative Commons license

CommunityFDL Main BlogThe Dissenter

Snowden as ‘Accused’ or ‘Alleged American Spy’ & Whether His Fears of Returning to US Are Justified

Charles B. Pierce of Esquire has been regularly updating on the effect of former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing on United States government surveillance programs. A recent update highlights NBC News’ Lester Holt describing Snowden as an “alleged American spy.”

Pierce wrote, “That’s an order of magnitude beyond anything that has been said about Snowden even by the administration. A spy is working for someone. A spy has to be spying for someone. Unless you’re counting the American public, Snowden’s revelations didn’t indicate that he was spying for anyone. If that’s the shorthand through which the American mega-media is going to describe him, then the story has changed, and it has gone to a very dark place indeed. NBC should be rather nervous about what it did last night.”

He also noted that the conversation had typically been whether Snowden is a leaker or a whistleblower and that referring to him as an “alleged American spy” took the rhetoric against him to a new level.

But, Holt is not the first person in the US news media to refer to Snowden with this description. On August 2, during CNN’s “Around the World” program, Suzanne Malveaux said the following:

…So he walked out of Moscow’s airport. This happened yesterday. Legal papers in hand. This was after more than a month camping out there as a stranded traveler. Well today we know that the accused American spy spent his first night — who actually put him up and what the Russian people think about their newest resident…

On July 21, Anderson Cooper reported on CNN, “We begin with breaking news on Edward Snowden who is believed to be hiding somewhere in Hong Kong. He is now officially an alleged spy,” after the criminal complaint against Snowden leaked.

During ABC News’ “World News with Diane Sawyer,” on July 12, Brian Ross said, “Tonight, the one-time American spy turned fugitive is trapped.” And on ABC News’ “Good Morning America,” that same day, he was referred to as the “American spy fugitive.”

Interestingly, on “Good Morning America” on July 15, Snowden was called the “American spy whistleblower.” He was described this way again on “Good Morning America” on July 24 and on August 1.

In Canada, CTV has referred to Snowden as an “accused spy.”

Media organizations using this term appear to be mostly limited to broadcast news. That some media outlets adopted this description is understandable (although not entirely appropriate).

Snowden is accused by the United States Justice Department of violating the Espionage Act. The Justice Department has used this to pursue leakers or whistleblowers as if they are spies and that is the case here with Snowden. Media have interpreted this as Snowden being accused of spying. [cont’d.]

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."

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