Edward Snowden, the former United States intelligence analyst now under exile in Moscow, Russia, is prominent in mainstream news again to promote his newly published memoir: “Permanent Record”.
To some, especially those in senior positions within the U.S. military and intelligence apparatus, Snowden is a traitor who betrayed the trust of the agencies he worked for. To seemingly many more, Snowden is a hero who made a moral, patriotic decision that he knew would upend his life, but went ahead and did what he did in a manner that was journalistically responsible, in a manner that protected his friends and loved ones from legal consequences, in a manner that resulted in no personal profit nor benefit to foreign intelligence agencies, and in a manner that was completely transparent.
Personally, I think one of the best pieces of commentary given on Snowden came from current Russian President Vladimir Putin, during an interview by American filmmaker Oliver Stone as part of a 4-part series “The Putin Interviews” (highly recommended) –
Oliver Stone: “…as an ex-KGB agent, you must have hated what Snowden did with every fiber of your being?”
Vladimir Putin (through translator): “No, not at all. Snowden is not a traitor. He didn’t betray the interests of his country. He did not transfer any information to any other country which would have been pernicious to his own country or to his own people.
Oliver Stone: “Do you agree with what he did?”
Vladimir Putin (through translator): “…I think he shouldn’t have done it. If he didn’t like anything at his work he should have simply resigned. But he went further. That’s his right. But since you’re asking me whether it’s right or wrong, I think it’s wrong."
Regardless of whether his infamous actions in 2013 were honorable or misguided, one cannot help but admire the incredibly articulate, calm, and consistently principled way in which Snowden has conveyed his position over the years. In countless exchanges with both sympathetic and aggressive interviewers, I have never seen Snowden contradict himself, lose his temper, display hate or regret, become defensive, or most importantly fail to articulate complex events, motivations, and issues of morality, in a manner that is highly accessible to the masses.
Given the complex and controversial nature of his actions, his incredible communication skills is probably the main reason so much of the public is on his side
In many ways, Homo Koalis aspires to communicate as well as Edward Snowden.
Start from a Position of Principle
While Snowden is a gifted orator, the foundation of his eloquence is his clear understanding of the moral and Constitutional basis for his actions.
He openly admits that he: 1) broke the law, and 2) violated non-disclosure agreements with the National Security Agency (NSA) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), but he always emphasized that the more important and more interesting question is not whether he broke the law, but whether he was justified in doing so.
His justification, as I understand it, has two main pillars: 1) Constitutional – specifically the Fourth Amendment, which protects U.S. citizens against unlawful search and seizures by the federal government (and to my understanding, by state governments as well), and 2) Moral – a determination that agencies he worked for were violating the Fourth Amendment, and that he was morally bound to expose it, not simply ignore it.
The credibility of this Constitutional + moral foundation is strong because unlike other leakers, he arguably did it in the most responsible way possible: 1) not publicly leaking himself, but giving information to respected journalists to leak to the public in line with accepted journalistic standards, and 2) by not profiting from his actions. And as such, he’s able to draw parallels between his moral law-breaking, with the actions of the Founding Fathers of the United States, who knowingly broke the law and engaged in traitorous activities, when they felt its was their moral duty to rebel against British authorities.
He summarized this brilliantly in a recent interview with Brian Williams’ of MSNBC: “…the signing, the writing of the Declaration of Independence was an outrageous act of treason, it was criminal, but it was also right. The question: whether or not I broke the law? is less difficult, and less interesting, than whether you think what I did was right or wrong. What is legal is not always the same as what’s moral.” – 52:40 to 52:48 mark in the video.
No Hate, Not Defensive, and Polite
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Snowden’s actions the past few years, is that he’s never came out saying he felt “betrayed” by his country, nor did he ever express “regret” due to underestimating the severity of the consequences of his actions.
I won’t list specific names here, but most of us know individuals, oftentimes celebrities in politics, entertainment, journalism, business, or sports, who push the envelope, often in disrespectful ways, thinking they have public opinion on their side, who then express “dismay” and “betrayal” when the law enforcement and institutional regulatory apparatus comes down on them, and many of their fellow citizens chide them for selfish attention-seeking.
Because Snowden knew exactly what was going to happen, there is none of that in him. He does not hate the U.S. Government for trying to apply pressure to foreign governments to extradite him back to the United States. He does not hate that there may be many former colleagues of his, including patriots whom he knows and admires, who see him as a traitor. He does not hate that he had a wonderful life that may never again be attainable. And because his position came from a place of deep understanding, reason, and morality, there is no hate in his heart, and therefore his communications are not defensive, and impeccably polite – even under unfair and accusatory questioning by uninformed individuals.
In a recent CBS This Morning interview, Snowden demonstrated these qualities admirably –
Gayle King: “…but you took an oath to the Constitution Edward, you took an oath not to betray the country…the CIA has…a “parade of horribles”…and now you’re on the list of “parade of horribles,” your picture is there.” – 1:30 to 1:45 mark in the video.
Given that CBS This Morning is a mass audience television program, CBS and King can be forgiven for asking such a low-information question and framing his actions as betraying the country – after all, even if King herself knew better, she’s still on a program that is supposed to ask questions in a manner aligned with what they perceive to be the general public’s level of understanding and perspective.
Snowden’s response is incredible not just in the sophistication of the content, but in terms of the calm and non-argumentative manner which he answered her questions – 1:46 to 2:51 mark in the video.
He starts by acknowledging the oath-swearing ceremony, including describing the environment which it occurred, giving him credibility that he certainly knows what she’s talking about.
He then explains the nuanced nature of the various “agreements” and “oaths” he took, some to the intelligence agencies at which he worked, and some to his country, Constitution, and fellow citizens.
Edward Snowden: “…but there is also an oath of service…to serve and defend not an agency, not even a president, it’s to support and defend the Constitution of The United States of America, against all enemies, and this is direct quote, foreign and domestic; so this begs the question…what happens when you have a secrecy agreement, but you have also witnessed your own government, your own agency, your workplace violating the rights of Americans, and people around the world, on a massive scale.”
Incredibly, if you listen carefully in the video at the 2:32 mark, when Snowden says “…foreign and domestic”, King can be heard echoing the word “domestic.”
For non-Americans, this saying may not be familiar, but to many Americans, especially those engaged in matters of politics, national security, and diplomacy, the saying “defending America against all enemies, foreign and domestic” has deep philosophical underpinnings, and stirs emotional appreciation, with regards to the responsibility of citizenry and public service.
I believe, in that moment, Snowden, by not being defensive, by answering her arguably “silly” questions directly and politely, by answering in an informative and succinct manner, and finally by the content of his response, “won” King over when he tied his actions to a patriotic talking point that she could appreciate and relate. Many who watch the interview, including those in the comments section, may argue that King was equally disrespectful and uninformed during the rest of the interview. From what I can see, I believe she went forward with the adversarial questions she was told to ask by her producers, but still doing so in a manner that betrays her newfound respect for Snowden.
Can Homo Koalis Measure Up?
As stated in the introductory section of this opinion piece, Edward Snowden’s communication skills and style, is in many ways what Homo Koalis aspires to measure up to.
Whether putting out content designed to #HydrateYourMind (stimulate informed and rational awareness) or #DestressYourWorld (propose solutions that make the world a better place), I aspire to do so in a manner that is principled but open-minded, informed but humble, polite but clear, and to the extent possible, succinctly compelling.
If you are someone who enjoys contributing to the discussion topics on www.homokoalis.com, and believe similarly when it comes to written (blog) and verbal communications, I sincerely hope you will become part of the community.