Edward Snowden, Cyborg Thought Leader

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
March 19 2014 9:19 AM

Edward Snowden, Cyborg Thought Leader

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Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden appears by remote-controlled robot at a TED conference in Vancouver on March 18, 2014.

Photo by GLENN CHAPMAN/AFP/Getty Images

It wasn't the newsiest moment in Edward Snowden's address to TED, which he delivered via video that was streamed through a robot. (Check out the picture.) The news, as ever, was probably Snowden's claim that "some of the most important reporting" on his revelations "is yet to come." This is probably true. The archives of documents stolen by Snowden have been enough to support breaking news at the Washington Post, the Guardian, and Pro Publica, to name a few outlets that got some access; an entirely new media company, First Look, was launched on the strength of what Glenn Greenwald, et al. could find in the archives.

So, no, not newsy, but the part of Snowden's Q&A that stuck out to me was his gleeful swipe at Dick Cheney.

At the time Julian Assange was doing his greatest work, Dick Cheney was saying he’d endangered governments worldwide, the skies were going to ignite, seas would boil off. Now he says it was a fleabite. We should be suspicious of overblown claims from these officials. But! Let’s assume that these people really believe this. I would argue they have a narrow conception of national security. The prerogatives of people like Dick Cheney do not keep the nation safe.
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This is not the first time Snowden has made fun of Cheney, whose appeal to the D.C. chat circuit has not dimmed even after he helped his daughter make a spectacular hash of a U.S. Senate primary. Last year, Cheney came up on a Guardian chat and Snowden called it an "honor" to be insulted by the guy.

So Snowden, who recently turned 30, is adept at the art of insult trading with political figures. Why does it matter? Well, some of the (embryonic) discussion of whether Snowden should leave Russia and give himself up to American justice comes out of the theory that Snowden should become an advocate for his cause. He has controlled his image like ... well, like a guy who doesn't give out his contact info and lives in a country that American journalists need a visa to visit. In the last few months, he's given interviews to Bart Gellman, SXSW, and TED, all of which 1) broke the news he wanted, 2) avoided the news he didn't (no one has asked him, in a public forum, anything about Russian politics or the Crimean incursion), and 3) allowed him to describe his whistleblowing in heroic terms. In the SXSW interview, he even appeared before a screen blow-up of the Constitution.

Snowden is winning, as shown by the polls and the fumbling responses of American politicians. He's even come up with a reason for his skeptics to distrust the NSA. "If we hack Chinese business and steal its secrets, or those in Berlin, that’s of less value to the American people than making sure that the Chinese can’t get access to our secrets," he said at TED. "In reducing the security of our own communications, they’re putting us at risk in a fundamental way."

Snowden has outlived the D.B. Cooper mystery that defined his public debut, and is now situated for a long game in which he becomes more popular and harder to call a traitor. His revelations already won Greenwald/Poitras the Polk Award. What happens after someone wins the Pulitzer? Check the next white-hat tech conference on the schedule; we'll probably hear it there.

David Weigel, a former Slate politics reporter, is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

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