Why did Ed Snowden not go the Wikileaks route?
June 23, 2013 7:47 AM   Subscribe

With Wikileaks reporting that Ed Snowden has now landed in Moscow on a commercial flight from HK en route to a thus far unknown 'democratic nation', has anyone seen any explanation anywhere as to why he did not involve Wikileaks from the start and instead went directly to the press?
posted by numberstation to Law & Government (21 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
My (uninformed) guess would be that Wikileaks is quite loaded/damaged in the American media narrative, if he had used them to disseminate the information, the media would spend seventy-five percent of the time talking about Assange or Wikileaks and not about the governmental intrusions.

Using the Guardian seems to have really allowed the message to be delivered in a clear, controlled way. Even so, you can see that as soon as he delivered that first interview, the media focus shifted-- they started looking at him, rather then the documents.
posted by Static Vagabond at 8:05 AM on June 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

I would suggest that going the Wikileaks route didn't exactly work out well for Manning. The bigger question is why did Snowden snub US journalists? The answer here is how was wikileaks treated in the US media?
posted by cjorgensen at 8:08 AM on June 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

Every mention of Wikileaks includes the fact that Julian Assange is formally accused of rape, that there is a warrant for his arrest, and that if he leaves the Ecuadorian embassy in London he will be arrested and extradited to Sweden to face these serious charges.

Maybe Snowden is a decent guy who believes the women who have filed charges against Assange?
posted by three blind mice at 8:12 AM on June 23, 2013 [3 favorites]

Mod note: Just to head it off at the pass, this thread absolutely needs to not become a discussion of Assange's rape charges. Thank you.
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 8:14 AM on June 23, 2013 [8 favorites]

Wikileaks' course of action didn't exactly work out well for those involved. Manning held for three years. Assange holed up in London with nowhere to go. It could be argued that the mistakes they made were 1) going to the press whilst one was not in non-extradition territory, and 2) Assange's coloured past pre-dating the press campaign.

From what I've read, Snowden made a brilliant move going to Hong Kong, specifically because of it's protection for political extradition. It has the backing of China obviously, but at the same time, a different set of laws that are self-administered. Hong Kong takes it's political process very seriously, given it's relationship to Beijing, and thus it is an ideal place where the process would be followed exactly.

Also, Hong Kong apparently is revisiting it's political asylum laws at the moment, so there is a natural ambiguity to the process. Something I read said there was no better place place for Snowden to go to the press. The United States would not play heavy-handed with China, so by extension Hong Kong is more immune from weird US pressure than most other places. Simultaneously, Hong Kong is very well-connected to a bunch of places one might want to go... like Moscow.

Finally, Wikileaks is a big mess. Chances are there is a lot of surveillance of everyone involved, thus little security in terms of acting first. By Snowden going to the press first, he got Wikileaks to come to him, and therefore force the US to use formal processes – as there was a big spotlight on him – rather than things like extraordinary rendition, or some other shadow process.

I was wondering this morning if Assange was sitting in Knightsbridge thinking... Hong Kong... great idea as he continued to wear the colour off of a well-traveled section of carpet in the Ecuadorian embassy.
posted by nickrussell at 8:18 AM on June 23, 2013 [5 favorites]

"The bigger question is why did Snowden snub US journalists?"

He went to US media first, which were slow to publish (based on legal concerns).
posted by Exchequer at 8:22 AM on June 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

Listening to his interview, I got the strong impression that Snowden had a very clear idea about how he wanted to present the material, how and when to out himself, and so on.

He explains this in terms of his responsibility as a citizen. So I could imagine that he found the activist context of wikileaks, the image the organization has in general, and the possibility of his material being hijacked internally to be regurgitated in any ways out of his control not helpful to his vision and conviction.
posted by Namlit at 8:33 AM on June 23, 2013

"Snowden said that he admires both Ellsberg and Manning, but argues that there is one important distinction between himself and the army private, whose trial coincidentally began the week Snowden's leaks began to make news.

"I carefully evaluated every single document I disclosed to ensure that each was legitimately in the public interest," he said. "There are all sorts of documents that would have made a big impact that I didn't turn over, because harming people isn't my goal. Transparency is."

He purposely chose, he said, to give the documents to journalists whose judgment he trusted about what should be public and what should remain concealed." - Guardian
posted by eponym at 8:55 AM on June 23, 2013 [4 favorites]

Wikileaks believes that everything should be public; that any government secrecy is illegitimate. Snowden doesn't seem to share that belief. He is more of a classic whistleblower than a wikileaks activist.
posted by Area Man at 9:04 AM on June 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

If the implied question that you're asking is why he didn't use WikiLeaks to remain anonymous, then the answer is probably that the US government would not have had a hard time figuring out who he was. They could narrow down the list by simply checking who accessed the data and when. Then they could watch those people closely, waiting for him to tip his hand. There also appears to be a code in the "top secret" stamp that may have identified him directly. There are doubtless other tools at their disposal of which we are not aware.

Part of the spy business is trying to get your agents into positions like Snowden had. Another part of the spy business is aggressively discovering those agents to either arrest them or try to turn them to their own purposes.

Like others have said, WikiLeaks is damaged goods here in the US and doesn't have a very good track record for protecting someone like Snowden.
posted by double block and bleed at 9:12 AM on June 23, 2013

Snowden has also said one of the reasons he chose to reveal his identity is that he'd "seen at first hand the impact on colleagues of leak inquiries involving anonymous sources and he did not want to put his colleagues through another ordeal."
posted by mediareport at 9:41 AM on June 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Yes, I forgot to mention the discovery tactic of hooking each suspect up to a sophisticated polygraph and putting them in the hot seat.
posted by double block and bleed at 9:45 AM on June 23, 2013

I would suggest that going the Wikileaks route didn't exactly work out well for Manning.

Wikileaks didn't have anything to do with it not working out for Manning. Outright confessing what he did to someone with the tiniest bit of conscience did.
posted by wrok at 10:57 AM on June 23, 2013

Mod note: Again, this post needs to not be about Wikileaks or Manning or other topics for their own sake. Just what factors entered into Snowden's decision.
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 11:13 AM on June 23, 2013

I would presume he proceeded the way he did to insure his own personal safety and by extension, the safety of his loved ones as much as possible. He seems to have planned this out fairly well, both in terms of geography and timing. It's difficult to imagine that, unlike Manning, that he sort of slid into it over a long period of time. Rather, he appears to have considered the disclosure's execution for a long period of time, then followed through with the plan.

In that sense, it's far easier to control your own safety if you trust it to as few individuals as possible (which means not trusting it to Wikileaks) but rather rely upon one's own understanding of treaty law to make sure you do not wind up in prison or simply disappeared.
posted by digitalprimate at 11:28 AM on June 23, 2013

Why didn't he go to US media? I suspect it's because every major media company in the US is part of the overall fascism that has overtaken us of late.
posted by brownrd at 12:41 PM on June 23, 2013

My guess is that Snowden wanted to be the star of his own little show.
Really, all any of us can do is guess.
posted by 2oh1 at 12:52 PM on June 23, 2013

We don't have to guess: Exchequer posted the answer. Snowden did go to the US press first but they would not give him the assurances he was looking for, so he then went to Greenwald.
posted by Justinian at 2:36 PM on June 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Exchequer posted the answer for this: "The bigger question is why did Snowden snub US journalists?" which was not the original question.

The original question was "has anyone seen any explanation anywhere as to why he did not involve Wikileaks from the start and instead went directly to the press?" Only one person truly knows the answer to that question, and that would be Snowden himself. I suspect that, in the end, we'll find there was more to his reasoning than simply seeking journalists he trusts.
posted by 2oh1 at 4:01 PM on June 23, 2013

Best answer: While all we can do is suspect, it's worth noting that not trusting/using Wikileaks originally, and not talking to or trusting other people who put out public offers of assistance -- and then reversing course -- is a change. Changes are notable in situations where it's obvious that there was extensive advance planning.

Snowden and I share a vocation that is generally occupied by highly intelligent people who have a healthy respect for consequences (unintended or otherwise) and an ability to make and execute complicated plans.

As a systems administrator, Snowden also has a healthy respect for encryption and it's less glamorous cousin, digital sanitation. Users who are trained, but don't have an aptitude and a full understanding of the consequences of their actions, are likely to occasionally get lazy about making sure that weak points (e.g. the hardware workstation they are using) are protected and routinely sanitized because they are going through a process they don't fully understand. They've only been taught to repeat certain steps (like wiping a hard drive with a known-clean OS install image) in a cargo-cultish way -- but there's ways that can go wrong. A sysadmin will not get careless, because they fully understand the consequences and will be able to spot incongruities as they go through the procedure.

Another thing worth noting is that for a sysadmin who has both root access and physical access to the machines, there is really no such thing as monitoring software that tracks every file access. The people that implement that level of protection know intimately how to turn it on and off or bypass it, especially over a period of years while presumably troubleshooting both hardware and software problems. The NSA may have logging in place that most places don't (in the context of "Quis custodiet ipsos hostarii?" -- "Who watches the janitors?") but it would have to be automated, there's a reason that "root = god" in the linux world, and there's no root like "init 1". So the NSA can have a pretty good idea of what he may have seen and copied, but they don't know everything that he might have seen. I don't know what kind of systems administrator Snowden was, nor do I know anything else about him -- I'm just going off of my own experience handling encrypted private data while being watched by a security department.

If I were a suspicious, betting person, I would bet that Wikileaks had, itself, leaks. I would suspect that Snowden, after the story broke in the Guardian, used unknown resources to contact people within Wikileaks and instruct them about the surveillance they are under and how to break free of it -- including who in their organization was a mole. In return, he was to receive assistance in the form of connections with the security apparatus of governments willing and qualified to offer asylum. I feel that this specific action or a similar one was part of his plan from day one, but he had to first establish his credentials and make sure that accepting assistance would be safe for him. He probably used several different tools and routes, which I can only speculate about, but which probably included heavy encryption that he knew the NSA could not currently break via avenues he knew the NSA would not be able to monitor. Since he planned it in advance, he would be able to research what was in place and figure out how to avoid or counteract it before the NSA could change procedures or put new resources in place. This is why he put a time limit on journalists between contact and publishing.

I also suspect that using Wikileaks itself was Plan B for Snowden, and that something already has gone off the rails. I think his primary plan was probably to independently maintain his freedom, because once he trusts someone else they can in turn burn him accidentally through their lack of knowledge and poor digital sanitation. He had to know that the NSA and other arms of the US government would change their procedures and acquire new resources with unknowable abilities rapidly, invalidating the operational intelligence that he would have gained from his research. He can't be light on his feet and use movement, because he doesn't have and can't create the official documentation to travel internationally without a trace. He has to stay in well-populated areas, because except for witnesses there's nothing to prevent the US government from dropping out of the sky and grabbing him. He has limited resources, and staying free in an area that he can be safe consumes lots of resources. Once the US government changes operational parameters, there's no way for Snowden to know if the person he talks to is 'clean' or not, so he has a countdown over his head that's ticking down until he is no longer free unless he finds a protector. Therefore, he has to throw in with a nation state or multinational organization who has the willpower and strength to offend the US government.

At this point I'm just curious how it's going to play out. I've commented a few times on facebook, twitter, and reddit that I suspect that the jokes about Snowden being another of The Stark's bastard children are partly true -- in the context of "Yeah, everyone decent is gonna die." But I hope someone someday has the freedom to make a movie with Snowden as the hero.
posted by SpecialK at 7:53 PM on June 23, 2013 [7 favorites]

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