How the Snowden Affair Became a Freak Show

Michael Hirsh

Ed Snowden, meet Alice. Alice in Wonderland, that is. Because that's the world you've led us into, and I think that you two should at least get to know each other.

Judging from his first public statement on Friday after three weeks of silence, in which he self-approvingly described his "moral decision to tell the public about spying that affects all of us," Snowden now sees himself as the world's foremost champion of free speech. Which makes it all the more odd, of course, that Snowden has placed his fate in the hands of perhaps the most repressive major leader of our time, Vladimir Putin, whose government has apparently offered him asylum. The National Security Agency leaker went out of his way to praise Moscow for its integrity and honor.

"By refusing to compromise their principles in the face of intimidation, they have earned the respect of the world" as well as his own for "being the first to stand against human rights violations," Snowden said of Russia and other nations that have "offered support and asylum" to him, including Venezuela.

It certainly added up to a good day for Putin, the former KGB colonel who made his bones cracking down on dissidents in the old Soviet Union and whose government, in an unprecedented act that might have impressed even Josef Stalin, had only the day before posthumously convicted Sergei Magnitsky, one of the most significant dissidents of our time.

Magnitsky died in a Russian prison in 2009 at age 37 after what even Moscow's human rights commission said was brutal treatment by Russian authorities, including beatings with rubber batons and denial of medical treatment for pancreatitis. The current mini-Cold War between Washington and the Kremlin—which Snowden exploited when he flew to Moscow to escape U.S. justice—was largely set off by the 2012 Magnitsky Act, a law inspired by Magnitsky's brave stand against corruption. The act, which bars Russian officials suspected of human-rights abuse from entering the U.S. and freezes their American bank accounts, has been denounced by Putin as an unjustified interference in his nation's internal affairs. The conviction of the deceased Magnitsky on tax-evasion charges this week was his government's way of saying "screw you" to Washington and anyone else who tells him how to run Russia. During his 13 years in power, Putin has also coldly presided over the detention of others who have questioned his practices or threatened his hold on power, including the imprisoned tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Suddenly the Snowden story has eclipsed all that. It's a reverse eclipse, actually, since it has turned the darkness surrounding Putin's practices into light, thanks to Snowden's bestowal of grace. Let's set aside, for the moment, the still-unresolved question of whether Snowden is more of a legitimate whistleblower or a traitor thanks to his revelations about NSA surveillance programs. It is really fair to cast Putin's government—or Venezuela's for that matter, since current President Nicolas Maduro is really just the late autocrat Hugo Chavez's mini-me—as the upholders of freedom?

Snowden is obviously a very bright young man who no doubt acted in earnest, and he is in quite an international legal pickle given the U.S. espionage charges against him. But he also shows signs of a disturbingly solipsistic world view that automatically turns his allies into doers of right and his legal pursuers into oppressors, and in which he casts himself heroically as merely someone who has "been made stateless and hounded for my act of political expression."

And that, frankly, is every bit as unsettling as the surveillance practices he exposed.