The NBC interview with Edward Snowden was instructive in several ways. He continues to present himself as a reasonable man who tried to stop illegal programs but was left with no option but to go public. But the more closely you listen, especially when he says things that can be checked against the record, the more dubious his claim begins to seem.
In fact, the NBC interview, and the exchange with NSA that followed, reveal a lot about Snowden’s style of truth-telling, which turns out to be hard to distinguish from, well, lying.
When questioned about his claim to have raised concerns inside the NSA before breaking his promises of confidentiality, Snowden said, “I actually did go through channels, and that is documented. The NSA has records, they have copies of emails right now to their Office of General Counsel, to their oversight and compliance folks, from me raising concerns about the NSA’s interpretations of its legal authorities.”
This time, remarkably, NSA was not caught flat-footed. Showing an impressive grasp of the news cycle, the agency quickly released the only email that Snowden sent to the NSA GC. It was clearly the message Snowden described, but it was nothing like a blown whistle.
Instead, it asked a question straight out of high school civics. Pointing to training materials about the agency’s sources of legal authority, starting with the Constitution, Snowden noted that the materials listed “Federal Statutes/Presidential Executive Orders” on a single line. He asked what in retrospect is a gotcha question with a phony humility worthy of Uriah Heep: “I'm not entirely certain, but this does not seem correct, as it seems to imply Executive Orders have the same precedence as law. My understanding is that EOs may be superseded by federal statute, but EO's may not override statute. Am I incorrect in this?”
NSA’s lawyer responded promptly, and correctly, saying that EO’s were indeed subordinate to statutes. And there the matter rested.
Only the delusional would view that exchange as “raising concerns” about NSA’s programs. But Snowden isn’t delusional. He’s deliberately misleading us. Because when we parse his answer, it turns out not to say what we thought it said. What he actually said was that NSA had emails “from me raising concerns about NSA’s interpretations of its legal authorities.” (Emphasis added.)
And sure enough, that’s exactly what his email did. What it didn't do was raise concerns about the lawfulness or wisdom of NSA’s programs – which was of course the impression he meant to leave. And, quite probably, it was an impression he thought he could get away with. He didn't think NSA was capable of conducting a wild-goose chase through its email records and quickly declassifying what it found.
When NSA showed how slippery his original answer had been, Snowden got angry, and his intemperate defense was equally revealing. He insisted that this was not his only communication, that he had sent other messages to other offices. But now we know how to read his claims, and it’s likely that those other emails, if they exist, are just more vague expressions of concern about “NSA’s interpretations of its legal authorities.” Because, on a really close reading, that's all he promised us.
Snowden’s second line of defense was to accuse the NSA of having lied earlier, when it said it found no record of his past objections. Wrong again. What NSA said at the time was, “we have not found any evidence to support Mr Snowden's contention that he brought these matters to anyone's attention." That’s still true, since the much-touted email doesn’t bring anything (other than Snowden's skill as sea lawyer and proofreader) to anyone's attention, nor does it raise any objection to any program.
In short, Snowden has revealed a lot about himself in this exchange. In his original statement he worked hard to avoid an outright lie. But he worked equally hard to leave a deeply false impression, and on a point where he thought the security agencies couldn't contradict him -- either because they were unable to search their records completely or because they were unable to declassify the truth. I'm willing to bet that Edward Snowden didn't invent his approach to the truth just for this interview.
More likely, it is something he's done before, such as when talked about NSA committing economic espionage. He didn't quite say that NSA steals commercial secrets for American companies, but you have to parse him like the Talmud to realize that. Most listeners, and most headline writers, came away convinced that he had confirmed their worst suspicions.
But if deploying technical truth in support of deliberate misrepresentation is Snowden's style, and I think it is, then there's one simple lesson. The public can't trust him. At least not when he offers hints and teases and “interpretations,” rather than factual statements backed by unequivocal documentary evidence.
And, come to think of it, hints and teases and interpretations of the ambiguous are pretty much all the public has been offered by Snowden and his journalist allies since, oh, about June of last year.