Snowden the chess master

Much of the attention has been focused on the revelations contained in the documents released by Edward Snowden and rightly so. It is what has been revealed and what it says about the way the government works that is important, not the people involved. But at the same time, I want to step back a little and observe that when it comes to strategic thinking, Snowden has revealed himself to be an exceptionally able at it, even though he is up against the US government propaganda machine.

Right from the beginning, he has been shrewd in the way he went about the whole operation. He selected his primary outlets to initially release information carefully, correctly identifying Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald as being the kinds of journalists who would not be cowed by undue deference to the US government, be responsible enough to be judicious about what to reveal and how, be guided by their own judgment about what was safe to release, would not worry about merely embarrassing the US government by revealing its lies and hypocrisy, and yet be able to make the information widely known, using the Guardian as the primary vehicle..

But then he has also made the smart move of involving other, more establishment media sources as well, such as Germany’s Der Spiegel, Brazil’s O Globo, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and ProPublica. The inclusion of the Post and later of the Times was a masterstroke.

This is because those are solidly establishment newspapers that are deferential to the US government and have been known in the past to first check with the government before publishing major stories that might embarrass it, and even withholding publishing because the government asked them to. But by giving them information now, he puts them in a bind. Like any news outlet, they want major scoops and his information certainly qualifies. But unlike before, they cannot sit on the information because they know that he has other outlets. They have no choice but to publish.

But as soon as they do, they essentially also become agents of his dissemination efforts, part of his network so to speak, making it harder for the Obama administration and its supporters to argue that the whole thing is a rogue or even criminal operation conducted by outsiders and that the journalists who help disseminate the information should be prosecuted. People like Jeffrey Toobin, David Gregory, Michael Grunwald, and Andrew Ross Sorkin will also find it increasingly harder to maintain their position that these people deserve to be condemned.

Snowden and his small band of allies have deftly outmaneuvered one of the most sophisticated propaganda systems we have ever seen.


  1. colnago80 says

    It will be interesting to see if the WP continues to publish this stuff after the change in ownership.

  2. colnago80 says

    By the way, this points out why it essential not to allow Rupert Murdock to purchase the New York Times or the Koch brothers to purchase the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times.

  3. Dean says

    Do we really know that Snowden is the one who orchestrated all of this beyond him getting in touch with Greenwald and the Post? It seems to me that it’s more the Guardian starting to get other media entities involved.

  4. Mano Singham says

    I think there are other people involved but from what I have gleaned, I suspect that he is a key player in the strategic decision making.

  5. left0ver1under says

    I’m not so certain he thought of everything. I would have first travelled to a country that would grant me refuge and not extradited me before publishing anything. His decision to go to Hong Kong and then Russia has left him with few options and routes. He’s got less than a year to find somewhere to go, and the US government knows it.

  6. Lassi Hippeläinen says

    Many of those papers and journalists cooperated already in Cablegate. Ideas like phased publication and a dead man’s switch come from WikiLeaks.

  7. Mano Singham says

    The problem of where he would find safe haven is a much harder issue than who should release his information. Even I was surprised at the degree of lawlessness displayed by Obama in trying to get him. Shutting down European airspace and forcing down the Bolivian president’s plane? Threatening every country in the world with massive retaliation if they grant him asylum? I don’t think he could have foreseen that. But in some way,he may even welcome it. After all, his ultimate goal was to have his information be widely shared and discussed. And all this focus on getting him has helped it.

  8. Nick Gotts says

    One of the South American states that have shown a recent disposition to resist US bullying (Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, even Brazil or Argentina) would have been a better bet, although of course there’s no real safe haven. I suspect Snowden was deluded by his apparent “libertarian” beliefs (he reportedly supported Ron Paul). “Libertarians” love Hong Kong because they believe (falsely) that it got rich through complete free trade (the British Empire’s tariff wall gave its manufactured exports to Britain a great advantage at the crucial stage) and that it has no state involvement in the economy (the state owns all land in the territory). And, of course, the HK administration ultimately does what the authorities in the PRC tell it to do.

  9. Lassi Hippeläinen says

    Snowden could not just fly to South America. As a defence subcontractor he had no permit to travel freely. Hong Kong was one of the safe places he could go to without rousing suspicions.

    And most of that “Made in Hong Kong” stuff was made in China. That’s why it was so cheap.

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