Edward Snowden's Half-Baked Revolution
“We’re weaker than our fathers, Dupree... We don’t even look like them.”
-- Charles Portis
I've been patiently enduring all the heavy-handed blather about Snowden and Greenwald as American heroes and historical figures, and aren't we lucky to behold these heroes in our own lifetimes. I might've been able to suppress my own doubts and questions awhile longer if Snowden hadn't gone to Russia. The problem is I know Russia a little too well to pretend it doesn't matter in this story. And I've seen heroes there in Russia, real heroes, in a serious world where they play for keeps. So every time I read another delusional description of Snowden and Greenwald as "heroes" I can't help thinking about Vasya and Limonov, the real things — Russians who faced down the full brunt of Putin's police state.
It was just over a decade ago when Vasya asked me to meet him at the top floor of the Metelitsa casino. I was in trouble — again — and it was getting embarrassing.
Just six months earlier, Vasya had bailed me out of a surreal and nerve-wracking brush with death-by-grupperovka, over one of the lesser jokes published in my satirical Moscow rag, “The eXile.” Satire is not a defense in Russia, as it is here, legally or otherwise. Russia’s produced the best and most vicious satirists anywhere, and they’ve traditionally been stomped on hard. Showing that you can “laugh at yourself” and “not take yourself seriously” is not a popular social convention there. They do take themselves seriously; they don’t laugh at themselves, they’d rather laugh at you.
This time, it wasn’t satire or journalism that got me in trouble, but rather my relationship with Eduard Limonov, the first political dissident Putin jailed.
When I met Vasya at the casino in late 2002, Limonov’s political trial was nearing its final phase. A year earlier, in April 2001, Limonov had been arrested in the Altai Mountains with a handful of his National-Bolsheviks Party members in a pre-dawn raid by Putin’s FSB, the successor to the KGB. They bound him, shipped him to Moscow, and tossed him into the notorious KGB prison, Lefortovo. Realizing that a Moscow trial could be problematic — support for Limonov was pouring in from writers and literary critics across Europe, especially France — the Kremlin moved his trial to the provincial Volga town of Saratov, where he was charged with acquiring illegal weapons, raising an insurrectionary army, and plotting the overthrow of Kazakhstan. The weapons and the army were never found; the plot evidence came down to an article in Limonov’s party newspaper, headlined “Other Russia” [Drugaya Rossiya] — a banner name later appropriated by Garry Kasparov and the anti-Kremlin opposition.
In late 2002, I was the only American journalist to go down to Saratov and report on Limonov’s political trial. Westerners hated Limonov still because his radical anti-neoliberalism was hostile to everything held they held dear. Limonov’s defense team was desperate — he was facing 30 years in prison, meaning he’d die there. After writing up his trial for The eXile, I went back to Moscow and stayed in contact with Limonov’s lawyers, who had been passing me letters from Limonov, one of which I published in the eXile. And then suddenly, very fast, things got weird: His lawyers pushed me hard to come down to Saratov to put me on the stand. They wanted to question me on something, but they wouldn’t tell me exactly what. At first I thought it was because our phones were tapped — that was a fact of life in Russia, communications monitored, phones tapped.
Russia’s FAPSI agency employed some 120,000 snoops just to listen in on Russian phone calls. (I’ve always assumed the same happens here, but apparently other American journalists believed until recently that things operate the way we’re told in middle school civics classes.) Then I found out that in the final months before Limonov’s arrest, my conversations with him had been recorded by a white van parked on the Stary Arbat where his apartment was at the time. Every other Sunday, I’d go to Limonov’s to pick up his newest eXile column, which he’d pen by hand in his trademark broken English. We’d spend a few hours drinking tea and snarling at the world.
Those final months of his freedom, late 2000 through early 2001, our conversations about President Putin had turned darker — a lot of speculation about Putin’s role in the apartment bombings, his ties to the Tambovskaya grupperovka, and rumors in the Japanese press that Putin had a thing for little boys. Limonov later told me that when the prosecution allowed him to listen to the surveillance recordings himself, he nearly shat himself over what they recorded — if the prosecution translated them and introduced recordings as evidence, the temperamental judge, who took himself and his position very seriously throughout the proceedings, would’ve walked over to Limonov's defendant cage and shot him point-blank himself. Luckily, the prosecution was already so sure their case was decided in-advance, they didn't go through the trouble of translating everything they recorded.
Since I couldn’t get a firm answer out of Limonov’s lawyers about what exactly they wanted to ask me on the witness stand or why they wanted me in the trial, I asked my own lawyer what he thought. “Don’t go, not unless you ready to pay for it,” he said. “Limonov’s defense team is desperate. They want an American involved. It’s pretty clear their strategy is to get you on the stand, rile up the prosecution, and then have the prosecution go after you to internationalize the trial. Limonov’s going to spend the rest of life in prison — he's what, 60 years old now? I can't tell you what to do Mark, but my advice is don't go, and stop taking the lawyers' phone calls. It could get very bad, so only do it if this is what you want and what you believe in.”
A couple of days after Limonov’s lawyers pressed me to return to Saratov and allow them to put me in the witness stand, Russian state television ran a vicious hit-segment against Limonov, painting him as a dangerous and violent Bolshevik terrorist. The part that made me nearly shit my pants was when the voice-over told viewers, “some of Limonov’s money for his armed revolution came from an unnamed American source.” For evidence, they played a recording of Limonov’s voice telling his party diehards, “I even have an American friend giving us money for our revolution.”
My name was never used, but Limonov didn’t have a lot of American friends, I paid him regularly for his eXile work, and his lawyers were trying to suck me into the Saratov death-trap. Who knows what else I said during our Sunday conversations — half the time I was wired out of my mind.
That was when I reached out to Vasya. I’d first met Vasya in 1995, right after he earned his LLM from Harvard and returned to Moscow looking for work. The investment company I worked for at that time needed a lawyer, and we arranged to meet Vasya at the Radisson hotel, but he never showed up that day — it turned out that he’d been arrested by Moscow’s racist police. Vasya was half-Armenian, which to Russian cops meant he was a “black-ass” who could be shaken down for bribe money, or tossed into a holding cell.
Now it was 2002, and Vasya was the top legal executive at Russia’s largest oil company, Yukos, which at one time ranked as the fourth largest oil company in the world.
The last time Vasya helped me out of a bad situation, his advice was practical: These are the steps you have to take to not fall victim to an “accident” planned by the Orekhovo-Borisovo grupperovka. I did everything he told me, needless to say.
This time, in the top floor club at Metelitsa, Vasya greeted me with an almost sad expression on his face, like he was looking at a lost cause. He didn’t offer me advice; instead, he got philosophical with me, which was scary in its own right.
“You know mate” — Vasya always used the word “mate” when speaking English, if only because it annoyed Americans — “my father always told me something that I’ve only recently started to understand, and I’m going to tell it to you now: Everyone dies by their idea. Do you understand what I mean, mate? We all die by our own idea. You know my father — he was a member of the Academy of Sciences, he’s a physicist, a great physicist, and for the Soviet times, in the 1970s, to be a physicist in the Academy of Sciences was really the top of everything. But he got into a fight with a powerful clan, on principles, politics — I won’t get into that now, but my father did not back down. And he paid for it. He was kicked out. He lost his privileges. He lost everything. And he told me, many times now, ‘Everyone dies by their own idea.’ So you have to ask yourself what is your idea you’ll die by. Limonov — we know his idea. For some reason, mate, you like this guy. I don’t like Limonov myself, I can’t stand that motherfucker. But at least I know this about Limonov – that he’s living and he’s probably going to die by his idea. No one thinks he’ll ever get out of jail alive. I think he’s a motherfucker for taking other people down with him, but some people are weak, and those people die by someone else's idea. You see what I’m saying, mate? I’m not going to give you any advice or tell you what to do anymore. You like trouble, you like that kind of journalism. I don't get the point of it. You know what I think about your shitty newspaper, mate, and all fucking journalists for that matter. But you’re my friend, and I try to help my friends. I don't like losing my friends. Now, about this Limonov trial. What his lawyers are trying to do to you, is fuck you to save their client — is this your idea, mate? Just think about what you believe in before you do something stupid or weak.”
What Vasya told me seemed like pretty common-sense advice, filtered through Russian fatalism. But it was more than that, given the violent world we lived in — Moscow, the smoldering vortex of a collapsed empire. Lives and fates see-sawed wildly in those years. In 1997, I remember meeting Vasya at one of the Irish pubs — he was out of work, borrowing money. Two years later, he was an oligarch’s fast-rising legal hound. By 2002, he was an executive at one of the world’s largest and highest-valued companies, in the center of an intense geopolitical struggle between Bush’s oil ambitions and Putin’s political ambitions. In 2003, Vasya’s billionaire bosses were accused of plotting a parliamentary coup against Putin, and thrown in prison after a rigged trial. The oil company was stripped and looted, its global investors robbed by Putin’s cronies. My old circle of friends in Moscow was gutted by the jailings — both Russian and American friends of mine were jailed or exiled. Nothing was ever the same.
Vasya’s boss was given every opportunity to go into exile like Berezovsky and the other oligarchs, but to use Vasya’s expression, he stayed behind, driven by his “idea,” preaching the gospel of reform and transparency and democracy and the rest all across Russia, non-stop, until the day FSB goons arrested him. Ten years later, he’s rotting in a prison in Siberia, and he’ll probably die there. It was certain that Khodorkovsky would eventually be imprisoned by Putin if he stayed in Russia in 2003 after his partners had already been jailed or exiled. But prison has had a transformative political effect on both the oligarch and on the public's support for Putin. In the eyes of many Russians, this once-hated oligarch has gone from a cynical greedy billionaire into an idea greater than that; Khodorkovsky has been increasingly purified and beautified by his suffering and his sacrifice at the hands of Putin’s awesome violence. It’s an old tradition in Russia — a natural tendency to pity and empathize with prisoners, especially prisoners of conscience, who made the impractical and self-sacrificing choices to achieve something more than that.
Vasya could have also escaped Russia — over and over, for three years after the initial crackdown started, he could have fled — but Vasya stayed behind. He refused to let them cow him into submission, and he all but dared authorities to imprison him. Law enforcement officers regularly detained him, harassed him, and brought him in for interrogations. The cat-and-mouse game went on for three years after Putin’s first mass-arrests of Vasya’s colleagues and bosses. Shortly before he was finally jailed, I was at a friend’s baby’s baptism ceremony when Vasya showed up. We never knew when he was going to be arrested, but we knew it was coming. Over dinner at a Georgian restaurant in the Taganka district, I asked Vasya how he withstood the pressure from the Russian state.
“Don’t ever, ever show them that they’re getting to you,” Vasya told me. “That’s the only thing you can do. Never show them that you’re afraid or that you’re breaking. They’re like wolves, you know mate? Like pit bulls. If you ever show them any weakness, they’ll rip your throat out, mate.”
Vasya knew he was constantly being followed, his phone calls listened in to. “So I make sure that when they follow me, they see that I’m not sitting in my house wringing my hands and worried, or sitting in lawyers offices. I make sure they watch me going out to party, going out to nightclubs, going out to casinos. They have to watch me having fun, drinking with friends, partying, living life like nothing changed. It makes them angry as fuck, but it confuses them too.”
During interrogations, he told me, the key was never to break. “They threaten you, then they promise to give you something sweet if you cooperate and give them names. They promise you if you just tell them what they want to hear, all your problems will end. It’s a fucking lie, mate. Never believe that. You can see what’s happened to some of my colleagues in prison. Once you show weakness and give them something, they lose all respect for you. They think you’re a weak, worthless piece of shit, and they’ll torture your life just for kicks, they’ll rip you up like fucking wolves, mate. Once you cooperate, you’re their bitch forever, and you’ll never get anything from them. Ever.”
On April 6, 2006 — exactly five years to the day after Limonov was arrested — Russian police broke down the door of a friend of Vasiliy’s apartment where he and his closest “mates” were toasting their last goodbyes, expecting Vasya’s end — the cops violently beat, kicked and handcuffed Vasya and his friends, then brought him down to a detention center, threw him in jail, and put him on trial on trumped-up charges later denounced and invalidated by the European Court of Human Rights.
The charges against Vasya were based on coerced testimony against him given by one of his former colleagues and underlings, who had been promised a deal if she ratted on Vasya. She had two children whom prosecutors kept her from seeing, denying her visitation rights; they even denied her the right to hear her children's voices on the telephone. She caved and turned on Vasya; her reward was a kick in the face. Just two weeks after Vasya was arrested on charges based on her coerced testimony, she was finally given her sentence: seven years in a maximum security prison. A sadistic sentence, because if she’d been given just one year less, six years, she would’ve qualified for early release as a mother with underage children. She was punished for cooperating, just as Vasya told me.
In jail, Vasya immediately went on a hunger strike to protest what he insisted was an illegal arrest. It wouldn’t be his last hunger strike. His health rapidly deteriorated in the harsh conditions of the notorious Matrosskaya Tishina detention jail. By 2007, Vasya suffered from cancer in his liver and his lymph nodes, as well as symptoms of tuberculosis. We didn’t know it at the time, but Vasya had been diagnosed with HIV shortly after he was jailed. Vasya was dying, and the authorities were denying him medical care for the AIDS, cancer, and tuberculosis unless he ratted out one of his bosses. Vasya refused to turn on them, and by late 2007, at age 34, he was blind, gaunt, and close to death.
Nevertheless, Vasya took his case to the European Court of Human Rights, and won. The Russian courts refused for months to abide by the the courts’ rulings, despite their treaty obligations.
In early 2008, as Vasya started to make court appearances looking like he was on the verge of death, I called and roused up what few Western journalists would still talk to me to publicize his plight. Those first court hearings I went to were completely devoid of either Western journalists or his former friends. His family told me that since Vasya had been imprisoned, everyone shunned them out of fear of being questioned. Suddenly, that changed on a dime, now that the world could see what was being done to him. Amnesty International took up his cause. And oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky staged a nearly two-week sympathy hunger strike from his own prison in Siberia, demanding that Vasya get transferred to a proper medical facility to treat his cancer and other illnesses. It finally worked, sort of — under international pressure and out of fear he might die any day, Vasya was moved to a hospital providing chemotherapy treatment, but he was chained to the hospital bed "like an animal," and tormented further as he continued to deteriorate.
In January, 2009, Vasya was released on bail, and allowed to seek treatment for his AIDS, tuberculosis and cancer. A year later, in June 2010, all charges against him were dropped. Vasya is perhaps the only high-profile victim of Putin’s political repression to stare down the state, and win on principles and conviction, and die free.
On October 2, 2011, I got a message from his younger brother that Vasya died.
Just about the only other person I know who held firm against political repression and grew stronger from conviction is Limonov. To everyone’s shock, just as the crackdown on Vasya’s company was launched in the summer of 2003, Limonov, who’d beaten all charges but one, was released early on parole from the “colony” in the town of Engels. He returned to Moscow to a hero’s welcome — hundreds thronged his train as it pulled into Paveletsky Vokzal. Duma deputies, writers, artists and hundreds of young radicalized political activists greeted Limonov as a hero of his convictions who stared down the awful power of Putin’s state, and won. Prison changed him in some profound ways: He became dedicated to prison reform and prisoners’ rights, he became a great admirer of the Chechen people and Islam, he abandoned most of the nationalist side of his politics for an even fiercer leftist politics, and he made alliances with liberals he’d once despised — partnering with chessmaster Garry Kasparov, former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov, Boris Nemtsov and others. Limonov wrote seven books during his two and half years behind bars, and shortly after his release, in his 60s, Limonov married and had his first children. Two years ago, a French biography on Limonov won the Prix Renaudot and became a must-read in the Sarkozy cabinet; this year, an Italian film company bought the rights and announced plans to make a $20 million film. His politics are still as radical and frustrating to outsiders as ever.
I never talked to Limonov about the potential trap his lawyers set for me, and he never brought it up to me. I never begrudged him or his lawyers for doing what they felt they had to do to free their client. That wasn’t the “idea” that I was ready to impale myself on.
If I understood Vasya right, the "idea" is to fuck with power without giving in to the grim, cheerless church hymn aesthetics of most liberal-left prose. In 2004, I published a satirical fake-prank story in The eXile about a forged document that had the fake signatures of five US Congressmen. On the same week that Forbes’ American editor Paul Klebnikov was murdered in Moscow, one of those Congressmen, Rep. Henry Bonilla, a Texas Republican and former TV anchor, told the San Antonio Express that he’d sent formal requests to the Russian government to have me arrested over my newspaper’s prank. At first I thought he was blustering — but then I heard from embassy people that they had received the request, and they were formally obliged to act upon it though not vigorously. I called Bonilla’s communications director in Washington and chewed her out for subjecting an American journalist to arrest and likely torture over a fucking prank, but she wasn't moved. As far as she and her boss Bonilla was concerned, prison and torture were my problems, not theirs. "It’s out of our hands now — you should’ve thought about that when you wrote your little prank.” Someone from Tom Lantos’ office offered to intervene, and an EU diplomat in the Central African Republic capital of Bangui offered to give me a hut on his diplomatic estate, a sort of political asylum, while I waited out the storm.
But you can’t poke power and rip and tear at the powerful, then flee at the first whiff of gunpowder — not if you’re committed and you believe in what you’re doing, no matter how ridiculous it might be. Comedy and satire for me are as serious as anything. I’m like the Russians that way — Stalin sent plenty of ha-ha comedians to their deaths in the GULAGs. He let one live — Bulgakov — only because Stalin was so impressed with Bulgakov’s satirical talents, he didn’t kill him, but he didn’t let him publish either. Eventually, the Bonilla threat went away, but it was a hairy couple of weeks that included bizarre phone calls from Boris-and-Natasha-voiced Kremlin goons claiming to have been big fans of my pranks, and asking why I chose to target in that prank a certain Kremlin Plenipotentiary Representative to the Volga Federal District.... long story...
Four years later, in 2008, I was home in California visiting my father after he’d suffered a stroke, when my newspaper’s manager emailed me a fax they’d received from a Kremlin agency announcing an “editorial audit” under suspicions that The eXile disseminated “political extremism,” “pornography,” “encouraged the use of drugs,” and “incited ethnic hatred.” The last three were aimed at our satire — South Park had at one time been accused of inciting ethnic hatred as well — but the real problem was the accusation of political extremism. That’s akin to terrorism, and it’s been used in the provinces to threaten, ruin, and jail pro-democracy opponents of Putin.
It’s hard to convey how surreal and frightening it was to get this notice, timed as it was for when I’d left the country. Exiled Russians I knew agreed that this was a classic Kremlin tactic — generally they’d rather avoid a public fight, so they scare you when you’re away, and give you a chance to save yourself. If you come back and face it, you’re challenging the police state authority, and that usually ends badly, particularly for Russians.
I called my lawyer, journalists, and a local human rights lawyer, who was stunned and baffled by the official notice and accusations, which she told me had rarely or never been used against a Moscow publication before, only against regional publications. I wanted to return to Moscow and face the charges with my colleagues at the newspaper, and fight it if possible. But no one could give me any assurances that I’d be safe from jail or who-knew-what. We couldn’t find out who or why the charges were leveled, besides the obvious — the Limonov columns regularly savaging Putin and Mededev; the aggressive investigative journalism and raunchy, offensive satire; the big uncensored full-nude spread I ran on the “Fucking For Medvedev” performance by many of the same artists who went on to create Pussy Riot, including Natalya Tolokonnikova; the over-the-top promotion of heavy, debilitating drug use in our pages...but that was nothing new. We’d been doing it for a decade. Why now?
It was scary, facing that choice — between staying safe in California and protecting myself, but abandoning my Russian colleagues and Yasha Levine, and abandoning everything I’d lived for; or voluntarily returning to Russia to face it down, essentially calling the Kremlin out and forcing them to either back off or make another example out of me, as they’d made so many examples out of others. It wasn’t a choice. The examples set by my friends, who risked a shit-ton more than I was risking, were part of it; but why do something like the eXile, why fuck with power, if you can’t stand up and draw out its ugly head at the very moment when power threatens to stomp you? If I’d avoided that showdown and played it safe by staying in California, it would have nullified everything.
So I flew back to Moscow, exactly what you’re not supposed to do when you get your Kremlin threat while out of the country, adrenaline pumping, all pistons go; I led our newspaper team when the four Kremlin officials came to our offices to “audit” our newspaper. In a blur, I lost my investors, and my newspaper. I went public to the Russian and Western press to tell our story, and it created a shitstorm the same week President Medvedev held an international conference in Moscow promoting his new vision of a freer media. Russian newspapers and online media headlines attacked: “Under Medvedev’s ‘Openness’ even American Newspapers Are Forced To Close”...
Finally, after a crypto-fascist in the Duma named Robert Schlegel screamed on live radio calling me an “extremist” who deserved worse than just losing his newspaper, I had to leave. The newspaper was gone; there wasn’t anything to protect. The Russian reporters were safe, the whole attack was now centered on me. “Friends” told me to take a light bag to Sheremetyevo, buy a one-way ticket to a Western city in an airport kiosk, and stay out of Russia until things cooled down, or forever.
Which brings me to Edward Snowden, who’s still lurking in Sheremetyevo’s transit zone as I write this.
As I’ve made clear, I’m a big supporter of his leaks. I don’t see how any of it endangers Americans — the biggest “victims” are the secrecy apparatus and the private contractors who profit off secrecy, surveillance and fear.
That’s my opinion as a journalist and as someone who supports fighting power. But I’ve been frustrated as Hell watching Snowden’s politics, and the politics of his diehard supporters, and the strategically flawed, manipulative decision by his handlers at the Guardian to preemptively convince the public that Snowden is a hero, an infallible “historical” figure who must be worshipped by anyone who considers themselves aligned with history.
The problem is that from the very start, someone — presumably the journalists managing Snowden’s story — decided that they had to preemptively convince the public that Snowden is a “hero” and that the journalists, Greenwald in particular, are themselves “heroes” deserving the crowd-sourced decentralized spontaneous hagiography arranged in the Guardian.
On June 10, in the Guardian article that disclosed Edward Snowden’s identity, the newspaper reported as journalism fact,
Snowden will go down in history as one of America's most consequential whistleblowers, alongside Daniel Ellsberg and Bradley Manning.
That wasn’t meant to be an editorial or opinion piece, that was meant to be taken as stated fact, backed by the Guardian’s editorial credibility, stamped with three bylines— Glenn Greenwald, Ewan MacAskill, and Laura Poitrus. Maybe he will be; but that is bad journalism, and atrocious editing; and it set an impossibly high bar for Snowden, all but ensuring the inevitable downfall.
It also made sure that unlike the leaks in the 1970s that I wrote about, this story would be about Snowden, because now both sides were loaded in, and in our degraded discourse, this has meant only two options: either you have to worship Snowden uncritically, like he’s the Rev. Fucking Moon of intelligence leakers, or you denounced Snowden as an enemy, like you’re one of those body-snatched Moonies in those prayer vigils they held for President Nixon back in the days of the Pentagon Papers and Hersh exposés. You had to take your place in one of the Stupid Camps and censor every brain cell in your skull: either you’re an Obamabot, or an Emoprog. Bad times, bad times.
I’ve made clear my support for what Snowden leaked. For journalism purposes, it wouldn’t even be much of an issue if the Guardian hadn’t forced it — as far as I’m concerned, the leaks remind me a lot of the late Yeltsin years, when Russia’s oligarchy split into two violently opposed camps, each side leaking incredible (and mostly factual) stories to their friendly media sources on TV and in print. There was a time, from 1997 through 1999, when the Russian public was bombarded with about five Pentagon Papers a week, ripping open the public facade of powerful politicians and oligarchs, and showing how they actually stole the national wealth, what they said to each other in phone calls, how they manipulated and plundered. The journalists who fashioned those high-level leaks into stories weren’t heroes; whoever leaked those bank details and recorded phone calls and auction fixing schemes wasn’t necessarily a hero; but the information they dumped was incredibly valuable.
So for me, the importance of what we’ve learned about the NSA spying programs doesn’t hinge on whether or not I have a cult-like faith in Snowden’s and Greenwald’s “heroism” as “true patriots” unlike the other team’s guys. But the problem has been, from the start, that Snowden’s and Greenwald’s network of supporters created this false consensus, and thought-policed anyone who dared deviate or think for themselves. I have a natural aversion to Stalinist self-censorship; if I’m going to keep my mouth shut or pretend, it better be over something really important, not hero-worshipping some confused, half-baked libertarian whistleblower who can’t get his own story straight, just because his handler tells us we have to or else we’re Obamabots or fascists.
I’ve been close with heroes, two of whom I’ve just told you about; I’ve faced choices similar to Snowden’s, situations similar to Greenwald’s. Compared to Vasya and Limonov, Snowden is a fucking clown. I’m not allowed to think that or write that because I’m for his leaks and against prosecuting him, but I’m having a hard time censoring myself — for that fucking clown.
I’m told that Snowden is a hero for exposing the leaks, and that his fleeing from the all-important political crisis that he sparked was none of my business — allowing myself to feel bothered by it was thought-heresy. We’re told we have to have pure faith in Snowden’s historical heroism, but when his behavior is un-heroic, we’re shouted down because “it’s not about Snowden”; we’re told Snowden is driven by the force of his deeply held convictions to fight police state surveillance and power over the citizenry, but we’re told that the fact he took refuge in some of the world’s worst police states is “not the issue” and “for another time” and “irrelevant.” We’re told to censor ourselves of thoughts and concerns impossible to purge. The manipulative rationalizations and thought-policing quickly degenerate from the Obamabot playbook of hypocrisy to something like Scientology thought-policing, self-censorship, and abuse.
The politics, half-baked from the start, are imploding in a steaming shitheap.
Now they’re smearing Greenwald’s sordid, unseemly history as a petty porn profiteer. With anyone else, it’d be funny. But Greenwald has spent years promoting and enforcing an image of himself as an infallible crusader and arbiter of big words like “heroism,” “patriotism,” “ethical,” “transparency,” “liberty” and the like. He’s not much fun; not fun to read, not fun to listen to. Not unless you like fire-and-brimstone Secular Sunday Sermons that make you feel awful and increasingly panicked about the police state Armageddon that’s we’re always on the precipice of. Greenwald is good on some issues, particularly exposing Israel’s crimes; and when it comes to his own restricted, libertarian understanding of what constitutes “civil liberties” — part of it good, when calling out government-sanctioned torture and surveillance; part of it atrocious, such as Greenwald’s support for Citizens United and corporations-as-people, and his failure to include labor rights as one of those civil liberties he professes to protect.
The same week Greenwald reported to his readers as fact that Snowden is a historical hero and infallible figure, he let the Guardian up the hero-worship stakes by holding a crowd-sourcing contest for readers to tell the world just how awesome and infallible Glenn Greenwald is. He set himself up for the porn-peddler knee-capping. I don’t know what the fuck Greenwald was thinking, but my sense is that he fell for his own bullshit.
When I read the New York Daily News smear attack on Greenwald, and his vulnerable, wobbly response, I have to admit, much as I personally dislike Greenwald, it gave me a pit in my stomach seeing the full terrible weight of the National Security State pouncing on a journalist who’d done a great thing, a story he earned through years of dedicated crusading against government power and an enthusiasm for the creepy Ron Paul libertarian network that’s been producing some of the best stories lately, however massively flawed they keep turning out to be.
I’d be more sympathetic to Greenwald at this moment — or rather, I’m more sympathetic than I should be — if he hadn’t smeared my reporting, attacked me in defense of his fellow libertarian Joshua Foust, and sicc’d his cult worshippers after me to smear me by twisting my old eXile satire around to label me as a “child rapist.”
My problems started with Greenwald in November 2010, after Yasha and I co-wrote a story on the brief media hysteria that month over TSA “police state” attacks on Americans’ liberties, which, we reported for The Nation, was being led by armies of Koch-linked libertarians, some of whom were caught faking their outrage. I didn’t know much about Greenwald before reading his bizarre, hysterical smears against our journalism and our credibility on behalf of another Greenwald “hero” — this time, it was “Don’t Touch My Junk” anti-TSA guy John Tyner. Greenwald demanded that everyone agree Tyner was a "brave" hero standing up to government tyranny; and anyone who questioned the anti-TSA hysteria was a government operative enforcing two-party tyranny. Rings a bell, doesn't it.
What we didn’t know at the time was that Greenwald was coaching Tyner behind the scenes and acting as his “litigator” to use Greenwald’s definition of his journalism; we also didn’t know at that time that John Tyner has worked for years now as a software engineer at one of the San Diego area’s leading military-intelligence contractors, ViaSat, which contracts with the NSA, CIA, Homeland Security and the US military making key communications components and software for spy satellites, integrated battlefield communications networks, and video guidance systems for Predator drones deployed for both surveillance and for combat in war zones including Afghanistan and elsewhere. (Here are web pages and photos showing Tyner as a good team player for drone-manufacturer ViaSat). Greenwald attacked our journalism credibility and forced The Nation to apologize to a military-intelligence contractor who deceived the public about who he was, a deception made possible thanks to Greenwald’s advocacy.
Moreover, Tyner repeatedly made clear that he supported replacing the TSA with privatized airport security, and he singled out Israeli-style airport profiling as his own preference because, as a private entity, it would not violate the Fourth Amendment in the same way a government entity like the TSA does even when less intrusive.
Thanks to Greenwald’s attack against, us, and his followers’ unquestioning trust in Greenwald’s professionalism, we were attacked by our own fellow journalists who were outraged that we’d dare question the bullshit behind the TSA “Don’t Touch My Junk” campaign — we were called “liberal McCarthyites” and “fascists” because, Greenwald assured his readers, only a fascist would dare do the obvious and question the Drudge-fueled media circus surrounding the “Don’t Touch My Junk” stunt pulled off by a secret employee of a major Predator drone-and-NSA-satellite contractor.
Acting on our Nation editor’s advice, we responded to Greenwald’s bizarrely emotional attack on our story by trying to hold out an olive branch, against all of our instincts —reminding Greenwald that we were hardly the sorts of government two-party enforcers he’d painted us as, considering what we’d been through in Russia — me as a journalist, Yasha as an emigre from state tyranny and anti-Semitism. Greenwald answered by mocking us —
What Ames previously did in Russia, the tribulations Levine and his grandfather suffered in the past, or what they would have said to me had I called them are all totally irrelevant.
Greenwald’s sarcasm has a special meaning today, given his breathless insistence that his “hero” Snowden’s decision to take refuge in Putin’s Russia is also totally irrelevant to the story. Greenwald insists we're wrong to veer outside of his framing — if we're bothered by Snowden's political failures, Greenwald's response is mockery and diversion:
@ggreenwald: It's awful how Snowden is traveling through countries with no freedom! Now: back to our debate: should US journalists be arrested? #Sorkin
We learned other things about Greenwald too — that he’d defended libertarians in his attack on us, and defended Citizens United, without disclosing that he’d taken money from the Koch Brothers and his relationship to their flagship Cato Institute. I was told by everyone I knew in the media, friends of mine, that I should let it go, which I tried to do — and then just over a year ago, Greenwald came to the defense of fellow libertarian Joshua Foust after he tried smearing my article on the December 2011 massacre of striking oil workers in Kazakhstan. Greenwald never said a word about the dozens, perhaps hundreds of striking oil workers massacred and forgotten by the Chevron-connected dictatorship in Kazakhstan; Greenwald was only interested in denouncing my response to Foust’s smears, which he disapproved of. Blogger elites’ feelings — his and Foust’s — were all that mattered to Greenwald, not the massacred oil workers or questions about Chevron’s responsibilities.
Since then, I kind of lost my ability to feel kinship with Greenwald on anything. I know his type; it’s clear to me that he’d sooner shoot me in the back in battle than defend principles. I’ve since come to understand that Greenwald is a jumble of bad politics an lawyerly ethics packaged as some kind of infallible crusader, when in fact he’s been getting away with hackery because the left itself is so rotten and so discombobulated from its own politics.
I’ve made a career out of calling bullshit on people, and after his second attack on me, I decided that Greenwald was going to be on my radar for awhile. So a few months ago, when Hugo Chavez died and Greenwald made a big show of acting outraged over New York Times editorials against Chavez in 2002, I tweeted out Glenn’s own insane far-right attacks on Chavez in 2005. I got the usual pushback from his cult followers, for whom Glenn must be infallible, and his infallibility must be protected at all costs.
And then on April 2, when the AP made news by banning the expression “illegal immigrant” from their stylebook, I tweeted out through our eXile account a link to a Greenwald article denouncing what he called “The parade of evils caused by illegal immigration.” That’s a fact. Greenwald wasn’t joking. He claims he’s changed now.
Almost immediately after I tweeted that out, Greenwald sicced his substitute columnist Charles Davis to smear me. Davis, a graduate from a high school “capitalism camp” program in Pennsylvania and Ron Paul fanatic, responded to my factual link to Greenwald’s anti-immigrant article by tweeting:
Periodic reminder that frat boy leftist Mark Ames is a boorish misogynist who used his trust fund to sleep with kids
Immediately after tweeting this out, Davis, backed by a twitter mob of Greenwald cultists, twitter-stalked my boss trying to get me fired, smearing me again as a child rapist:
C'mon, when defending your rapist Senior Editor, at least try to be witty! https://twitter.com/paulcarr/status/319946735327801345 …
When he failed to turn my publisher against me, Davis and the Greenwald twitter mob turned their sights on him smearing him as a misogynist and child-rapist accessory:
Contra @paulcarr, when Mark Ames talks about fucking children, he wants you to know: "This is a work of nonfiction."
@paulcarr Go publish some more rapists, bro
The following morning, sizing up his cultists' smears on me, Greenwald tweeted his approval, and suggested they format it in such a way that it would reach a wider audience and hurt me more:
@epmurph @ohtarzie @charliearchy @firetomfriedman Someone should write up a step-by-step on what happened there, for those who missed it
One of the cultists in Greenwald’s twitter feed told his Master,
@ohtarzie It's been a while since I felt that proud and happy to be part of that sector.
If I hadn’t been baptized in the far-fiercer fire of post-Soviet Russia — and if I didn’t have a boss who also comes from a satire and controversy background in journalism — who knows, I might have been devastated.
Now it’s happening to Greenwald. His “Jesus Snowden” framing is collapsing; his half-baked libertarian politics framing the leaks are creating more problems than solving; he’s picked more vindictive and petty fights with journalists who would normally support Greenwald, including yet another Nation writer, historian Rick Perlstein, because Greenwald can’t take criticism without seeing Orwellian government plots behind everything.
And so, like everything else in this degenerate & de-politicized era we find ourselves in, we have nothing but a shitty discourse frame to opt into, and no coherent politics to build on the Snowden leaks, which remain important.
As a Russian poet once wrote,
Times have been worse,
but never baser.
Everything and everyone is a victim in a sense of our rotten times — Greenwald is no Seymour Hersh; Snowden is no Ellsberg; Rand Paul is not Frank Church, and Wydall is not Gravel; and we are weaker than our fathers, Dupree. We look so much better than them when they were our age — and yet we’re so much weaker.