There is an unquestionable contradiction between Snowden’s opposition to Assange’s arrest and the rhetorical games he plays with Assange’s character in his memoir, Permanent Record.
NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and WikiLeaks’ former editor Julian Assange have a complicated relationship. On the one hand, they share important similarities: both are perceived as dangerous enemies by the United States government, and both have been documentary subjects of filmmaker Laura Poitras. On the other hand, they clearly disagree when it comes to the means of achieving government transparency and accountability. After all, if Snowden had agreed with Assange about publishing practices, it is likely that he would have followed Chelsea Manning’s example and sent the NSA documents he collected and disclosed in 2013 to WikiLeaks.
The recent publication of Permanent Record, Snowden’s 336-page memoir, takes the Snowden-Assange dynamic to new—and problematic—heights. When Assange was forcibly dragged out of the Ecuadorian embassy in early 2019, Snowden was among the leading voices condemning the arrest of the WikiLeaks founder, calling it a dangerous assault on journalism. But in his memoir, Snowden uses rhetorical tricks to present Assange and WikiLeaks as his deceitful and irresponsible foils in a blatant and seemingly self-serving effort to highlight his own trustworthiness and accountability. Indeed, reviewers at the Washington Post and New Yorker have already seized upon Snowden’s anti-Assange rhetoric to serve their own anti-Assange agendas.
Proponents of press freedom have become accustomed to Pentagon and national security state attacks on Assange, but Snowden’s puzzling claims about the white-haired Australian and his transparency organization are exceptionally dangerous because they come from an otherwise highly respectable and trustworthy source, and at a time when there is otherwise a virtual media blackout on WikiLeaks. To be sure, Snowden deserves recognition as a courageous whistleblower and as a global champion of privacy rights, but in Permanent Record, Snowden appears willing to use a political prisoner for personal gain, deliberately distorting the truth and perpetuating the imperialistic propaganda that threatens not only Assange’s health but also his very life—just like the corporate media and national security state he exposed in 2013.
Snowden first distinguishes himself from Assange in a discussion of hacker handles, or online pseudonyms used by hackers so that they can conduct their online affairs without detection by authorities. When Snowden first made contact with the journalists Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, he used a series of disposable handles, such as “Cincinnatus” and “Citizenfour,” so that he could hide his true identity until he was confident that he could trust them with his cache of classified NSA documents. “The final name I chose for my correspondence,” Snowden explains, “was ‘Verax,’ Latin for ‘speaker of truth,’ in the hopes of proposing an alternative to the model of a hacker called ‘Mendax’ (‘speaker of lies’)—the pseudonym of the young man who’d grow up to become WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange.”
Snowden’s play on Assange’s youthful handle implies not only that Assange is deceitful but also that Assange intends to be deceitful. This insinuation is curious, given that WikiLeaks’ has published over 10 million documents, all of which have been authenticated. Nevertheless, Snowden’s remark is, ironically, not meant to be truthful; instead, it is meant to establish a rhetorical heuristic between Snowden-as-trustworthy and Assange-as-untrustworthy. …