Bern After Reading: I Recognize the Sanders Active Measure Because I Fell for the Snowden Active Measure
We are all Useful Idiots, sometimes.
AS I TYPE THIS, the Russians are, once again, promoting and amplifying the quixotic presidential campaign of Bernard Sanders, the longtime Soviet apologist and anti-capitalist scold—and, once again, millions of well-meaning Americans are falling for it. This happened in 2016, to such a preposterous and obvious degree that the Office of the Special Counsel indicted 13 Russian nationals working for a company called the Internet Research Agency for, in part, artificially bolstering Bernie’s social media presence to sow division and help weaken Hillary Clinton:
This is not some out-there piece of speculation I found on Reddit. This is from Mueller!
Apart from his other glaring weaknesses—age, infirmity, egomania, misogyny, ineptitude, and inelectability in the general, to name six—Bernie Sanders being the Democratic candidate of choice of both Vladimir Putin and Donald John Trump should be a giant red flag, waving us to a more viable (if “centrist”) choice. But no. It is happening again, and as in 2016, real people—smart, compassionate Americans who care deeply for the country—have been duped by what Mueller determined is a Russian active measure.
Rather than lecture from on high on how Sanders’ supporters are gullible marks who have been fooled (although it must be said that “Bernie bros” seem to have a weakness for ivory-tower lecture, if their candidate’s favorite method of communication is any indication), I will offer instead, as an object lesson, my own history with Russian active measures. For I, too, have been a dupe, a mark, a fool. I was manipulated for years by powerful forces I did not understand, just like Bernie supporters.
There is no shame in falling for military-grade psy-ops. The danger lies in not waking up before it’s too late.
Edward Snowden played me. So did Glenn Greenwald. Julian Assange, too. All three of them, working in concert, convinced me to believe, and believe passionately, in what turned out to be an active measure propagated by Moscow.
Oh, Snowden said all the right things. The government is spying on us, he said. Our right to privacy is under attack, he said. The cogence of his argument was so compelling. He seemed so smart, so brave—a brilliant young man, risking his extremely cushy life to blow the whistle on our increasingly despotic government.
This is from a piece called “PRISM: Privacy Revoked In Security Measure,” which I published on 2 July 2013:
When The Guardian and The Washington Post broke the story about the secret NSA mass surveillance program, courtesy of Edward Snowden, one of the government’s erstwhile spies, it had the makings of the sort of scandal that ruins presidencies. PRISM was Watergate, it seemed, but bigger, and with a much broader reach. Heads surely would roll.
This has not really come to pass. The Snowden story has devolved into hacks questioning the news judgment of real journalists, cloak-and-dagger reports of the ex-Booz Allen employee eluding a phalanx of hapless correspondents at a Moscow airport, Ecuadorian extradition treaties, and heartfelt proclamations on the hotness of his girlfriend. The potential elevation of Greenwald from relatively obscure civil liberties columnist to this generation’s Bob Woodward is a good thing, especially considering that the actual Bob Woodward turned his back on true investigative journalism decades ago. But the rest of it is noise. Colorful copy, sure, but noise.
As “cringe” as that is, it only gets worse:
Edward Snowden is either going to be remembered as a pioneer of privacy rights or another Winston Smith crushed by his invasive and omnipotent government. Which way it plays out depends entirely on how much stink We the People make. That the President blithely alluded to Nineteen Eighty-Four at a press conference does not change the fact that Big Brother is watching us.
“In the end the Obama administration is not afraid of whistleblowers like me, Bradley Manning or Thomas Drake,” Snowden wrote yesterday, his first public statement in over a week. “We are stateless, imprisoned, or powerless. No, the Obama administration is afraid of you. It is afraid of an informed, angry public demanding the constitutional government it was promised — and it should be.”
I did not yet know what “deza,” or disinformation, meant. It never occurred to me that Snowden was spreading calculated, FSB-manufactured falsehoods. And worse—that by endorsing his mendacious narrative, so was I.
The Snowden-as-heroic-whistleblower active measure proved very sticky. As late as 30 November 2016, in an otherwise-up-to-snuff piece called “Help Us, Barack Obama. You’re Our Only Hope,” I advocated for a full presidential pardon for someone I now know is a traitor. Even after I read Louise Mensch’s “Mr. Putin, Let’s Play Chess” piece in January of 2017, I held on to the idea that Snowden was a pawn, a “Useful Idiot” who did not know he was being manipulated—that he was simultaneously a hero and a dupe. I didn’t want to believe John Schindler, a national security expert who worked for the NSA, who point-blank wrote that “the real Ed Snowden is a patsy, a fraud and a Kremlin-controlled pawn,” which does not leave much room for equivocation:
I insisted from the outset that Snowden was not the whistleblower he claimed to be, rather an attention-seeking narcissist, and that certainly once he landed in Moscow on June 23, 2013—and quite possibly before—he was in bed with Russian intelligence. Moreover, Snowden’s 1.5 million stolen documents were nearly all about NSA foreign intelligence and Pentagon military matters—not domestic surveillance. In short, the Snowden saga as presented to the public by Ed and his media enablers was a fantasy.
In that same piece, Schindler includes quotes from both the HPSCI Chair (pre-Kremlin Devin Nunes) and Ranking Member (Adam Schiff), who were of one mind on Snowden’s treachery:
Edward Snowden is no hero—he’s a traitor who willfully betrayed his colleagues and his country. He put our servicemembers and the American people at risk after perceived slights by his superiors. In light of his long list of exaggerations and outright fabrications detailed in this report, no one should take him at his word. (Nunes)
Snowden has long portrayed himself as a truth-seeking whistleblower whose actions were designed solely to defend privacy, and whose disclosures did no harm to the country’s security. The Committee’s Review—a product of two years of extensive research—shows his claims to be self-serving and false, and the damage done to our national security to be profound. (Schiff)
And, of course, Obama steadfastly refused to even consider a pardon for Ed Snowden, even as he commuted the sentence of Chelsea Manning. This obduracy should have spoken volumes.
Part of my reluctance to open my eyes was that I liked Snowden. But part of it, probably an even bigger part, is that I didn’t want to admit that I was wrong.
In my defense, I did not arrive at these conclusions out of the blue. Glenn Greenwald, a journalist with the Guardian who I’d come to greatly admire during the Bush II years, felt strongly enough about Snowden that he risked criminal charges to stand by him. If you are unfamiliar with the Greenwald of seven years ago, Janet Reitman of Rolling Stone described him thus, in her December 2013 piece on the mass surveillance story:
Greenwald is a former litigator whose messianic defense of civil liberties has made him a hero of left-libertarian circles, though he has alienated elites across the political spectrum. Famously combative, he “lives to piss people off,” as one colleague says. And in the past eight years he has done an excellent job: taking on Presidents Bush and Obama, Congress, the Democratic Party, the Tea Party, the Republicans, the “liberal establishment” and, notably, the mainstream media, which he accuses—often while being interviewed by those same mainstream, liberal-establishment journalists—of cozying up to power. “I crave the hatred of those people,” Greenwald says about the small, somewhat incestuous community of Beltway pundits, government officials, think-tank experts and other opinion-makers he targets routinely. “If you’re not provoking that reaction in people, you’re not provoking or challenging anyone, which means you’re pointless.”
This perspective has earned Greenwald tremendous support, especially among young, idealistic readers hungry for an uncompromised voice. “There are few writers out there who are as passionate about communicating uncomfortable truths,” Snowden, who was one of Greenwald’s longtime readers, tells me in an email. “Glenn tells the truth no matter the cost, and that matters.”
At the time, I was unquestionably one of those young, idealistic readers. I loved Glenn Greenwald. He was far and away my favorite columnist. To me, his word was Gospel. And Snowden, he told Reitman,
“…had no power, no prestige, he grew up in a lower-middle-class family, totally obscure, totally ordinary. He didn’t even have a high school diploma. But he was going to change the world—and I knew that.” And, Greenwald also believed, so would he. “In all kinds of ways, my whole life has been in preparation for this moment,” he says.
If he felt this passionately about Snowden, well, that was enough of an endorsement for me. And so I held on for far longer than I should have.
By the end of January 2017, I had finally come around. All else aside, the whirlwind tale of Snowden’s Great Escape simply would not have happened without Putin’s say-so. It requires enormous suspension of disbelief to think otherwise. Consider: The self-styled “whistleblower” holed up for 40 days (how Biblical!) at Sheremetyevo International Airport, which, according to Robert L. Friedman’s Red Mafiya, is controlled lock-stock-and-vodka-barrel by Semion Mogilevich, the head of the Russian mob. His travel papers were arranged by Julian Assange of Wikileaks, a cut-out of Russian intelligence. And he wound up being welcomed to Russia by Vladimir Putin.
In the jaded retrospect of January 2020, of course, it all seems crystal clear. Isn’t it fishy that Snowden wound up in Moscow, of all places? Was this really a story about an American hero making good? Or a made Russian asset defecting?
By March 2017 I was actively working the Trump/Russia beat, writing the pieces that would form the basis for Dirty Rubles: An Introduction to Trump/Russia. But not everyone saw things so clearly in the spring of 2017—including, puzzlingly, my onetime journalistic hero. As I recalled in my book:
Glenn Greenwald of The Intercept, who’d built his career railing against the totalitarian state, nevertheless adopted Kremlin talking points in his lazy condemnations of Trump/Russia, muddying the waters for those of us on the left. On 17 March 2017, three days before the Comey hearing, Greenwald denounced the whole Trump/Russia affair: “Many Democrats have reached the classic stage of deranged conspiracists where evidence that disproves the theory is viewed as further proof of its existence, and those pointing to it are instantly deemed suspect.” He concluded that “given the way these Russia conspiracies have drowned out other critical issues being virtually ignored under the Trump presidency”—this assertion was flat-out false, at least in the mainstream press, which had hardly Woodward-and-Bernstein’d the Trump/Russia story—“it’s vital that everything be done now to make clear what is based in evidence and what is based in partisan delusions. And most of what the Democratic base has been fed for the last six months by their unhinged stable of media, online, and party leaders has decisively fallen into the latter category.” This followed a previous piece in which he denounced [Louise] Mensch and anyone else writing independently about Trump/Russia (like me!) as a “charlatan.”
I remember being both surprised and extremely disappointed that Greenwald had chosen to “debunk” Trump/Russia, rather than accept and disseminate the truth. And he was not shy about going after anyone who might disagree:
Now: If Snowden was a Kremlin-controlled traitor—as John Schindler, Barack Obama, Adam Schiff, Devin Nunes, and the whole of the intelligence community insisted—then my one-time hero Greenwald was either an extremely Useful Idiot, an unwitting accomplice to the active measure—or he, too, was on the make. I still hold out hope that it’s the former and not the latter; old habits die hard.
And that brings us to Bernie.
In 2016, Bernie Sanders was the progressive answer to Hillary Clinton, who to some benighted people was the embodiment of “corporatism,” “centrism,” and other nasty words Bernie bros call me on Twitter. He had a certain progressive purity—he would not bow to the corporate interests he attacked relentlessly on the campaign trail. Universal healthcare! Living wages! Tax the rich! Break up the banks! He was like Unfrozen Caveman New Deal Politician.
Good stuff! But then, active measures like this work so effectively because the narratives they sell are appealing.
The Bernie narrative turned out to be an act, alas. A closer look at Bernie Sanders revealed misogyny, Soviet boosterism, egomania, and a clear alliance with the NRA, among other flaws. His candidacy was never fully vetted—Hillary went easy on him, to avoid turning off his more obnoxious supporters—and his zealots began to insist on patent falsehoods.
“The DNC was rigged” was a common refrain, as if “rigging” accounted for the many millions of registered Democrats who preferred Hillary to him. In November 2016, Edward Snowden showed a video on how easy it would be to hack a voter machine for a total budget of $30. That video, propagating the “rigged vote” narrative, was a straight-up Russian op, designed to sow mistrust in our elections. Um…why were Ed and the Bernie bros making the same specious argument?
Sanders’ zealots made noise at the Convention, and Bernie himself kept on campaigning long after he was mathematically eliminated. He acknowledged Russian aid, but walked back from that acknowledgement, and never lifted a finger to stop it.
Twenty-twenty is different. This time around, the Sanders campaign has no reason to exist. For better or worse, HRC is not running. And voters who demand a progressive agenda above all have another, infinitely more viable option: Elizabeth Warren—younger, healthier, almost as progressive, and, unlike Bernie, actually capable of getting shit done. (To be clear: Warren is not my choice, but at least she’s not a pawn of the Kremlin. Bonus: she combs her hair).
So, like, why is Bernie running? Seriously: why? The guy will turn 79 in September, and he just had a heart attack. Why is he doing this? What’s the point? If he wins the nomination, he picks some divisive running mate (Tulsi? AOC? Eugene V. Debs?), the GOP open the treasure trove of oppo research on him, Trump skates to re-election, and the republic falls. The guy already fucked up the 2016 election. Why does he risk fucking up an even more important one? Seriously: why? Is it ego? Delusions of grandeur? Or is the sudden millionaire more than just a Useful Idiot for Putin?
This is the part where Bernie bots accuse me of hating poor people, being a secret Republican, being a centrist, wanting to deprive Americans of healthcare, shilling for Wall Street, trying to sell books, not deserving my blue checkmark, and, above all, of “making everything about Russia.” But, like, I didn’t invent the idea that Bernie’s campaign was helped by Moscow—it’s in the fucking Mueller Report. Just because one did not read the Mueller Report doesn’t mean that the findings therein are somehow invalid.
It’s very simple: Bernie Sanders either didn’t realize Russia was helping him, which makes him an idiot, or he knew and did nothing, which makes him a traitor. There is no third way. Like Snowden, and like Glenn Greenwald, Bernie Sanders is either an unwitting accomplice, an extremely Useful Idiot—or he’s compromised. In 2016, I believe he was the former. In 2020, I’m not so sure.
Photo credit: Gage Skidmore. Edward Snowden speaking at the 2015 International Students for Liberty Conference at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel in Washington, D.C.