I miss Barbara Walters already.
On Wednesday night, Brian Williams of NBC News did a good job of letting Edward Snowden say what he wanted to say. Someone a little nosier would surely have pressed this exiled National Security Agency leaker on what he held back.
Is he being followed? Where does he live? Is he alone? Is he learning Russian? Who pays his bills, and do Russian women consider him a catch?
Williams didn’t ask those questions, and he also didn’t follow up on some contestable assertions – at least not on the edited version shown.
In an interview in a Moscow hotel suite, Snowden had a chance to introduce himself to American viewers who have seen his face only fleetingly until now. And he was eerily composed, well-spoken and dispassionate.
What he said wasn’t new: He has defended himself and his motives on German television and done Skype interviews, including one at a recent TED conference. Mostly, NBC gave Snowden a chance to show ordinary viewers that he isn’t a wild-eyed fanatic or grandiosely verbose; in other words, that he is the anti-Assange.
In the much-hyped, ad-interrupted, hourlong special, Williams asked his guest some of the most pertinent questions about his motives and culpability.
Snowden charged that the U.S. government hasn’t released any concrete examples of how his revelations harmed national security or individuals. “If, after a year, they can’t show a single individual who’s been harmed in any way by this reporting, is it really so grave?” he said.
But on Wednesday, he wasn’t pushed for specific examples of government surveillance’s harming a single American individual, either.
Snowden spoke lucidly, without remorse or emotion, expressing himself politely and calmly, without an “um” or a “like.” He was so fluent, his diction almost seemed acquired – like that of Eliza Doolittle, of whom Zoltan Karpathy said in “My Fair Lady, “Her English is too good, he said/which clearly indicates that she is foreign.”
There was a tinge of superiority to his tone as he told Williams when his questions were “fair” and answered others as impersonally as possible. At the end, Williams finally addressed Snowden’s private life, asking what it was like to move from Hawaii to Moscow.
“You know, it’s – it is – a major cultural gap,” Snowden said coolly, flicking his hand like a wine connoisseur evaluating a vintage. “And it requires adjustment.”
Perhaps piqued that the U.S. government describes him as a low-level private contractor, Snowden said that he was trained as a real spy and worked undercover overseas. But his affect and slightly stilted precision suggested that he had spent most of his career behind a computer screen, not at embassy receptions or in dark alleys.
He, nevertheless, was a far better ambassador for himself than Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who published Snowden’s secrets and is a frequent spokesman for Snowden’s cause on television, where he mostly comes across as smug and unreasonable. Snowden, a high school dropout and a fugitive living in an authoritarian country, seems much more pleasant and even-keeled.
But his sang-froid raised other kinds of questions. If he is truly as thoughtful and rational as he seems, it’s hard to believe that he fled to Hong Kong without a workable exit strategy and ended up, as he put it, “trapped” in Russia.
Williams pressed him hard on whether he was helping the Putin government and didn’t get a satisfying answer. Snowden said he didn’t bring any classified documents with him to Russia and insisted that Russian intelligence wasn’t paying him, coercing him or relying on his expertise. But he’s been Russia’s houseguest for almost a year, so it’s hard to believe he hasn’t been exhaustively debriefed or just soaked with endless vodka toasts.