Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Edward Snowden and Klaus Fuchs

In researching my book about NSA ("Code Warriors," coming to a fine bookstore near you on June 14), I was struck by how many of the Soviet spies in America during and just after World War II convinced themselves they were answering a higher duty in passing along to the Russians secrets of America's atomic bomb and codebreaking programs.

Klaus Fuchs, a refugee from Nazi Germany who had worked on the British and American atomic programs, was furiously insulted when his contact Harry Gold tried to pass on an envelope stuffed with $1,500 in cash: Fuchs insisted he was motivated by the idealistic aim of insuring world peace and aiding a heroic ally of Britain and America in the fight against Hitler.

There was an aspect of Fuchs's psychological makeup that strikes a very familiar chord in considering the case of Edward Snowden: their political naivete (of trusting the Russians, if nothing else), combined with a remarkable moral arrogance in believing that they could place themselves above the law in pursuit of a supposed higher purpose—and yet escape any moral responsibility for their acts at the same time.

Here is what I write in Code Warriors about a pivotal incident in Fuchs's self-justifications:

    Later a Los Alamos physicist colleague and close friend, Rudolf Peierls, with whom Fuchs had lodged while working in England, asked him how, as a scientist, he could have swallowed the doctrinaire orthodoxies of Marxism. Peierls was stunned by the arrogance and naivete of Fuchs’s answer. You must remember what I went through under Nazis, Fuchs replied. Besides, it was my intention, when I had helped the Russians to take over everything, to get up and tell them what is wrong with their system.
   Peierlss wife Genia, who had been something of a mother figure to their young lodger, wrote him a more personal rebuke. Hadnt he at least thought about the betrayal of his friends he had committed, and the harm he had done them? she asked.
   I didnt, and thats the greatest horror I had to face when I looked at myself, Fuchs wrote back from prison. I thought I knew what I was doing, and there was this simple thing, obvious to the simplest decent creature, and I didnt think of it. He told another friend: Some people grow up at fifteen, some at thirty-eight. It is more painful at thirty-eight.

Snowden, however, has yet to show any similar signs of growing up, specifically with regard to his betrayal of some 20 or more co-workers whom he duped into turning over their computer passwords (which he claimed he needed for his duties as a systems administrator), most of whom lost their jobs as a result; nor to the fact that under the Section 798 of the Espionage Act he could have gone to the congressional intelligence committees with his information with absolute immunity from any legal repercussions to himself. Instead, he reacted yesterday on Twitter with his usual immature flipness even to former Attorney General Eric Holder's acknowledgement that some of Snowden's disclosures had indeed performed a public service, even as he had nonetheless clearly violated the law (and his own personal oath to uphold it).