Lon Snowden’s anguish over his son, Edward Snowden, is turning into something else he didn’t expect: disillusion with a government he once proudly served.
“I’m an American citizen who has lost faith in many of the leaders on both sides of the political aisle,” Mr. Snowden said during an interview with The Washington Times.
A decorated Coast Guard officer, the elder Mr. Snowden says he, like his son, once “walked the halls of the National Security Agency.” He is disappointed with his son’s betrayal of his oath of secrecy as an NSA contractor and concerned that his son may spend life in prison.
Yet now, just a few weeks after demanding his son’s return home to face punishment, he is increasingly ambivalent about the younger Mr. Snowden’s disclosure of some of the government’s most prized secrets about its global surveillance activities.
“If my son was exposed to information that made him believe that the U.S. Constitution was being violated, then the unauthorized release of classified information is certainly not unconstitutional, and the Constitution is the highest law of the land,” Mr. Snowden said.
Each day brings another revelation in the family’s saga. On Monday, the younger Mr. Snowden revealed he is seeking asylum in Russia and issued a statement accusing President Obama of employing “old, bad tools of political aggression” to force his return to the United States to face felony criminal charges.
A family in crisis
The swirl of feelings is tearing Lon Snowden apart emotionally, and the cost of hiring attorneys to help his son threatens to wreck the family financially as well.
“My son has made his own bed,” Mr. Snowden said Friday in one of a series of interviews with The Times over several days. “I have three other children to worry about. You won’t believe what these attorneys wanted in money from me just to see what is possible with the government.”
Now retired from the military and living in Pennsylvania, Lon Snowden told The Washington Times that his son had begged him in an email Thursday not to talk to the press, warning that doing so would further jeopardize Edward Snowden’s situation.
Nonetheless, Mr. Snowden, at the behest of one of his attorneys, Bruce Fein, did a TV interview Friday during which he said he was shocked to see that the reporter had a copy of a letter Mr. Fein had sent to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. laying out conditions for Edward Snowden’s return to the U.S.: no confinement until trial in a place of his choosing and no gag order.
Such negotiations with the government are normally conducted in complete privacy. The elder Mr. Snowden said he wasn’t pleased by the release of the letter.
Mr. Snowden expressed in several phone conversations his continuing anger over his son’s stealing and publishing of top government secrets, and his fleeing to China, then Russia, rather than accepting the legal consequences of what Edward Snowden’s defenders call whistleblowing.
“I have lost a son as a result of this. He’s gone. I’m probably never going to see him again. That’s where I am,” the father said.
In formal interviews, phone calls and email and text messages, Lon Snowden also made clear that he loves his country.
But the father also sees, through the prism of time, the erosion of trust and faith in a government that he regards as having gone awry, with no one out there to right its course. In hours of interviews, he described an unmistakably calloused political world where elections change nothing and “where the only sure winner is Goldman Sachs.”
A country astray?
In Lon Snowden’s view of the world, political movements only rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic, and political resumes are built by officials who spend years as government drones, then become world celebrities with titles such as secretary or director with perks and staffs of which the kings of Europe could only dream. In the end, they retire to the private sector to earn millions of dollars, often working for the very contractors they once oversaw.
“That they get away with this always amazed me,” Lon Snowden said.
Such disillusionment extends beyond the Snowden family. A CNN poll released Monday found that 44 percent of Americans approved of Edward Snowden’s disclosure of the government’s massive surveillance of ordinary Americans, while 6 percent approved of Congress.
Mr. Snowden said he believes his son was wrong, on moral principle, to reveal top government secrets, but is also coming to grips with what he sees as the beginnings of a “Big Brother is watching you” America that his son laid bare in a series of leaks.
Edward Snowden was a U.S. intelligence officer with a top-secret clearance when he worked for five years at Dell Computers in its Washington, D.C., offices. He was handling top-secret data at the Hawaii offices of another government contractor, Booz Allen Hamilton, when he made off with top-secret evidence of the U.S. government’s gathering and storing of data on the private phone calls and Internet contacts of hundreds of millions of Americans through programs such as Prism.
Edward Snowden claimed that the information he stole shows the government required Verizon, Sprint, AT&T, Apple, Google, Yahoo and other companies to turn over all records of every customer in the United States.
About 250 million adults in America own cellphones and use the Internet.
Lon Snowden now understands how impenetrable the obstacles were that his son and others faced in their effort to legally reveal the extent of their government’s information-gathering. A handful of Democrats and Republicans have tried for years to get the attention of the rest of Congress, the press and the public. But these lawmakers have said they were legally bound not to reveal the details of the intelligence excesses they know about as overseers of those programs.
What has come to anger Lon Snowden the most is watching on television the interrogation of top U.S. intelligence officials by the same lawmakers charged with making sure those intelligence officials respect individual privacy.
“There’s a conflict of interest between the military and civilian intelligence community heads and the members of Congress who oversee them — the members of the House Select Intelligence Committee,” Mr. Snowden said.
The ideological divide
The saga has created divisions within political parties as well.
Conservative Republicans such as Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who say Edward Snowden may have done a service to the nation, are pitted against the GOP’s leading neoconservatives such as former Vice President Dick Cheney and former U.N. Ambassador John R. Bolton, who have called him a traitor.
“If it is the case that the federal government is seizing millions of personal records about law-abiding citizens, and if it is the case that there are minimal restrictions on accessing or reviewing those records, then I think Mr. Snowden has done a considerable public service by bringing it to light,” Mr. Cruz said.
In March, Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat and member of the Senate Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, asked Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper, “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?”
Mr. Clapper answered, “No … not wittingly.”
By June, Mr. Clapper had changed his tune, admitting that the NSA does collect phone-call data on millions of Americans.
Mr. Paul sees a big difference between what Mr. Snowden and Mr. Clapper did.
“Mr. Snowden hasn’t lied to anyone,” Mr. Paul said. “He did break his oath of office, but part of his oath of office is to the Constitution, and he believes that when James Clapper lied, that [Edward Snowden] was simply coming forward and telling the truth — that your government was lying.”
Lon Snowden calls Mr. Clapper “a liar.”
“He is not just another guy who heads one of our intelligence organizations. He chairs the Joint Intelligence Community Council, whose members include the secretaries of state, Treasury, defense, the attorney general, the secretary of energy and homeland security — and anyone else the president desires,” Mr. Snowden said.
Some Republicans share the elder Mr. Snowden’s views and want Mr. Clapper removed.
“It now appears clear that the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, lied under oath to Congress and the American people,” said Rep. Justin Amash, Michigan Republican. “Congress can’t make informed decisions on intelligence issues when the head of the intelligence community willfully makes false statements. Perjury is a serious crime. Mr. Clapper should resign immediately.”
Mr. Clapper has denied wrongdoing, saying his earlier answer was the “least untruthful” he could give because the surveillance programs were still classified.
The last straw
Lon Snowden believes Mr. Clapper’s answer could have been a tipping point for his son, who he says has an IQ above 140.
“Ed’s seeing his agency’s chief executive officer, James Clapper, sit in front of Congress and lie to the Senate, and couple that with the clear abuses by the IRS and I have to believe that was his tipping point,” Mr. Snowden said.
“This isn’t a dark, moody kid. This is a deep thinker who has an incredible sense of humor.”
Lon Snowden said he has watched official misconduct go unpunished many times over his military intelligence career, but Mr. Clapper’s denials sent him over the edge as well.
“That moment, I just thought this is too much,” he said. “This is unbelievable. Heads should roll, and they should roll immediately.”
A retired Coast Guard officer who specialized in “system technology,” Mr. Snowden was close-lipped about what intelligence agency association he may have had, acknowledging only that he “walked the halls of the NSA with a security clearance but one “not at the high level my son had.”
“I was a classified material control officer at one time,” he said. “I reviewed classified information and determined what should be passed along to very senior people.”
Now an anguished father, Lon Snowden simply wants the safe return of his son to the United States to face a fair trial. But he wonders aloud whether the government wants the same.
“What I would like is for my son to return and be tried based on the facts,” he said. “But there are members of Congress, of the intelligence oversight committees, who don’t want that to happen because if he is shown to be right, they are shown to be wrong.
“So it may be difficult for him to get a fair trial unless we have a government that applies the rule of law fairly in concert with the United States Constitution.”