Sheremetyevo isn’t Sherwood Forest: The Narrative Construction of Edward Snowden

July 21, 2013

The saga of Edward Snowden has been one of the more interesting examples of a “soft power” conflict in recent months. Most people interested in national security issues have been following the story and its spin-offs, such as the au courant issue of allies spying on each other so nicely discussed by John Amble. Literally millions of bytes have been sacrificed discussing Snowden’s motivations, his background, the effects of his disclosures, etc., etc., ad nauseum to the point where his recent release of information on NSA intelligence gathering in Latin America has made hardly a ripple.  Like a bad reality TV show, Snowden’s ratings are plummeting, people are tuning out and even the Russians are hoping for the final episode to air in spite of all that WikiLeaks can do to maintain interest.

While in some ways, the Snowden Saga is a flash in the pan, two points are worth considering beyond and aside from his revelations.  The first is how Snowden’s actions have been appropriated and crafted by Glenn Greenald (amongst others) to achieve particular political objectives.  The second point concerns how the Snowden Saga illuminates the poor operational grasp of the inter-related concepts of narratives and strategic communications in the Information Age, by those who should know better, i.e. the Obama administration.

Let me start by noting that the appropriation of Snowden’s actions centers around both semantics (the study of denotative or definitional meaning) and narratives (the construction of connotative or implied meaning), where the one flows into the other by a process whereby an individual is placed in a role.  In this case, as in most narrative battlespaces, the conflict is not over any objective “reality” but, rather, over how the people within that battlespace should interpret the events being discussed.  In effect, what Snowden is labelled – “traitor” or “whistleblower” – defines both what story we should use to interpret his actions (a “betrayal of trust” or a “revolt for cause”), and what role we should see him in (Benedict Arnold or Paul Revere).

The stage setting for the Snowden Saga (vice his actual revelations) starts not with his “outing,” but with a June 7 article by Glenn Greenwald on whistleblowers and government threats of investigation. In this piece, Greenwald clearly attempts to define the role of the whistleblower:

They [whistleblowers] did not act with any self-interest in mind. The opposite is true: they undertook great personal risk and sacrifice for one overarching reason: to make their fellow citizens aware of what their government is doing in the dark. Their objective is to educate, to democratize, to create accountability for those in power.

Greenwald situates this discussion of the role of whistleblowers within a specific narrative space, that of the “Just Revolt” against an “unjust governor”.  Acting as his own casting director, Greenwald establishes the necessary roles for a classic Just Revolt tale, that of Robin Hood – with Whistleblowers taking the place of the Merry Men, President Obama in the role of Prince John, and, later on, James Clapper as Sir Guy of Gisbourne.  He reserves the role of partisan chronicler, or adversarial journalist, for himself.

The role of Robin Hood appears to have been initially intended for Edward Snowden, an impression that was reinforced by the June 6th interview with Snowden (released on June 9th), and by Snowden’s two week long game of hide-and-seek in Hong Kong.  His flight to Moscow on June 23rd, after he let the Chinese know about NSA spying, is certainly in keeping with the “hit-and-run” tactics used in The Adventures of Robin Hood.  Snowden’s subsequent actions in close conjunction with WikiLeaks appear to have detracted from his role as Robin Hood, relegating him to a supporting role as he continues to sit in Sheremetyevo airport trying to find out where his personal Sherwood Forest might be.

Looking at the Snowden Saga as a modern variation of Robin Hood may appear frivolous.  But it isn’t: the narrative of the Saga is aimed at changing the connotative meaning of Snowden’s actions to further a set of very specific political ends.  To use a technical term, Greenwald and his supporters are engaging in a form of “Propaganda of the Deed” aimed at changing the connotative meaning structures surrounding both the Obama administration and the NSA in the domestic U.S. audience.

Unfortunately, the Obama administration appears to have accepted at least some of the script and roles assigned to it by Greenwald.  Three examples illustrate this acceptance – but also illuminate the White House’s poor understanding of current operational realities.

First, in his scene-setting article of June 7th, Greenwald “predicts” that the Administration will “threaten” any whistleblowers:

Like puppets reading from a script, various Washington officials almost immediately began spouting all sorts of threats about “investigations” they intend to launch about these disclosures. This has been their playbook for several years now: they want to deter and intimidate anyone and everyone who might shed light on what they’re doing with their abusive, manipulative exploitation of the power of law to punish those who bring about transparency.

Obviously, such a “prediction” does not require a crystal ball.  Indeed, any Administration that did not investigate whistleblower charges would, clearly, be abrogating its responsibilities.  Still, the first official responses to the leaks show a decided lack of originality and are largely of the “Trust us, we know what we are doing” variety (see here and here).  Since the de facto “charge” brought against the Administration was that a) it did know what it was doing, and b) it was both “wrong” and “illegal,” such a response shows a decided lack of both originality and perception. The evoked response, having been “predicted” by Greenwald and then played out by various officials, actually serves to increase the likelihood that people will believe the rest of his offered interpretation simply because he “predicted” it. “Hey, if he was right about THIS, what else is he right about?”[1]

The second illustrative example of the administration playing into Greenwald’s narrative comes after Snowden reaches Moscow, and centers on two incidents.  First, there was the mini-saga of Snowden’s “flight” to Moscow and the little “morality play” between President Putin and Secretary Kerry peaking on June 25th with side commentary from Senators Graham and McCain.  Then on the 4th of July, the plane of Bolivian President Evo Morales was bounced around Europe, finally landing in Vienna where it was searched for Snowden who, obviously, was not on board.

This may all seem reminiscent of the Keystone Kops, the bumbling policemen of early 1900s silent film fame, but as the Guardian’s Washington bureau chief, Dan Roberts, noted:

…all the drama also has the added benefit of distracting attention from the impact of Snowden’s revelations. Obama’s top intelligence official, James Clapper, has just admitted lying to Congress over whether the US spies on its own people, but you wouldn’t know it from watching US TV right now.

Was this the effect the Administration was trying to achieve?  Probably not, since I doubt that anyone would be so foolish as to believe that such an international outcry would be worth the 24-48 hours they might gain to set up their spin control.

The third example concerns what documents Snowden still has that have not yet been released.  Greenwald reported on June 25th that Snowden had protected himself by providing copies of all of his data to several different people – an “insurance policy” as it were.  Despite this, a Reuters report from July 13th specifically demonized these documents , with the eye-catching headline of Snowden documents could be ‘worst nightmare’ for U.S.: journalist,. Greenwald then turned around and used the piece as “proof” of a further distraction campaign by the administration.  Greenwald’s response to the Reuters article contains one exceedingly carefully crafted paragraph that highlights key aspects of his narrative strategy:

This “threat” fiction is just today’s concoction to focus on anything but the revelations about US government lying to Congress and constitutionally and legally dubious NSA spying. Yesterday, it was something else, and tomorrow it will be something else again. As I said in an interview with Falguni Sheth published today by Salon, this only happens in the US: everywhere else, the media attention and political focus is on NSA surveillance, while US media figures are singularly obsessed with focusing on everything but that. [emphasis added]

Notice how Greenwald has neatly constructed a double-bind statement (in italics) such that no matter what the administration does, Greenwald can later claim that he “predicted” it.  This type of construction is crucial to Greenwald’s role as adversarial journalist – the modern day “bard” recounting a modern Robin Hood saga in real time.

Greenwald is implicitly accusing the administration of a political tactic known as “waving the bloody flag” wherein a government points towards an “atrocity” and then identifies a “perpetrator” who is “responsible”.  The intriguing thing about this tactic is that no atrocity is necessary for it to work as long as a potential atrocity can be “identified” and “sold” to the populace [2].  As with many narrative tactics, the “bloody flag” is designed to elicit a specific emotional response: a “hatred”  of those identified as the “perpetrator” so great that the populace will accept any sacrifice in order to get “revenge”.

By portraying Snowden’s revelations as a national security threat, is the Obama administration attempting to deploy a “bloody flag” tactic to contain the fallout from the Snowden Saga?  Once again, I am compelled to suspect that the answer is “no”, even though it may appear to be so, especially outside of the United States.  What Snowden has revealed is genuinely damaging both to the international perception of the United States and to the actual operations of U.S. Intelligence agencies (because it highlights specific modes of data collection).  Put simply, and in the strictest legal, denotative terms, Snowden is a “traitor”.  Whether or not he is also a “whistleblower”, which he would be if and only if what he revealed is actual evidence of criminal action by government agents, is yet to be determined.

The role of “traitor” has always been problematic within the mythos of the United States.  To the British, George Washington was, strictly speaking, a “traitor” regardless of the justness of his cause, while Benedict Arnold was a “hero”.  This highlights a significant problem with such symbolic terms as “traitor”, “hero” and, of course, “whistle-blower”: their denotative meaning is context-dependent. In other words, treason never prospers

Similarly, within the domestic narrative of the United States, “treason” is an especially tricksy term since the “Just Revolt” narrative is at the core of the Creation Myth of the U.S.  This means that any administration trying to deal with someone like Snowden needs to exercise exquisite care in how it constructs its narrative to avoid appearing to play the part of a British monarch, be that either King George III or Robin Hood’s nemesis, Prince John.

The narrative construction of “treason” was much simpler during the Cold War, when it could be dualistically situated as “betrayal” to “absolute evil”.   Perhaps inevitably, the simplicity of such a stark, dualistic symbolic environment came to dominate both the culture and the perceptions of strategic communications within the governmental apparatus of the United States. Sic transit simplicus mundi.

But this state of dualistic simplicity no longer applies in today’s world.  What individuals around the world look to the United States for is the ideals of good (and transparent) governance, predictability, economic prosperity, personal freedom and the freedom to say, or believe, what one will.  These were amongst the ideals that led to the American Revolution, invigorated the Arab Spring and inspired countless other revolts against perceived tyranny. These values are shared internationally at Twitter-speed, while the actions, speech and statements of politicians are recorded and narrow cast for all to see.  It therefore behooves those in power to not act as Greenwald’s co-authors of a modern remake of The Adventures of Robin Hood, by accepting their assigned role as “evil.”


Marc Tyrrell is an anthropologist teaching at the Institute of Interdisciplinary Studies at Carleton University (Ottawa, Canada). He is a Senior Research Fellow with the Canadian Centre of Intelligence and Security Studies.


[1] This type of reaction is quite predictable and has been examined extensively in such diverse fields of the study as cults, con men (especially Pyramid Schemes) and stock market prediction.

[2] For a rather gruesome historical example, look at the lead-up to the Rwandan genocide or, earlier, Hitler’s skillful use of this tactic against both the Communists and the Jews in the 1930’s.