Thank god we cleared up that discrepancy in Edward Snowden’s salary

Within 24 hours of The Guardian publishing Edward Snowden’s leak that the NSA had been engaged in widespread surveillance of Americans through the PRISM program, details about Snowden’s personal life rushed to fill a wake of intrigue left behind his incredible story. He was a Ron Paul supporter and a Reddit user, he was making bank ($200,000 per year) and he had a hot girlfriend and lived in Hawaii.

It wasn’t long before the speculation about Snowden threatened to overshadow the interest in the PRISM program itself. Dick Cheney suggested he was a Chinese spy and his former employer Booz Allen released a statement confirming that he was paid a mere $120,000, not $200,000—and before you know it a standard-issue character assassination was underway: If he exaggerated about his salary, what else did he exaggerate about? Can we really believe what this guy shas to say about anything? Is he even credible?

Today Snowden agreed to answer readers’ questions for The Guardian. He found himself dispelling some personal myths that have grown to command equal weight in the narrative surrounding him. No, he wasn’t lying about his salary:

I was debriefed by Glenn and his peers over a number of days, and not all of those conversations were recorded. The statement I made about earnings was that $200,000 was my “career high” salary. I had to take pay cuts in the course of pursuing specific work. Booz was not the most I’ve been paid.

And he wasn’t an idiot for going to Hong Kong instead of trying to fly directly to Iceland:

Leaving the US was an incredible risk, as NSA employees must declare their foreign travel 30 days in advance and are monitored. There was a distinct possibility I would be interdicted en route, so I had to travel with no advance booking to a country with the cultural and legal framework to allow me to work without being immediately detained. Hong Kong provided that. Iceland could be pushed harder, quicker, before the public could have a chance to make their feelings known, and I would not put that past the current US administration.

In all this, Snowden didn’t really get around to addressing specifics of how the PRISM program works—why the companies involved insist they had no idea about it and whether this is even possible.

To some extent, fascination with whistleblowers like Snowden, who burst onto the scene like Prometheus, carrying some knowledge that turns our worlds upside down, is inevitable. We’re curious to know where this person came from, how many more like him might be hiding in plain sight who hold the keys to an alternate reality vastly different from the one almost all of us participate in on a daily basis.

Of course, in this case, it didn’t help that Snowden’s girlfriend looked like this:


But the point stands—Snowden is very far from the first whistleblower to have his character questioned, and to to have those questions threaten to overshadow the importance of his work.

In the case of Daniel Ellsberg, godfather of the whistleblowers, this character assassination was a carefully constructed effort by the Nixon Administration that saw Charles Colson plead guilty to “a scheme to defame and destroy the public image and credibility of Daniel Ellsberg and those engaged in the defense of Daniel Ellsberg.”

Bradley Manning was immediately labelled a traitor by U.S. authorities and we still don’t know whether the sex crime allegations against Julian Assange were coordinated by some shadow organization or government or fully legitimate.

But one thing is for sure—in the last 40 years, there has never been a high-profile American whistleblower who has not been greeted with some kind of character assassination attempt, whether maliciously in Ellsberg’s case or through our own bored conspiracy-making in Snowden’s.

So far Snowden’s character seems fairly unassailable. Even former NSA officials are now saying Snowden did the right thing by informing the public of PRISM.

So next time he logs online, maybe we can ask him less about his salary and his sweet pad in Hawaii, and more about how unwarranted surveillance actually works?