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The Conflicting Narratives About Edward Snowden


You may remember that former NSA contractor Edward Snowden lives in Russia now, and he is back in the spotlight this week. Yesterday, director Oliver Stone's new biopic "Snowden" came out. It portrays Edward Snowden in a heroic light, depicting him as a mild-mannered bureaucrat who reluctantly turns whistleblower. It came out just days after civil liberties groups made a big push for a pardon for Snowden.

On the other hand, here in Washington, D.C., the House Intelligence Committee released a scathing report on Thursday, characterizing Mr. Snowden as a, quote, "serial exaggerator," unquote, a disgruntled employee with an axe to grind who endangered U.S. intelligence personnel and hurt the government's ability to gather intelligence both at home and abroad when he leaked records on the government's expanded surveillance program. So which is the real Edward Snowden?

We asked NPR's national security correspondent Mary Louise Kelly to talk about this. She just saw the movie and has been reporting on this story. Hi, Mary Louise. Thanks for joining us.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: My pleasure, Michel.

MARTIN: So you saw the movie, and you've spoken with members of the intelligence community who've also seen the film. We just mentioned that there are these two very different narratives around Edward Snowden. Which one's right?

KELLY: Not just very different, completely contradictory narratives, and here's the difficulty. You mentioned the House Intelligence Committee report. What we know is what has been made public, which is a three-page summary, damning conclusions. They are indeed scathing, calling him a fabricator, saying he caused grave damage to national security.

What we don't get is the rest of the 36-page report that actually - we assume - has the evidence that supports those conclusions. And if you could look at that, then people might be able to make up their own minds which version is more credible. Who is the real Edward Snowden? So it's the job of reporters like me to keep digging, trying to get those documents, trying to talk to people. We will keep digging on that. And, Mr. Snowden, if you're listening, I urge you to call us. We would love for you to take up our longstanding offer to interview you.

MARTIN: I would listen to that. How is it that all of these things are happening at once? Was the committee's report timed to come out at the same time as the movie?

KELLY: The committee says complete coincidence. This is both Republicans and Democrats. And we should add this report is that very rare creature in Washington - bipartisan unanimous. They say total coincidence that they worked on this for two years, and it was done when it was done. That said, I think all of these sides are seizing the momentum of this big Hollywood blockbuster that is hitting cinemas this weekend and is getting a lot of attention.

MARTIN: Given that so much of the criticism contains details that are not public, as you just told us, how can people make an informed decision about how to regard Edward Snowden? What can they do?

KELLY: Well - and everybody understands that an Oliver Stone movie is not a documentary. I mean, it says upfront at the top in one of the opening shots this is a dramatization of actual events. I think the question that people always need to have in their mind is the what is the evidence question. So when, for example, you see a report coming out saying Edward Snowden caused grave damage to national security.

The question I ask is, well, has anyone died as a result of his leaks? And the answer, as far as we know, is no. Can you point to any catastrophic terror attack that has unfolded that you can link back directly to something Snowden disclosed? Again, the answer is no. Intelligence community officials would say that's not the right question to ask. They would say, you know, you look at how much money it has cost just to get operations back to where they were to repair the damage. We're talking tens, hundreds of millions of dollars.

MARTIN: That's Mary Louise Kelly. She's NPR's national security correspondent Mary Louise, thanks so much for joining us.

KELLY: My pleasure Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.