Jacob Heilbrunn

How Obama Helped Create Edward Snowden

President Obama has said he doesn't believe in "wheeling and dealing" with foreign govnerments to retrieve Edward Snowden, the NSA leaker who is currently holed up somewhere in Russia. But Obama's reluctance to wheel and deal has hampered much of his presidency, particularly when it comes to dealing with Congress. He wants to portray himself as above it all—indicating that he won't treat with foreign leaders to bring Snowden to heel. Nor will he scramble jets to capture him.

The truth is that Snowden wouldn't even merit the expenditure of jet fuel that it could cost to nab him should he briefly enter American air space. Snowden, as Alex Berenson wrote in an op-ed in the New York Times, should have been handled with kid gloves. He's in over his head. A deal should have been cut with him to cajole him to leave Hong Kong. Instead, the Obama admnistration went on the equivalent of Defcon 5, while former vice-president Dick Cheney harrumphed that Snowden was nothing less than a traitor. Please. He doesn't rise to that level. Rather, Snowden, who apparently freaked out when told that he would lose his computer privileges in jail, seems to be headed for a protracted exile in Ecuador, where he can while away his days googling his moment of fame. 

The harrumphers in Congress were little better than Cheney. Rep. Peter King, a fairly recent convert to opposition to terrorism, breathed fire about Snowden's betrayal. Senator Chuck Schumer ranted about Russia's perfidy. Where have they been living for the past ten years? Guys, it's America that's been performing secret renditions, including capturing an innocent German citizen, torturing him, and then dumping him in a desolate road in Albania to find his way home. This is not a country that has built up a lot of good will abroad in recent years. It seems rather obvious that Beijing and Moscow would relish the opportunity to hoist Washington on its own petard, particularly since Snowden revealed that the NSA has been engaging in its own forms of cyber warfare and snooping abroad even as Obama piously upbraided the Chinese for their own efforts in that arena.

But perhaps the most egregious aspect of the Snowden case, as John Cassidy has pointed out in the New Yorker, is that the administration is trying to tar Snowden, at least in America. As Cassidy put it, "I'm all for journalists asking awkward questions, too. But why aren't more of them being directed at Hayden and Feinstein and Obama, who are clearly intent on attacking the messenger?"

But Obama's lofty dismissal of Snowden as a mere stripling a "twenty-nine-year-old"—he is actually thirty years old—can't obscure the fact that he has raised some significant questions that Obama and his minions at the Justice Deparment and the NSA would prefer to obscure. Russian president Vladimir Putin has his own motives for shielding Snowden. But the effect has been to heighten the notoriety surrounding Snowden, which is what Obama is belatedly trying to minimize. His own administration's hamhanded attempts to capture Snowden have only heightened the stakes. To a large extent, Snowden, you could say, is Obama's own creation, even if the president who promised to safeguard civil liberties when he campaigned for office in 2008 doesn't want to acknowledge it.