What, exactly, has new Edward Snowden 'manifesto' accomplished?

Edward Snowden has released an open letter and a manifesto in recent days, with critics saying he's angling for clemency. Actually, it's not clear what he's doing, but it's not likely to amount to much, experts say.

LifeNews via Rossia 24 TV channel/AP
Former National Security Agency systems analyst Edward Snowden rides down the Moscow River, near the Christ the Savior Cathedral. Snowden’s lawyer, Anatoly Kucherena, confirmed the photo's authenticity.

In many respects, it appears as if Edward Snowden got what he wanted.

Congressional hearings to examine National Security Agency surveillance practices are under way. A spate of new legislation has been proposed to rein in NSA surveillance methods. Even the White House has conceded a need for change and convened a panel to modify surveillance practices.

Meanwhile, a host of foreign governments from Brazil to Germany are decrying the NSA's practices and, according to a July Washington Post-ABC poll, 74 percent of Americans say the NSA is intruding on privacy rights.

So what is Mr. Snowden trying to accomplish in moving back to the front of the international discussion with two missives in the past week – one an open letter to German authorities investigating US surveillance practices and the other “A Manifesto for the Truth”?

The letters have invoked a strong backlash among American politicians who suggest that Snowden might be trying to receive clemency, though he never explicitly asks for it. Others say that Washington is trying to spin the letters to its advantage – suggesting that Snowden is seeking clemency as a way of making it appear as if he's tacitly admitting his guilt.

In the end, however, the letters only prove that the convulsions caused by Snowden's leaks have now become far larger than the man himself. The kinetic energy of the events Snowden has set in motion have made his personal situation or opinion largely inconsequential.

"The stories and the issues have moved past Edward Snowden and have a life of their own," says Ellen Shearer of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. “Maybe that’s why he wrote this. He realized no one is paying attention to him anymore.”

If true, there is an irony in that. When Snowden first leaked his information to The Guardian, he said he did not want to story to be about him but about US intelligence practices that he felt had spun out of control.

But "this manifesto is in many ways attempting to shift the focus from the very conversation that Snowden claims he was trying to start to himself and his plight,” says Stephen Vladeck, an associate professor at American University’s Washington College of Law.

Monday's manifesto comes at a time of international outrage over revelations that the US spying net included not just terrorists but also senior German, Brazilian, Spanish, and French leaders. Last month, leaks linked to Snowden revealed that the NSA had allegedly eavesdropped on cellphone calls by German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Now German lawmakers are calling for Snowden to testify about US surveillance practices.

"Instead of causing damage, the usefulness of the new public knowledge for society is now clear because reforms to politics, supervision and laws are being suggested," Snowden wrote in his “manifesto” in the German news magazine Der Spiegel, according to a Reuters translation. "Citizens have to fight against the suppression of information about affairs of essential importance for the public. Those who speak the truth are not committing a crime."

Two days earlier, Snowden issued a "To whom it may concern" letter issued to German authorities.

"I believe I witnessed systemic violations of the law by my government that created a moral duty to act," Snowden wrote, asserting as well that he has faced a "severe and sustained campaign of persecution that force me from my family and home."

A single paragraph in the letter, however, caused the most uproar in the US.

"Though the outcome of my efforts has been demonstrably positive, my government continues to treat dissent as defection, and seeks to criminalize political speech with felony charges that provide no defense," Snowden wrote. "However, speaking the truth is not a crime. I am confident that with the support of the international community, the government of the United States will abandon this harmful behavior."

US officials united to dismiss Snowden's hopes.

"Mr. Snowden violated US law," White House adviser Dan Pfeiffer said on ABC's "This Week" Sunday. "He should return to the US and face justice."

"He’s done this enormous disservice to our country," said Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Diane Feinstein (D) of California on CBS's "Face the Nation" Sunday. "I think the answer is 'no clemency.' "

“No, I don’t see any reason” to grant clemency, added House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R) of Michigan on the same program. “I wouldn’t do that. He needs to come back and own up.”

To his detractors, Snowden’s public statements appear to be a bald attempt to win domestic and international support for a bid to reverse espionage charges brought against him by the US Department of Justice.

"He’s asking for something he doesn’t deserve, asserting that he’s exposed law breaking when, in fact, the only lawbreaking is by him," says Gabriel Schoenfeld, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and author of "Necessary Secrets," a history of leaking and government response to leaking. "He may have done a public service by igniting an overdue debate on surveillance, but there are many ways to ignite such a debate and the way he chose was blatantly criminal."

Others say the “clemency” claim is a canard put forward by the administration to discredit Snowden.

"There is no fair reading of that manifesto that can possibly be interpreted as a request for clemency," says Jesselyn Radack, the National Security & Human Rights director for the Government Accountability Project (GAP), a national whistle-blower protection and advocacy organization based in Washington. "They have manufactured a fake request they can swat down or deny. It is completely disingenuous and shows their antipathy and complete disregard for his rights."

But what Snowden has gained – if anything – from speaking out now is unclear. Snowden’s credibility is not going to turn on what people think of his motives, but on the impact of the disclosures themselves, says Professor Vladeck of American University.

And that is already well beyond Snowden's control.

"People really are just wasting their time and breath – including Snowden himself," says Vladeck, who is an expert on the Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act that Snowden ignored by going directly to the news media with documents. "The surveillance horse is out of the barn along with Snowden’s role in disclosing it. Only time will tell – and without regard to how Snowden or the government try to shape the story."

"We’re increasingly at a point where the disclosures speak for themselves."

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