Edward Snowden leaks: why Obama has a political cushion

Edward Snowden and his decision to speak out as the leaker of classified national security documents have deflected attention from President Obama. The political odd couples defending and opposing the programs also insulate the president.

The Guardian/AP
Edward Snowden, who worked as a contract employee at the National Security Agency, speaks to The Guardian newspaper on Sunday in Hong Kong.

In an odd way, Edward Snowden has done President Obama a favor.

Yes, by all indications, the 29-year-old former government contractor with top-secret clearance has perpetrated one of the biggest national security leaks in American history, giving newspaper reporters classified documents on massive US data-mining programs aimed at protecting national security.

And he has sent Washington deep into damage-control mode. The US intelligence community is assessing the harm done. The Justice Department has launched an investigation.

But by asking to be identified as the source for articles in the British newspaper The Guardian and in The Washington Post – including The Guardian’s posting of a stunning 12-minute interview – Mr. Snowden has diverted attention from the debate he wanted to trigger and made himself the center of the story.

Suddenly, the media are awash with coverage about the curious details of Snowden’s life: the fact that he never even graduated from high school; his brief stint in the military, which ended after he broke both legs in a training accident; his seemingly idyllic life in Hawaii, living with his girlfriend, earning $200,000 a year; his decision to flee to a hotel in Hong Kong; and the latest wrinkle, that his whereabouts are unknown.

The White House on Monday retreated behind familiar language on last week’s explosive leaks, defending the administration’s practices and saying it cannot comment on an ongoing investigation. At issue are data-mining programs that allow broad government access to telephone “metadata” (but not the content of calls, unless a warrant is granted) and access to the servers of major Internet companies. 

“There are procedures in place, as the director [of national intelligence] made clear and as the president made clear, both at the congressional, executive, and judicial levels, that provide oversight over these programs,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said Monday, echoing the president’s comments from last Friday.

Mr. Carney also repeated Mr. Obama’s insistence that while he does not welcome leaks, he welcomes the debate over how best to strike a balance between security and protection of civil liberties.

That debate will continue Tuesday on Capitol Hill, where top officials from the Justice Department, FBI, and National Security Agency will brief House members on the data-mining programs.

But what’s already clear is that while some vocal members of Congress are incensed over the programs, most are not – and some of those are vocally defending them. And because the politics are at times a bit scrambled – Republicans defending and Democrats criticizing the programs – they give Obama added cover.

On the Sunday talk shows, the heads of the House and Senate intelligence committees, a Republican and a Democrat, respectively, defended the data-mining programs as necessary and appropriate, given the continuing threat of terrorism.

Rep. Mike Rogers (R) of Michigan, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, lit into Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald on ABC’s “This Week” over his coverage of data-mining, saying, “He doesn’t have a clue how this thing works.”

"Neither did the person who released just enough information to literally be dangerous,” Congressman Rogers added.

Rogers’s counterpart in the Senate, Dianne Feinstein (D) of California, said she was open to having a hearing every month on the surveillance programs, if necessary.

But the problem, she added, is that “the instances where this has produced good – has disrupted plots, prevented terrorist attacks, is all classified, that’s what’s so hard about this.”

Among rank-and-file members, an informal “liberal-tarian” caucus of data-mining critics has emerged, ranging from the socialist-leaning Sen. Bernard Sanders (I) of Vermont to the libertarian-leaning Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky.

Outside Congress, a similar pairing of outspoken populist critics has emerged: TV host Glenn Beck on the right and filmmaker Michael Moore on the left. Comments mined by Politico from the Twitterverse reveal a meeting of the minds.

“I think I have just read about the man for which I have waited. Earmarks of a real hero,” Mr. Beck tweeted, after reading the Guardian story identifying Snowden as the leaker.

“HERO OF THE YEAR,” tweeted Mr. Moore at roughly the same time. 

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