Obama’s welcome plot twist: Edward Snowden
By: David Nather and Darren Samuelsohn
June 10, 2013 04:05 PM EDT
President Barack Obama needed a plot twist — badly.
Enter Edward Snowden.
The 29-year-old contractor who says he leaked the documents on the National Security Agency’s snooping activities has become a gripping story on his own — stealing the show from the spying program itself.
Now the media is fixated on new questions about Snowden’s motivations, background and decisions — like the one to flee to Hong Kong.
It’s a reprieve for Obama, who was taking hits in the press, from Democrats and even some Republicans for running a program they cried is too reminiscent of the George W. Bush era– a new storyline that takes the focus off Obama, even briefly.
“There are 50 new storylines, all of which lead away from Obama,” said Paul Begala, the former Bill Clinton strategist who has seen his share of political firestorms.
Snowden may even draw some of the fire away from the Obama administration’s other scandals — especially the IRS targeting of conservative groups.
“No one is more happy about this latest event than the IRS,” said former George W. Bush White House spokesman Tony Fratto. “I joked last night that they’re holding an Edward Snowden appreciation day.”
Obama easily stayed out of Snowden’s way on Monday, taking no questions at the White House as he announced his nomination of Jason Furman to become the new chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers.
And White House press secretary Jay Carney dodged most of the questions about Snowden at Monday’s press briefing, carefully avoiding anything that would take the spotlight off of the self-identified leaker. It’s an ongoing investigation, Carney said over and over, and the administration doesn’t comment on ongoing investigations — and he still insisted that Obama believes antiterrorism surveillance is “an absolutely appropriate topic for debate.”
Carney did allow, however, that “this is not the manner in which he had hoped to have the debate.”
The digging into the surveillance programs — the sweeping look at Americans’ phone records and the broad snooping into Internet activities by foreign terrorism suspects — isn’t going to go away, of course. There are still too many questions about how it works, whether it goes beyond the surveillance that is authorized by the intelligence laws, and whether it has foiled a lot of terrorism plots.
Obama’s not going to get a pass on those questions forever, according to Democratic strategist Chris Lehane. And that’s going to be a problem when the spotlight returns to his surveillance policies, Lehane said, because “every day that goes by where he is not publicly advancing his agenda is a day he will not get back.”
For now, though, it’s impossible not to focus on Snowden — because his story is so fascinating, and disturbing to people in both parties who care about the safety of national security secrets.
The idea that a defense contractor who was discharged from the Army Reserve after just five months, and worked for Booz Allen Hamilton for less than three months, could have access to so many sensitive secrets is already raising serious questions about how easy it is for contractors to get that kind of information.
And then, there’s the mystery of Snowden’s personal story — hiding out in Hong Kong, fretting publicly about the grave dangers to himself, using the code name “Verax” to talk with a Post reporter as he spilled his secrets.
That’s plenty of material for a long-running storyline that’s not about Obama.
“Why was a 29-year-old trusted with this kind of intel?” Begala asked. “And who’s going to play him in the movie? Where’s James Franco when you need him?”
Snowden says he was willing to put himself at risk to expose the growing surveillance powers of the U.S. government, and what he sees as the lack of oversight. And by Monday afternoon, more than 24,000 people had already signed a White House petition calling Snowden a “national hero” and urging a “full, free, and absolute pardon” for him.
But there’s also bipartisan unease about the idea of someone leaking national security secrets with so much enthusiasm.
Begala, for example, said he was “really appalled by the leaking” even though the programs are an interesting story in themselves. “I used to have a national security clearance. You don’t leak classified information. It’s a crime. You just don’t do it,” he said.
Lehane predicted that the Snowden subplot will give Obama “a momentary firebreak” from his role in the NSA story — but will also “generate its own series of mini-stories” about how Snowden would be prosecuted and whether he could be extradited.
Not everyone thinks the Snowden stories will get Obama off the hook. Republican strategist Kevin Madden, a former spokesman for Mitt Romney, says the NSA disclosures still feed into a different storyline: an erosion of public trust in the government that’s also fed by the IRS scandal, the Benghazi attacks, and the Justice Department’s investigations of the media.
“They are all separate issues, yes, but they all have people across the ideological spectrum questioning whether the government may have gone too far,” Madden said. “For President Obama, who has invested so much in making the case you can and should trust your government, that erosion amongst the public is a major problem.”
And Jim Manley, a former spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, predicted that Snowden can only take the heat off of Obama for so long, because Republicans will keep trying to get as much mileage as possible out of the Obama administration’s growing list of scandals.
“I think there’s so much out there right now that the Republicans are trying to drive that, while this may help around the margins, I think this town is going to be dominated by so-called scandals for weeks and months to come,” Manley said. “I just think that that’s all they have right now.”
Manley noted the NSA issue will also bring civil libertarians and liberal Democrats together in a way that keeps the story in the news. That means Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and other lawmakers are likely to push amendments to restrict Obama’s surveillance authority. “I’d be dumbfounded if [Paul] didn’t offer it to the immigration bill,” Manley said.
Snowden himself is trying to fuel the distrust in government that Madden cited — at least, among civil libertarians in both parties. He told the Washington Post that he was disappointed that the administration didn’t do more to investigate the surveillance programs of the George W. Bush administration, which were also criticized for intruding into too many Americans’ privacy.
“Excusing the prior administration from investigation wronged the public,” Snowden said. “It set an example that when powerful figures are suspected of wrongdoing, releasing them from the accountability of law is ‘for our own good.’ That’s corrosive to the basic fairness of society.”
Obama insists there are plenty of checks and balances baked into the surveillance programs — but Carney struggled Monday to answer questions about the details of that oversight.
“I would point you to others to answer that question,” Carney said when a reporter asked about the secret court that oversees the program. “We can get you additional information on that,” he said to a question about what oversight measures Obama had added to the programs.
As long as Snowden is on the run, though — and providing fodder for plenty of stories about his personal drama — the Obama administration won’t have to sweat the details as much as it did before Sunday.