By DAVID NATHER
When Edward Snowden first told the world he was the NSA leaker, he insisted he didn’t want to become the story.
What happened to that?
t every turn, Snowden has drowned out the debate over privacy, security and the role of government he hoped to spark by serving up a human drama — starring himself.
He’s given frequent interviews, set off an international manhunt by jetting from the United States to Hong Kong to Russia, and then Monday he took it even further by firing off a missive over President Barack Obama’s handling of his case — without a mention of his original cause.
On Tuesday, Snowden’s ongoing game of will-he or won’t-he with asylum took another turn when he pulled his request with Russian authorities. Vladimir Putin said Monday that he wouldn’t host Snowden if he keeps leaking American secrets.
It’s a saga that’s left even those skeptical of the U.S. surveillance programs wary of him.
Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) said he wasn’t sure whether Snowden truly acted on his conscience or was “just someone who wanted to get his name in the paper.”
“I certainly am not going to count him as a folk hero,” Connolly said. “There’s enough in his past that makes me guarded about that.”
Even whistleblower groups acknowledge that Snowden’s fame has taken the focus off of the programs themselves.
“The majority of whistleblowers make their disclosures anonymously in order to keep the public focused on the message, not the messenger,” said Jesselyn Radack, national security and human rights director at the Government Accountability Project, a group that represents whistleblowers.
“Before he went public, our country finally began a long overdue, robust, substantive debate about mass domestic surveillance. As soon as Snowden became public, the government and media smeared him, and the vilification has continued ever since,” Radack said. “It distracts from his whistleblowing, but I blame those in power whose wrongdoing he exposed, not him.”
Snowden now has more in common with WikiLeaks, the group that unloaded scores of American diplomatic cables and is now helping Snowden, than he does with national security whistleblowers who kept a lower profile. Like Snowden, WikiLeaks rose to fame with its high-profile disclosures — but now it may be better known for the plight of its founder, Julian Assange. Assange is holed up in the Ecuadorean embassy in London to avoid being extradited to Sweden to face accusations of sexual assault.
That’s a different model than national security whistleblowers like former NSA officials Thomas Drake, William Binney and J. Kirk Wiebe and former Justice Department lawyer Thomas Tamm, all of whom drew attention to civil liberties concerns about the NSA’s warrantless surveillance program under President George W. Bush. They all became the focus of attention when the government investigated them — but they didn’t seek it out.
Snowden’s ultimate fate is unclear. He’s been in the Moscow airport for days, hoping Ecuador might offer him asylum. That avenue closed recently. And then Tuesday morning Snowden withdrew his request for asylum in Russia. Putin had said Monday night that Snowden wouldn’t be allowed to stay in the country if he keeps leaking American secrets.
Whistleblower groups, as well as former national security whistleblowers, are less critical of Snowden. They tend to blame the government and the media for focusing on him and attacking him personally, and they give Snowden more of a pass for outing himself in the first place, arguing that he eventually would have had the spotlight turned on him anyway.
“I don’t know that he had any other choice,” Binney said in an interview. “He saw what happened to us. He saw what happened to Bradley Manning,” the accused WikiLeaks leaker who had to sleep naked in his cell and is now on trial.
Even Republican strategist John Feehery — who calls Snowden a “nutball” — says he understands why Snowden felt he had to go public. Snowden warned in a Guardian web chat that the government “is not going to be able to cover this up by jailing or murdering me,” but Feehery says he’s probably not wrong to worry about his safety.
“If you’re Snowden, I don’t know how you think keeping a low profile is a viable strategy for some pretty basic things, like staying alive,” Feehery said. “I think there are a lot of people who would like to see him dead.”
And Danielle Bryan, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, says Snowden has been “getting terrible advice” by going to countries such as China and Russia, because the choices just make people more suspicious of his motives.
“If he was looking for neutral countries, Sweden or Switzerland would have been better choices,” said Bryan. “The path he’s taken is making it much easier to demonize him for those who want to demonize him.”
But Bryan doesn’t criticize Snowden for not raising his concerns about the surveillance programs through less public channels, like going to Congress or contacting the NSA inspector general instead.
Snowden has been criticized for not doing that, and Feldman questions whether he should even be considered a whistleblower, since whistleblowers usually take their case internally first and are turned down.
But Bryan says that was never a realistic option for Snowden, since intelligence officials and contractors have virtually no protections from retaliation even as Congress has extended whistleblower protections to other agencies. “Congress keeps carving out the intelligence community because they think it’s going to cause problems. All it’s doing is creating a powder keg,” she said.
And Bryan points out that two Democratic senators on the Senate Intelligence Committee —Ron Wyden of Oregon and Mark Udall of Colorado — have been hinting at their concerns on the NSA surveillance for years, but felt powerless to do anything about it.
“We have senators who were on the intelligence committee who said there are bad things happening, and they don’t think they can stop it. So how can a 29-year-old contractor stop it?” Bryan asked.
Most agree Snowden has eclipsed the original news.
“I’m not sure what he intended to do, but one way or another, he’s been taken for a really long ride,” said Democratic strategist Michael Feldman.
Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway says Snowden has managed to turn himself into a distraction from the debate that really matters: whether the phone and Internet surveillance is the right way to protect Americans from terrorism.
“Getting “Snowdened” may become a Beltway verb for distractions and diversions away from the domestic agenda and even the merits of the surveillance program itself,” she said. “The question is less is Snowden a hero or a traitor [than] whether the policy is targeted enough to be effective in protecting Americans without compromising their civil liberties.”