Although many Americans continue to regard Edward Snowden as some sort of traitor, he is seen increasingly by many in Europe as a whistleblowing hero, and for Russia’s Vladimir Putin, he is the gift that keeps on giving.
No longer hiding, Mr. Snowden is becoming more and more visible in Moscow, where last week it was announced that he’s landed a job with one of Russia’s social-networking firms, is increasingly willing to meet with reporters and was even spotted playing the tourist on a Moscow riverboat.
When Mr. Putin’s government originally decided to thumb its nose at President Obama by granting the fugitive National Security Agency (NSA) contractor the right to remain in Russia without fear of extradition for at least a year, the Russians relished sticking it to the U.S. president, but apparently didn’t expect what’s come since.
Mr. Putin said famously at the time that trying to squeeze much benefit out of the affair would be like “sheering a pig there is lots of squealing and little wool.” The Russian president must not have known at the time what Mr. Snowden had arranged to turn over to Western press outlets before landing in Moscow early last summer or he might used a different analogy.
Since then, of course, Mr. Snowden’s revelations have shocked many in Congress, put U.S. intelligence officers and administration officials on the spot, disrupted Washington’s relations with our most reliable allies, and allowed Mr. Putin, a former KGB operative, and Russian officials to act like outraged ACLU members shocked at the extent of U.S. spying. Russia even went so far as to host the Sam Adams Awards in October, at which Mr. Snowden was honored for promoting “integrity in intelligence.”
American defenders of NSA spying continue to argue in the face of outrage in Germany, France, Spain and elsewhere that it is hypocritical for any of these nation’s leaders to act shocked at learning that governments spy not only on their enemies and adversaries, but their friends. To an extent, they are right. In the real world, gentlemen do read each other’s mail, and Europeans have plenty of experience with the “organs of state security” in their own countries.
The outrage, however, is real and seems to stem from a feeling that neither the East German Stasi, Mr. Putin’s old employer or Hitler’s spies went to the lengths that U.S. intelligence does to collect everything they can on everybody, everywhere. Mr. Obama might simply like to dismiss the matter. Rep. Peter T. King, New York Republican, went further on television by suggesting that German Chancellor Angela Merkel ought to get over the fact that we bugged her private cellphone because, after all, we did it “for her own good.” That is the same thing NSA defenders have been telling Americans about domestic intelligence gathering. If our government cannot seem to sell that justification to Americans, one wonders why they think it will sell in Germany.
Former German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg summed up the problem as well as anyone last week. He told The Moscow Times that “President Barack Obama and his administration have yet to comprehend the scale and severity of the damage caused to U.S. credibility among its European allies. The problem is not that countries spy on each other. They all do, of course. Rather, it is the extent of U.S. intelligence-gathering and U.S. attitudes toward allies that is most damaging.”
We Americans are like a friend of mine whose wife told me once that whatever her husband thought worth doing was worth overdoing. Our intelligence people do want everything on everybody and certainly don’t seem deterred at home by constitutional problems, or outside the United States by the consequences of getting caught. The East German Stasi may have compiled files on every East German back in the day, but we’ve got files on Americans, Spaniards, Germans and almost everyone else.
Mr. Putin the civil libertarian is outraged, but one suspects Mr. Putin the former KGB man is jealous. Maybe that’s why his government announced last week that Moscow will henceforth begin accessing Russian citizens’ phone calls and Internet communications without needing court orders.
He’d better hope there aren’t any homegrown Ed Snowdens within the Russian bureaucracy, or he’s likely to learn as we in the United States did that governments can’t get away with what they could back in the good old days.
David A. Keene is opinion editor of The Washington Times.