Edward Snowden seems to have successfully hit official Washington’s Achilles’ Heel. The political and public responses to his disclosures are still in flux, so I’m hesitant to speak with any confidence as things currently stand, but the pushback against the surveillance state seems to be at or near critical mass.
Rep. Tom McClintock (R-CA), one of the most prominent members of California’s Congressional delegation, has publicly said that Snowden committed crimes with his disclosures but should be pardoned because he is a whistleblower who exposed wholesale subversion of the Fourth Amendment and that he should be answering questions about the surveillance state at home, not abroad. McClintock seemed to imply that he would like Snowden to testify before Congress. As I alluded to, the response to this scandal is growing by the week, so Snowden is conceivably on the verge of simultaneously being under federal criminal indictment for leaking state secrets and under Congressional subpoena to testify about the same state secrets as a whistleblower, not a defendant. This could easily put the Department of Justice in effective, or even official, contempt of Congress for obstructing the sworn testimony of a subpoeanaed witness.
If more members of Congress join McClintock, Justin Amash, Ron Wyden and company in demanding answers, and if the answers that they demand include sworn testimony from Snowden, my guess is that Eric Holder will be a couple of wrong moves away from impeachment. Prior to Snowden’s indictment, much of the Republican Caucus was steaming mad at Holder over the “Fast and Furious” gun-running debacle, and a smaller (and certainly less organized and vocal) contingent of populists from both parties was disgusted with him for failing to prosecute bank executives for fraud in the subprime mortgage meltdown. If Holder continues to vindictively keep Snowden in exile (he almost certainly will) at a time when Congress has called Snowden to testify in person (by no means assured, but likely enough given the rapidly shifting Congressional response to the NSA scandal), the vendetta against Snowden could be Holder’s last major project as Attorney General and an ignominious capstone capstone to his legacy. I’d be highly surprised if Holder manages to talk his way out of that sticky wicket.
On a brief sidenote, I’d say that Tom McClintock is now bar none the strongest prospective challenger to either Barbara Boxer or Dianne Feinstein. California’s Republican primary voters have taken to nominating nobodies to challenge their state’s entrenched US Senators, and much of the state’s Republican establishment at all levels is buffoonish and bloodthirsty. Boxer and Feinstein (especially Feinstein) are authoritarian nightmares, but they have on their side inertia and a hapless opposition; McClintock is in a strong, and probably unique, position to singlehandedly destroy these advantages if he chooses to run for the US Senate.
Snowden’s supporters in Congress amount to a dissident faction trying to subvert the Politburo. The official response from the State Department, the Attorney General’s Office and the White House has been a clusterfuck. The sputtering rage at an exiled dissident has become so extreme and pervasive that the Washington press corps, normally prone to flatter the subjects of its coverage in exchange for access, is barely trying to spin the official response into anything rational. These high officials and spokespeople insulted, in succession, the sovereignty of Hong Kong (for allowing Snowden to lawfully enter and leave its territory in accordance with Chinese immigration law), China (mostly for unrelated geopolitical grievances that were irrelevant on account of Beijing’s delegation of political control in Hong Kong to the territory’s British-style parliamentary government), Ecuador (for offering Snowden asylum), Bolivia (again, for offering asylum, and additionally by grounding the country’s presidential plane to search for Snowden as President Evo Morales returned from official business in Moscow), several Western European countries (by intimidating them into closing their airspace to Snowden), and most recently Russia.
Washington’s belligerence towards Moscow has been especially foolish. The State Department effectively made Snowden stateless by revoking his passport while he was holed up in the Sheremetyevo Airport international transit zone. Moviegoers may remember Tom Hanks in a similar predicament. State decided to reenact Airport, but in another country’s airport. Then various shrill officials took it upon themselves to publicly berate the Kremlin, one of Washington’s most celebrated adversaries, for not deporting a US citizen from a transit zone specificially set up for foreigners who did not intend to clear Russian immigration, for allowing that US citizen to hold a press conference in the transit zone and providing incidental logistical support to escort members of the press through passport control, for even thinking about granting this fugitive dissident asylum, and finally for granting him temporary asylum. Washington is now in the embarrassing position of having an American citizen and political fugitive freely and lawfully living in Russia without a valid US passport but with a valid Russian residency document under the odd name of “Snouden Edvard Dzhozef.” Washington could easily have avoided this embarrassment. It took a month of shrilly berating the very nationalistic government of a major military power, adversary, and oil and gas exporter to get Mother Russia to finally embrace the young man. One does not simply end up with Russian documents.
Notice, too, how calm Vladimir Putin has remained throughout the mess. Jay Carney yelling at a KGB Zen master was never auspicious, and indeed it has been fruitless. Putin was reticent in his public comments, initially calling Snowden a patriot, then describing the tar baby that the Snowden incident had become with a classic Putinism about shearing a pig (“a lot of squealing but little hair”), and keeping mum when, all but certainly on his explicit approval, Snowden was granted temporary asylum. Putin is continuing to let Washington officials do the talking about the White House’s cancellation of one-on-one talks that he was scheduled to have with Barack Obama next month, talks that have admittedly been canceled in part to punish Putin for granting Snowden asylum.
This is nuts. My country’s highest officials are acting like toddlers. For the last two months, they’ve been picking fights with any foreign government that dares cross them by showing or even considering showing mercy to a whistleblower whom they want to jail for exposing unconstitutional wholesale domestic spying. They’re cavalierly destroying goodwill with any country that thwarts their effort to persecute one of their own citizens for embarrassing them and trying to hold them accountable for secret subversion of the Constitution.
Comparisons to the Brezhnev-era USSR are appropriate. Snowden was a refusenik for a month, and the reason he is no longer one is that a moderately autocratic regime centered around a neotsarist personality cult gave him asylum at a time when he was stranded in one of its airports, forsaken by his own government.
We have a balance of powers again. This can’t be the “reset” of relations that Hillary Clinton and Sergei Lavrov sought. Russia is again welcoming American dissidents, much as the Soviet Union welcomed unemployed laborers and disaffected black activists in the 1930s. Angry US officials demand that Russia hand over a political fugitive, Russian officials calmly refuse, and the US officials build up an even stronger head of steam. We’re approaching the point at which Obama bangs a shoe on the podium while Putin quietly smirks and, if he says anything about the outburst, says something unimaginably crude and yet eloquent.
Ed Snowden isn’t exactly a loose cannon, either. Washington picked the most sympathetic whistleblower imaginable to target with its unprecedented campaign of smearing and intimidation. Snowden hasn’t been silenced like Bradley Manning, and he isn’t eccentric like Julian Assange. He’s as normal as they come, and the public knows it. The public also knows that his critics are overwhelmingly a bunch of amoral Beltway careerist freaks.
This huge mess may get resolved a lot more quickly and thoroughly than I had feared.