Even vacationing in Africa, President Obama isn’t far enough away to avoid the international disdain being heaped on him on the subject of infamous NSA leaker Edward Snowden. These days, you’re just not cool unless you’ve dissed Obama. It’s almost as if he welcomes the treatment he’s receiving.
On Thursday, President Obama said he’s not going to start “wheeling and dealing” with Russia and China to get Snowden extradited to the US. He disclaimed any intention to become involved in the matter by calling Putin or Chinese President Xi to try to get Snowden back. Obama evidently views the matter as below his pay grade.
“I’m not going to be scrambling jets to get a 29-year-old hacker,” he also told reporters during a news conference in Senegal. Nevertheless, he had Joey Biden call Ecuadoran Prez Rafael Correa on Friday to ask that Snowden be denied asylum there. Correa announced the call in a radio address, and didn’t miss the opportunity to slam Obama.
He said, “The really grave thing is what Snowden has reported. He will have to assume his responsibilities, but the grave thing is his reporting of the biggest massive spy operation in the history of humanity, inside and outside the United States.”
Though he’s not wheeling and dealing, you have to conclude that Obama is wheedling and diddling. Hong Kong authorities reported that they let Snowden go to Russia because our Justice Department didn’t respond to their requests for more information on why Snowden should be arrested. The Russians are denying that Snowden is really in Russia (being kept in a transit zone at an airport) so they can’t do anything about him either. And Correa is also saying that Ecuador will decide what to do with Snowden if he gets there (or to one of their embassies).
Being serially dissed by China, Russia, and now Ecuador, Obama looks — and is — more and more powerless. Yesterday, even the European Union (!) joined in. Some guy named Martin Schulz, who is apparently president of the European Parliament said he was “deeply worried and shocked” by reports that the NSA surveillance had been pointed at the EU. (My sources expressed equal shock at the idea that anyone had any interest in anything the EU had to say.)
Wikileaks’ Julian Assange has a much better deal than Snowden. Hiding in Ecuador’s London embassy to avoid extradition to Sweden on sexual assault charges, Assange is obviously enjoying his resurgent celebrity and association with NSA leaker Edward Snowden. (Wikileaks’ lawyers apparently accompanied Snowden from Hong Kong to Russia.)
Assange took to the air yesterday, telling ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that Snowden had a “right” to political asylum — somewhere? anywhere? — and taking the opportunity to tell the world (or at least the minuscule part of it watching the show) that Snowden’s circumstances are much the same as his. He ducked the question of whether Wikileaks has possession of the documents Snowden stole from NSA.
Snowden is somewhere in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport living off the kindness of strangers and the content of vending machines. Well, maybe not. That Snowden hasn’t been spotted since he arrived from Hong Kong over a week ago most likely means that his hosts are the Russian FSB, successor to the Soviet KGB and known for niceties such as the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko and a host of reporters who questioned Putin’s actions. They’ll not likely let him go anywhere until they’ve wrung the last bit of information from him and planned some new embarrassment for us to coincide with his export to Ecuador or Cuba or some other “human rights” center.
What’s going on is quite simple. It’s vastly better for China, Russia, and Ecuador to let the wound fester. It’s a lot more fun for them, too, seeing the United States twisting in the wind while the windbags try to keep up a storm of America-bashing measurable on the Beaufort scale. They may be succeeding overseas, but at home the Snowden story is propped up only by the weekly publication of more leaked materials.
(The highlight this week is a top secret draft report written by NSA’s Inspector General in 2009 that generally describes the NSA’s intelligence collection activities since the 9/11 attacks. The Washington Post made the most of its possible controversy by asking US District Court Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, formerly chief judge on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, about her “coordination” with NSA. The judge, unsurprisingly, denied that she’d coordinated at all and just functioned as a judge should. More interesting was the fact that the entire House Select Committee on Intelligence was briefed about the NSA’s efforts to expand its intelligence gathering on 2 October 2001. Wasn’t Nancy Pelosi a member of the committee then?)
Obama apparently believes he’s raised himself above this particular fray. But his refusal to call Putin, Xi, and Correa doesn’t get him off the hook. And his oft-repeated defense — “I wasn’t here, I didn’t do it, I found out from the press reports just like you did, and though I’m not to blame, I’m going to fix this” — just doesn’t work.
We should pause a moment to note that this past week Marc Rich passed away. It was on the investigation of how Rich — a fugitive from justice at the time — received a last-minute presidential pardon from Bill Clinton that Eric Holder invented that defense. Obama has had years to perfect it. This time, it may work and it may not.
The reason it may fail is that there’s no one else to blame for Obama’s presidential actions and decisions. NSA chief Gen. Keith Alexander doesn’t run the “PRISM” program (the biggest revelation from Snowden’s leaks so far) without Obama’s personal approval. The CIA and DNI reportedly brief Obama routinely on the products of PRISM as part of the Presidential Daily Intelligence Briefing.
And no one else is at home to go after Snowden. John Kerry is busy trying to put together another round of “peace processes” between Israel and the Palestinians. Putin won’t answer a call from Joey Biden, and neither will Xi Jinping. Obama may not get anywhere in calling either man, but there’s no one else to do it.
Presidents talk to other presidents when something needs to be done, not to underlings. But if the president has run out of juice internationally, there’s no one else who can conduct that kind of diplomacy with friend or foe.
This is the product of his “lead from behind” strategy, if you can even call it that. Leaders — men such as Kennedy, Nixon, and Reagan — led American pursuit of America’s interests. Reagan stood with the Poles and the Hungarians and all the others enslaved by the Soviet Union. Obama, as he proved in 2009, would rather stand with Castro and condemn freedom-loving Hondurans seeking to remove a Castro-wannabe. He’d rather follow France to war in Libya than take the trouble to tell Congress why it’s in our interest to do that.
What cannot be undone — at least for years and perhaps for all time — is the damage Obama has done to our ability to influence the world.
The last time we had a president like Obama was when Jimmy Carter took us off a fiscal cliff, got us into a Middle East oil embargo, and made nice with the Soviet Union, apparently to his own surprise and without intending to do any of those things. Remember the series of editorial cartoons showing Carter growing smaller and smaller in the Oval Office big chair? You could put Obama’s face on the shrinking figure in those cartoons and no one could disbelieve.
There’s only one thing to be achieved now by getting Snowden extradited. What he has leaked, and the newspapers have published, has damaged our ability to collect intelligence and that cannot be undone. But Snowden is guilty — by his own admission of the leaks — of several felonies. Snowden needs to be pursued and punished even if Obama thinks it’s not worthwhile. As a matter of fact, so does Assange.