Obama retreats on Snowden

Even the world’s most powerful media and Intelligence apparatus can’t always control public opinion, writes Weisbrot.

Photos of Edward Snowden, a contractor at the National Security Agency (NSA), and U.S. President Barack Obama
"The Obama team has every reason to want this whole story to go away. But he may not find it so easy to get rid of it," writes Mark Weisbrot [Reuters]

In his videotaped interview with journalist Glenn Greenwald, Edward Snowden said that “the world’s most powerful intelligence agencies” (like the CIA) were so formidable that “[n]o one can meaningfully oppose them. If they want to get you, they’ll get you in time.”

That remains to be seen. On Wednesday President Obama beat a hasty retreat from his global public relations and diplomatic, and political campaign against Snowden. It was quite an amazing, if implicit, admission of defeat. Here was the president of the world’s most powerful nation, with the world’s most influential media outlets having rallied to his cause, now quietly trying to lower the profile of an issue that his own government had elevated to one of the biggest stories in the world.  

He didn’t talk to the presidents of China or Russia, he said, because “I shouldn’t have to. This is something that routinely is dealt with between law enforcement officials in various countries.” Except that it has been dealt with by these other governments in the same way that Americans deal with annoying telemarketing phone calls. Hong Kong casually hung up on the Obama Administration’s extradition request. President Putin provided a jovial “buzz off” response on Wednesday, saying that Snowden was a “free man,” and with an analogy to shearing a piglet, made it clear that he had more important things to think about than helping an unfriendly arrogant power get its hands on a pesky whistleblower. US Secretary of State John Kerry’s threats that a failure to follow Washington’s directives would “have consequences” turned out to be nothing more than bluff and bluster.

“I’m not going to be scrambling jets to get a 29-year-old hacker,” said Obama in response to a question as to whether he would try to force down a plane carrying Snowden away from Russia. That was the best news of the week for Snowden, because that scenario was quite possibly one of his biggest obstacles to his freedom. He could conceivably get to Latin America without flying through US air space or stopping in countries that take orders from the United States, but what would stop the US government from forcing his plane down almost anywhere along the way? International law, you might say, but I can already hear the snickering from the White House and the Pentagon. 

It was a humbling episode for the POTUS and his State Department. Little Ecuador, dismissed by right-wing pundits as a “banana republic,” stood defiant and one-upped Washington’s threat to cut off its preferential access to US markets if it offered asylum to Snowden. “We don’t need no stinking trade preferences,” was the non-literal English translation.

“In the face of threats, insolence and arrogance of certain US sectors, which have pressured to remove the preferential tariffs because of the Snowden case, Ecuador tells the world we unilaterally and irrevocably renounce the preferential tariffs,” said President Rafael Correa yesterday. “It is outrageous to try to delegitimise a state for receiving a petition of asylum,” he added.

Just to drive the point home, the Ecuadorian government also offered the United States $23m for “human rights training,” to help the US government avoid “torture, extra-judicial killings, and other acts that denigrate humanity.”

But the real surprise is that it took the White House so long to realise that they were much better off if they could edge this story out of the news cycle. 

First, of course, there were the revelations themselves,that the US government had been spying on tens of millions of Americans, in secret and apparent violation of the Fourth Amendment to the constitution. Not to mention the spying on the rest of the world’s citizens. Second, the pursuit of Snowden revealed some things that Washington doesn’t like to advertise: not least that its influence in the world has been sinking like a stone over the past decade or so.

No wonder Obama decided to retreat. His team could see where this debate might lead if it kept going. The “war on terror” is getting stale, and the Cold War framework in which they tried to recast Snowden’s civil disobedience is really old. I mean, why exactly should Americans be scared of Russia in the 21st century – or China, which doesn’t have a military base outside its own country (as compared to the Pentagon’s hundreds of bases throughout the globe?) And is Snowden a traitor or a spy just because he fled to Hong Kong and the Russian airport in order to avoid political persecution? Even if he had no contact with any government and didn’t sell or give them any classified information? Even if he only gave information to reporters, and worked with them not to publish anything that might harm the security of Americans?

The Obama administration thought that by charging Snowden under the Espionage Act, it could re-define him as a traitor, but that too may have backfired. Since he clearly didn’t commit any such crime, the charge gave any government or judicial system good legal grounds for granting him asylum.

And why do they need all this information they are gathering anyway? Sociologist Todd Gitlin has provided a nice overview of how our government has traditionally used domestic surveillance to oppose, infiltrate, disrupt, and discredit (sometimes through violent provocations) opposition political movements. In 2011, the Boston police, federally-funded Boston Regional Intelligence Center, and FBI appear to have been so fixated on peaceful activists like the Occupy movement, Code Pink, and Veterans for Peace that they seem to have missed the real terrorists that bombed the Boston marathon, despite having the intelligence on one of them dumped in the FBI’s lap. 

There are tens of millions of Americans who already understand very well that the “war on terror” has been used as a pretext to erode our civil liberties at home and commit terrible crimes abroad. Snowden’s courageous whistle-blowing and Glenn Greenwald’s relentless efforts to inform the public have brought more people into the realm of questioning the whole rotten framework that justifies these abuses and atrocities. Who is our government protecting anyway, when they invade other countries and create new enemies every week by dropping drone-bombing civilians in places like Pakistan or Yemen? Americans are more likely to be struck by lightning than killed by a terrorist.

Dissenting voices have grown as the story continues.  Some petitions:  at the White House web site, for a presidential pardon, signed by 123,000;  Roots Action, hands off Snowden (31,000); Avaaz, for respecting Snowden’s rights and terminating the PRISM program (1.3 mn). Yesterday a number of celebrities (including Oliver Stone, Danny Glover, John Cusack) prominent whistle-blowers (Daniel Ellsberg, Joe Wilson, Thomas Drake, Colleen Rowley), and experts (Noam Chomsky, Juan Cole, and many others) launched a petition to President Rafael Correa to grant political asylum to Snowden. 

Yes, the Obama team has every reason to want this whole story to go away. But he may not find it so easy to get rid of it.

Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington, D.C. He is also president of Just Foreign Policy.