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Edward Snowden's 'Amazing Race'

The longer former National Security Agency contract employee Edward Snowden stays holed up in the transit area of Moscow's Sheremetyevo International Airport while Russian President Vladimir Putin cynically proclaims him a martyr to freedom of speech and expression, the less Mr. Snowden looks like a hero and the more he looks like a traitor, a spy and a rogue employee intent on betraying his country's secrets for the self-aggrandizing rewards of fleeting celebrity. Whatever pretense he once may have had of occupying the moral high ground of principled civil disobedience has evaporated.

Mr. Snowden burst from obscurity onto the international stage two weeks ago when he was identified as the source of documents leaked to the Washington Post and Britain's Guardian newspaper that revealed the existence of a massive electronic eavesdropping program carried out by the NSA. Subsequently, administration officials claimed that the agency broke no laws, that its surveillance was vetted by the courts and that it was necessary in the government's ongoing efforts to ferret out suspected foreign terrorists.

Whether Americans believe that or not, the news that the NSA was secretly tracking the phone records, emails and Internet use of millions of innocent Americans dominated the news cycle for nearly a week. But then the focus rapidly shifted to Mr. Snowden's motives in outing the program. Initially he claimed that he wanted to spark a national debate over the government's unwarranted intrusions into the private lives of Americans and that he leaked the material because of his belief that Americans should know what the government was doing in their name.

Years before, Mr. Snowden had decried the leaking of classified secrets as traitorous. But from a hotel room in Hong Kong, where he had fled, Mr. Snowden justified his violation of the espionage laws as an act of civil disobedience against what he called his government's unlawful activities and added that he was willing to face the consequences of sticking to his principles. When American authorities asked Hong Kong authorities to hold him for extradition, Mr. Snowden forgot about facing the consequences and fled to Moscow instead.

That set off a diplomatic contretemps between the U.S. and China, which allowed Mr. Edwards to leave Hong Kong unmolested, as well as the Russians, who insist, absurdly, that since Mr. Snowden remains in the airport's transit area he technically isn't in their country at all and therefore can't be arrested.

Mr. Snowden's ultimate destination is thought to be Cuba or Ecuador. The latter, which has also offered sanctuary to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange at its embassy in London for the past year, says it is considering granting Mr. Snowden political asylum if he can manage to get himself there without being apprehended en route.

Since neither China or Russia — nor Ecuador, for that matter — are known for their tolerance of free speech and expression among their own citizens, the irony of their pious defense of Mr. Snowden from persecution in the U.S. is especially galling. The truth is the former NSA worker handed them a golden opportunity to stick it to the U.S., and they gleefully pounced on it.

Thus what began as a purported attempt to spark a broad public dialogue about the legality and extent of U.S. surveillance programs has ended up as a higher stakes version of "The Amazing Race" with Mr. Snowden as the star. The four laptop computers full of American secrets Mr. Snowden is said to be carrying — and who knows where those will end up? — have become mere props in a bad drama that milks a legitimate issue regarding the tension between government's violation of privacy rights and its duty to protect citizens from terrorist attack for its last drop of entertainment value.

Meanwhile, weighty matters of national security requirements, bureaucratic overreaching and the erosion of Americans' trust in their privacy rights in the digital age have taken a back seat to the made-for-TV saga of the elusive Mr. Snowden's efforts to evade justice, helped by a trio of brutally repressive nations who have turned out to be no friends of the U.S. Suddenly the whole show is all about Mr. Snowden, and one begins to suspect that was what he wanted all along.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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