Snowden out in the cold
His flight from his NSA surveillance job in Hawaii to Hong Kong, while causing shock and distress to the Obama administration, at first came off as another example of a fed-up insider deciding his country was in the wrong and letting let his conscience be his guide.
When Snowden for unclear reasons decided to go to Moscow, ostensibly as only an interim stopover en route to some other willing haven such as Ecuador or Cuba, the veneer of political purity in which he sought to wrap himself began to fray. And when a Russian consular officer at the Moscow International Airport reported that the visitor detained in its transit zone had requested Russian asylum, the veil seemed to fall away.
After a carefully orchestrated revelation of surveillance secrets to Britain's Guardian newspaper and The Washington Post, Snowden self-casted himself as a patriot in sheep's clothing. But he started looking more like an old-fashioned Commie tool left over from fantasies of the Joe McCarthy era.
President Obama sought to avoid Snowden elevating himself as an equivalent player in a developing international drama. He dismissed him as a communications "hacker" who wasn't going to influence U.S. foreign policy. The president deigned to let him become a player by even discussing the matter with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Instead, Snowden's American passport was revoked and Vice President Joe Biden was delegated to ask Ecuador's President Rafael Correa to extradite the leaker to the United States if he showed up in his country.
Putin, meanwhile, ever on the lookout for a chance to embarrass what he cheekily referred to as "our U.S. partners," said, "Russia never extradites anyone anywhere." As far as Putin would go was to hint that while Snowden might be allowed to stay, it would be on "one condition" that he "stop his work undermining" the American government.
Snowden for his part strove to reinforce his martyrdom by saying the lifting of his American passport rendered him "a stateless person," as if his application for Russian asylum had not been an invitation to that action.
Neither has Snowden reinforced his claim to a patriot's halo by allying with the Wikileaks' Julian Assange, in asylum at the Ecuador embassy in London under similar allegations of having revealed classified security information. So far, at least, Snowden has eschewed the practice of some other supposedly principled whistleblowers, surrendering to the authorities and facing the music in defense of his alleged principles.
It's always an uphill battle for any whistleblower to earn a good name from a wide audience for an act of defiance against powerful government interests. Even Daniel Ellsberg, who released the voluminous Pentagon Papers revealing American deceptions and foolhardy administration policies and decisions in the course of the Vietnam War, took as many darts as laurels, or more, for his troubles.
As damaging to American national security as Snowden's revelations may be, and as concerned as the Obama administration may be about possible further disclosures of the NSA's snooping program, the president cannot afford to let this particular whistleblower have any influence whatever on how he handles the matter.
However the self-induced drama of Edward Snowden plays out, the president has his hands full explaining to the American people why they have been left in the dark so long about the reach of this secret spying apparatus, and why the extent of it has been imperative.
(Jules Witcover's latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). You can respond to this column at firstname.lastname@example.org.)