If there were any doubts as to how President Obama feels about Edward Snowden, he laid them all to rest in a Friday news conference, dismissing the NSA whistleblower as no patriot.
At times, the White House has seemed content to take a back seat in efforts to discredit Snowden, but taken together, the collected statements of Obama and his lieutenants indicate that the administration is no longer happy to watch from the sidelines.
Here is a thematic guide to the Obama administration’s war of words in the Snowden saga.
With a cutting remark — "No, I don’t think Mr. Snowden was a patriot" — Obama weighed in on a debate that has roiled Washington: Can Snowden’s decision to blow the whistle be squared with his decision to seek refuge in Russia?
For a president steeped in the language and history of the civil rights movement, which made extensive use of civil disobedience and whose leaders frequently broke the law and faced stiff jail sentences, Obama’s sense of annoyance at Snowden’s decision to leave the country was perhaps not surprising. "If in fact he believes that what he did was right, then like every American citizen he can come here, appear before a court with a lawyer, and make his case," Obama said. That generation of activists often found succor at the federal courts, and Obama’s statement serves as an open invitation to Snowden to prove his point. The president here seems to be asking Snowden, If you have such a strong case to make that the Constitution has been violated, why not stay and vindicate yourself before the courts? To do otherwise, Obama contends, would simply be unpatriotic.
"A 29-year-old hacker"
Prior to Friday, Obama was eager to downplay the entire Snowden saga. "I get why it’s a fascinating story," he said during a trip to Senegal in June. "I’m sure there will be a made-for-TV movie somewhere down the line." The implication? Snowden doesn’t rise to the level of a real geopolitical concern, and, no, Obama was not going to be exercising real political muscle to extradite him. "No, I am not going to be scrambling jets to get a 29-year-old hacker," he told reporters. That he would describe Snowden as a "29-year-old hacker" spoke for itself. This was a man, the president felt, who neither deserved his attention nor merited praise.
In his Friday press conference, Obama described the revelations surrounding the NSA’s activities as "sometimes coming out sideways," a not so subtle dig at the accuracy of the reports. Obama’s low profile on the issue has kept him from hitting back at the media outlets reporting the Snowden revelations, but on Friday he made clear that he wasn’t happy with their reports. "What we have seen is information come out in dribs and in drabs, sometimes coming out sideways," he said. "Once the information is out, the administration comes in, tries to correct the record, but by that time it’s too late or we’ve moved on. And a general impression has I think taken hold not only among the American public but also around the world that somehow we are out there willy-nilly just sucking in information on everybody and doing what we please with it. Now, that is not the case."
Does the president have a point here? Sure, reports have at times not been crystal clear, but that is the nature of journalism, and if it weren’t for the Snowden disclosures, we would never be having a debate about the proper scope of the NSA’s powers. That’s a price the president has to pay.
Neither human rights activist nor dissident
With Snowden holed up for weeks in the Moscow airport, the world has been transfixed by the question of whether the whistleblower would be granted asylum. That’s a debate the Obama administration finds entirely tiresome. "Mr. Snowden is not a human rights activist or a dissident," White House spokesman Jay Carney argued at a July press briefing. "He is accused of leaking classified information, has been charged with three felony counts, and should be returned to the United States, where he will be accorded full due process."
So if Snowden is neither a patriot, a human rights activist, nor a dissident — labels that he would probably all ascribe to himself — what is he, according to the Obama administration? In Secretary of State John Kerry’s blunt formulation, he might just be a killer. "People may die as a consequence of what this man did," he said in June.