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As tensions with Russia escalate over the NSA whistleblower's status, what real options does the president still have?
BUZZARDS BAY, Mass. — Who would win a popularity contest between President Barack Obama and Edward Snowden?
Both men inspire strong emotions across the spectrum, and both men have a lot to lose. But at the moment, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden seems to be pulling ahead in the all-important arena of public opinion.
Social media was abuzz Friday as Snowden invited reporters and human rights activists to an impromptu press conference held in the transit lounge of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport, where Snowden has been a de facto prisoner since June 23.
He has no documents with which to enter Russia, and the State Department has revoked his passport, making it impossible for him to hop a plane for one of the three Latin American countries — Bolivia, Nicaragua, Venezuela — that have offered him asylum.
His public appearance did not please the White House: spokesman Jay Carney called the media circus a “propaganda platform” and hinted that Washington would look askance at the Kremlin’s cooperation in staging the event.
“Providing a propaganda platform for Mr. Snowden runs counter to the Russian government’s previous declarations of Russia’s neutrality and that they have no control over his presence in the airport,” said Carney. “It’s also incompatible with Russian assurances that they do not want Mr. Snowden to further damage US interests.”
In fact, Obama felt compelled to do something he had avoided up to this point: he brought up the matter of Snowden’s status in a phone call with Russian president Vladimir Putin on Friday.
Details of the phone call were scarce; the White House simply said “The two leaders noted the importance of US-Russian bilateral relations and discussed a range of security and bilateral issues, including the status of Mr. Edward Snowden and cooperation on counter-terrorism in the lead-up to the Sochi Winter Olympics.”
There was no immediate change in Snowden’s status.
Given the famously frosty relations between the two presidents, it is not surprising that a direct appeal did not bear fruit. Russia, in fact, seems to be delighting in Washington’s discomfort, with human rights ombudsman Vladimir Lukin expressing a willingness to meet with his country’s most famous guest.
“I want to hear him out and then think what should be done,” Lukin told Russian media Friday. “I think international organizations should take up this question. Snowden now is clearly in the situation of being a refugee from his country.”
After decades of enduring bashing by US activists on human rights grounds, Moscow may be excused for a little schadenfreude.
“Snowden has united Latin America against the West,” crowed Russian television.
Indeed, the White House seems to have little sway with its neighbors to the South, many of whom chafe at Washington’s supposed hegemony in the Americas. Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia have all offered Snowden asylum in the face of Washington pressure. The NSA leaker will have his pick of South American refuges — if only he can get there.
Ecuador had initially seemed a likely destination, but Quito cooled on the idea after a phone call to the country’s president, Rafael Correa, by Vice President Joe Biden. Ecuador has its hands full with Wikileaks founder Julian Assange camped out in its embassy in London, and may not relish the thought of still more complications.
Both sides in the uneven battle seem to be getting desperate; Snowden has been pushed into asking Russia for asylum, which would at least allow him to get out of the airport while he awaits safe passage to Latin America.
Russia had earlier expressed a willingness to consider granting Snowden refuge, provided that the young man accedes to the Kremlin’s request that he “stop harming our American partners.”
Snowden at first balked at any conditions, but now may be more amenable. The Kremlin, however, says it has not yet received a formal request.
Snowden, of course, is the man behind the huge snooping scandal; he released details of two government programs that collect metadata on Americans’ phone calls, as well as a wide-ranging program to spy on foreigners. There has been sharp and negative reaction from many US allies, including Europeans who were galled to learn that the United States had bugged their trade delegations at important international meetings
The scandal has damaged the United States’ prestige in the world, and Washington is baying for blood. It has charged Snowden under the Espionage Act of 1917, and is insisting that he be extradited to the United States as a felon.
Activists at the meeting suggest that Snowden is ready to agree to just about anything to get out of Moscow.
But he was unbowed on Friday; he did not apologize for his actions, saying that he acted in accordance with his conscience.
“I did what I believed right and began a campaign to correct this wrongdoing,” he said in a statement released Friday. “I did not seek to enrich myself. I did not seek to sell US secrets. I did not partner with any foreign government to guarantee my safety. Instead, I took what I knew to the public, so what affects all of us can be discussed by all of us in the light of day, and I asked the world for justice.”
Snowden’s present agreement may be more semantic acrobatics than a change of heart.
“No actions I take or plan are meant to harm the US,” he said on Friday. “I want the US to succeed.”
Glenn Greenwald, the journalist for the UK’s Guardian newspaper, to whom Snowden has given a large cache of documents, said that he would be “unlikely” to stop publishing the material.
“I can't foresee anything that would or could stop me from further reporting on the NSA documents I have," Greenwald told POLITICO on Friday. "There are many more domestic stories coming, and big ones, and soon."
So it does not appear that any simple resolution is in sight.
The scandal is not doing Obama’s reputation any good, or Snowden’s much harm.
According to a Quinnipiac University poll released last Wednesday, more than half of respondents see Snowden as a whistleblower, rejecting Washington’s view that he is a traitor. This represents a significant shift in attitudes among the US population.
At the same time, the president’s job approval rating is heading for new lows. According to Rasmussen Reports, Obama’s job approval rating is now -16, meaning that only 22 percent of respondents strongly approved of his performance, while 38 percent strongly disapproved. While this is not an all-time nadir, it is hardly encouraging.
The battle is far from equal: Obama has the law and the power of the nation on his side; Snowden is armed only with his unshakeable sense of right and wrong — and a trove of classified information that might still prove enormously damaging to his country’s image.
David’s slingshot is heavily loaded, and Goliath is looking a little weak in the knees.