We may never know precisely how much damage Edward Snowden has done to the United States with his penchant for leaking sensitive security information, but it’s clear that he has put his own nation’s relationship with Russia in jeopardy at a time when the world needs them to be cooperating on multiple important issues.
Granted, there are serious-minded Americans who believe Snowden’s self-described “whistle-blowing” not only was defensible but actually constructive in that he provided proof that our government has been collecting far more data from everyone than had been previously acknowledged.
And so it is not unreasonable for the American people to engage in a respectful debate about the proper extent of such government surveillance and what appears to many to be an almost total lack of supervision over the program initiated, understandably, as a response to the tragedy of 9/11.
But, for a moment, put aside the intelligence issues Snowden’s behavior has raised (and their possible effects on national security) and consider how, because of his behavior and his flight from American justice, the tensions between the United States and Russia on such volatile issues as the brutal civil war in Syria, international missile deployment and even, indirectly, our nation’s rivalry with China, have been dangerously heightened.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to grant Snowden temporary (one year, but subject to renewal) political asylum was a calculated slap in America’s face and reminds Washington that the Russian leader, a former KGB agent, has very little interest in maintaining mutually respectful conversations with the United States in general and President Obama in particular.
In response, the White House has indicated that the president may cancel a scheduled get-together with Putin as the two leaders prepare for next week’s international summit gathering in Moscow. That would be an appropriate and symbolic gesture on Obama’s part, although it’s not clear how it would help resolve the controversy over Snowden or improve relations generally.
Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, Obama’s foe in the 2008 presidential election and long a leading critic of Moscow, urged the White House to crank up the pressure on Putin in various ways, including a renewed push to expand NATO and add new missile-defense programs in Europe, two moves the Russians have vigorously opposed in the past.
“Now is the time to fundamentally rethink our relationship with Putin’s Russia,” McCain declared, adding that Putin must face “serious repercussions” for granting Snowden asylum. “We need to deal with the Russia that is, not the Russia we might wish for.”
McCain’s points are well taken, although there is almost always a tendency on Capitol Hill to be more strident than is necessary in any confrontation with Moscow, and the president is almost certain to take a more measured approach and thus stand a better chance of ultimately getting his way.
In the meantime, Snowden — who claims he acted on behalf of the freedoms Americans treasure — will find himself living in a country where such freedoms are rare. He will be closely observed by the Russian security services — Putin pointedly warned him to cease releasing secret documents — and soon he may miss the kind of life he knew in America.
His Moscow lawyer, Anatoly Kucherena, told reporters Snowden has American friends in Russia “so everything will be OK.” Indeed, Kucherena added, Snowden will find plenty of job opportunities. Maybe so.
In his heart, Snowden may be an idealist, but by fleeing prosecution he proved he lacks principle. Besides, why should his judgment on critical security issues be trusted?
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