Comment: Does Snowden even exist?

WASHINGTON — Here’s a preview of a quote you’ll probably hear on this week’s edition of NPR’s “Wait Wait .


.. Don’t Tell Me”: “You know, I have serious questions about whether he really exists.”

Who’s the speaker? Edward Snowden, of course, speaking about none other than Edward Snowden.

Responding to allegations from certain truculent members of Congress that he’s in fact a Russian spy, Snowden sat down somewhere in cyberspace for an interview with the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer. Snowden denied the allegations leveled at him by Alabama’s Mike Rogers, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, calling claims that he’s in bed with Moscow’s intelligence services “absurd.”

Rogers, one of the more reliable Capitol Hill defenders of the intelligence community, has made it something of a mission to discredit Snowden. He’s called him a traitor and has repeatedly made the case that the Snowden disclosures have harmed U.S. national security. On Sunday, he went one step further and hinted on “Meet the Press” that Snowden might just be in the employ of the Russian security services. “I believe there’s a reason he ended up in the hands, the loving arms, of an FSB agent in Moscow,” Rogers fumed, referring to the KGB’s successor organization. “I don’t think it was a gee-whiz luck event that he ended up in Moscow under the handling of the FSB.”

And so to The New Yorker Snowden went. Rejecting Rogers’ claims, Snowden told the magazine that he had “clearly and unambiguously acted alone, with no assistance from anyone, much less a government.” He appeared untroubled by Rogers’ wild accusations, arguing that the charges “won’t stick” because they are “clearly false.” More importantly, “the American people are smarter than politicians think they are,” he said.

But Snowden is clearly frustrated with the quality of the media coverage around him. American officials, Snowden said, have been given largely free rein in the media to criticize him in all matter of ways, often without offering a shred of evidence.

Even The New York Times managed to spend 1,103 words reporting Rogers’ statements on Sunday, and parsing the debate over what evidence, if any, exists to indicate that Snowden had been working on behalf of a foreign government. Spoiler alert: There is none. Despite Rogers’ protestations to the contrary, The New York Times delivers an elegant death blow with the following line: “A senior F.B.I. official said on Sunday that it was still the bureau’s conclusion that Mr. Snowden acted alone.”

But what’s baffling isn’t that Rogers keeps trotting out these claims when he has no evidence to speak of — it’s why he still feels the need to do so at all. While Americans have by and large turned on the NSA as result of the Snowden disclosures, the whistleblower himself remains a highly divisive figure, according to a Pew poll released this week. Currently, 40 percent of Americans “approve of the government’s collection of telephone and internet data as part of anti-terrorism efforts.” Some 53 percent oppose it. In July 2013, those numbers were roughly reversed, with 50 percent in support and 44 percent disapproving.

Despite having grown uncomfortable with the activities of the NSA, Americans still support prosecuting Snowden. Americans are split on whether the leaks have served or harmed the public interest, at 45 percent to 43 percent, respectively. Nonetheless, Americans are in favor of pursuing criminal charges against Snowden by a margin of 56 to 32 percent. According to Pew, both Democrats and Republicans are divided on the question of prosecution, though younger people tend to be less likely to support the pursuit of criminal charges. Even among those who oppose the government’s surveillance efforts, the public remains divided on Snowden, with 45 percent saying they oppose his prosecution to 43 percent in support. In short, Americans don’t care all that much for Snowden.

And as Rogers is surely aware, the reforms likely to be adopted as a result of the Snowden disclosures aren’t going to have a meaningful impact on intelligence-gathering capabilities. The steps endorsed by President Obama largely amount to cosmetic changes geared more toward building public support of spying activities than curtailing the powers of the NSA. There’s little to indicate that reform efforts in Congress will have much more of an impact. Rogers, and his allies at Ft. Meade and Langley, can rest assured that while Snowden has changed public opinion on the issue of surveillance, the whistleblower hasn’t managed to strike a lethal blow at the intelligence community’s support in Washington.

With that in mind, Snowden’s hypothetical question takes on a new meaning. For the men and women who set intelligence policy in the United States, does Snowden really exist anymore?

(c) 2013, Foreign Policy.