In 1927 Time magazine started an annual tradition it called “Man of the Year.” More recently this was changed to “Person of the Year who, “for better or for worse has done the most to influence events of the year.”
As I write in early August, I cannot of course know who will do what between now and the end of 2013. But the editors of the magazine might be hard pressed to find anyone between now and then who has done more to “influence events of the year” than the man who came out of nowhere, Edward Snowden.
Until recently, Edward Snowden was never known by anyone for much of anything. He was not in any case, by any definition, a leader. He was entirely without power, without authority, and without influence. But by leaking U. S. intelligence data he has become, “for better or for worse,” a person of great influence, a person who has changed the conversation at home and abroad. Leaders as conventionally defined – including the president of the United States, members of Congress, heads of various agencies such as the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency – have had no choice to bend to the man from nowhere, to change course in response to what he did.
When I say that Snowden changed the conversation I do not exaggerate. To be sure, the tension between our privacy interests and our security interests goes all the way back, and after the attacks on 9/11 it heightened. Still, more often than not it was a simmering issue, not a burning one. More often than not neither the American government nor the American people paid the debate much mind.
Until Snowden. It’s fair to say that since Snowden’s renegade decision to reveal the vast scope of the NSA’s electronic surveillance, the debate over this issue has been revived and, to understate it, reinvigorated. Moreover the government, the Obama administration, has been forced to backtrack at near warp speed. The Justice Department just acknowledged that even in a terrorism prosecution it must tell defendants when sweeping snooping is being used to build a case against them. The administration just declassified and released documents that describe past violations by the National Security Agency of a secret court order. And James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, was caught lying to the Congress. Well, maybe not lying, exactly. Here is James Banford on the putative distinction between an outright lie and doublethink. “Following the revelations of the phone-log program in which the NSA collects telephone data – the numbers of both callers and the length of the calls – on hundreds of millions of Americans, Clapper switched to doublethink. He said that his previous answer was not a lie; he just chose to respond in the ‘least truthful manner.’ With such an Orwellian concept of the truth now being used, it is useful to take a look at what the government has been telling the public about its surveillance activities over the years, and compare it with what we know now as a result of the top secret documents and other information released by, among others, the former NSA contract employee Edward Snowden.” (New York Review, 8/15/13)
For once members of Congress veritably sprang into action, quick to take up the issues that Snowden’s revelations had brought to the forefront. The movement to crack down on government surveillance began with two Congressmen from Michigan, who normally are at odds, but not on this. In short order so many other members of the House rushed to join them, that a vote to defund the NSA’s telephone data collection program was just seven short of passage. The press was similarly beginning to question if it made sense to vilify Snowden, when it was he who revealed information that the American people arguably should have had in the first place. And, the American people themselves were largely in support of Snowden. Over 55% thought him a whistleblower and only 34 % a traitor – though this was before he was given a year’s asylum in Russia.
This moves us from domestic to foreign affairs. Snowden did not just change the national debate he changed the international one as well, particularly as it pertains to the relationship between the United States and Russia. One of my very favorites, Vladimir Putin, gave the OK for Snowden to get the protection of the Kremlin. So, what to do now? How should the Obama administration respond to yet another Putin snub, yet another embarrassing blow to the president’s now nearly forgotten effort to “reset” the relationship between the Washington and Moscow?
Whatever his ultimate fate – and in spite of his dubious decision to seek comfort from a thug – Edward Snowden has made his mark. It is impossible to imagine a simple reversion to what was – just as it is impossible to imagine the Obama administration will be spared the judgment of history by so aggressively pursuing those who leak government secrets that do not in any clear and obvious way aid the enemy.
In fairness, for anyone in a position of authority, this is a devilishly difficult call. Just today the State Department issued a heightened terror alert, a reminder if any were needed of threat. As well, the alert is itself testimony to how people with power as conventionally understood have become highly vulnerable to those without – to those like candidate for person of the year, Edward Snowden.