The speech by President Obama last week represented a significant point, possibly a turning point, in the Edward Snowden debate. The President’s admission that, in certain cases, the power of the intelligence agencies needs to reined in and monitored was a step towards admitting that Snowden might have been right to take extreme measures. Of course it is not the whole argument, not by a long chalk, but it seriously undermined those in the intelligence world who claim that Snowden is simply a traitor and nothing more. It was the first step on a road which might eventually see Edward welcomed back to the country of his birth as a man who did something deeply questionable, but which had to be done.
It was no surprise that in the following days the intelligence machine struck back. The next phase of the attack was led by what might described as “the usual suspects” – Mike Rogers, Dianne Feinstein, Michael McCaul, etc – right wing hawks in Congress who reject any idea of limiting the intelligence empire of their friends. The new line of attack is to suggest that Snowden may have been secretly working for the Russians all along. No evidence was put forward, but there was plenty of innuendo along the line of “we suspect” and “the matter is under investigation”. Here is an example from Mike Rogers: “Some of the things we’re finding we would call clues that certainly would indicate to me that he had some help.” Could he be more vague?
You can see why they have chosen to do this: since they are losing the civil liberities argument as nations all around the world decide that there must be some limits on intrusions into the privacy of ordinary citizens, the intelligence agencies are going to attack Snowden in a way which will leave him in the impossible position of trying to prove a negative. How can he prove definitively that he wasn’t working for a foreign power? You simply can’t do it. And supporters of the intelligence empire will make sure that there is plenty more innuendo to keep the accusation alive. It is all rather similar to the “birthers” movement who claim that Obama was not born in the United States. It doesn’t matter how much evidence to the contrary you produce it will never be enough. But in the view of the intelligence agencies it is better to smear Snowden in the hope that he will not become an example to whistle blowers in the future rather than admit that perhaps, because of the extraordinary technological advances the world has seen in recent years, this was a debate that had to be held for the sake of us all. It would not have been held if it had not been for the actions of Edward Snowden.