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Published: Monday, June 2, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

Edward Snowden, Moscow’s accidental tourist

National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden has found the court of public opinion to be far more receptive than a court of law. He conducts the occasional interview with seemingly sympathetic journalists. NBC News aired one such interview with anchorman Brian Williams on Wednesday night. “Do you see yourself as a patriot?” Williams asked.
“I do,” answered Snowden, now 30. He was just trying to protect the country and the Constitution “from the encroachment of adversaries -- and those adversaries don't have to be foreign countries.”
Dianne Feinstein, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, was having none of it. “In many respects, I think that he's guilty of espionage,” the senator from California told the San Francisco Chronicle's editorial board Thursday. “I do not regard him as a whistle-blower.” Snowden should return to the United States to stand trial, she said.
Feinstein must be frustrated. Every so often, Snowden pops up with his butter-wouldn't-melt-in-his-mouth face. On the one hand, he is supposed to be super-smart on tech. He was brave to leak a guesstimated 1.7 million classified documents — and then reveal his identity to the superpower government that he had so clearly outsmarted. You have to give him credit for the courage of his convictions.
On the other hand, he makes claims that defy credulity. He said he is surprised he ended up in Russia. He never meant for that to happen. But he's not worried that the Russians will try to squeeze information from him, because he didn't bring any intelligence with him.
Paradoxically, Snowden also told Williams that he “was trained as a spy” and that he worked undercover overseas. That's not the expected profile for an innocent abroad.
Snowden argued that the government cannot “show a single individual who's been harmed in any way” by his leaks. That's a clever statement — and safe. He knows that the government doesn't name assets or operatives who have been harmed because of leaks. The intelligence community is wedded to secrecy, even when it undermines its own damaged credibility.
When I threw out Snowden's name-one-person challenge to George Washington University international affairs professor Amitai Etzioni, he countered, “Name one person who has been harmed by the NSA.” Before I could say German Chancellor Angela Merkel — U.S. intelligence reportedly tapped her cellphone — Etzioni stipulated that the one person had to be an American. His point was taken: Leaking is, for the most part, a crime against institutions.
Surely, Snowden understands that his release of U.S. intelligence techniques has damaged Foggy Bottom's relations with allies and, worse, tipped off terrorist organizations to methods that can help them avoid detection. His decision to leak was not a victimless crime. For all his daring, Snowden doesn't dare acknowledge the price of his hijacking of U.S. intelligence.
Snowden has maintained that he had to leak documents because the NSA ignored his protests about what he considered illegal practices. Most recently, Snowden told Williams that when he complained to the NSA, “the response, more or less, in bureaucratic language, was, ‘You should stop asking questions.'”
On Thursday, Feinstein released an April 8, 2013, email that Snowden sent to the NSA Office of the General Counsel. Hardly a jeremiad of moral misgivings about surveillance, it's a bureaucratic query asking a government attorney to clarify questions about executive orders superseding federal statute. A hierarchy of governing authority lists the U.S. Constitution on top, followed by “federal statutes/presidential executive orders.” Snowden wrote rather daintily, “I'm not entirely certain, but this does not seem correct, as it seems to imply Executive Orders have the same precedence as law.” Weak tea, that.
It's not as if Snowden doesn't know how to be blunt. In March, he swiped at Feinstein for condemning a CIA search of her Senate committee's computers. In a statement to NBC, he lamented that an “elected official does not care at all that the rights of millions of ordinary citizens are violated by our spies, but suddenly it's a scandal when a politician finds out the same thing happens to them.”
It is instructive that the far-seeing Snowden never thought to save or leak documents in which he was supposed to have raged against the machine. Snowden has erected a shaky house of sticks to justify his decision to screw national security. It only stands because it is shielded from the elements.
Email Debra J. Saunders at dsaunders@sfchronicle.com

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Herald Editorial Board

Peter Jackson, Opinion Editor: pjackson@heraldnet.com (@PeterJHerald)

Carol MacPherson, Editorial Writer: cmacpherson@heraldnet.com

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