Thanks to Obama’s famed “no drama” coolness, it’s hard to detect when he’s breaking a sweat. But if you look at the substance of his actions, it’s clear the President is losing his famed poise, at least as far as Snowden and the surveillance state revelations are concerned. I’m not sure yet whether his missteps are simply the result of personal obsession, or whether Obama recognizes he’s slipping into lame duck status, and his frustration with his declining power is most evident where he is most stressed, which is on the NSA revelations front.
One sign that Obama is off balance is his unforced errors in dealing with Russia. The bizarre assumption from the get-go seemed to be that Putin would cooperate and hand over Snowden once the Russian leader was prodded a bit. Given the status of US-Russian relations, that was borderline delusional. As Michael Hirsh explained:
In the decade after the Soviet Union’s collapse in late 1991, the United States offered up a lot of poor economic advice — high-minded tinkering by the free-market consultants at the Harvard Institute for International Development, as well as the IMF…
That era of mistrust of America led directly to era of Putin. Since then, despite various attempts at what former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called a “reset” of relations, the U.S. has tended to encourage Russian suspicions by generally treating “Russia as heir to the USSR’s policies and objectives,” Leslie Gelb and Dimitri Simes write in a new article in The National Interest…. “This creates an impression that the West’s top priorities, long after the Cold War, include not merely containing Russia but also transforming it.”
Putin cleared his throat early on and reminded the US that Russia had no extradition treaty with the US and in general did not extradite people. Packing Snowden off because the US asked for him was not on the table. Putin took the position that the Snowden wasn’t worth exploiting for his annoyance value to the US: “It’s like shearing a piglet: a lot of squealing and little wool.”
Notice that that formulation did not foreclose the possibility that Russia might exchange Snowden for individuals in the US that Russia wanted returned, such as ex-KGB agent Oleg Kalugin.
But no, Obama immediately rejected that possibility, by insisting that Russia was obligated under international law to hand over Snowden (funny how international law is operative when Obama needs it, and not in matters like Kalugin, the force-feeding of Gitmo detainees, or drone murders of children in Pakistan). He also said:
I’m not going to be scrambling jets to get a 29-year-old hacker…I have not called President Xi personally or President Putin personally and the reason is … No. 1, I shouldn’t have to.
No. 2, we’ve got a whole lot of business that we do with China and Russia, and I’m not going to have one case of a suspect who we’re trying to extradite suddenly being elevated to the point where I’ve got to start doing wheeling and dealing and trading on a whole host of other issues.
So what’s happened since then? Well, Obama didn’t scramble jets personally, but if you think the diversion of Evo Morales’ plane wasn’t America’s doing, I have a bridge I’d like to sell you. And even though Putin had said “no extradition” in the clearest manner possible, Obama wasn’t willing to get the message. I’ve pointed to this passage from Moon of Alabama a couple of times, but it deserves all the attention it can get:
Putin has made it clear from the very beginning that any extradition of Snowden is not going to happen. Fullstop. Russian officials have repeated that again and even today:
Asked by a reporter whether the government’s position had changed, Dmitry Peskov told Russian news agencies that “Russia has never extradited anyone and never will.”
Is that so difficult to understand? Why then is the U.S. even trying?
It seems that this an Obama personality issue. He personally asked Putin to extradite Snowden even after Putin had publicly (thereby leaving zero chance to later change that decision) said he would not. Now Obama is miffed. How can HE get rebuked by country like Russia?
Two weeks ago, Obama phoned Putin and asked him to send Snowden back to the U.S., but Putin refused, according to one official who was briefed on the call. Following that perceived rebuke, the Obama team doubled down on its new policy to show the Russian government the cold shoulder.
“The Snowden affair is definitely affecting U.S.-Russia relations, no question. When you make it clear that something is very important to the U.S. and we are asking for cooperation and that request is rejected, that rejection is going to have an impact on the broader relationship,” said Samuel Charap, senior fellow for Russia and Eurasia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “There’s only so many times you can thumb your nose at a U.S. president and not expect consequences. When the president himself has gotten involved personally and been rebuffed, the rule book kind of goes out the window.”
Ahh – the rule book is out of the window. Screw public diplomacy. Just don’t care how the world sees the U.S.. It is all about Obama miffed that Putin is “thumbing his nose” at him. Who is this President of the Russian Federation that dares to do so to King Obama of the United States?
Apparently Obama forgot Russia still has nukes.
Now that Obama has found out that he can’t push Putin around, it looks like the US is trying to offer up enough people Russia wants for them to turn over Snowden (hat tip Deontos):
But having downed the Morales plane, and after the developments of the last two weeks (more on that shortly), Obama has made his desperation to get Snowden abundantly clear. Moreover, perversely, dragging out any negotiations would make Snowden MORE valuable, as in the drip drip drip of continuing revelations (which are now under the Guardian and Greenwald’s control) will make the security state’s official powerlessness even more frustrating. So Putin is in the catbird seat. He can keep rejecting offers from the US and see how much they up the ante.
Now, while Snowden has come to assume undue symbolic importance (as in the real game has now moved to Greenwald and the Guardian, access to Snowden is nice to have but not necessary for the disclosures to continue), objectively, the Administration actually is already in a tough spot on this issue. NC readers have been unduly skeptical of the idea that the narrow defeat of the Amash amendment last week, which would have leashed and collared the security state, was kabuki. The Amash amendment would prohibit funds in the underlying appropriations bill for from use by the NSA for “collecting telephone and other records from anyone who is not the subject of an investigation.” The vote was 205 to 217.
This was a seismic event. Remember, that thanks to the pay to play system in both parties, the leadership in the House wields far more control over its members than it did 25 years ago. The leadership of both parties and the intelligence committee in the House opposed the amendment and whipped against it. The NSA’s Keith Alexander gave a classified briefing to members to tell representatives in no uncertain terms how awful the consequences of voting through the amendment would be. The White House issued a statement urging rejection of the amendment. I’m told no one in the House can recall a previous case of an Administration weighing in against an amendment. Members of the defense community made dire warnings in the media of how damaging passage would be to American interests. As one Congressional staffer told me, “They broke arms to get the votes on this.”
Shortly after the vote, Alan Grayson invited members to a session scheduled for the morning of Wednesday, July 31, in which Greenwald would testify via video link. Richard Clarke, the chairman of the Counter-terrorism Security Group and a member of the National Security Group, was also scheduled to participate. Within 24 hours of Grayson announcing the meeting, which got the expected considerable interest from members, Clarke withdrew. He initially claimed to have developed a scheduling conflict, but it became clear he’d gotten the Elizabeth Warren treatment from the Administration, of being offered an undisclosed goodie (not of monetary value, but of participation in an insider process) and he was told that participating in this session would preclude his involvement in the other initiative.
But that monkey wrench apparently wasn’t sufficient. The prospect of having Greenwald and other whistleblowers develop a direct relationship with members of Congress, who had just barely been kept on the reservation, was too threatening to Obama. Jane Hamsher tells us the denouement:
President Obama has historically considered the Hill some lower bardo of hell. One of the major complaints of congressional Democrats has always been that the President does not consult them or include them in shaping his legislative agenda, let alone stop by for a chin wag.
So imagine everyone’s surprise when the President suddenly announced he was coming to the Hill today to meet with all the Democrats – right before the August recess begins.
Coincidentally, this forced Alan Grayson to cancel the hearing on NSA activity scheduled for today, at which the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald was to testify. Grayson’s bipartisan hearing was organized to give critics of the NSA’s sweeping surveillance programs a chance to air their concerns, and stem the tide of “constant misleading information” coming from the intelligence community, per Grayson.
Specifically, the suddenly scheduled meeting was with the so-called Democratic Caucus. It not only directly conflicted with the Greenwald session, but given that this Congressional session ends Friday, it was impossible to reschedule it for later this week (as in no rooms were available). I’m told that Obama’s gambit is obvious to everyone on the Hill.
So consider what has happened: we have a sitting President who is treating a journalist as a personal threat and is going to extreme lengths to stymie him providing testimony to Congress. That of course has not deterred Greenwald. One of the points of the testimony Wednesday (technically, not a hearing) was for Greenwald to rebut statements made by Obama, James Clapper, and Keith Alexander that the NSA programs were limited:
If you have not yet seen the latest Greenwald release on Xkeyscore, time to catch up. The critical sections:
A top secret National Security Agency program allows analysts to search with no prior authorization through vast databases containing emails, online chats and the browsing histories of millions of individuals, according to documents provided by whistleblower Edward Snowden….
The files shed light on one of Snowden’s most controversial statements, made in his first video interview published by the Guardian on June 10.
“I, sitting at my desk,” said Snowden, could “wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant, to a federal judge or even the president, if I had a personal email”.
US officials vehemently denied this specific claim. Mike Rogers, the Republican chairman of the House intelligence committee, said of Snowden’s assertion: “He’s lying. It’s impossible for him to do what he was saying he could do.”
But training materials for XKeyscore detail how analysts can use it and other systems to mine enormous agency databases by filling in a simple on-screen form giving only a broad justification for the search. The request is not reviewed by a court or any NSA personnel before it is processed.
XKeyscore, the documents boast, is the NSA’s “widest reaching” system developing intelligence from computer networks – what the agency calls Digital Network Intelligence (DNI). One presentation claims the program covers “nearly everything a typical user does on the internet”, including the content of emails, websites visited and searches, as well as their metadata.
Analysts can also use XKeyscore and other NSA systems to obtain ongoing “real-time” interception of an individual’s internet activity.
As damaging as these revelations are, the NSA’s and now Obama’s refusals to deal honestly with Congress and stonewalling by impeding access to Greenwald (which Congresscritters are convinced of even though Obama can play faux innocent) are on the verge of backfiring. Recall that what brought Nixon down in Watergate and damaged Clinton in the Monica Lewinsky affair were not the events but the cover-up.
Here, the NSA and Administration seem unable to grok that Greenwald has the goods and he is going to proceed methodically with his releases of information. If the NSA knows what Snowden downloaded (as they assert they do) they should be well aware of what he can publish. Yet they persist in telling bald-faced lies that Greenwald is able to swat back with the NSA’s own materials.
The officialdom seems constitutionally unable to recognize that they can’t halt the process that is underway, short of, say, blowing up the Guardian or launching a coup (as in I am confident that both Greenwald and Snowden have gotten copies of critical materials into enough hands at the Guardian that the publication of documents would proceed even if something were to either of them). The surveillance state seem incapable of grasping that they might not win this fight, and if they don’t make an effort to get on this bus, they really could wind up under it.
Grayson’s hearing will take place in September. Obama’s delaying tactics, which will push the confab into fall prime time, might prove to be another own goal. Stay tuned.