WASHINGTON Three weeks ago, Edward Snowden told the Guardian newspaper that "the sense of outrage" over the secret surveillance programs he had disclosed "has given me hope that, no matter what happens to me, the outcome will be positive for America."
But now that hope is being undermined by one man: Edward Snowden. The 30-year-old computer whiz seems all too concerned about what happens to him and entirely unconcerned about what harm he does his country in securing his safety.
At the start, Snowden's revelations to the Guardian and The Washington Post promised to put him in the distinguished company of Daniel Ellsberg and others who exposed government wrongdoing. But rather than come home and face trial giving the nation the debate he claimed to seek about assaults on Americans' privacy he has allowed the story to become all about his life as a fugitive in Hong Kong and Moscow and his many asylum requests.
Along the way, Snowden teamed up with WikiLeaks, known for its indiscriminate dumping of classified material, and he has been revealing further government secrets that seem to serve no purpose other than embarrassing the United States and winning favor (so far unsuccessfully) with American rivals and foes. On Monday, a statement issued in Snowden's name by WikiLeaks accused President Obama of "political aggression" in opposing his asylum requests.
"The fixation on asylum is a huge distraction, and it contradicts what he was purporting to do," says constitutional lawyer Bruce Fein. That opinion should carry extra weight because Fein is representing Snowden's father, Lonnie.
In this capacity, Fein wrote to Attorney General Eric Holder last week to say the elder Snowden "is reasonably confident that his son would voluntarily return to the United States" if he had "a fair opportunity to explain his motivations and actions." Fein, an official in the Reagan administration, was a harsh critic of George W. Bush's warrantless wiretapping program and has described Edward Snowden as a "modern-day Paul Revere" for his initial disclosures.
But Fein agrees that the leaker is now harming his own cause. "What is happening is inconsistent with what he stated to (the Guardian's) Glenn Greenwald," Fein told me on Tuesday, "which is that he didn't do it for fame, glory and narcissism but to ask whether we are going to sacrifice our Fourth Amendment privacy rights for any claim of enhanced security our government makes. To that extent, he's undermining his goal." The legality of the National Security Agency's surveillance programs "is now a sideshow," Fein says. "If that's what he's about, this is an odd way to pursue it."
I still believe that Snowden was justified in leaking information about the NSA's snooping. The administration's collusion with the congressional intelligence committees had denied Americans the public debate they deserved about the trade-offs between security and privacy. "I do not want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded," Snowden told the Guardian in justifying the leaks. "That is not something I am willing to support or live under."
That was a noble sentiment, and his disclosures forced some lazy lawmakers to do their jobs, asking questions about the secret programs and proposing changes to the laws that authorize them. Had Snowden turned himself in, he would have found many defenders in his homeland; and if the government brought him to trial, the spectacle would have forced the national soul-searching Snowden claimed to be seeking.
Instead, he disclosed in China that the United States is hacking Chinese networks. He disclosed in Russia that the United States is spying on European allies. These aren't exactly shocking revelations, but neither are they the work of a patriotic whistle-blower. Worse, if Greenwald and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange are to be believed, Snowden has made copies of the files he took so that they can be published; that sounds less like the sort of selective leak that exposed the NSA surveillance than a flood designed to harm U.S. security.
A spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday that Snowden had withdrawn his request for asylum there because of Putin's (dubious) requirement that Snowden stop doing damage to the United States. WikiLeaks announced Tuesday that he's still seeking asylum for 20 other countries, including such bastions of freedom as China, Cuba and Venezuela.
"I do not expect to see home again," Snowden told the Guardian last month, "though that is what I want."
If so, and if he is not the traitor he is accused of being, he will come home.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.