How Edward Snowden Is Helping Obama

The NSA leaker's travels through China, Russia and beyond will tilt public perception in the president's favor.

President Obama (Getty Images); Edward Snowden (handout/Getty Images)
President Obama (Getty Images); Edward Snowden (handout/Getty Images)

You can’t blame Snowden for leaving town, but you don’t have to think that he’s a traitor (I don’t) to still be put off by the fact that he chose (China-controlled) Hong Kong and Russia — our erstwhile “frenemies” — as the first stops on his escape route, rather than heading straight to Ecuador, where he’s seeking asylum now. It’s a sequence that makes it look as if his agenda included more than just starting an earnest civil liberties debate.

And when it comes to that debate, Snowden looks a little less like a freedom fighter and a little more like a dilettante now that it’s been reported that just a few years ago, he was denouncing anyone who leaked classified information — saying that anyone who did the same thing he’s doing now should be “shot in the balls.”

Presumably, he doesn’t think so anymore.

But most significant for the president now is that although people on both sides of the aisle are disturbed by the NSA revelations, a debate about whether he’s been too aggressive in the war on terror is one that he’ll take because it plays against how he’s been typecast by foes for years: as a weak-kneed socialist who’s unwilling to prosecute the war on terror.

And now that the issue’s out in the open, the onus falls on Congress and the courts to rein in the administration’s security policy, since any American president — past, present and probably future — would almost always rather be called too aggressive than too weak.

Because if you think the NSA furor is bad, just imagine if Obama had curtailed its surveillance program — and then some sort of terror attack that might otherwise have been foiled had happened shortly thereafter.

Obama might be the one they’d call traitor — and Snowden might still work at the NSA.

David Swerdlick is a contributing editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.