Tinker, Tailor, Snowden, Spy?

MOSCOW – A worldwide media frenzy has turned the plight of the rogue American intelligence analyst Edward Snowden into something resembling a John le Carré novel, full of suspense and intrigue. Whose spy is he? Who will grant him asylum? Will he be able to outmaneuver the National Security Agency as it attempts to force him to return to the United States to stand trial on charges of theft and espionage? And what will US President Barack Obama say to his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, at their scheduled meeting in Moscow – where Snowden is currently taking refuge at Sheremetyevo Airport – this September?

The real espionage, however, lies not in Snowden’s decision to release NSA secrets, but in the surveillance programs that he exposed. The leaked information highlighted the West’s long-ignored failure to strike an informed balance between security and liberty. Current political and economic uncertainty has exacerbated the situation, driving policymakers to settle on simplistic solutions that, as Snowden made starkly apparent, can undermine the values that the West espouses.

This is not true only in the US and the United Kingdom, which happen to be entangled in the Snowden scandal. The reluctant responses by Germany and France to evidence that the NSA has been conducting unprecedented surveillance of their officials indicate that Europe’s governments may also be involved. Indeed, it now appears that America has shared its intelligence trove with Germany’s spy services when needed.

So far, Obama’s handling of the Snowden affair shows that he places more stock in the logic of security than in adherence to principle. Coming from a president who won global sympathy – and a Nobel Peace Prize – for his moral stance, the claim that the NSA’s activities are justified because “that’s how intelligence services operate” is particularly disappointing.