The NSA surveillance story is evolving from one of outrage-by many Americans upon learning that their government has, to cut to the chase, been spying on them, and by many in the political establishment because a mid-level contractor has told this to the world, to one of bad comedy. The story is now one of the U.S. trying to figure out where Snowden is, what flights he did or did not board and what countries are going to sympathize with the U.S. and turn Snowden over to the American authorities. It feels like a global game of where's Edward with the U.S. cast as the incompetent detective.
This entire episode has been bad for the U.S. for several reasons, but one that has been largely overlooked it the extent to which it makes the U.S. look weak. Spying on citizens, tracking their phone calls and other communications is what one expects from vulnerable authoritarian regimes, not from governments claiming to be the leaders of the free world. Strong countries have a functioning modern state that can assure secrecy and do not seek to cut fiscal corners by contracting out key functions to private companies who often enjoy useful ties to current and former government officials. Again, this kind of incompetence and weak state is not what the most powerful country in the world should be projecting.
If a similar thing had occurred in another country, particularly one that was not on good terms with the U.S., the news about surveillance would be described by the U.S. government and most of the American media as prima facie evidence of a non-democratic regime in that country. The role played by private contractors would be presented as evidence of a weak state, low accountability and a degree of cronyism or corruption. It is not surprising that the U.S. media has not focused on these issues with regards to Snowden, but these points are not lost on the rest of the world.
The U.S. is further projecting weakness by seeking to portray itself as a victim. Much of the world, including many in the U.S., look at these revelations and become very concerned about a superpower which apparently has been gathering information and tracking the behavior of millions of people both inside and outside its borders. For these people, the U.S. needs to be held accountable for its activities, or at least recognize what they have been doing. The U.S., however, and rather appallingly, appears to see itself as a country that has been betrayed by a rogue contractor perhaps in cahoots with Russia, China or somebody else.
More strikingly, the U.S. has proved unable to convince any of these countries to support its position and help bring Snowden back to the U.S. The U.S. looks weak when one rather obscure contractor can pose what the government presents as a serious security breach, and looks even weaker when it cannot even find that contractor or have him returned to the U.S. The efforts to apprehend Snowden, replete with unsuccessful efforts to determine in what country he is hiding or what flight he is boarding are beginning to make the NSA look like the Keystone Kops.
The U.S. is the most powerful country in the world and frequently presents itself as the arbiter, in one form or another, of what is just, legal and democratic, not just within our borders but globally. Portraying Snowden as a national security threat, traitor or criminal, and the U.S. as Snowden's victim, undermines U.S. credibility in these matters. Anybody who has listened to U.S. rhetoric on democracy and freedom can more or less plainly see that even, and perhaps particularly, by American standards, Snowden should not be considered a criminal. By insisting, with little success, that the rest of the world see him this way, the U.S. government isolates itself and stakes out a position defined by hypocrisy and an inability to admit its own wrongdoing.
The series of decisions that got the U.S. to this point is also troubling because it reflects poor judgment as well as a myopia and lack of perspective at almost every step along the way. Did the people who made the decisions to authorize the NSA surveillance program really think that such widespread surveillance was necessary, helpful or consistent with the values of a free society? Did the decision makers think this would remain secret, particularly when poorly vetted contractors were given access to important information? Did they think the rest of the world would hurry to cooperate with efforts to apprehend Snowden rather than be outraged about the surveillance itself? These poor decisions have damaged the U.S. image and credibility abroad more than Snowden could have.