As we have previously noted, the Obama administration has reversed course, seeking to lower the profile of the Snowden case after its threats against Russia, Ecuador, and Hong Kong backfired and after apparently realizing that public support for Snowden remains high despite a U.S. government-led effort to demonize him in the media. This has resulted in a litany of mixed messages from senior administration officials.
The Guardian and AP reported on Saturday that when asked about Snowden, Ambassador Susan Rice, who yesterday began her new position as National Security Adviser, had responded that “I don't think the diplomatic consequences, at least as they are foreseeable now, are that significant.” But, the AP reported, “U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have called Snowden's leaks a serious breach that damaged national security. Hagel said Thursday an assessment of the damage is being done now.”
AP also noted that Rice attempted to do damage control, responding to “commentators who say Snowden's disclosures have made Obama a lame duck, damaged his political base, and hurt U.S. foreign policy.”
Rice’s statements on Snowden – which were made before revelations in Der Spiegel regarding U.S. spying on the E.U. – also contrast with rhetoric from top legislators, both Democrats and Republicans. Senator Dianne Feinstein has accused Snowden of “treason,” and House Speaker John Boehner called him a “traitor.”
The change in the White House’s tone came last week as Obama told reporters during his visit to Senegal, “I'm not going to be scrambling jets to get a 29-year-old hacker,” and “I get you that it’s a fascinating story for the press,” …but “in terms of U.S. interests, the damage was done with respect to the initial leaks.”
The shift in message – and Obama’s clear signal that the media should stop making Snowden such a big story - was also not lost on the press, who asked administration officials about it last week:
It just seems a little bit like a downgrading of the language. I mean, Secretary Kerry was calling him a "traitor to his nation," and now the President is saying, you know, he's a 29-year-old hacker. So does that signify some sort of change in the view from the United States on him?
We’ve been hearing for all this time so much concern about what Snowden still has on those hard drives, the knowledge that he has. The President today seemed to suggest that basically the worst of the damage is already done with what he’s already leaked out. Is that our feeling now, there’s not much more that he has?
Professor of International Affairs Michael Brenner also commented on Obama’s about-face in The Huffington Post yesterday in a post titled “Obama Debunks the White House”:
The Snowden storm has suddenly and surprisingly been reduced to a zephyr -- at least as far as the Obama White House in concerned. No longer the diabolical traitor who has put America in peril, he has been reduced to the verbal status of a "hacker" by the president himself.
In shifting his position, Brenner notes that Obama also appears to be dropping stated plans to address the debate over national security and surveillance overreach started by Snowden’s leaks:
So what about the national debate/conversation on domestic spying that Obama solemnly promised just a week ago? Gone with the fickle winds of a denatured White House. He did show up on Charlie Rose a week ago but the president plans no further address to the nation. Some sort of sponsored workshop of experts and academics is in the works around July 9. We are reassured though by Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes that Obama will get around to it. Indeed, we are told: "It's something the president wanted to get to; privacy concerns certainly have been on his mind." It's "just not been at the forefront." I guess we should keep our eyes on the Oprah Show this summer.