National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden has found the court of public opinion to be far more receptive than a court of law. He conducts the occasional interview with seemingly sympathetic journalists. NBC News aired one such interview with anchorman Brian Williams on Wednesday night. "Do you see yourself as a patriot?" Williams asked.
"I do," answered Snowden, now 30. He was just trying to protect the country and the Constitution "from the encroachment of adversaries -- and those adversaries don't have to be foreign countries."
Dianne Feinstein, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, was having none of it. "In many respects, I think that he's guilty of espionage," the senator from California told the San Francisco Chronicle's editorial board Thursday. "I do not regard him as a whistle-blower." Snowden should return to the United States to stand trial, she said.
Feinstein must be frustrated. Every so often, Snowden pops up with his butter-wouldn't-melt-in-his-mouth face. On the one hand, he is supposed to be super-smart on tech. He was brave to leak a guesstimated 1.7 million classified documents -- and then reveal his identity to the superpower government that he had so clearly outsmarted. You have to give him credit for the courage of his convictions.
On the other hand, he makes claims that defy credulity. He said he is surprised he ended up in Russia. He never meant for that to happen. But he's not worried that the Russians will try to squeeze information from him, because he didn't bring any intelligence with him.
Paradoxically, Snowden also told Williams that he "was trained as a spy" and that he worked undercover overseas. That's not the expected profile for an innocent abroad.
Snowden argued that the government cannot "show a single individual who's been harmed in any way" by his leaks. That's a clever statement -- and safe. He knows that the government doesn't name assets or operatives who have been harmed because of leaks. The intelligence community is wedded to secrecy, even when it undermines its own damaged credibility.
When I threw out Snowden's name-one-person challenge to George Washington University international affairs professor Amitai Etzioni, he countered, "Name one person who has been harmed by the NSA." Before I could say German Chancellor Angela Merkel -- U.S. intelligence reportedly tapped her cellphone -- Etzioni stipulated that the one person had to be an American. His point was taken: Leaking is, for the most part, a crime against institutions.