In this age of vicious political fighting, it may seem a bit counterintuitive, but sometimes bipartisanship can go too far. We witnessed a bit of that on the Sunday talk shows when the chairs of the two congressional intelligence committees, Mike Rogers, the Republican who heads House Intelligence, and Democrat Diane Feinstein, who runs the show at Senate Intel, displayed a little bipartisan McCarthyism. Yes, that’s harsh, but isn’t that what we call public smears based purely on innuendo?
Rogers showed up on “Meet the Press” and while discussing National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, he declared, “I believe there’s a reason he ended up in the hands, the loving arms, of an FSB agent in Moscow.” He went on to say, “I believe there’s questions to be answered there. I don’t think it was a gee-whiz luck event that he ended up in Moscow under the handling of the FSB.” He provided no evidence; in fact, there are many indications to the contrary.
Then came Feinstein, who was asked by host David Gregory whether she felt Snowden had acted with the help of the Russians, to which she replied, “He may well have.” Again, she provided no proof or justification, just, as with Rogers, the words of two members of the nation’s intelligence establishment who are outraged that Snowden upset the domestic-surveillance apple cart and now is forced to live as a fugitive, temporarily sheltered by Russia from punishment in the U.S. that could mean life imprisonment.
Snowden wasted no time firing back. In a New Yorker magazine interview he dismissed the accusations, such as they were, as “false,” insisting that he had “clearly and unambiguously acted alone, with no assistance from anyone, much less a government.”
Obviously those who are not Ed Snowden fans will find his denial unconvincing, predictable. They consider Snowden a traitor or at least believe what he did was wrong and deserves punishment. But others consider him a hero. The charges of Russian chicanery seem to be empty demagoguery. Surely, our nation’s leaders, when they speak, should have higher standards than pure conjecture. If, as Rogers and Feinstein seem to suggest, they have concrete indications that Putin and his KGB successor, the FSB, had facilitated the disclosures, then we need to know about them. And the defense that making them public jeopardizes national security is not credible. Surely, there is some information that might be useful when we’re conducting this debate that wouldn’t compromise the safety of the homeland.
Besides, sleazy though the remarks by Rogers and Feinstein may be, they are a bit off the point. They deflect attention from the real issue, which is technology-run-wild surveillance by the National Security Agency — which would be continuing without us knowing how our privacy was being compromised, were it not for the actions of Snowden.
Perhaps his biggest sin is that he embarrassed those who hold power in our country. That definitely would include the nation’s chief executive. He and they have been forced to endure public scrutiny and intense criticism, like the just-released report by the federal Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, a prestigious independent commission that has concluded the spying “lacks a viable legal foundation.” So, President Barack Obama is forced to announce reforms that are so transparently meaningless that they are met with ridicule.
Rogers and Feinstein are among those in panic mode, demeaning themselves and all of us with their unsupported accusations. We should be better than that. These are people we have placed into positions of trust to help defend our way of life, not just from enemy attack but from an erosion of values that set us apart.
Sen. Joe McCarthy’s wild charges came at a time when the nation was gripped in a hysterical paranoia about communism. This time, the hysteria is largely within the ranks of those who may have abused power that they don’t want to lose.
Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.