A funny thing happened between Hong Kong and Russia: Edward Snowden, teller of National Security Agency secrets and American dissident at large, started to become a conservative hero.
“Support for Snowden is actually consistent with the tradition of American conservatism,” declares Craig Shirley, a longtime conservative political consultant in Washington and author of three Ronald Reagan biographies. After 30 years at the game, he’s not shy about calling things big.
“I think Snowden might end up being the John Brown of the 21st Century—reviled and unpopular but unleashing a debate that led to the rebirth of freedom,” Shirley told TAC, referring to the abolitionist who was hanged for treason for initiating an armed insurrection against the U.S. government over slavery.
Unlike Bradley Manning, the Army private who was convicted of leaking government secrets, the 30-year-old Snowden is enjoying a surge of unlikely support from the right. Republican members of Congress are calling him a whistleblower, not a traitor. Columnists from right-wing websites are getting an earful from readers who say he’s a hero. In the last two major polls on the subject, more than half of Republicans and independents insist Snowden is a whistleblower, with less than 40 percent saying otherwise.
“Republicans like John Boehner and John McCain are with Barack Obama against Snowden,” Shirley pointed out. “But let’s face it, (Snowden’s) perspective is more consistent with rugged individualism and privacy and everything that comes along with traditional conservatism. Isn’t it interesting that the more invectives are hurled at Snowden (by the establishment), the more the numbers rise in his favor?”
Snowden, who tipped off the media about the massive collection of Americans’ phone records and the government’s ability to track Internet and social media use, has been charged with espionage here in the States and has just received temporary asylum from Russia. Early supporters feared the media and politicians would concentrate so much on picking apart the messenger that the programs he revealed in early June to The Guardian would not receive proper scrutiny. Yet anger appears to be growing with each new revelation about the surveillance state.
Meanwhile, Congress seems poised to finally do something to put boundaries on the agency (NSA) and the legal framework (the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court) that enables it.
“Look at that vote in the House,” said Shirley, pointing to Republican Rep. Justin Amash’s amendment to defund the NSA’s spy program. It was thwarted by only a slim margin in the Republican-dominated chamber. “That vote was earth shattering.”
Edward Snowden’s father, Lon Snowden, has emerged as a surprising catalyst for conservative support. A retired chief warrant officer with the U.S. Coast Guard, Snowden raised his son in a patriotic community alongside military and police, and Edward’s mother is a chief deputy clerk at the federal court in Baltimore.
When Lon Snowden sought out an attorney after the FBI contacted him regarding the possibility of his serving as an intermediary (an offer that fell through, he said, because the FBI wouldn’t guarantee that he would ever see his son), it was Bruce Fein—a conservative constitutional lawyer known for his acerbic wit and devotion to revolutionary leaders like James Madison—whom he called. Despite being a former Deputy Secretary in the Reagan Justice Department, Fein went full bore against the Bush White House in the early 2000s over the Patriot Act and Washington’s post 9/11 surveillance expansion, aligning himself with conservative civil libertarians like Reps. Ron Paul and Bob Barr.
Fein said Lon Snowden retained him to help navigate the legal waters, and their approach to the government’s pursuit of his son as a spy and enemy of the state has “been simpatico ever since.”
When Edward was first in Hong Kong, Lon Snowden pled publicly for him to return to the U.S. to face the consequences. Now he says Russia is the safest place for his son. “They would put him in a hole,” he said of the U.S government. He has become his son’s most articulate and credible defender.
To a Russian television station, he said recently:
My son is a principled young man, he is a man of courage and what he saw he couldn’t live with. I know that I have raised him to do the right thing. Sometimes the right thing means personal sacrifice, and that’s what he did.
The Washington Post reported on July 30:
“As a father, it pains me what he did,’’ Snowden said. “I wish my son could have simply sat in Hawaii and taken the big paycheck, lived with his beautiful girlfriend and enjoyed paradise. But as an American citizen, I am absolutely thankful for what he did.’’
He also appeared on the Today show July 26:
“If you look at the concerted effort by both, many of these congressmen—the Peter Kings, the Mike Rogers, the Michelle Bachmanns, Dutch Ruppersbergers—to demonize my son, to focus the issue on my son, and not to talk about the fact that they’ve had a responsibility to make sure (surveillance) was constitutional,” Snowden said. “They’ve either been complicit or negligent.”
Fein said Snowden’s interviews with the press have helped to define his son away from the caricature of an egocentric high school drop-out that mainstream pundits drew after Edward Snowden’s first interview with Glenn Greenwald June 9. “All this stupid stuff about narcissism and ego mania—it’s ridiculous.”
“Ultimately the view of history is that Edward Snowden is Paul Revere, not Benedict Arnold, and obviously his father’s view pivots on what happened,” Fein explained, and “once the American people knew what was going on they became outraged and concerned and … when Congress comes back (from recess) it is not unbelievable that they will get an (elimination) of the programs or at the least, more muscular restraints on the NSA.”
Rep. Justin Amash, (R-Mich.), who sponsored the failed July amendment to defund the controversial NSA programs and has inspired confidence that a real movement for change is afoot, told Fox News on Aug. 4 that “members of Congress were not really aware … about what these programs were being used for, the extent to which they were being used.”
Therefore Snowden is “a whistle-blower. He told us what we need to know.”
Also on Fox News, libertarian favorite Judge Andrew Napolitano said, “There is a political wildfire burning in the land, and we should all be grateful to Snowden for igniting it. The fire eventually will consume the political derelictions of those who have abandoned their oaths to uphold the Constitution so they can sound tough back home.”
Meanwhile, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), told a Chicago radio station that the issue is not Snowden but warrantless spying on Americans.
“You could argue … that the national defense intelligence director (James Clapper), when he came to Congress and lied, that Snowden’s revelation was that we were being lied to,” he said, falling short of calling him a whistleblower. In a previous radio interview, Paul predicted, “history would judge him kindly as a defender of privacy.”
The mood to admonish the White House over the NSA revelations is represented in the inner sanctum of political punditry, too, with Peggy Noonan writing for the Wall Street Journal:
It is up to the people in the country, to citizens, to control and limit government surveillance, to the extent they can and in accord with true national-security needs.
That is what a conservative, with all his inherent skepticism toward groups of humans wielding largely unaccountable governmental power, would want to do.
Not all conservative writers are buying the Snowden-is-Revere argument, at least not yet. But readers appear to be there already. When Mario Loyola at National Review Online complained about “the right’s ominous beatification of Edward Snowden” on August 5, he was lambasted by over a hundred critical comments. Wrote one with the handle “comradebukharin”: “Since when do conservative(s) support this kind of government meddling?”
When Sarah Harvard at the Daily Caller decided to poke fun at Snowden’s globe-trotting prospects, readers poked back – hard. “I’d like to know why you are making fun of a guy who gave up the rest of his life for liberty,” wrote in Nathan Smith. “He is a hero to me.”
At Breitbart.com, a hothouse of the rightwing blogosphere, a similar phenomenon has developed. After a report about Representative Amash’s recent comments on Fox News, readers deluged the site with support for Snowden, including his decision to stay in Russia.
“Where is he supposed to go?” demanded reader “Broder” on August 5. “The political establishment has deemed him a criminal here in the U.S. for daring to tell the American people that our corrupt government is breaking the law and violating our Constitutional rights.”
How much of this just derives from Obama hate on the right is hard to say. “I think you have the right to be skeptical,” said Fein, who noted the support President Bush received from these quarters for the very warrantless wiretapping-type schemes being vilified today.
And yet, notes Shirley, “you’ve seen a breaking off from Bush as early as 2006,” among many conservatives. “The Republican Party is unraveling … from the reaction to NSA to all the other things.” The proof of conservatives’ outrage—and their support for Snowden as a whistleblower—will come as lawmakers get “an earful” from constituents during the legislative recess.
“American conservatism is all about putting faith in individuals not institutions,” he said. “The fact that many conservatives don’t see Snowden as a traitor does not surprise me.”
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.