Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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Edward Snowden and Presidential Power

by Micah Zenko
June 25, 2013

Snowden on news monitor in China People cross a street in front of a monitor showing Edward Snowden, with a news tag saying he has left Hong Kong for Moscow on June 23, 2013. (Yip/Courtesy: Reuters)


This morning on CBS News, Rep. Paul Ryan discussed the Obama administration’s efforts to compel Russia to extradite Edward Snowden, former contract employee for the National Security Agency (NSA), to face three felony charges in the United States. When asked specifically “What would you have done, that the administration has not done?” he did not answer. When pressed, “What would you recommend the president do?” Ryan replied: “I don’t want to knee-jerk here, but we have extradition treaties, we have relationships, and we should use those relationships.” Ryan then noted that the failure of the United States to have Snowden extradited, “Doesn’t speak very well to how we are being viewed in the world, doesn’t speak to our credibility…that does not help our image whatsoever.”

Ryan’s assertion is reflective of many policymakers and pundits, who’s political party is not the White House. Whenever a president cannot achieve a foreign policy objective, it is characterized as purported evidence of American “weakness,” or lack of “respect,” which can be reversed with sufficient presidential “leadership.” However, when asked for what specific policies the president should pursue, they either reiterate what the administration is already doing—as Ryan did this morning—or imply that a few more Oval Office phone calls can force other foreign leaders to suddenly abandon their own national interests and do what the United States requests.

In today’s Washington Post, former Bush administration adviser Elliot Cohen stated of Obama: “Nobody’s afraid of this guy. Nobody’s saying there are any real consequences that would come from crossing him — and that’s an awful position for the president of the United States to be in.” What is missing is what exactly Obama should do to make Vladimir Putin afraid, or what those consequences should be. Similarly, former senior Bush aide Peter Wehner wrote yesterday that “an irresolute amateur like Barack Obama was the best thing that the brutal but determined Putin could have hoped for.”

Finally, in today’s Wall Street Journal Brett Stephens wrote: “However the Snowden episode turns out…what it mainly illustrates is that we are living in an age of American impotence.” As evidence for this absence of U.S. virility, Stephens cites the withdrawal from Iraq, draw-down from Afghanistan, “giving [Syria’s] civil war the widest berth,” and ongoing questions about Iran’s nuclear program, which stretch back more than a decade. Somehow, deeper U.S. military involvement in some or all of these quagmires would have scared Moscow into submission.

Presidents have never been able to direct other foreign leaders to do what they want—a fact George W. Bush learned over the eleven days of quiet diplomacy that was required to secure the U.S. servicemembers and EP-3E Aries I spy plane that crash-landed on Hainan Island, China, in April 2001. It was reported at the time: “A senior U.S. official said the impasse was broken when the Bush administration agreed to insert ‘very’ before ‘sorry’,” in a letter to the Chinese Foreign Minister. Those sorts of painstaking negotiations—requiring judgment and the flexibility to provide political coverage for other leaders to make tough decisions—reflect how crisis diplomacy is actually conducted. Whether, or how, Russia and the United States resolve the dispute over Edward Snowden (if he is in fact there) will not be a result of Putin’s perception of Obama’s toughness, or America’s war-making efforts around the world.

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by Don Bacon

    What isn’t discussed by these geniuses is that it was excessive presidential power, used domestically, which caused the problem in the first place. The assault on US human rights is not appreciated overseas, when other countries are castigated by the US for the same thins the US is doing. Specifically, the US has sanctioned Iran for the same things the US has done (among other things).

    Executive Order 13606 of April 22, 2012
    –Grave Human Rights Abuses. . . facilitated by computer and network disruption, monitoring, and tracking by those governments, and abetted by entities in Iran and Syria that are complicit in their governments’ malign use of technology for those purposes

    All this attention on Snowden, and none on US citizens. What are we, chopped liver?

  • Posted by Johnson B

    Very excellent. I am quite puzzled at persons who make ‘absolute’ judgments about matters they know little of. I do hope that the Snowden case would set a good precedence for pursuing and defending national interest, protection of the cyberspace and human freedoms, and greater trust among states.

  • Posted by Phillip Bolster

    Excellent and true.

    But I would prefer our best writers stick to the actual problems with democracy in the US for which Snowden has risked his life and freedom to shine a spotlight upon. And let’s focus on the PR job the US government is doing to ruin his character and focus upon the ‘treasonous’ element of what he is doing rather than the highly shocking scale to the problem his information raises and how it effects your rights in this new frontier of big data of which we know so little and understand even less.

    Let’s get into the detail of the history of what the NSA has done since its inception. It’s original remit. The various programs – the facts that we know and those things we can intelligently surmise.

    Starting with Echelon – tell the world about Echelon and the business of Industrial espionage which motivated the EU to investigate it. Boeing/Airbus etc..

    Then there is the known ‘wire tapping’ of communications hubs such as AT+T routing offices and so forth. This is the stuff people need to know to properly understand Snowden’s motivations.

    People need all the information in simplified form to understand that they have lost control of the government that they periodically elect. It’s the disparity between what they think they are voting for and what they are actually voting for, which is beginning to unravel this modern ultra managed concept of western democracy and it needs addressing by serious writers like yourself.

    People should be aware of these things below, not from some sort of ‘conspiracy theory’ perspective but a real world ‘rights’ perspective.


    Wiki :
    NSA had a groundbreaking ceremony at Ft. Meade in May 2013 for its High Performance Computing Center 2, expected to open in 2016.Called Site M, the center has a 150 megawatt power substation, 14 administrative buildings and 10 parking garages.It cost $3.2 billion and covers 227 acres (92 ha; 0.355 sq mi). The center is 1,800,000 square feet (17 ha; 0.065 sq mi) and initially uses 60 megawatts of electricity. Stretching 16 years into the future, increments 2 and 3 would quadruple the space, covering 5,800,000 square feet (54 ha; 0.21 sq mi) with 60 buildings and 40 parking garages.

    What is all this for? The voting citizens have a right to know what its government is doing? Where was that glaring truth lost? Would the founders agree with this secret government which has formed around us for which we do not vote and which we do not understand?

    Somebody needs to explain all of this to us.

    (not pointing any fingers)

    and what of this Utah Data Center ???


    The planned structure is 1 million or 1.5 million square feet,[4][2][15] 100,000 square feet of data center space and greater than 900,000 square feet of technical support and administrative space,[3][4] and it is projected to cost from $1.5 billion[16][17][5] to $2 billion when finished in September 2013.[3][4] One report suggested that it will cost another $2 billion for hardware, software, and maintenance.[4] The completed facility is expected to require 65 megawatts, costing about $40 million per year

    “…The data center is alleged to be able to process “all forms of communication, including the complete contents of private emails, cell phone calls, and Internet searches, as well as all sorts of personal data trails—parking receipts, travel itineraries, bookstore purchases, and other digital ‘pocket litter…”



    MAINWAY is the codename for a database maintained by the United States’ National Security Agency (NSA) containing metadata for hundreds of billions of telephone calls made through the four largest telephone carriers in the United States: AT&T, SBC, BellSouth (all three now called AT&T), and Verizon.

    The existence of this database and the NSA program that compiled it was unknown to the general public until USA Today broke the story on May 10, 2006.It is estimated that the database contains over 1.9 trillion call-detail records. According to Bloomberg News, the effort began approximately seven months before the September 11, 2001 attacks.As of June 2013, the database stores metadata for at least five years


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