Washington Turns on the NSA Blinders to Target Weird 'IT Guy' Leaker Instead

Most members of Congress are not outraged by the NSA's programs to collect all your phone calls and emails. They're outraged that someone would expose them. Now that the leaker has gone public — Edward Snowden is still holed up somewhere in Hong Kong, with "way, way more" secrets — the campaign to discredit him as a nutcase has begun.

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Most members of Congress are not outraged by the National Security Agency's programs to collect all phone calls and emails. They are outraged that someone would expose the existence of those programs. Now that the leaker has gone public — Edward Snowden is still holed up somewhere in Hong Kong, with "way, way more" secrets — the campaign to discredit him as a nutcase or weirdo has begun.

The Sunday shows were busy, but that was just the start. On ABC's This Week, Rep. Mike Rogers, who chairs the House intelligence committee, dismissed Snowden and The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald, who was on the reporting end of the leaks. "He doesn't have a clue how this thing works. Neither did the person who released just enough information to literally be dangerous," Rogers said. (Mike Rogers' understanding of these programs has been called into question, too.) New York Rep. Peter King demanded an investigation into Snowden. On CBS on Monday, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said yes, Congress would look at if any laws were broken — by the leaker. Cantor promised the investigation into Snowden would be "serious." CBS's Charlie Rose asked, "Isn't the question how this person could have had access to this information? And done what he has done?" Cantor responded, "We need the answers, there's no question about that." Yes, we need answers, he said, not about the NSA programs — he defended those — so much as why a young-ish employee at Booz Allen Hamilton was in a position to expose them. "We have a contractor that has been hired … this 29-year-old, who's now holed up in some hotel in Hong Kong claiming to be the defender of democracy somehow in the People's Republic of China," Cantor said, sounding a bit incredulous.

Half of Booz Allen's 25,000 employees have a top secret security clearance. Ninety-eight percent of the company's revenue comes from the U.S. government, and it specializes in intelligence technology. That means at Booz Allen alone, there are thousands of computer nerds with access to America's secrets. Computer nerds tend to be more weird than your average congressman or focus-grouped network TV anchor. And it's not impossible that Snowden is weird. It's that the weirdness of his personality should be a secondary concern after the weirdness of the government creating a database of when, where, and to whom every single phone call in America was made.

But many in the media have picked up the focus on Snowden. "The man who stepped forward to say that he leaked this week’s bombshell national security documents is a 29-year-old computer technician who never finished high school and washed out of his Army training," Politico's Philip Ewing and Tony Romm report. "So how did a guy like that get access to America’s most sensitive secrets?" (The phrase "washed out of his Army training" means a lot coming from people who type on the Internet for a living. And let's not forget that reporters think — rightly! — an English major entitles them to the nation's most sensitive secrets.)

Snowden told The Guardian he enlisted in 2004 to join Special Forces, but was discharged when he broke both his legs in a training accident. An Army spokesman told Politico's Stephanie Gaskell, "His records indicate he enlisted in the Army Reserve as a Special Forces Recruit (18X) on 7 May 2004 but was discharged 28 September 2004. He did not complete any training or receive any awards." We don't know what the differences in those dates really mean. It could be that Snowden signed on the dotted line in 2003, and went into basic training in 2004. The five-month stint in the Army could mean he got through basic training but was injured in advanced training. Or it could mean he was injured in basic training and it took a while to get a medical discharge. That said, it's a sign the Army is scraping for dirt when it notes Snowden didn't get any "awards." When government officials start to tar Snowden, Slate's Farhad Manjoo writes, remember, they're the ones who hired him: "he's the IT guy, and not a very accomplished, experienced one at that."

Even those opposed to the programs Snowden has taken public don't seem to have much confidence they will change. Sen. Rand Paul, the most famous libertarian in Congress, has written a fiery op-ed in The Guardian condemning President Obama for the massive surveillance, which he calls unconstitutional. But the Kentucky Republican does not appear to have much confidence anything will change:

On Thursday, I announced my Fourth Amendment Restoration Act of 2013, which ensures that no government agency can search the phone records of Americans without a warrant based on probable cause. We shall see how many join me in supporting a part of the Bill of Rights that everyone in Congress already took an oath to uphold.

"We shall see" indicate Paul has doubts his bill will go anywhere. The main point of his missive is to remind us that the likely 2016 presidential candidate still has strong anti-Washington bona fides: "That I have to keep reintroducing the fourth amendment — and that a majority of senators keep voting against it — is a good reflection of the arrogance that dominates Washington."

A fellow skeptic of the NSA's programs, Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley, conveyed a sense of futility in an interview with MSNBC's Rachel Maddow on Friday night. The Democrat explained that after he'd been briefed on the NSA's phone call metadata collection, he couldn't talk about it publicly, but he could introduce a bill to compel the government to explain its secret legal rationale justifying it.

MERKLEY: I proposed the secret court law amendment that said these interpretations by secret court will be declassified so we could have a debate here in America about privacy and security.

MADDOW: How much support did you get for that proposal?

MERKLEY: We had 30-plus members vote for the amendment but we also had the chair of the committee [Sen. Dianne Feinstein] say that she supported the idea I was presenting and she would join me...

And so, she joined with me and Senator Wyden, Senator Mark Udall as well, and we wrote a letter in this case to the FISA court asking for declassification. And we didn`t get back a yes.

Maddow suggested Merkley's proposal might get more support now, but Merkley didn't speculate. Comments from lawmakers who are more supportive of the surveillances programs are even less encouraging. Feinstein, who chairs the Senate intelligence committee, cited the same problem Merkley did — that it's very difficult to debate programs you're legally prohibited from talking about publicly. But Feinstein seemed less concerned with this problem. "I'm open to doing a hearing every month, if that’s necessary," Feinstein said on This Week. "Here's the rub: the instances where this has produced good — has disrupted plots, prevented terrorist attacks, is all classified, that's what's so hard about this."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.