Does Edward Snowden Really Exist?

Here's a preview of a quote you'll probably hear on this week's edition of NPR's "Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me": "You know, I have serious questions about whether he really exists."

Who's the speaker? Edward Snowden, of course, speaking about none other than Edward Snowden.

Responding to allegations from certain truculent members of Congress that he's in fact a Russian spy, Snowden sat down somewhere in cyberspace for an interview with the New Yorker's Jane Mayer. Snowden denied the allegations leveled at him by Alabama's Mike Rogers, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, calling claims that he's in bed with Moscow's intelligence services "absurd."

Rogers, one of the more reliable Capitol Hill defenders of the intelligence community, has made it something of a mission to discredit Snowden. He's called him a traitor and has repeatedly made the case that the Snowden disclosures have harmed U.S. national security. On Sunday, he went one step further and hinted on Meet the Press that Snowden might just be in the employ of the Russian security services. "I believe there's a reason he ended up in the hands, the loving arms, of an FSB agent in Moscow," Rogers fumed, referring to the KGB's successor organization. "I don't think it was a gee-whiz luck event that he ended up in Moscow under the handling of the FSB."

And so to the New Yorker Snowden went. Rejecting Rogers's claims, Snowden told the magazine that he had "clearly and unambiguously acted alone, with no assistance from anyone, much less a government." He appeared untroubled by Rogers's wild accusations, arguing that the charges "won't stick" because they are "clearly false." More importantly, "the American people are smarter than politicians think they are," he said.

But Snowden is clearly frustrated with the quality of the media coverage around him. American officials, Snowden said, have been given largely free rein in the media to criticize him in all matter of ways, often without offering a shred of evidence. 

Even the New York Times managed to spend 1,103 words reporting Rogers' statements on Sunday, and parsing the debate over what evidence, if any, exists to indicate that Snowden had been working on behalf of a foreign government. Spoiler alert: There is none. Despite Rogers' protestations to the contrary, the New York Times delivers an elegant death blow with the following line: "A senior F.B.I. official said on Sunday that it was still the bureau's conclusion that Mr. Snowden acted alone."

But what's baffling isn't that Rogers keeps trotting out these claims when he has no evidence to speak of -- it's why he still feels the need to do so at all. While Americans have by and large turned on the NSA as result of the Snowden disclosures, the whistleblower himself remains a highly divisive figure, according to a Pew poll released Monday. Currently, 40 percent of Americans "approve of the government's collection of telephone and internet data as part of anti-terrorism efforts." Some 53 percent oppose it. In July 2013, those numbers were roughly reversed, with 50 percent in support and 44 percent disapproving.

Despite having grown uncomfortable with the activities of the NSA, Americans still support prosecuting Snowden. Americans are split on whether the leaks have served or harmed the public interest, at 45 percent to 43 percent, respectively. Nonetheless, Americans are in favor of pursuing criminal charges against Snowden by a margin of 56 to 32 percent. According to Pew, both Democrats and Republicans are divided on the question of prosecution, though younger people tend to be less likely to support the pursuit of criminal charges. Even among those who oppose the government's surveillance efforts, the public remains divided on Snowden, with 45 percent saying they oppose his prosecution to 43 percent in support. In short, Americans don't care all that much for Snowden.

And as Rogers is surely aware, the reforms likely to be adopted as a result of the Snowden disclosures aren't going to have a meaningful impact on intelligence-gathering capabilities. The changes endorsed by President Obama largely amount to cosmetic changes geared more toward building public support of spying activities than curtailing the powers of the NSA. There's little to indicate that reform efforts in Congress will have much more of an impact. Rogers, and his allies at Ft. Meade and Langley, can rest assured that while Snowden has changed public opinion on the issue of surveillance, the whistleblower hasn't managed to strike a lethal blow at the intelligence community's support inside the beltway.

With that in mind, Snowden's hypothetical question takes on a new meaning. For the men and women who set intelligence policy in the United States, does Snowden really exist anymore?

Miguel Schincariol/AFP/Getty Images


At Davos, Developing Countries Advertise Themselves More Than Companies Do

DAVOS, Switzerland — As cars slalom through the steep, narrow streets of Davos shuttling world leaders and financiers to and fro, bright banners for South Africa and India stand out against the snowy backdrop, a preview of the parties and exhibitions the countries will host later this week to deliver a simple message: hey world, we're still here.

"South Africa: inspiring new ways," says one giant poster next to the convention center. Another claims India will have "the world's largest middle class consumer market by 2030." Azerbaijan is touting its virtues on the sides of buses. Other countries are hosting government-sponsored parties like Tuesday's "Korea Night." 

In the swirling conversations at the World Economic Forum here about who's in and who's out for 2014, countries are selling themselves just as much as multinational companies are.

Emerging market countries are especially eager to bat down predictions that their economies face tough times ahead this year. 

The U.S. economy has started to show signs of improvement, which has sparked fears that investors' interest in emerging markets may be cooling. Analysts have singled out "the fragile five" -- South Africa, Turkey, Brazil, India, and Indonesia -- as particularly vulnerable in 2014.

Pessimists argue that emerging market countries may have overspent while it was easy for them to attract investment and that their economies could now begin to suffer as the tide shifts away from them. As investors' gaze shifts back toward the developed world, the list of potentially vulnerable emerging market countries has expanded to include Hungary, Chile, Poland and others. Representatives from many of those countries are here in Davos trying to convince the world that they are still good investments. 

Aparna Sharma, who is running a cafe with food and spiced chocolate as part of a branding campaign by India's ministry of commerce, says there's even competition for space along Davos' main drag.

Though attention may be shifting away from emerging markets, developed countries haven't completely recovered from their own financial crises. The aftermath was clear on the faces of the chastised Wall Street titans and deposed bank executives floating through the halls. 

They're still here, basking in and contributing to some sort of Davos consensus, though perhaps less directly. J.P. Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon wandered through the conference center Wednesday looking for someone to talk to. He demurred on my interview request, but commented that the U.S. economy seemed to be doing well, "thank God."

Later in the day Bono walked though the main hall with a swarm of Japanese officials, all walking very fast. 

As the smaller, newer economies jostle to burnish their reputations, Davos co-chair Christophe de Margerie says Europe, which is still limping through an ongoing banking crisis, should also do a little re-branding. 

"I think Europe should be reconsidered as an emerging country," said Margerie, CEO of French oil company Total, on Wednesday. 

I haven't seen any posters for that yet, but there's still time.