When heads of state personally intervene in matters of espionage, and demand that alleged spies be released or extradited, it is unusual – and highly inappropriate.
It seems clear that President Obama violated that "old rule" by immersing himself so publicly, personally, and blatantly with White House pressure on Vladimir Putin to send the American whistleblower Edward Snowden back to the US, in the spirit of a Monopoly game: to "go directly to jail without passing go".
With the Announcement that the President will not meet with Putin during his forthcoming visit to the G20 meeting in Russia, because he is "disappointed with the Russian Leader," we seem to have taken a walk back down memory lane to the cold war days of tit for tat actions and reactions that elevate tensions. In the old days, it was usually Moscow that could be counted on for harsh responses; now it seems to be Washington that has a bad case of acid reflux whenever Putin's name comes up.
It also seems clear that he has taken Putin's decision to grant temporary asylum to Snowden personally, after using all diplomatic channels, family pressure and even a bizarre promise from the Attorney General not to torture Snowden.
Noted Yves Smith on Naked Capitalism:
If you look at the substance of his actions, it is clear the President is losing his famed poise, at least as far as Snowden and the surveillance state revelations are concerned…one sign that Obama is off balance is his unforced errors in dealing with Russia. The absurd assumption from the get-go seemed to be that Putin would cooperate and hand over Snowden once the Russian leader was prodded a bit. Given the status of US-Russian relations, that was borderline delusional.
Cold War parallel
Significantly this calls to mind an earlier incident with Russia in the days of the Soviet Union. When President John F. Kennedy demanded that the Russians release a Yale Professor who the Russians arrested as a spy.
Although a Harvard man, Kennedy had high level appointees from Yale in his administration who pressed him to act in the case of Frederick C. Barghoorn, a Yale English professor, who was busted in Moscow on October 31, 1963. The Professor's case led to rallies on his behalf at the Yale Campus. Barghoon protested his innocence.
According to the New York Times, on November 12, weeks before his assassination, "President Kennedy, in what would be his last White House news conference, denounced the action as "unjustified". He declared that Barghoorn "was not on any intelligence mission of any kind" and called the detention "a very serious matter". The President said American relations with the Soviet Union were "greatly damaged" and warned that impending wheat sales were jeopardized."
That was the public story. Another outlet reported that actually when the now freed "spy" returned to the US, he was paged at the airport for an important call. It was Kennedy himself on the line who had one question after welcoming him home.
"Professor, were you working for us? he asked. Barghoorn's alleged response: "I thought you knew, Mr. President."
Kennedy then realised he had been set up. That led him to fire CIA people implicated in the affair. Kennedy also suspended dealings with Russia but the deals were later consummated out of public view.
Shocked that JFK had made a global incident out of a mundane spy matter, the Russians released him to pacify the President.
In his book, The JFK Conspiracy, David Miller returned to the incident, reporting that a week later, a professor in Dallas, Willmoore Kendall. "who as a Yale Professor in the late 1940's recruited William F Buckley Jr for the CIA, told the Dallas Times-Herald. "From the Russian point of view, Barghoon was a spy, and I believe they had the goods on him."
A week later, Kennedy made his final and fatal trip to Dallas.
The point is that when it comes to issues of espionage, however contrived, message points replace truthful reporting.
Major media outlets look out for their own interests first, as when the NY Times and the Washington Post headlined Private Bradley Manning's acquittal on one charge of "aiding the enemy," a dubious charge had been tacked on, but could have impacted the press, to his conviction of 19 charges carrying a possible 136 years in prison.
This allowed media outlets to treat the story as a "mixed bag" rather than as carefully contrived maneuver to make the military judge appear fair and balanced.
Over a hundred media outlets that had, barely, if at all, covering the trial showed up for the verdict and reported the decision without context.
Few of the stories reminded readers of what Bradley Manning had actually done in leaking information about "alleged" US war crimes, what his disclosures revealed, or the reasons he stated for doing so.
A day later, even as the world press, for the most part, condemned the verdict and the "star chamber" nature of the one-sided proceedings, Edward Snowden walked freely out of his "cell" in the duty-free zone of a Moscow airport.
President Putin, who has been under attack for human rights abuses, suddenly looked good to the millions rallying to Snowden's defense of freedom of information. Ironically, a prominent Russian TV journalist told me he suspects that Snowden may still be working for American intelligence. He had no evidence.
Because of the Snowden disclosures, the US administration has now been forced to disclose its own secret surveillance to defendants in national security cases.
But even before it could celebrate its "victory" in blocking Congressional action against pervasive spying (by just seven votes) and convicting Manning in a Soviet style trial, there were major new secret surveillance revelations to cope with in The Guardian and world press.
No wonder "no drama Obama" is stressing out because of his inability to control the issue and its media framing. He has been pushed into a corner where he seems to be sulking openly.
To cite the old saying, "what a web we weave when first we practice to deceive," Yves Smith writes about Obama's sullen encounter with the Russian President at the G-20 meeting:
"Putin…reminded the US that Russia had no extradition treaty with the US and in general did not extradite people. Packing Snowden off because the US asked for him was not on the table. Putin took the position that the Snowden wasn't worth exploiting for his annoyance value to the US: "It's like shearing a piglet: a lot of squealing and little wool."
Obama then insisted, "that Russia was obligated under international law to hand over Snowden (funny how international law is operative when Obama needs it, and not in matters like (the Russian spy we hold) Kalugin, the force-feeding of Gitmo detainees, or drone murders of children in Pakistan)."
And so, this mostly covert drama continues with Assange and Snowden apparently next on the chopping block but, still at-large, and an upset White House looking more and more impotent by the day.
News Dissector Danny Schechter edits Mediachannel.org and blogs at Newsdissector.net.