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More questions for Snowden and the GOP establishment takes on the 2016 primaries

This column, a regular feature, was originally published on

1. Snowden questions NBC missed:

In his interview with NBC’s Brian Williams last week, Edward Snowden tried to bolster his credentials this way: “I was trained as a spy in sort of the traditional sense of the word — in that I lived and worked undercover, overseas, pretending to work in a job … and even being assigned a name that was not mine …. Now, the government might deny these things. They might frame it in certain ways, and say, ‘Oh, well, you know, he’s a low-level analyst.’”

In that segment — and as best I can tell from watching what I think were all the segments of Brian Williams’ interview — three words never came up: Booz Allen Hamilton.

Booz Allen Hamilton is the government contractor that Snowden supposedly worked for. As Talking Points Memo reported a year ago in this article, in the video in which Snowden introduced himself to the world following publication of his initial leaks, he said: “My name is Ed Snowden, I’m 29 years old, I work for Booz Allen Hamilton as an infrastructure analyst for [the] NSA, in Hawaii.”

The same Talking Points article quoted Snowden and his collaborator Glenn Greenwald, writing in the Guardian, as saying that the only direct employment he had for any spy agencies was as a “security guard” at an National Security Agency facility in Maryland and as someone “working on IT security” for the CIA in Geneva.

Was he lying to the world and to Greenwald then, or to Williams now? Someone ought to follow up on the contradictions that Williams missed.

He also missed a more important area of inquiry related to Snowden’s credibility. Snowden maintained to Williams that he tried repeatedly, with emails and memos, to go through channels to blow the whistle on what he thought was improper and illegal NSA spying. The claim brought quick denials from the NSA, which pointed to one vague email that Snowden had sent to an agency lawyer seeking clarification about the legal status of executive orders.

NSA officials claim that this email — which Snowden sent on a Friday afternoon and the lawyer answered the following Monday, with an invitation for Snowden to call if he had further questions — was Snowden’s sole communication with any national security officials about anything even remotely questioning agency practices.

Of course, at the time Williams did the interview, he couldn’t know what the NSA response would be to Snowden’s adamant whistleblower claims. But he might have asked Snowden for proof.

After all, it would seem that someone who had managed to smuggle millions of highly classified documents out of the NSA’s computers might have been able, and eager, to keep some proof that he had tried to go through channels.

Let’s hope the next reporter who interviews Snowden will ask about that.

Finally, there’s the Booz Allen Hamilton angle. A year ago I urged that as a result of all the damage done by its employee, there has to be a great story related to the legal liability at risk for the consulting firm, which had $1.3 billion in national security-related contracts in 2012. I’m still hoping to read it.

Has the government gotten any of its money back? Has it tried?

2. Can the Republicans control the debates?

Last month, the Republican National Committee announced new debate rules for the candidates competing for the party’s 2016 presidential nomination.

The rules are intended to limit the bloodletting that took place during the 2012 cycle, when the GOP candidates seemed to be on television once a week attacking each other. One “underdog” far-out candidate after another became the frontrunner for a week or two after getting off a few zingers to the delight of activists in the audience. Remember Herman Cain? Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich? Representative Michele Bachmann?

This time the GOP is going to limit the number of debates to well below the 20 held in 2011-2012.

But there’s more to the new rules than lowering the number of on-air brawls. The party also intends to remake the debates in a way that will help the eventual nominee — not cripple him (or her) the way Mitt Romney was in 2012.

Thus, the party announced this about the media organizations that would be allowed to convene the debates and the reporters who ask the questions:

We all remember the 2012 presidential primary debates and how the liberal media interrogated our candidates on issues that were often not a priority to most Americans. It was a traveling circus, because the mainstream media was in control of every aspect of those debates. They all wanted a chance to go after our conservative candidates—and some of them clearly wanted to push a liberal agenda.

The solution, the announcement continued, is that this time, “We need more conservatives involved in the debate process — most importantly, in the moderator’s chair.”

So, the GOP is going to “sanction” debates, not only to control their frequency but also to ride herd over who asks what questions.

Moreover, according to the rules that the party published with the announcement “Any presidential candidate who participates in any debate that is not a Sanctioned Debate shall not be eligible to participate in any further Sanctioned Debates.”


Why haven’t media or political reporters asked about how this is going to work?

Which TV news organization is going to agree to exclude “liberal agenda” questions, whatever those are? Many would guess that Fox News will play along, but even asking Fox chief Roger Ailes and his crew what they might agree to in order to televise a “sanctioned” debate might produce an interesting answer.

It’s hard to imagine that Fox, much less any other broadcaster, will agree in advance to exclude a candidate who participates in an “unsanctioned” debate.

Suppose it’s near the end of the primary season and the field has been reduced, say, to Senator Ted Cruz, former Senator Rick Santorum and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, with Cruz slightly in the lead. Suppose, too, that Cruz, who revels in his iconoclasm, had participated in an unsanctioned debate early in the season with a few candidates who have since dropped out. Which network is going to exclude him when it gets down to the wire and feature only Santorum and Bush?

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Steven Brill , the author of Class Warfare: Inside the Fight To Fix America’s Schools, has written for magazines including New York, The New Yorker, Time, Harper's, and The New York Times Magazine. He founded and ran Court TV, The American Lawyer magazine, ten regional legal newspapers, and Brill's Content magazine. He also teaches journalism at Yale, where he founded the Yale Journalism Initiative.