Wonkbook: Does Edward Snowden even exist?

June 24, 2013

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(Photo by Kin Cheung/AP)
(Photo by Kin Cheung/AP)

Aeroflot flight 150, from Moscow to Havana, was packed with dozens of journalists who'd bought tickets to get a glimpse of, and maybe even an interview with, fleeing leaker Edward Snowden. But when the doors closed and the plane readied for takeoff, they made an unpleasant discovery: Snowden wasn't on the plane.

There is, of course, only one explanation for Snowden's absence: He never existed in the first place.

When you think about it in retrospect, it's all so obvious. Some lone hacker -- a high-school dropout, no less -- with a beautiful model girlfriend and some strongly held views about transparency sacrifices his future to expose the NSA's most secretive program and then runs to Hong Kong and then to Moscow. Oh, and his model girlfriend has a blog where she writes about life as a pole-dancing acrobat. It's all a bit too perfect, isn't it? (Editor's note for the literal minded: It is not, in fact, all too perfect, and this column is not actually suggesting Edward Snowden isn't real. It's just a conceit to make a larger point.)

The only question is motive: Why would anyone do it? The answer, as Buzzfeed's Ben Smith hints, is that it was necessary to keep the NSA programs safe. We can surmise that the information was leaking anyway, and so the government needed a distraction. Something connected to the NSA, so covering it would still feel like covering the NSA story, but that would divert much of the press from covering the actual programs.

And it's worked. Everyone is talking about "Edward Snowden." The whole world knows what flight he was supposed to be on this morning and which countries he's considering as safe harbors. The term "STELLARWIND," by contrast, has largely dropped out of the news.

The genius of the plan is that it offers an emotional arc and payoff that feels like it's about the NSA story. People angry about the government's actions can cheer Snowden's moxie and root for his flight. People angry about the leaks can hope the government manages to catch him. There's a new plot twist each and every day. There will, presumably, be an eventual resolution to the Snowden story, such that those following it feel they have a sense of closure and can move onto other topics.

The Exciting Adventures of Edward Snowden haven't stopped the press from digging deeper into the NSA programs, of course. The Washington Post and the Guardian have remained doggedly on the trail of the NSA programs. And just this weekend, McClatchy revealed the "Insider Threat" program that the Obama administration uses to keep this kind of information from leaking out.

But whereas those stories might, in another world, be leading a journalistic feeding frenzy and creating a relentless drumbeat for further revelations, in this world, it's Operation: Snowden that has managed to capture the imagination of the American people (or at least the people interested in political news). It's Operation: Snowden that's leading every news homepage and cable broadcast in the world right now. The effort has even neutralized journalistic resources that could've been devoted to the larger NSA stories (the poor reporters who got on the flight to Havana won't be able to turn around for three days, for instance). Operation: Snowden has become the NSA story.

So of course Snowden wasn't on that plane. He couldn't have been. If he'd disappeared into Cuba the Snowden story would be over and all that would be left is the NSA story. And that's not the plan.

Wonkbook's Number of the Day: 99. That's the number of days until October 1, 2013, when enrollment begins for health insurance marketplaces created under the Affordable Care Act open.

Wonkblog's Graphs of the Day: This chart explains why Obama is coming forward with new climate plans

Wonkbook's Top 5 Stories: 1) regulating existing power plants; 2) the Supreme Court's supremely important week; 3) how to regulate finance; 4) 100 days 'til Obamacare; and 5) immigration-reform update.

1) Top story: Green on environmental policy? Here's an intro.

Obama will announce a plan to regulate existing power plants tomorrow. "President Obama will announce his intention to limit greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants, increase appliance efficiency standards and promote renewable energy development on public lands in a speech Tuesday outlining his plan to use executive powers to address climate change...In the speech at Georgetown University, according to individuals briefed on the matter who asked not to be identified because the plan was not yet public, Obama will detail a government-wide plan to not only reduce the nation’s carbon output but also prepare the United States for the near-term impacts of global warming." Juliet Eilperin in The Washington Post.

Jonathan Chait has the essential longread on Obama's second-term climate agenda: "[T]here is one hole in his regulatory agenda: power plants that currently exist. This is, unfortunately, a very large hole, as these plants, mostly coal, emit 40 percent of all U.S. carbon emissions. Coal is so inherently dirty that no available technology can prevent a plant from emitting unacceptable levels of greenhouse gases...Then, a few weeks after last year’s election, the Natural Resources Defense Council published a plan for the EPA to regulate existing power plants in a way that was neither ineffectual nor draconian. The proposal would set state-by-state limits on emissions. It sounds simple, but this was a conceptual breakthrough." Jonathan Chait in New York Magazine.

Watch: The White House released a video, "Addressing the threat of Climate Change," this weekend.

Explainer: This chart explains why Obama is coming forward with new plansBrad Plumer in The Washington Post.

What else will be in the plan? "Administration officials indicated that his speech will also include valuable new steps to increase energy efficiency, and boost investment in wind, solar, and other renewable energy sources. We hope that the president will also announce measures to help communities become more resilient to future storms, floods, drought, heat waves, and wildfires,” [Daniel J. Weiss, the director of climate strategy at the Center for American Progress] added." Ben German in The Hill.

@DLeonhardt: Gotta think Obama is deliberately choosing one of busiest DC news weeks of year to give big climate speech. Still not a typical-voter topic.

Boehner: Obama climate proposal 'absolutely crazy.' "The Ohio Republican was incredulous when asked to react to reports that the White House plans to regulate carbon emissions from power plants as part of its climate change strategy. “I think this is absolutely crazy,” Boehner said at his weekly press conference. “Why would you want to increase the cost of energy and kill more American jobs at a time when American people are asking, 'Where are the jobs.'" Molly K. Hooper in The Hill.

It could be a long slog for Obama's climate plans. "The rules are almost certain to bring legal challenges, but even without that the process is lengthy. The Environmental Protection Agency must first complete rules for new power plants, which have been in the works since 2011. In draft form, those rules essentially blocked the construction of new coal-fired plants. Once the draft rules are finished, environmental lawyers say, the EPA would need until at least late 2014 to propose and make final rules for existing plants. What's more, the rules would be merely guidelines for states to draw up their own plans for restricting greenhouse gases. Allowing a year for that—plus more time for the EPA to rewrite state plans if it is dissatisfied with them—means the process could easily stretch out to the end of Mr. Obama's second term and beyond." Keith Johnson and Peter Nicholas  in The Wall Street Journal.

Music recommendations interlude: Creedence Clearwater Revival, "Green River," 1969.

Top op-eds

LEONHARDT: The endless battle over judicial nominees. "My goal here is to cut through the noise — statistical and partisan — and try to offer an objective reading of the fight over judges. It is one of the most consequential fights in Washington today, yet it receives a fraction of the attention that national security or legislative battles do." David Leonhardt in The New York Times.

KRUGMAN: Et tu, Bernanke? "Given this grim reality — plus very low inflation — you have to wonder why the Fed is talking at all about reducing its efforts on the economy’s behalf. Still, it’s just talk, right? Well, yes — but what the Fed says often matters as much as or more than what it does. This is inherent in the relationship between what the Fed more or less directly controls, namely short-term interest rates, and longer-term rates, which reflect expected as well as current short-term rates. Even if the Fed leaves short rates unchanged for now, statements that convince investors that these rates will be going up sooner rather than later will cause long rates to rise. And because long rates are what mainly matter for private spending, this will weaken growth and employment." Paul Krugman in The New York Times.

DIONNE: The flawed farm bill. "The collapse of the farm bill will generally be played as a political story about Boehner’s failure to rally his own right wing. That’s true as far as it goes and should remind everyone of the current House leadership’s inability to govern. But this is above all a story about morality: There is something profoundly wrong when a legislative majority is so eager to risk leaving so many Americans hungry." E.J. Dionne in The Washington Post.

MORGENTHAU: Let shooting victims sue. "Congress passed the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, severely reducing the legal liability of gun manufacturers, distributors and dealers for reckless acts that send guns to the black market. The National Rifle Association called it “the most significant piece of pro-gun legislation in 20 years.” This kind of legislation encourages arms dealers to turn a blind eye to the lethal consequences of what they peddle, and rewards their breathtaking irresponsibility." Robert M. Morgenthau in The New York Times.

Sentences interlude: "If octopuses did not exist, it would be necessary to invent them."

2) What you need to know about this week for the Supreme Court

Supreme Court weighs cases redefining legal equality. "The extraordinary run of blockbuster rulings due in the space of a single week will also reshape the meaning of legal equality and help define for decades to come one of the Constitution’s grandest commands: “the equal protection of the laws.” If those words require only equal treatment from the government, the rulings are likely to be a mixed bag that will delight and disappoint liberals and conservatives in equal measure. Under that approach, same-sex couples who want to marry would be better off at the end of the term, while blacks and Hispanics could find it harder to get into college and to vote." Adam Liptak in The New York Times.

The Voting Right Act is on the table. "Much of the debate has been in broad historical terms about how much the South and other parts of the country have changed, but legal experts say the greatest impact of the court’s decision may lie in the low-profile world of county commissions and school boards where the provision, Section 5, does the majority of its work." Campbell Robertson in The New York Times.

Big Business loves this Court. "The Supreme Court strengthened the hand of business in the session that comes to a close this week, making it easier for companies to defend themselves from the kinds of big lawsuits that have bedeviled them for decades. While the Roberts Court has long been viewed as friendly to business, the court set several notable precedents involving class-action lawsuits where plaintiffs try to pool their claims into one big case." Brent Kendall in The Wall Street Journal.

The Court is keeping it old school. "In a city beset by leaks — a young programmer recently gave a hoard of top-secret documents to newspapers — the high court’s annual rulings remain stubbornly opaque until they are handed out (on paper, first) by the court’s public relations staff. Meanwhile, the nine justices have the luxury of appearing publicly oblivious to the swirl of social media, the angst of Washington’s legal community and the voracious appetite of America’s 24-hour news cycle." Michael D. Shear in The New York Times.

While the Court mulls gay marriage, the public shifts. " the five years since Prop 8 passed, attitudes across America on gay marriage have moved fast. A poll this year by the nonpartisan Pew Forum on Religion and Public life found that 50% of Americans support gay marriage, up from 39% in 2008. "For a social issue in recent decades, that is quite unique," says David Masci, a senior researcher at the Pew Forum." Geoffrey A. Fowler and Vauhini Vara in The Wall Street Journal.

Real Tumblrs interlude: womenlaughingwithsalad.tumblr.com.

3) A post-recession agenda for financial regulation

Banks present own crisis plan to Fed. "The plan, given to the U.S. Federal Reserve at a private meeting May 22, is an effort by banks to preempt tougher rules from officials in Washington who believe banks still could pose a threat to financial stability in a crisis...Under the proposal, the largest financial-services holding companies would be willing to hold a certain amount of debt and equity that would be used to prop up any failed bank subsidiary seized by regulators. Some banks might be forced to issue expensive long-term debt. The plan is a concession to regulators, who increasingly have been calling for banks to hold a minimum amount of long-term debt." Dan Fitzpatrick, Shayndi Rice, and Michael R. Crittenden in The Wall Street Journal.

Wall Street regulator races for time. "Gary Gensler, the Goldman Sachs trader turned Wall Street regulator, may see his time atop the Commodities Futures Trading Commission end in July. The question is whether he can finish perhaps the most important piece of financial reform before he’s out – or whether the House will manage to stop him." Mike Konczal in The Washington Post.

Explainer: Economic data coming your way this weekAmrita Jayakumar in The Washington Post.

Can the Fed pull of the taper? "The real economy, not just asset prices, could suffer from Fed "tapering." Some indicators suggest the economy has come close to stalling repeatedly since the recession ended four years ago. Quarterly and monthly data on employment, inflation and growth are unclear on this point." Spencer Jakab in The Wall Street Journal.

The Bank for International Settlements continues its hard-money push. "Efforts by the world's "overburdened" central banks to stabilize financial markets have allowed governments to delay necessary overhauls to their economies and banking systems, the Bank for International Settlements said in its annual report Sunday...Structural changes in core economic areas like labor markets and social security systems, which BIS repeatedly calls for, entail tough and often unpopular political decisions." Brian Blackstone in The Wall Street Journal.

Here's why the markets are in turmoil. "Many bond market funds are now showing losses for the year: Yields have jumped sharply, and prices correspondingly have fallen, because the Federal Reserve seems increasingly likely to scale back its efforts to stimulate the economy. But more broadly, sharp selloffs in higher-yielding investments have revealed where investors may have overpaid for those income streams. That was especially the case in high-dividend stocks, such as utilities, which many investors tend to view as havens. Also taking a big hit: yield-rich real-estate investment trusts." Tom Lauricella in The Wall Street Journal.

Will auto sales continue to boost the economy? "Since bottoming out in 2009, when American consumers bought just 10.4 million cars and light trucks, new-vehicles sales have climbed to 11.6 million in 2010, 12.8 million in 2011 and 14.5 million last year. So far this year, they've risen 7.3% and are on track to exceed 15 million vehicles for the first time in five years...In the first quarter, vehicle production accounted for about half of the U.S. economy's growth, according to data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis." Neal E. Boudette in The Wall Street Journal.

Ka-pow interlude: 1959 Chevrolet Bel Air vs. 2009 Chevrolet Malibu crash test.

4) 99 days until Obamacare

Obamacare starts in 99 days. "This is the final sprint for the Obama administration and its allies. The White House has made a conscious decision to hold off on public outreach and education until right before open enrollment — there’s no point in pitching a product, the thinking has gone, until it’s almost on the shelves. There are, arguably, two big things that need to happen between now and October. The first is technical: The federal government needs to finish building the infrastructure that allows multiple government agencies to transmit information, determining whether an individual should qualify for tax subsidies." Sarah Kliff in The Washington Post.

Explainer: 10 people, beyond Sec. Sebelius, to watch during the rollout of the Affordable Care ActElise Viebeck in The Hill.

Employers test plans that cap health costs. "Hoping to cut medical costs, employers are experimenting with a new way to pay for health care, telling workers that their company health plan will pay only a fixed amount for a given test or procedure, like a CT scan or knee replacement. Employees who choose a doctor or hospital that charges more are responsible for paying the additional amount themselves. Although it is in the early stages, the strategy is gaining in popularity and there is some evidence that it has persuaded expensive hospitals to lower their prices." Reed Abelson in The New York Times.

Another ka-pow interlude: A controlled demolition of a huge bridge.

5) The latest on immigration reform

Border security is the key to immigration reform. So how do we measure it? "In 2011, the GAO reports, border security along the Southwest was thought to be about 84 percent effective. That is, 16 percent of attempts to cross the border were successful — which amounted to about 85,000 people getting through. Another 61.3 percent resulted in apprehensions. And 22.7 percent of attempts were turned back. Now, effectiveness varied by sector — the Yuma sector, which is very well-staffed, had an effectiveness rate of 93.7 percent. By contrast, border security in the Rio Grande Valley sector was just 70.8 percent effective." Brad Plumer in The Washington Post.

Sen. Graham says 70 votes is a reality. ""The bill will pass. I think we're on the verge of getting 70 votes. That is my goal," Graham said on "Fox News Sunday." "We're very, very close to 70 votes. The Hoeven-Corker amendment I think gets us over the top."" Jennifer Martinez in The Hill.

...But Sen. Paul says he won't be one of those 70. "Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.), a likely Republican presidential candidate in 2016, announced Sunday he will vote against the Senate immigration reform bill because it does not guarantee border security. “I’m all in favor of immigration reform but I’m like most conservatives in the country [in] that I think reform should be dependent on border security first,” he said on CNN’s “State of the Union”." Alexander Bolton in The Hill.

Reading material interlude: The best sentences Wonkblog read today.

Wonkblog Roundup

Voters don’t care how women in politics lookDanny Hayes and Jennifer L. Lawless.

Obamacare starts in 100 daysSarah Kliff.

Obama is announcing major new climate plans Tuesday. This chart explains whyBrad Plumer.

A Wall Street regulator’s race against timeMike Konczal.

A $15 minimum wage is a terrible ideaDylan Matthews.

Et Cetera

Longread: "Booz Allen, the World's Most Profitable Spy Organization," by Drake Bennett and Michael Riley in Bloomberg Businessweek.

How the farm bill failedDavid Rogers in Politico.

Deadline for rearview cameras pushed to 2015Joan Lowy in The Washington Post.

Got tips, additions, or comments? E-mail me.

Wonkbook is produced with help from Michelle Williams.

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