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.
Ezra Klein and Evan Soltas write a blog for Slate.