It seems ironic that a man who was often accused of being effete when he ran for president in 2004 has impugned someone else's manhood to make a political point.
But that's what happened Wednesday when Secretary of State John Kerry was asked about fugitive National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, who will be the subject of a prime-time special on NBC tonight.
"He should man up and come back to the United States if he has a complaint about what's the matter with American surveillance," Kerry told "CBS This Morning." "Come back here and stand with our system of justice and make his case."
Anyway, we need to move away from the idea that masculinity and courage are synonymous terms.
A courageous man named Daniel Ellsberg, who should know, said Snowden was right to have fled.
(Ellsberg is one of few who have walked in Snowden's shoes. In 1971, he faced Espionage Act charges for copying and disseminating the Pentagon Papers, which demonstrated the administration of President Lyndon Johnson had systematically lied to Congress and the American people about the Vietnam war. The case against Ellsberg was dismissed because of government misconduct, including illegal wiretapping.)
"There is zero chance that he would be allowed out on bail if he returned now," Ellsberg wrote last July in the Washington Post. "Instead he would be in a prison cell like Bradley Manning, incommunicado. He would almost certainly be confined in total isolation, even longer than the more than eight months Manning suffered during his three years of imprisonment before his trial began."
Polls show that Americans have been divided over whether Snowden helped or harmed U.S. security. But they strongly believe the NSA's domestic spying operation has compromised their own privacy. Last week, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a measure that would reform the country's surveillance law and put an end to the NSA's bulk data collection. That is a direct, and positive, result of Snowden's actions. Not that you will get anyone in Congress to admit it.
Intelligence officials say he has compromised their ability to spy on groups like Al Qaeda. National Intelligence Director James Clapper said bluntly in January that the Snowden had done "profound damage" and that the country is "less safe."
Wednesday, Kerry echoed Clapper: "The fact is he has damaged his country, very significantly, in many, many ways," he told "CBS This Morning." "He has hurt operational security, he has told terrorists what they can now do to be able to avoid detection, and I find it sad and disgraceful."
But he also took pains to belittle Snowden, who said he cannot leave Russia because the U.S. had revoked his passport. Kerry impugned Snowden's patriotism ("a patriot would not run away"). He said Snowden was "supposedly smart" but gave a "dumb answer" about why he was stuck in Russia.
In a profile of Snowden late last year, the Washington Post's Barton Gellman, who spent 14 hours with Snowden in Moscow for the story, chronicled some of the many changes wrought by Snowden's revelations:
"The cascading effects have made themselves felt in Congress, the courts, popular culture, Silicon Valley and world capitals. The basic structure of the Internet itself is now in question, as Brazil and members of the European Union and U.S. technology giants including Google, Microsoft and Yahoo take to block the collection of data by their government."
This year Gellman and his Post colleagues shared the public service Pulitzer Prize with the Guardian's Glenn Greenwald for breaking the Snowden stories.
Whatever American officials think of Snowden, they should rethink their rhetoric against him. Playground insults like "man up" have no place here.
But more important, if they really want him to come home, they should make some guarantees about how he will be treated.