As most people will by now be aware, last week the Guardian published details of a massively intrusive expansion of the U.S. security state, which has co-opted the data of most of the large internet service providers to fight “terrorism”on the basis of metadata collected through unprecedented intrusion into the lives and communications of members of the public.
We now know the source of the leak that permitted the Guardian to reveal information about our government’s action, information which people across the political spectrum are acknowledging to be in the public interest.
The individual who has forsaken a lucrative career, very likely sacrificed his freedom of movement, and perhaps even imperilled his personal liberty and physical safety, is Edward Snowden, described by the Guardian as “a 29-year-old former technical assistant for the CIA and current employee of the defence contractor Booz Allen Hamilton. Snowden has been working at the National Security Agency for the last four years as an employee of various outside contractors, including Booz Allen and Dell”.
Although the keepers of convention wisdom within our behemoth of a national security apparatus are already working to portray Snowden as a threat to national security and someone who sought to profit from his position within the cloak-and-dagger world which is at the forefront of the shadow wars the United States wages across the world, Snowden’s decision to make his identity public speaks to deeper motives, which become clear in a moving interview with the Guardian.
Snowden explained, “I really want the focus to be on these documents and the debate which I hope this will trigger among citizens around the globe about what kind of world we want to live in...My sole motive is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them ... I don’t want to live in a world where there’s no privacy and therefore no room for intellectual exploration and creativity”.
The security “experts” within our government are already lining up to attack Snowden and Glenn Greenwald (the Guardian journalist who broke the story). Snowden’s own company released a statement saying that their employee’s actions represent “a grave violation of the code of conduct and core values of our firm”, values which, public observers can only imagine must be diametrically opposed to our own if they involve deceit and invasions of privacy. Republican Congressman Peter King, an ardent supporter of the Irish Republican Army, called for Snowden to be extradited to the United States from Hong Kong, where he fled to make his revelations. Steven Clemons, a foreign affairs journalist, reported “listening to 4 US intel officials saying loudly leaker & reporter on NSA stuff should be disappeared”, exhibiting that there is a brutal and violent mentality lurking behind the more urbane defences of our intelligence agencies.
Republican Congressman, Mike Rogers (of the House Intelligence Committee) told CNN that “Greenwald ‘doesn’t have a clue how this thing works’, referring to the U.S. government’s surveillance techniques approved by his committee”. I submit that Rogers and other thugs like him don’t get something else: how a couple of little “things” called democracy and accountability work. Nor do they have even an elementary grasp of the costs to our democracy of constructing such an invasive security apparatus, or of the damage to our moral and material economy done by the wars in the name of which this program has been created. The fact that Rogers sat on information about this massive breach of our civil liberties, and the mounting outrage from the public which has followed its exposure, suggests that he and others with foreknowledge of this program are unfit to serve the public and have neglected to discharge their responsibilities to their constituents.
Rogers was echoed by James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, who criticised the media’s “rush to publish”, claiming that the workings of the agencies he oversees could be jeopardised. But imagine if people within the intelligence services and members of the media had found the same spine during the run-up to the war on Iraq, and subjected the case for that war to similar scrutiny. The lives of thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis would have been saved, to say nothing of the trillions which will be expended on a war constructed on an edifice of lies told by our elected representatives and their appointees. Perhaps Clapper and those in the intelligence world should reconsider the necessity of this program, the secrecy of which requires the muzzling of the press and the hoodwinking of the public they serve. Censorship is not an acceptable attribute of a democratic and open society.
Rogers went on to argue that the whistleblower “absolutely...should be prosecuted”. But stop to think what it would mean if whistleblowers—these days our sole source of information about the workings of our military, executive, and intelligence agencies—were stifled. Men and women of conscience should be encouraged to share abuses of the public trust rather than prosecuted, harassed, and defamed for their actions. And yet our President, who once promised to run the most “transparent and ethical administration in history”, is treating whistleblowers as enemies of the state.
Through the spectre of his transformation of the American national security apparatus and his prosecution of any number of horrific wars, our President has mutated into a pathetic, craven version of the inspiring, righteous man who five years ago gave our country reason to hope that we could turn the page on an era which spurned the public interest, ignored the public good, shredded the public’s rights, and killed in the public’s name. I think that as we went to bed on election even in 2008, none of us would have imagined that five years later we would see Barack Obama as a president who has expanded and perfected the dark arts of the security state enshrined under George W. Bush.
We are fortunate, as a nation which sometimes seems to have misplaced its moral compass in the bleak post-9/11 terrain, to count amongst our citizens the likes of Edward Snowden who can help us to chart our way back to sunnier climes worthy of the stories we like to tell about our country’s identity and mission in the world. His actions required great moral courage, and are the stuff of the stories we should hope to be able to tell subsequent generations about our rediscovery of our purpose.
“I had been looking around for leaders”, Snowden recounted when describing his mounting frustration with the manhandling of our democracy performed by the intelligence services at the behest of the Bush and Obama administrations. “But then”, he continued, “I realised that leadership is about being the first to act”.
It will be some time before we know just how much Snowden’s patriotism and commitment to the public good has cost him and his family. But in the meantime we should do our best to honour that sacrifice by demanding accountability from our government and the dismantling of the security state that has been built up secretly before our credulous and trusting eyes.