The drama around Edward Snowden, the NSA contract worker who exposed the extent of the NSA’s spying activities, gets stranger by the day. Stranded in Russia, stateless after the U.S. cancelled his passport, Snowden has submitted asylum requests to over a dozen countries, few of which seem likely to risk offending the U.S. by sheltering the whistleblower. Vice-President Joe Biden has already been making calls in Latin America, playing the role of the neighbourhood bully issuing threats to countries to which Snowden has shown interest in fleeing.
Senators have called for Russia to be punished for sheltering Snowden in Moscow’s airport. Very likely acting at the behest of the United States—which spies on their diplomatic missions—European nations forced the plane of Bolivian President Evo Morales to earth so that they could search it lest Snowden had boarded it to make his way to Latin America. Ecuador and Bolivia will particularly smart at being dealt with in such a high-handed manner by the United States and its European allies, given the history of colonial-style interventions the U.S. has mounted over the years in Latin America.
Some have questioned whether all the focus on Snowden is worth our time, suggesting that we should keep our eye on the real issue of the actions of American intelligence agencies. They have a point, but I firstly believe that it would be irresponsible to consign Snowden to the outer darkness of the public mind, where he will be less protected from the United States, and also that his fate is tied up closely to the issues raised by his revelations.
If states are allowed to persecute and harass whistleblowers, turning them into stateless and unprotected refugees, they make the price for calling those governments out all the higher, meaning that we are less likely to see future people decide that the public interest outweighs their personal liberty and physical safety.
Moreover, the machinations of the United States and its allies as they pursue Snowden are a perfect illustration of the clandestine, punitive, authoritarian tendencies that Snowden’s revelations exposed in the first place.
On the one hand, the United States has argued that Snowden has endangered the country by exposing the NSA’s breach of civil liberties, exposing the United States to unspecified threats (they can’t tell us what those are...we’ll just have to take their word). On the other hand incoming National Security Advisor Susan Rice dismissed this view and undermined the administration’s claims, saying that she couldn’t see how the “diplomatic consequences...are that significant”. That, of course, was before it was revealed that the U.S. spies on its European allies’ diplomatic mission. And yet the collaboration of European nations with the U.S. to humiliate Morales, the president of a sovereign nation, suggests that there will be no serious falling out...admittedly, U.S. duplicity probably came as a surprise to few Europeans.
But there are other issues which we should consider. People in the U.S. generally accept that they are citizens of a democratic nation. This means that when the U.S. government acts abroad, it does so in the name of and with the blessing of its public. Equally, when the U.S. government commits crimes abroad, those are committed with the imprimatur of the public. And when people who suffer from those crimes respond, sometimes with violence, U.S. citizens suffer. The more we learn about the actions of our security state—whether at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, or NSA headquarters—the more keen we should be to assert our right to at the very least know the crimes that are being committed in our names.
The mantra from the security state is always, “Just trust us, we know best, and if we can’t tell you what we’re doing, take it for granted that it’s in your best interests”. This is paternalistic nonsense. Paternalistic because it condescends to the public which should in fact be able to establish what is in its own interest and what works at cross purposes to those interests. And nonsense because the track record of the security wing of our state suggests that they have very little idea of what is in our interests.
In an article in the Guardian, writer and former spy John LeCarre described how intelligence services seek to bedazzle and intimidate politicians. We all know that national security authorities scramble to the first meeting with a President-elect and plant the seeds of many a sleepless night, outlining a range of apocalyptic scenarios and portraying a world full of danger. This world, they undoubtedly tell the new President, is coincidentally one which only they know how to navigate. Presidents, like their publics, are hostage to manipulative, lying agencies, with known terroristic tendencies.
The terrorism of the CIA and other arms of the security state is well documented. The use of drones with the knowledge that they will kill innocents, the enthusiastic use of torture under the last administration, mass bombing campaigns, murder, abduction, extraordinary rendition, and disappearance...these are all acts of terror no worse than flying a plane into a building or strapping on a suicide vest.
And Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has provided a perfect example of how the intelligence world is not afraid to lie. Let’s remember that we would not be aware of the NSA’s spying programs had they not been revealed by Snowden, in part because when Clapper was asked about the existence of such programs by Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, he lied and said that no such data mining took place.
When it emerged that Clapper had lied, he was defended by the Obama administration and senior Senators, including California’s Dianne Feinstein who praised his truthfulness. Clapper himself opted to defend himself by playing the Idiot Card. He first argued that he hadn’t understood what was, on the face of it, a painfully simple question. He then claimed to have been befuddled as to how to answer a question about a classified program (which in the book of our security services apparently makes lying okay). These are two further lies on Clapper’s part given that Wyden provided him with the question in writing in advance, and that he also provided Clapper with the opportunity to address the question privately after the hearing in question. We also know that security officials misled Congress and the public about the importance of the NSA programs to addressing terrorist threats.
So if we accepted the claims—made by our President, by intelligence officials, by members of the House and the Senate—that there are sufficient measures already in place to protect the public from abuse by the security state (a claim which is laughable in the first place given the rank stupidity and sheer malice of many members of Congress), we would never have known about the NSA’s programs, never known that our rights were being infringed, and would never have been able to judge whether our rights were more important than their secrets.
It is only because Snowden leaked documents, documents which demonstrate that those in whom we place our trust are perfectly prepared to lie to keep light and justice out of their dark, dirty little corners, that we begin to get some sense of what is being done in our name, not just abroad, but at home, to ourselves.
Snowden leaked documents, exposure of which is very clearly in the public interest, and he is harassed and pursued by the U.S. government and its allies. The man charged with overseeing our intelligence apparatus, with its abusive and terroristic tendencies, lied to Congress, deceiving those charged with providing oversight, and is defended by not only the President, but by some of the very Senators to whose colleagues he lied.
Perhaps we can discern a pattern of what democracy in the post-9/11 and post-Citizens United world looks like.
Incredibly powerful and irresponsible financial interests committed crimes and behaved in a fashion which crippled our country’s economy and plunged people into poverty and unemployment in their millions, and they walk away, bailed-out by our government. Victims of their crime are caricatured, harassed, hounded from their homes, dismissed as lazy, and denied adequate support from the state.
What on earth has our country become, and why on earth are we allowing this transformation to be made in our name?