Bradley Manning: not guilty of “aiding the enemy” but still a dangerous precedent.

Exactly one piece of good news came out of the verdict against Bradley Manning today. Judge Col. Denise Lind pronounced Bradley Manning not guilty of aiding the enemy. As this was the most serious charge which carried a life sentence without the right to parole (or, in fact, the death penalty but the US government refrained from seeking that), I suppose there were some initial sighs of relief, as “[t]o convict under this law without requiring at least an intent to communicate with an enemy would have severely chilling implications for free speech, particularly in the age of the Internet”.

The relief would not have lasted long. Greg Mitchell correctly points out that it was premature, considering that with “guilty” verdicts for many of the other charges (and what with everything else that is going on at the moment), the “crackdown on whistleblowers and transparency continues”.

And anyway, the good news pretty much ended with that one important “not guilty” verdict. There were many more “guilty” verdicts – 19 out of 22, altogether – including five theft and five espionage charges each. Manning now be faces up to 130 years in prison, depending on the outcome of the sentencing phase which is about to begin. As several witnesses will be called during this phase, it could last for another couple of days.

The whole case is of course outrageous and deeply disturbing. I have discussed this in some detail in my last post;  the “cruel and degrading” treatment Manning was subjected to during the three years he spent in jail prior to his trial should have meant that the case never made it to court. Rather, it should have been dismissed on grounds of unlawful actions by the government.

The fact that it did come to trial – and including charges of breaching the Espionage Act, no less – and the verdict have caused much concern amongst human rights groups and investigative journalists. The New York Times in an editorial on the verdict, correctly bemoans that “[l]urking just behind a military court’s conviction of Pfc. Bradley Manning, on charges that included multiple violations of the Espionage Act, is a national-security apparatus that has metastasized into a vast and largely unchecked exercise of government secrecy, and the overzealous prosecution of those who breach it”.

Even though Manning was not found guilty of aiding the enemy, he was found guilty of several charges of violating the Espionage Act, essentially for leaking information to the press. WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange is right when he says that this potentially sets a very serious precedent for independent journalism and its sources. Because, what has become obvious is that the government sees “Manning’s actions espionage, not whistle-blowing”.

Last time I looked, the term espionage was defined twofold as

1. the systematic use of spies to obtain secret information, esp by governments to discover military or political secrets

2. the act or practice of spying

Correct me if I’m wrong but for me this means that to be charged with and found guilty of espionage, you would have to be a spy, i.e. working for a government or similar (hostile) force (Manning was accused of unintentionally helping Al Qaeda). Doesn’t it seem absurd to you that while Manning was absolved of aiding the enemy, he was still found guilty of espionage?

By contrast, a whistleblower is defined as someone who discloses “to the public or to those in authority, […] mismanagement, corruption, illegality, or some other wrongdoing.” Manning having disclosed to the public “grave abuses in the ‘war on terror’” strikes me more as a whistleblower than a spy. Then again, the Espionage Act “originally prohibited any attempt to interfere with military operations, to support U.S. enemies during wartime, to promote insubordination in the military, or to interfere with military recruitment” – which would be what the US government are basing their case on.

Interestingly, this would not apply to Edward Snowden, who did nothing if not leak “to the public […], [information] mismanagement, corruption, illegality, or some other wrongdoing” by the NSA and the US government. It is a strange thing, thus, that he should be prosecuted for violating the Espionage Act, even though he is, to all intends and purposes, the very definition of a whistleblower. And make no mistake; today’s verdict surely is indicative if what Edward Snowden can expect if he returns to the US to stand trial.

That in mind, I can only agree with the American Civil Liberties Union who “denounced the verdict [against Bradley Manning] as a government attempt ‘to intimidate anyone who might consider revealing valuable information in the future.’” After all, the US governments persecution of Edward Snowden is another such attempt at intimidation – which, tellingly, also includes the intimidation (by trade sanctions) of any nation that would dare so much as think of granting Snowden asylum. Reporters Without Borders agrees: “Edward Snowden would have every reason to fear persecution, as defined by the Geneva Conventions, if he were to return to the United States.”
Things don’t stop at intimidation either. Obviously, the incident with Evo Morales’ plane last month constituted a violation of sovereignty. In Manning’s case, pursuit of the ‘aiding the enemy’ charge has been branded “a serious overreach of the law,” by Amnesty International, “not least because there was no credible evidence of Manning’s intent to harm the USA by releasing classified information to WikiLeaks.”

Absurdly, in a joint statement after the ruling, the Democratic and Republican leaders of the US House of Representatives intelligence committee said that “justice has been served” because “Manning harmed […] national security, violated the public’s trust, and now stands convicted of multiple serious crimes”. Am I the only one who thinks it ridiculous that Manning is being accused of violating the public’s trust for making information about wrongdoing on the part of the government available to – exactly! – the public? Add to that what has recently come to light about the extent of government spying (and in this case I believe the term is applied correctly) on (pretty much all) members of the public, then who is actually violating the public’s trust? Really, ladies and gentlemen of the House of Representatives, I am not sure you should be throwing stones in that particular glasshouse.

Today, the US government has demonstrated once again not only its inability to deal adequately with information about everything that is seriously going wrong on its watch (I stand by my suggestion that whistleblowers should all be honoured with medals and knighthoods, not prosecuted). It has also given us another example of its vendetta against whistleblowers. Despite wide-ranging public support (including from members of the European Parliament, former whistleblowers, investigative journalists, the Bradley Manning Support Network and WikiLeaks, to name but a few), after today “Private Manning still faces the equivalent of several life sentences on the espionage counts regarding disclosure of classified information.”

Clearly, the New York Times is right to ask “[t]he government [to] satisfy itself with a more moderate sentence and then do something about its addiction to secrecy.”

 

There are a couple of very useful sources for background information on the trial, the verdict and Bradley Manning’s leaks. Check them out.

The Washington Post’s overview of the verdict

IMPORTANTLY, a collection of information on what Bradley Manning revealed.

The “Collateral Murder” video that Bradley Manning leaked to WikiLeaks.

Reporters Without Borders on what the Manning verdict means for investigative journalism.

The Guardian has a trove of information on the issue, including the Wikileaks revelations.

The full letter of Members of the European Parliament, asking President Obama to free Bradley Manning.

A transcript of the ruling.

Why Edward Snowden must be the story too – The US, whistleblowers and our basic human rights

I don’t know about you, but I am getting increasingly worried about Edward Snowden these days. As he remains stuck in limbo at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, the noose around him seems to be getting tighter and tighter.

On Wednesday, there was some confusion over Snowden’s status as various news agencies reported that he had been issued with temporary papers, allowing him to leave the airport and move freely around Russia. This turned out not to be true.

According to his lawyer, Snowden was never issued with any papers, although he was kindly provided with fresh shirts, pizza and books. Unsurprisingly, this caused some jeers on Twitter. Apparently, Mr Snowden will remain in the transit area of Moscow’s airport until further notice. It has also been alleged, by his lawyer, that he is considering staying in Russia indefinitely. I admit that this gave me an uneasy feeling, as it was the first of Snowden’s decisions that I could not immediately follow. I can now and it does not just make me uneasy, it gives me the creeps, although for entirely different reasons.

What creeps me out even more, is the continued pressure the US government is exercising on the world’s administrations to make sure that Snowden is returned to the States. As the Washington Post reports, “U.S. sanctions against any country offering asylum to Edward Snowden advanced in Congress [last] Thursday” – note that a bill to that effect was passed “unanimously” and authorizes “trade or other sanctions against Russia or any other country that offers asylum to Snowden”.

As if that in itself wasn’t outrageous enough, the US attorney general has written a letter to the Russian Minister of Justice, reassuring him that Snowden will not be tortured or killed if extradited. Both these developments are disturbing; I am struggling to get my head around the fact that the US can and would impose trade sanctions on any country willing to help Snowden exercise his right to seek asylum. In light of this crackdown, it is less and less unsurprising that most countries refuse to extend offers to Snowden, despite the fact that what is happening here is a violation of Article 14.1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The problem with that is of course that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in itself is not legally binding. Rather, it is the foundation for a number of international human rights treaties, not all of which the US has even signed and ratified. Sadly, the right to asylum was not laid down in any of these treaties.

Obviously, whether or not Edward Snowden is extradited to the US depends amongst other things on the extradition treaties the US has with various countries. Currently, the US lacks such a treaty with Russia and President Putin has said that Russia will not extradite Snowden – several news agencies report that this position has not changed even after Mr Holder’s letter was received.
This should be welcome news to Lon Snowden, Edward Snowden’s father, who came out in a telephone interview with Associated Press, saying that he “thinks his […] son is better off avoiding the US if possible until an administration that respects the constitution comes into office”. This from a man who has been working tirelessly over the past weeks to find a way of ensuring that his son got a fair trial if he returned to the US. Snowden Sr. who “ha[s] lost faith in recent weeks that his son would be treated fairly by the justice department,” seems to believe that Russia is least likely to cave in to US pressure. But it that true? And even if it is, does that mean that Edward Snowden is safe in Russia? Russian officials have been quoted repeatedly as saying that President Putin has no intentions of letting the row over Snowden damage US-Russian relations further. Then just how much option is there? While Edward Snowden may be dutifully reading the Russian literature given to him by his lawyer, US and Russian intelligence services are now “in talks” over him. Just what does that mean?

I will come back to that in a minute. Before that, I would like to quickly point out two other important events this week.

1.)    US Congress voted on something called the Amash amendment last Wednesday. Proposed by Justin Amash, the amendment would have ended indiscriminate collection of phone records. The run up to the vote saw hitherto unheard of alliances across party lines in favour or disfavour of the amendment respectively. It was defeated with 717 to 705 votes. Disappointing, certainly, but still – as commentators have it – a clear signal that “people are deeply and rightly concerned about the NSA’s domestic spying program”. This is important, as it shows – much like demonstrations in Germany and New Zealand this weekend – that people are taking Snowden’s revelations seriously and that they are acting upon them.

2.)   Meanwhile, in the related case of US army whistleblower Bradley Manning prosecution and defence both gave their closing arguments, with the prosecution once again claiming that Manning’s disclosures to Wikileaks aided US enemies. Although the defence painted the opposite picture, insisting that Manning “did not know al-Qaida would see the material and did not have ‘evil intent’,” it is not looking good for the defendant. This is a case that will be decided not by a jury but by the judge alone (at Manning’s own request) – Judge Col. Denise Lind who previously refused to dismiss the charge that Manning aided the enemy. If convicted of aiding the enemy, Manning faces a lifetime in jail. This will send an important signal to other whistleblowers and brings me round to what I would like to discuss this week: the US’s response to whistleblowers, of which their treatment of Snowden is a case in point.

Now. Snowden. Much has been said about the US media obsession with his faults and personality, the questioning of his choice of destinations and his perhaps ill-phrased praise of the countries that offered him help. Certainly, the events surrounding Snowden’s flight and attempted apprehension by the Obama administration have prompted some rather ridiculous reactions. Consider for example Vladimir Putin who seized the opportunity of taking the moral high ground by saying: “Assange and Snowden consider themselves human rights activists and say they are fighting for the spread of information. Ask yourself this: should you hand these people over so they will be put in prison?” I am sure two words will suffice by way of comment: stones and glasshouse.

It has been criticized time and again that the extensive –and extended– reporting on Snowden’s asylum status has moved the focus of public attention towards Snowden himself and away from what the US government is doing. While this may be true of certain factions of the US media in particular, his revelations have still led to the above debate in Congress and discussions on global and national surveillance in much of South America, India and some of Europe. They have also prompted several law suits from Human Rights Groups in several countries, including France, the UK and the US.

In any case, culpability for the skewered focus of media reporting should hardly be laid at Snowden’s door. Snowden himself has said that he wishes the focus to be on the mass surveillance undertaken worldwide by the NSA rather than on himself. Clearly, he foresaw not only how the US government was likely to react but also how the media were likely to react.

I am not sure though in how far he expected the shocking reactions of most other western governments. As German journalist Frank Schirrmacher has put it, by refusing to stand with Edward Snowden, the world’s democracies reveal themselves to be in a deep crisis, helplessly looking on as the US casually pass over other countries’ sovereignty to violate international law. This is indicative of the other very deeply worrying aspect of this whole affair; the attitude the USA seem to have towards themselves and the rest of the world, us as citizens and our rights as both citizens and human beings. It also indicates that the balance of power has shifted so much in favour of the US that European governments not only never considered granting Edward Snowden asylum but also infringed the rights of a sovereign state when Evo Morales’ private plane had to be diverted to Austria.

Last week saw the deadline for a decision on Snowden’s asylum request come and go without a decision being made. Meanwhile, both US attorney general Eric Holder and Congress once more demonstrated how willing the US really are to lean on other governments to have Mr Snowden returned to the US so he can be put on trial for the various charges that are being laid against him (theft of government property, unauthorized communication of national defence information, wilful communication of classified communications intelligence information to an unauthorized person).

And this is precisely why Edward Snowden needs to be the story too; because the US government’s response to him, its treatment of the situation and the reaction of other governments is intimately connected to the substance of Edward Snowden’s revelations. And not just because Edward Snowden, the person, is the red thread here. It is because what Edward Snowden has revealed, amongst other things, is that in the so-called “war on terror” our rights are sacrificed to protect us from some obscure threat or faceless enemy.
One of the charges levelled against US army whistleblower Bradley Manning is that he “aided the enemy” by leaking documents and videos to WikiLeaks. The charge seems to be all the rage these days as it diverts attention neatly away from the fact that, by leaking these documents, Manning revealed that, in this day and age, when we are facing a threat that seems as undefinable as it seems omnipresent the government seems to think it is okay to curtail our rights – and to decide in secret how far they want to go with that. The potential threat of a terrorist attack has become some sort of get-out-of-jail free card for governments and a get-into-jail-immediately card for anyone who dares to shine a light on what is really going on behind the smokescreen that is called “classified information”.

So, you see, Edward Snowden’s fate needs to be discussed because what is happening to him now, and what might happen to him if he is extradited to the US, is directly connected to that other, very real and very worrying aspect of what has emerged: that our rights are at risk not (only) from terrorists but (also) from our own governments – and that it’s getting to the point where there is precious little any of us can do about it.

You might argue that we already knew that. And that it never really looked that good for Snowden. And that Snowden knew this even before he first leaked information to the Guardian and then came out as the person behind the leaks. All of this is true and I have been meaning for a while to make the point that Snowden has to be discussed along with everything else.

So, you may ask, why now? What happened last week that got me so worried? A couple of things and I am not sure that they bode well for Snowden at all. Most importantly, there was Eric Holder’s letter which was obviously trying to undermine Snowden’s request for asylum on the grounds that he might face torture or the death penalty if extradited. Russia has said repeatedly that it will “not hand anyone over”. Given the fact that Snowden was not issued with any travel documents last Wednesday, I am not sure how to read that statement. Do they mean that they will not extradite Snowden to the US no matter what happens? Or do they, in fact, mean that they will not just “hand him over” for free?

Not only has the US’s conduct over the past weeks isolated Edward Snowden in an extraterritorial area with very limited options. It also seems that Snowden is now caught in the middle of some bizarre US-Russian face-off. This could lead to several denouements, none of which look particularly promising for Snowden. As Reuter’s reports, Russian security expert Andrei Soldatov “said the talks [between Russian and US security services] may be about how to secure a promise from Snowden to stop leaking if he were granted sanctuary in Russia. ‘The United States maybe understands that they are not going to get Snowden, so my theory is that they are trying to save face and stop Snowden from publishing new exposes.’”

Snowden has been criticised repeatedly for his choice of potential safe havens and I admit that I had a bit of trouble getting to grips with his announcement that he might want to stay in Russia indefinitely; after all, Snowden previously said that he would travel on to South America. A decision to stay in Russia may mean that he will not be able to leak any further information as Vladimir Putin has made this the condition for asylum. So, why would Snowden accept a gag? Now, I am going to repeat what I wrote in my last post because this is important: “None of the three Latin American countries [Bolivia, Nicaragua and Venezuela which have offered Snowden asylum and where he had planned to travel to from Russia] can be reached by a direct commercial flight from Moscow so Snowden has requested temporary asylum in Russia until he believes he can safely reach one of them.” The Guardian’s Geoffrey Roberts makes the excellent point that Snowden might not even be safe on a commercial flight. The confusion over his papers on Wednesday, the incident with Evo Morales’ plane several weeks ago, the bill passed by Congress on Thursday not only point to the kind of unresolvable situation the US have created for him. There is also the question of what Russia’s own interests are in this and what they might do to see them met.

Unlike Lon Snowden, who has said that Russia might be “the best place to seek asylum because it was most likely to withstand US pressure,” I am not sure that this is about withstanding pressure at all. It might just be about getting the best deal. Snowden might currently be spending his time reading Russian literature that suggests he should just shut up and “submit to the powers that be” – in this case Russia. Perhaps, if Snowden is lucky, any “deal” would indeed mean a gag but no extradition for him.

Yet, should Russia decide not to stand by its word of not handing him over, then what is to stop them from apprehending him and shipping him back to the US, despite claims that he is safe while in transit at the airport?

What also upsets me deeply about this is that, should the US and Russia strike a deal of any kind, we, the public, the electorate, the people who are being spied on, the ones ready to stand with Snowden, would not be able to do very much at all, despite our best intentions. Ultimately, when our governments decide to do their thing, all we can really do is watch – such is the state of our democracy, and this is what the NSA leaks, Snowden’s treatment and the international reaction to both really reveal.

For that reason, let us look at Snowden’s situation in a little more detail.

On Friday, then, this letter. Written by the US’s attorney general Eric Holder to the Russian Minister of justice, it reassures the minister that the USA would not seek the death penalty against Edward Snowden for two reasons.

One, the charges brought against him do not carry the death penalty (that is because they do not (yet) – as Snowden feared – include the “aided the enemy” charge).

Two, even if other charges were brought forward that were subject to capital punishment (such as the “aided the enemy” charge), the US would not seek that punishment against Mr Snowden. The letter also states that Mr Snowden, should he return to the US, would not be in danger of torture, as “torture is outlawed in the US”.

Now. Pardon me, if I do not find this letter reassuring in any way.
Obviously, it doesn’t reassure Edward Snowden’s father either. Obviously, the sentiments of both Snowdens are subjective and their fears of an unfair trial, torture and death may, as Mr Holder’s letter has it, be “entirely without merit”. I do, however, suggest that we have a look at how entirely with or without merit these fears really are.

In his letter, Mr Holder states that “Mr Snowden will not be tortured [because] torture is unlawful in the United States.” Sounds fair and straightforward enough, doesn’t it? Show of hands who is fooled. Exactly. Actually, the statement is deeply worrying. Why? I will tell you.
First and foremost, there is the fact that it has to be made at all. Surely, the US being – or claiming to be – a democracy that respects human rights (a status that people like Al Gore and Jimmy Carter recently have voiced some concerns about) should not have to reassure anyone that they will give an alleged criminal a fair trial. Well, I suppose you could argue that Mr Snowden’s “casual discussion” of his potential torture has made the US government feel that they need to stress this. However, that would be failing to take into account two things:

Firstly, that there are certain people the US classifies as “unlawful combatants” for example, who are denied certain privileges, freedom from torture apparently being one of them.

Secondly, other similar cases like the one of Bradley Manning, whose treatment at the hands of the US government has just been branded “inhuman and cruel” by the UN special rapporteur on torture. Consider this carefully; this is Juan Mendez, the UN torture chief, who has conducted a 14-month investigation into Manning’s treatment, concluding that “the US military was at least culpable of cruel and inhumane treatment in keeping Manning locked up alone for 23 hours a day over an 11-month period in conditions that [Mendez] also found might have constituted torture.” The italics are mine and I am sure you get the point.

To quote the report itself:

“Mr. Manning was held in solitary confinement for twenty-three hours a day following his arrest in May 2010 in Iraq, and continuing through his transfer to the brig at Marine Corps Base Quantico. His solitary confinement -lasting about eleven months- was terminated upon his transfer from Quantico to the Joint Regional Correctional Facility at Fort Leavenworth on 20 April 2011.”

Picture this: being held in a cell on your own for 23 hours a day over a period of eleven months! This is a 6’ by 8’ (unless I get my calculations wrong this means roughly 2 by 2.5 metres) cell and Manning was “deprived of just about everything”, including his clothes, while being allowed to sleep “only when facing his lamp”. The reality of what this means in Bradley Mannings own words: ‘You could see the reflection of the reflection of the skylight if you angled your face on the cell door’. No wonder that “[i]n his report, the Special Rapporteur stresses that “solitary confinement is a harsh measure which may cause serious psychological and physiological adverse effects on individuals regardless of their specific conditions.” Moreover, “[d]epending on the specific reason for its application, conditions, length, effects and other circumstances, solitary confinement can amount to a breach of article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and to an act defined in article 1 or article 16 of the Convention against Torture.” Note that the US has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights only with “reservations, understandings and declarations”, declaring it to be “non-self-executing” so that it “does not add anything to human rights under U.S. domestic law”.

Also, pardon me for saying so, but Mr Mendez’s verdict is only based on information that the US government provided. Tellingly, the report continues:

            “Before the transfer of Pfc Manning to Fort Leavenworth, the Special Rapporteur requested an opportunity to interview him in order to ascertain the precise conditions of his detention. The US Government authorized the visit but ascertained that it could not ensure that the conversation would not be monitored. Since a non-private conversation with an inmate would violate the terms of reference applied universally in fact-finding by Special Procedures, the Special Rapporteur had to decline the invitation.”

Now, I am sure I do not have to comment further on how telling it is that no private conversation was possible – this is, by the way, the only way the Special Rapporteur can work; out of earshot of the suspected torturers. Hence, his need to “decline the invitation.”

So, here is a man held in isolation for almost a year, barred from speaking to pretty much anyone and at that point in time not even proven guilty of any crime. Rather, the report states that when asked on whose authority Mr Manning was held in solitary confinement, “the government responded that the prison rules authorized the brig commander to impose it on account of the seriousness of the offense for which he would eventually be charged.” Again, my italics.

Obviously, imposing punishment based on the seriousness of an offence with which someone will be charged in the future is absurd. And it gets weirder: the above statement is at odds with the answer the US government gave to the question of why Manning was held in solitary confinement in the first place. They said it happened for his own protection. To summarize: the brig commander has the authority “to impose [solitary confinement] on account of the seriousness of the offense for which [Manning] would eventually be charged”, but that’s not why he did it. Rather, “his regimen was not “solitary confinement” [at all] but “prevention of harm watch”. Interestingly, the US government then failed to specify what “harm” Manning needed to be protected from. (It emerged during the trial later on that apparently he needed to be protected both from other inmates and from harming himself. Yet the behaviourisms he displayed that led to the conclusion that he may be suicidal were probably caused by solitary confinement in the first place).

Now, excuse me, but can I just ask, what’s that again that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says about being “subjected[ed] to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”? Oh, that’s right: that no one shall be subjected to them! Or, to say it in the words of Mr Mendez, the US’s treatment of Bradley Manning constitutes “a violation of [Mr Manning’s] right to physical and psychological integrity as well as of his presumption of innocence”. ‘nuff said? Sorry but no. I suggest you read for yourselves those parts of Mr Mendez’s report pertaining not only to his (repeatedly thwarted) attempts at meeting Mr Manning in private but also to the alleged appalling (read: solitary confinement, torture) ill-treatment of “16 gay and transgender individuals […] while in detention in U.S. immigration facilities. Furthermore, there was reportedly a lack of protection from persecution and respect for the principle of non-refoulement for those who risk torture if returned to their home countries on account of their sexual orientation, gender identity or HIV status”.

Yes, I know, I have said it myself; the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is not a legally binding document, and neither is the Special Rapporteur’s report. More than that, the US has not even ratified all international human rights treaties and ratified others with reservations. In light of this, some questions: if everyone seems able to make up their own minds about whether or not they choose to obey international treaties designed to protect human rights, doesn’t that erode the treaties? What are those treaties actually for? Oh, that’s right: for bashing other governments about violating human rights while taking a much more liberal stance to your own observations of them – isn’t that right, Mr Kerry, Mr Putin?

 “Mr Snowden will not be tortured. Torture is unlawful in the US,” writes Mr Holder. Let’s assume then, just for the sake of the argument, that the US government has no idea that unlawful practises are being committed within its territory or in its various holding facilities (after all, the failure to ratify the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention Against Torture means that US prisons and miscellaneous are exempt from “a system of regular visits undertaken by independent international and national bodies to places where people are deprived of their liberty, in order to prevent torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”).

So, let’s say that what’s going on behind US prison walls is so secret that not even the US government knows about it. Well, sorry, but in that case the government is not only failing to protect its own citizens but also those seeking protection from prosecution in asylum facilities. Obviously, it is highly unlikely pretty damn impossible that they don’t know about this in the first place – by now, we have all heard about Guantanamo, right? If you haven’t, I suggest you read up on it. After all, this is the prison President Obama, despite promises to the contrary, has still failed to close.

So, it’s probably safe to assume that the US government knows perfectly well what is going on and is thus either conducting unlawful practises itself or endorsing them. Note that what Mr Holder is not saying is that “Mr Snowden will not be tortured [because] torture is unlawful in the US” and no one is currently being tortured in the US or has been for a long time. The reason he cannot say that, of course, is that that would make him, at worst, a liar, or, at best, terrifyingly ignorant – you could call it “dangerously naïve”.

Now, I am sure that a government that allows for “various violations of the provisions under the Convention against Torture” (or at least the evidence strongly suggest this) will grant Edward Snowden a fair trial. I am also sure that they will protect him from any physical and psychological harm by placing him in solitary confinement under “prevention of harm watch”.

I suppose you could argue that Edward Snowden’s case is very different from Bradley Manning’s or in fact the people held in US immigration facilities because one, he is a civilian, not a Private First Class in the US military and two, he is a US citizen. I suppose you could quote that passage in Mr Holder’s letter which reads that “Mr Snowden would promptly be brought before a civilian court” and that he “would receive all the protections that US law provides persons charged with federal criminal offences […] In particular, Mr Snowden would be appointed (or, if he chose so, could retain) counsel. Any questioning of Mr Snowden could be conducted only with his consent: his participation would be entirely voluntary, and his legal counsel would be present should he wish it. Mr Snowden would have the right to a public jury trial; he would have the right to testify if he wished to do so; and the United States would have to prove his guilt beyond reasonable doubt to a unanimous jury. If convicted, Mr Snowden would have the right to appeal […].

Doesn’t sound so bad, eh? Now, let’s see what this could potentially mean.

Scenario one: The Face-Value-Scenario

In which I am taking everything Mr Holder writes at face-value and a former NSA-contractor turned whistleblower returns to the US to face charges brought against him by the US government. In this scenario, Mr Snowden “is brought promptly before a civilian court” and “receive[s] all the protection that US law provides persons charged with federal criminal offences”.

So, assuming that the law – and hence the US government – honours and protects Mr Snowden’s rights to a fair trial, freedom of speech, prohibition of torture or degrading treatment and no punishment without law, he promptly receives a public trial “at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence” (in accordance with article 11.1 of the Declaration of Human Rights). Following a lengthy and thorough examination of the facts, the jury rules in favour of Mr Snowden, applauds him as an advocate of civil rights and clears him of all charges, sending an unprecedented signal to him and all future whisteblowers that the exposure of unlawful practices by a government does not constitute an act of treason but of reason, conscience and good judgement.

He is then awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (jointly with Bradley Manning who, by the way, has actually been nominated) to the sound of those media hacks who denounced him eating their words, while a humbled US government launches a full inquiry into the potentially unlawful practices of its foreign intelligence agency and the alleged human rights abuses committed in its prison facilities, while also finally fulfilling its promise of closing Guantanamo Bay. Russia and the US kiss and make up and we all live happily ever after.

I am sure my sarcastic tone and hyperbolic vision of world unanimity gives away just how likely I believe the “fair trial”-scenario to be: about one in a gazillion aka when hell freezes over. Okay, to be fair, my imagination ran away with me a little bit but you are welcome to leave out the second paragraph and correct the likelihood to one in a billion aka when a nice and pleasant breeze relieves the heat of purgatory.

To be fair, the trial scenario could play out differently and still not end in a conviction for Snowden. Consider the case of Thomas Drake. Like Drake, Snowden could be arrested and charged. All charges would later be dropped “in return for [Snowden’s] agreement to plead guilty to [some] misdemeanour [or other]. Snowden [might be] sentenced to one year of probation and community service,” and the US government might publicly state “that the prosecution of [Edward Snowden] was not intended to deter government employees from reporting problems.” They might say that “Whistle-blowers are the key to many, many department investigations — we don’t retaliate against them, we encourage them.”

Yeah, right. Again, not likely. While this is what happened in Thomas Drake’s case (and I do not mean in any way to mitigate the immense difficulties the whole affair caused him), the charges brought against him were not actually as serious as the ones likely to be brought against Snowden – most notably the “aiding the enemy” charge.

Now, that charge is in itself noteworthy for its deeply worrying implications. As was argued by the defence in the Bradley Manning trial “by equating the transfer of classified materials to the media with ‘aiding the enemy’ – essentially treason – the government was creating a framework of intimidation for “people for getting information out to the press, to basically put . . . a hammer down on any whistleblower.” 

Note that, in this case the government “claims that Manning “indirectly” aided Al Qaeda by causing intelligence information to be posted on WikiLeaks’ website, knowing that Al Qaeda has access to the internet”. Bravo! So, supposing Al Qaeda didn’t have access to the internet (stranger things have happened) – would that then be enough for the “aided the enemy” charge to be thrown out? Or would it suffice for Al Qaeda to have access to the international press which picked up the story and multiplied it? Is giving information to the press (as whistleblowers do and as Edward Snowden has done) “indirectly aiding the enemy” too and, by the same token, did the journalists that multiplied the story also indirectly aid the enemy? Yes, that’s precisely what it means. Making any kind of potentially useful information available publicly could be seen as “indirectly aiding the enemy”. If you think it through, you can see the effect it could have not only on whistleblowers but also on the press itself.

As I’ve said before, Holder’s letter does not actually list “aiding the enemy” amongst the charges made against Edward Snowden. It does, however, refer to “additional, death penalty-eligible crimes” (I love that wording: the death penalty! Are you eligible?) with which Snowden might be charged. Note that “aiding the enemy” is the kind of charge that makes you eligible for the death penalty.

If you think my view too bleak, I have another scenario for you: Snowden is prosecuted under the 1917 Espionage Act for releasing classified information to the public. But the case is thrown out because it is found that the government itself has engaged in illegal wiretapping and other misconduct (dragnet collection of metadata, retention of user data, emails, phone calls, detaining prisoners without charge, torture…). Again, this has actually happened. In 1971, Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers to a reporter of the NY Times and became the first person to be prosecuted under the Espionage Act. Ellsberg’s “case was thrown out after the judge learned that the government had engaged in the illegal wiretapping of Ellsberg and other misconduct”.

Sorry to say that this scenario is, again, unlikely. Consider that Ellsberg believes that had he been tried under today’s administration, it would have meant a life sentence. Further note that “[t]oday, Ellsberg is one of the most outspoken critics of the Obama administration’s prosecution of leakers,” that he is publicly supporting both Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden, arguing “that there is little difference between what Manning did in 2010 and what [Ellsberg] did four decades earlier”.

So, what is the difference between then and now? You could argue that the difference between Manning and Ellsberg is that Ellsberg went to the NY times, while Manning went to Wikileaks which may not be considered a respectable news outlet by the US government. Since Snowden went to the Guardian, this objection doesn’t apply to him. Cue Ellsberg who points out that: “Everything that Richard Nixon did to me, for which he faced impeachment and prosecution, which led to his resignation, is now legal under the Patriot Act, the FISA [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] amendment act, the National Defense Authorization Act.” That being the case, I don’t have much faith that any judge would dismiss charges against Snowden on grounds of government misconduct – it’s all legal these days and even if it isn’t, it’s so classified that you cannot prove it to be otherwise, that’s the FISC for you. Also, given Bradley Manning’s treatment before his trial, his case should have been thrown out too – only it wasn’t. Therefore, let me propose a different scenario for Edward Snowden’s return to the US.

Scenario two: the Reading-between-the-lines-I-don’t-believe-a-word-you-say-scenario

In which the same former NSA-contractor turned whistleblower returns to the US to face charges brought against him the US government. Upon giving himself up to representatives of the US government (or being given up to them), Edward Snowden is dragged off back to the US and immediately incarcerated. By the time he is tried by a jury three years later, Snowden has spent most of his imprisonment in solitary confinement being treated in ways that are “condemned by the UN and Nobel laureates (and you can guess which of the laureates did not partake of the condemning) as tantamount to torture.” This is because the US says Snowden stole a trove of sensitive documents and sent them to the Guardian, thereby “aiding the enemy”. Obviously, what Snowden actually did was to document the extend of data collection done by the NSA and several other foreign intelligence agencies, exposing an infringement of people’s right to privacy that many agree should be, if not condemned, at least discussed in public. But the Obama administration has made it perfectly clear that it sees nothing laudable or heroic in Mr Snowden’s actions. Rather, it views them as treasonous. And thus it retaliates.

For 23 hours a day over a period just short of a year, Edward Snowden is held in solitary confinement in an 8’ (2.5m) by 8’ (2.5m) by 8’ (2.5m) cell, deprived of clothes, sleep, company. Requests by the UN Special Rapporteur for a confidential meeting with Snowden are repeatedly denied or ignored entirely. Upon the start of his trial three years later, many people do not even realize that the trial is happening, because three years “is plenty of time for the public to mistakenly assume there was already a court decision and sentencing”. Three years is also, importantly, plenty of time for the discussion that Edward Snowden’s leaks have started to die down. As you may have guessed, this, too, has happened. The trial is happening right now, the verdict is due today (Tuesday, 30th June at 13.00 EST – that’s 17.00 GMT to you) and the person being tried is Bradley Manning.

So, this week, as Snowden had hoped, people have been talking substance. For them and for many others, “Edward Snowden isn’t the story” anymore. They and he are right that we should not lose track of what the real issue is, of what he has revealed.

And yet I can only repeat what I have been saying all along; that we must discuss Snowden as well. No, not his character, certainly not how heartbroken his cute girlfriend is. Instead, let us discuss what both the NSA surveillance and the persecution of Edward Snowden glaringly reveal. That our rights are being eroded, that our governments seem helpless or careless when it comes to standing up for us, for protecting these basic rights. There seems to be an idea going round that somehow, a human being – by committing certain actions – can forfeit the rights laid down in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and international human rights treaties. This is wrong. These rights cannot be forfeit. Not ever. Not. Under. Any. Circumstance. Some rights are fundamental and inviolate. Edward Snowden believes this; he gave up his life to protect these rights. Yet in the eyes of the powers that be, this is precisely what seems to have lost him his own rights.

So then we must watch. We must follow what happens to Edward Snowden just as closely as we must follow the actions of our governments. 

Let us not forget what the US government’s persecution of whistleblowers and other governments’ failure to stand with them says about the erosion of values like freedom of speech, freedom of the press, right to a fair trial, right to freedom from torture and degrading treatment, right to seek asylum, right to life…. Have a look at the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – a declaration the US is quick to cite when it comes to rebuking other nations for their human rights violations – and ask yourself how many of the rights you believe are being applied to whistleblowers in the US.

Then look at Edward Snowden, look at Bradley Manning, look long and hard and do not let them out of your sight. I might even be so bold as to suggest that we shine a spotlight on them by awarding them the Nobel Peace Prize in the hope that this will make it much harder for laureate Barack Obama to persecute fellow laureates, and for the EU (another laureate) to steer clear of the issue without looking at least a little bit dodgy. The lack of attention paid to the Manning trial has been criticised by many – and for good reason. Do not let the same happen with Edward Snowden.

Bear in mind that the NSA “in internal documents […] identifies terrorists and hackers as being particularly threatening. Even more dangerous, however, the documents say, is if an insider decides to blow the whistle. An insider like Edward […] Snowden.”

I ask you, thus, to look at Snowden and talk – or even better: shout – about him, about Manning, about the NSA, GSHQ, Prism, Tempora, Boundless informant, democracy, government, human rights. Surely, we cannot be too busy or too uninterested to discuss more than one topic at a time? Discuss Snowden’s revelations and their implications but discuss Snowden too.  It’s not just his, it’s all our lives, all our rights at stake.

On Snowden and Russia

Just a very short one for today because this would be too long a status update. I will expand on this later but the key event today obviously was the confusion over Snowden’s status in Russia. Apparently, he will be staying at Sheremetyevo airport “for now” because his asylum request is still pending. It has also been said that he might decide to stay in Russia indefinitely if his request is granted.

I had a bit of trouble to get my head around this; after all, Snowden previously said that he would travel on to South America. A decision to stay in Russia may mean that he will not be able to leak any further information as Vladimir Putin has made this the condition for asylum. So, why would Snowden accept a gag? It has been suggested before that his initial decision to reject Russia’s asylum offer may have been brave but a little ill-advised. It would seem that this is true because the question that emerges is how many options Snowden has left.

Consider this: “None of the three Latin American countries [Bolivia, Nicaragua and Venezuela which have offered Snowden asylum and where he had planned to travel to from Russia] can be reached by a direct commercial flight from Moscow so Snowden has requested temporary asylum in Russia until he believes he can safely reach one of them.” Safe travel seems to be the key issue here: The Guardian’s Geoffrey Roberts makes the excellent point that Snowden might not even be safe on a commercial flight. Now, I do find the fact that his Russian lawyer is close to the Kreml and apparently milking this for a place in the spotlight upsetting. However, the key question is how much choice Snowden has at this point. The confusion over his papers today – and the fact that he ultimately did not get them – may point to the kind of unresolvable situation the US have created for him. Again, the US administration has stressed that they are “very disappointed” with Russia’s handling of the situation. The Kreml is obviously anxious not to damage relations with the US further. I wonder if there is any alternative to accepting a gag from Russia if Snowden wants to avoid extradition to the US – which he absolutely should! Is he going to be coerced into a quiet life in Russia because he has nowhere else to go?

Do you know, when you think this through to the end, it gives you a very bad feeling indeed. I may be getting paranoid but to me this is starting look something like this:

The USA want Snowden back so they can put him on trial on charges of treason and espionage (is the official position. Unofficially, this may mean something different – again, I will go into that later). Clearly, the next best thing if they cannot get him extradited would be to stop him leaking or even talking.

Now. Russia’s refusal to extradite Snowden is putting a lot of strain on Russian-US relations which the Kreml clearly does not want to damage further. Hence, Putin’s condition that Snowden, if the wants to stay in Russia, has to stop “damaging the US” – he basically has to keep quiet. If commercial flights are unsafe, Snowden may have to stay in Russia and would then have to continue to comply with Putin’s condition. Also, I have a hunch that the decision to remain in Russia would just re-kindle accusations that he was a spy all along or that his assertions that he never gave any information to Russia or China are lies.

So, considering all this, I ask myself  what kind of scenario emerges: not extradition but effective silencing – and potential discrediting – of the man….? Am I seeing things?

Yeah, all right, it’s a scandal – but what does it all *mean*?!

Something wicked…

Things have quietened down around Edward Snowden, it seems. Since the announcement at the start of last week that Snowden has applied for asylum in Russia, there has been little news, bar some brief reports in the days that followed that he might be able to leave the transit area of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport within two weeks – he has been stuck there since 23rd June.

The same goes for the NSA leaks. The German press, especially Der Spiegel, keeps reporting that things are looking increasingly grim for the German administration because they seem to have known more than they initially claimed (no one’s surprised but if there was proof that they had lied this close to the general election, things might still get interesting). Not so most of the UK press; news reporting in Britain has, as I write this, been reduced to Royal Babies and horses in McDonald’s (not horse meat in the burgers either but an actual horse in McDonald’s) – it must be the heat wave. As temperatures soar to 33 degrees I suspect people’s brains are melting.

Or perhaps not; actually, the lull following the initial uproar does not surprise me in the slightest. It upsets me though. What we have seen in the past couple of weeks is that our rights as people and citizens of democratic states are under massive threat. The right to privacy is part of our idea(l) of what it means to be not only a free citizen but also, ultimately, a human being. Our governments have not only failed to protect that right, they have also – probably – had a part in its infringement. In any case, they have reacted with helplessness in the face of these revelations, with empty speeches and token visits to the US to demand ask politely for explanations. Most tellingly, they have caved in to US pressure and failed to protect the very man by whose courtesy we got the information in the first place.

But okay, I am not going to discuss Snowden himself – yet.

Instead, because there is less news to keep up with at the moment (and, thankfully, I am currently reading more comments by people who talk sense, like for example Philip Giraldi, than by morons who don’t), I thought I’d take the opportunity of talking about the “substance” of Edward Snowden’s revelations (as Mr Snowden and Glenn Greenwald have encouraged us to do) and bring you all up to speed with what that “substance” actually is. If you have been following the case very slowly and are perfectly well informed, none of this will be much news to you – feel free to tune out now. However, if you are only marginally aware of the entire shambles or if you are still wondering what dragnet collection, metadata, Prism, Tempora and FISA are, then I suggest you read on.

 The NSA leaks – hang on! What happened there?

To start off with, a reminder: on 5th June, the Guardian ran a story on the true scale of domestic surveillance in the US. It detailed the mass collection of phone records of millions of Verizon customers.

On 6th June, there followed another story, this time about an NSA programme called Prism “which allows officials to collect material including search history, the content of emails, file transfers and live chats.” Guardian journalists had obtained a secret file containing 41 PowerPoint presentation slides that detailed how the programme works. Their article made it clear that, in additional to the mass collection of telephone metadata under the Verizon order, Prism allowed access to content of monitored communication.

8th June: yet another story reveals the existence of a programme called Boundless Informant which catalogues and organizes global surveillance data, allowing its users to look at a map of the world (yes, this means the entire world) and see how much data is collected where.

On the day after, 9th June, the person who leaked the information for these stories to the Guardian identified himself as former NSA contractor Edward Snowden – here is his interview with Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald and it is well worth watching! In a live-chat  on 17th June, Snowden then answered further questions on why he decided to leak the information, explained his movements after leaving the US and responded to accusations that he is, in fact, a spy working for the Chinese (or Russian) government. I highly recommend the chat transcript and the videoed interviews – not only because they are full of additional information but also because they might help you get an idea about Snowden as a person. I think this is important because, as you may or may not agree, some of the most sensible and level-headed arguments and explanations about the whole affair have come from both Snowden and Glenn Greenwald, who, by some members of the media and the US government, have been called traitor, spy or “arrogant jerk” respectively. I suggest you see for yourselves whether or not you agree. Just for the record: I don’t.
Apart from the reactions from Melissa Harris-Perry, Geoffrey Ingersoll and Joshua Foust, which I have addressed in previous posts, one of my favourite evaluations of Snowden, “the traitor”, was written by Charles Moore in the Telegraph and it starts with this glorious paragraph: “In traditional accounts of Hell, sinners end up with punishments that fit their crimes. Rumour-mongers have their tongues cut out; usurers wear chains of burning gold. On this basis, it will be entirely fitting if Edward Snowden spends eternity in a Moscow airport lounge.” I still cannot fully believe that the man is serious but it is a case in point of the kind of emotionally-charged irrational jargon that has been deployed against Snowden and Greenwald. Take a look at both and decide for yourselves who makes the better case. Also, here is the full timeline of the events from 20th May – when Snowden first arrived in Hong-Kong – to 23rd June, when he left for Russia.

You will not have missed all that went on in the interim between the first leaks and now (if you know me, you will have been subject to my incessant status updates and rants): discussions of privacy and human rights, the US government’s hunt for Edward Snowden, the real or feigned surprise, outrage and – ultimately – helplessness of Western governments, the exposure of GCHQ’s use of Prism, as well as their own Tempora programme. Questions on how much the German BND knew about this, calls from German chancellor Angela Merkel for explanations from the US and tougher data protection laws in Europe. Confusion, outrage, discussions, dirt-dishing by media morons… the works.

Renewal of the Verizon order – a missed chance

Flash forward to last Friday, 19th July – 5pm; the phone data bulk collection order that allows dragnet collection of metadata from Verizon by the NSA expires. No comment from the US administration beforehand on whether it intends to renew the order. Many members of Congress demand that it should expire, that the information should be declassified so that it can be discussed in public.

The order is renewed –  a telling comment on where the Obama administration stands with regard to mass data collection from (read: spying on) America’s and the world’s citizens. The Verizon court order is here. Check it out; it is not very long and it really says it all.

So what does this mean? What is this bulk collection of metadata? What do Prism and Tempora do? How does this affect us?

I admit that until quite recently, I wasn’t really sure what any of those were, and discussing the issue with several of my friends and family I realized that they didn’t know either.
To be honest, I wasn’t really that bothered about it at first. Okay, I thought, so the BND, NSA and GCHQ are reading our emails and potentially listening to our phone calls – so what? We’ve been suspecting all along that we are living in a bit of an Orwellian society. And really, I thought, I don’t have anything to hide; let the spooks get bored listening to my phone calls to my mum or reading my emails discussing my love life with my friends. Whatever. It’s not like they’d recognize me in the street and laugh at how silly I can be (and even if they did recognize me, they’d hardly admit to it, would they?) Nothing I can do about it anyway, it’s not like I will ever become a target. No use worrying about it, right? Wrong. And I am going to tell you why.

Brilliant, but scaaaary – the story of the NSA Spy Protection League

First, though, let me take a detour and tell you an amusing story I read recently.
A young man from the German town of Griesheim, Daniel Bangert, 28, got a little fed up with the hysteria that followed in the wake of the NSA leaks. And he organized a Facebook event. You see, small though Griesheim may be, suspicions are that the local “Dagger Complex” houses one of the NSA’s main headquarters in Germany. So Daniel Bangert decided to go and take a look – and to take others along for a bit of spy spotting.

Now, the tongue-in-cheek nature of Bangert’s Facebook invitation made it perfectly clear that this was not supposed to be a gathering with any malicious intent. Rather, it was an invitation to take a walk (yes, that’s right, a walk) and observe the illusive species that is the NSA spy in its natural habitat. Bangert called his Facebook group the “NSA spy protection league” (NSA Spion Schutzbund, in German) – a society dedicated to the study and conservation of a reclusive species. So far, so hilarious.

Sadly, this is about where the story seizes to be amusing. It seems that the common NSA spy, in addition to being reclusive, also lacks a sense of humour. They didn’t get the joke.

Mr Bangert received an unexpected visit from the police at 7.17 a.m. on no particular morning. Not only was he then questioned by the police about his intentions for his “event” (read: walk). He was also referred to a security officer, who grilled him about how many people were expected to take part and whether he had any affiliations with violent protest groups.

In the end, Bangert decided to register his spy-spotting field trip as an official demonstration and it seems that he has taken it all in good humour – the Facebook page for the “NSA spy protection league” is still up, and apparently the eighty people who did turn up on the day had a really good time, even though they were a bit disappointed not to spot any of the elusive spies. (Update: they had another walk recently – much of the German press turned up as well – yet they once again failed to spot any spies. Seems that the spooks are as impervious to the lure of pastries as Edward Snowden is to torture…oh no, hang on, he didn’t say that (again, see my earlier posts)).

So, all’s well that ends well? Rather not. The story seems ludicrous of course and what amuses me about it is the laudable effort by Bangert and his fellow spy spotters to counter the hysteria surrounding the NSA revelations and Edward Snowden as a person by poking a bit of fun at it (unless I am much mistaken, many of these pioneers are members of “Team Ed”). However, the reaction his Facebook event got from the powers that be points to the real issue and that is obviously something much more sinister.

Cooperation or ignorance? How much did our governments know?

To me, the story reveals two things: one, Prism seems to be working and two, so, apparently, is the cooperation between the German and American – yes, what precisely? The NSA and the BND? The Merkel and Obama administrations? It remains to be seen, I guess, because new information on how much the different intelligence services and administrations knew still keeps emerging.

Edward Snowden has repeatedly been quoted as saying that, regarding surveillance, the German government is very much in bed with the US, and despite claims to the contrary from the German chancellor and other government officials recent  information suggests that the BND’s cooperation with the NSA is indeed a little too close for comfort.

German authorities claim that they knew nothing about Prism; that they learned about it from the press along with everybody else. Asking yourself whether or not you want to believe that’s true quickly lands you in a catch-22. If the authorities are lying, then the German government, along with the US and British governments, has systematically spied on its citizens or at least aided or endorsed the surveillance activities of other governments. If they are telling the truth, the German government (again, along with other governments) has failed in its duty to protect its citizens from the unlawful activities of others – not to mention the fact that the US have violated the sovereignty of more than one state (which seems to be all the rage these days, just ask President Evo Morales of Bolivia). Now, I don’t know that I trust an administration that is oblivious of spying of this magnitude going on under its nose, possibly with full knowledge of their own foreign intelligence agency.

So much for the Germans. What has also been revealed over the past couple of weeks is that the British GCHQ is just as bad, if not worse, than the NSA. Their secret operation is called Tempora and it involves nothing less than the direct tapping of fibre optic cables (as in transatlantic underwater cables that carry our communication across the world). According to Edward Snowden, this “full-take buffer,” (the first of its kind in the world) saves all of the data passing through the country.

Stop and think about this for a moment: it saves all of the data passing through the country. Saves. All of it. Saves.

Getting the heebie-jeebies yet? Consider this: “[Edward] Snowden says, one can only prevent GCHQ from accessing their data if they do not send any information through British Internet lines or servers.” Yeah, well, haha, good luck with that – and good luck with not sending them through American ones too!

In fact, as a German living in Britain, I’d be almost disappointed to know that my communication wasn’t being monitored by both GSHQ and the NSA (hello, you guys, how are you doing?). God, they must be so bored.

Why should I care?

So, now you know this, you may still ask: who cares that there are a couple of spooks somewhere reading the latest cupcake recipe User A sends to User B? This didn’t come as a big surprise to anyone, did it? Perhaps not. After all, as Richard Chirgwin writes in The Register, “a lot of [that] stuff […] was already either on the record, or at least strongly suspected.”

But then, the actual news isn’t the spying as such. It is the extent to which surveillance is possible, namely – let this sink in properly – “the absolute surveillance of a country’s people and foreign citizens without any kind of effective controls or supervision.” Knock, knock, Mr Orwell, the Matrix has you and all that.

Metadata

And it’s not just that they’re potentially accessing our content. “What do you mean, ‘not just that’?” I hear you ask. “Isn’t it bad enough that the spooks are listening in on my phone calls?” Sorry, but nope. You see, what is in fact just as, or even more, valuable than content is the so-called metadata. This can include for example telephone numbers, IP addresses and connection times and it allows the people in possession of it to know who you have communicated with, when and for how long.

So actually the spooks know that I sent a cupcake recipe to my mum, from my home computer at 7.17 a.m. on a Sunday morning (and, by the way, they can also see that she then passed it on to her friend in Austria who passed in on to her friend in Canada and so on). This is pretty scary and I’ll tell you why: what metadata collection really allows the people in possession of that data to do is create a map of every single person’s networks. They can theoretically draw up a map of all networks in a given society and basically the entire world. Imagine this: a map with you at its centre, showing every single link you have with anyone in your network. And the links they have with everyone in their  networks and the links their friends have, and the friends of their friends have, and so on.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t just mean online social networks either, so simply deleting your Facebook and Twitter accounts won’t help you. I mean, who you make phone calls to, who you send emails to, who you instant message, who you speak to via Skype, WhatsApp, MSN, you name it. And it doesn’t stop there. According to Der Spiegel, metadata “shows not only contact networks, but also enables the creation of movement profiles and even predictions about the possible behaviour of the people participating in the communication under surveillance.”

So take a moment to imagine this map. Imagine it as one of those maps you sometimes see in movies where the main character marks all the places she has been to with tiny flags and then connects them with pieces of string. So you have a map of the world full of little flags that represent you and me and everyone we know and everyone we don’t know. And there is the string (lots of it) representing the communication between them.

Do you see it? Good. This map shows all communication being carried out in the world. That map actually exists. Not with flags and strings as such but it gets pretty close. You see, that map “allows users to select a country […] and view the metadata volume and select details about the collections against that country.” If you want to check out how much metadata the spooks get from your country, take a look at that map here (and, by the way, the programme that allows for the generation of that map is called Boundless Informant).

So, while this map may not give you the content of the communication, it gives you what the Guardian, for the sake of clarity, calls “the envelope”. To take up the metaphor, the map allows you to see how many letters are being sent in a given country and who receives them. So, you see who communicates with whom, where and how often. And as you are observing your map, networks emerge – for example of people with shared interests.

Now imagine you are living for example in a totalitarian state. And that state has this map. I know it sounds a bit conspiracy-theory but humour me – for the sake of the argument.

Now imagine this:

A friend of a friend of a friend of yours is suspected of planning a revolution against the totalitarian regime. You yourself are a perfectly law-abiding citizen. You have taken care to toe the line and never got on the wrong side of the powers that be. But now, all of a sudden, you have a connection, however, distant, with this individual that the state considers suspicious.

Or what if a revolution was underway? Remember, the totalitarian government of our hypothetical state has access to vast storages (a “haystack”) of metadata and it is looking for the people who are organizing opposition to it (the proverbial needle). They would be able to tell – from the communication that was going on between the citizens of their state – who the key players within their society were. If they suspected someone of not toeing the line, they could theoretically check the content of that person’s communication and not only find out what they were planning, but also identify (by aid of their little map) who was fundamental to the revolution effort. They could identify and target these dissidents, predict their movements and….

By the way, the US use precisely that needle-in-the-haystack metaphor for their dragnet collection of data. They are compiling a vast haystack in which they hope to find the needles that are the world’s terrorists.

This may seem fair enough but we need to ask ourselves this: is the hypothetical threat of a terrorist attack justification to infringe the privacy of every single one of the world’s citizens? (Consider what Edward Snowden says to that: “Bathtub falls and police officers kill more Americans than terrorism, yet we’ve been asked to sacrifice our most sacred rights for fear of falling victim to it.”)

This is more fundamental than it might seem because it beckons the question of what our idea of a citizen is, of what our idea of a free human being is. Is privacy – the ability to have your little secrets like, for example, that secret crush on that colleague – a fundamental part of what makes us a free person, a human being, a free citizen of a democratic society?

So, you see, when government officials try to ease our minds by telling us that they are “only” looking at our metadata and not the content of the stuff we send, they are really not telling us the full truth.

Shop till you drop; data collection in commercial environments

Mind you, this collection and analysis of data and the prediction of future movements is happening to you every day; every time you type something into Google, that information gets stored (I am wondering if my recent frequent searches for keywords like “Snowden”, “NSA”, “Prism” and so on have already raised a number of red flags with our friends the spooks).

Every time you go to a shop to buy groceries and pay for them by credit card, registering the purchase on your club card for points, that information gets stored. Your local retailer might then send you offers and vouchers based on that information.

But surely that’s not so bad, you say, great customer service? Besides, it happens online all the time; we barely notice the ads tailored to our preferences based on our previous searches anymore. It might seem that way, I’ll give you that.

Let me cast it in a different light. How about I tell you that marketers can figure out not only what you buy but also what you will want to buy in the future?

Here’s another funny anecdote: One retailer made the mistake of being a little too prescient and sent its customers vouchers that predicted their future shopping habits before the customers themselves knew about them. It freaked people out. Did that stop the retailers? No. Instead, they optimized their voucher booklets, adding vouchers for products that customers would never buy to those the customer would definitely buy so that the selection of useful vouchers seemed random. You can read more about this – and about how a father found out that his 16-year-old daughter was pregnant because she was sent promotional material based on what she had bought at the start of her as yet undisclosed pregnancy.

Stories of our lives

What this implies is what German journalist Frank Schirrmacher recently explained in a discussion on the topic: the data that is collected about us on a daily basis not only tells the recipient more about us than we might want anyone to know (like that I have accidentally got pregnant – which I haven’t by the way). It also allows whoever is in possession of the data to construct a “story” about us and thus predict what we might do in the future or what might happen in our lives. The spooks might gather that you are going to do something naughty before you actually do it. And if that still doesn’t get you shivering, consider that potentially the spooks are looking at user data from everyone who uses Facebook, Twitter, Instagram – children and teenagers included. Do we really want to live in a world where our children are being monitored by members of the NSA, GSHQ and BND?

So who else is in on it? Corporations and the T&C problem

The documents leaked by Edward Snowden reveal NSA “alliances with over 80 major global corporations”, including telecommunications firms, producers of network infrastructure, software companies and security firms. Apparently, “the NSA really can’t do that much spying domestically or internationally without the ongoing cooperation of these private corporations.”

Obviously, that doesn’t fit in very well at all with the promises these companies have made to their customers about data confidentiality in their terms and conditions, but then no one (except perhaps Bilbo Baggins) has ever read those properly anyway, right?

To be fair, Yahoo, Microsoft and others are now lobbying the US government to declassify information on how willingly (or not) they complied with surveillance requests. If we ever get to see these documents it might turn out that Microsoft et al were not actually as willing about the “cooperation” as it has been alleged – or it might just turn out that they were.

But what about the law?

So, are there no rules, then? Yes, in theory, there are. In principle, foreign intelligence agencies do not monitor the citizens of their own country. US law states that only communications outside the US and from non-US nationals can be monitored. Similarly, GCHQ cannot spy on British nationals, and Germans can never spy on Germans. If they do want to target their own citizens, they need a court order. Such is the theory.

In reality, I am afraid, things don’t look that promising. The FISA order I mentioned above has enough loopholes to allow the NSA to observe their own nationals without a warrant (Ironically, FISA – the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act – was “a response to President Richard Nixon’s usage of federal resources to spy on political and activist groups, which violates the Fourth Amendment.”). I suggest you read the recent Q&A Salon did with Glenn Greenwald to get a better idea of how problematic and potentially unconstitutional the FISA order is. Greenwald also points out a massive catch; a lot of the information surrounding these programmes is classified. According to the US administration, the top-secret nature of it all not only forbids a ruling on it, it also takes away the possibility of a valid lawsuit because no one can prove that they have been spied on. (If this interests you, I suggest you read the commitment made by General Donald B. Verrilli Jr. on 29th October 2012. Verrilli is the Obama administration’s top appellate lawyer, and the case was Clapper versus Amnesty International – it is quite enlightening. Here are some further informative links on the subject: the 2008 FISA amendment, an article in the NY Times on the case and a transcript of Verrilli’s Q&A with the judges.)

So, one problem is that what is happening is so secret that no one can easily prove that they have legal standing without touching “pretty quickly” on classified information.  Another is that the spooks are “free to go to any of these Internet companies or just simply take off the cables and fiber-optic wires that they have access to, whatever communications they want of anybody outside the United States who’s not a U.S. person.” Tough luck if these people happen to be “speaking to American citizens. The NSA is free to invade those communications without having to go into a FISA court and get a specific warrant,” so the law itself practically asks to be abused (I refer you, again, to the Salon Q&A).

“Remember that just because you are not the target of a surveillance program does not make it okay.” – Edward Snowden

Why, I still hear some of you say, should that interest the rest of us? I’ll tell you. Take Germany for example. Germany’s data protection laws are considered to be comparatively good. However, “Internet companies are [only] obliged to follow the laws of the countries in which they do business”, so any company registered outside of Germany would not be subject to these laws. Hence, German chancellor Angela Merkel’s call for tougher EU data protection laws.

The problem with that is, of course, that European countries will have to agree to these laws. The UK, for one, is already poised to reject them, which is unsurprising, given that GCHQ seems to benefit greatly from the NSA’s Prism programme. According to the Washington Post, “PRISM would appear to allow GCHQ to circumvent the formal legal process required in Britain to seek personal material such as emails, photos and videos from an internet company based outside of the country”.

So, where does this leave us – the potential targets of these schemes? Outraged, I should think, as many of us clearly are, helpless perhaps in the face of a systematic violation of our right to privacy – even more when considering our governments’ reactions to the information and the messenger. Others again, I assume, shrugged, said “so what?” and moved on.

Snowden’s revelations initially created a storm of outrage in the international media and, according to the man himself, this was precisely what he had hoped for: “I don’t want public attention because I don’t want the story to be about me. I want it to be about what the US government is doing.”

He is right of course, but as it turns out, this is not just about what the US government is doing; it’s about what our governments are doing as well. Governments we elected – or not, but governments that have been elected democratically because we, the electorate, trusted them to defend our interests (or, again, not, but you know what I mean). And I think this should leave us questioning and discussing not only these governments, but also the world we live in – and the world we want to live in.

“I don’t want to live in a society that does these sorts of things,” says Edward Snowden. For that, and for doing little else but to document a clandestine system of surveillance, he has been smeared, ridiculed, persecuted and isolated in an extraterritorial area – the transit area of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport. I will soon be discussing Snowden’s situation and why the reaction to him is just as worrying as the NSA scandal itself.

But to conclude this post, the basic question I am asking myself and all of you is: do we want to live in a society that does these sorts of things? And if the answer is no, what do we do to change it? As German journalist Frank Schirrmacher says, we have to face the now certain knowledge that we are the targets of mass surveillance, that this is a new game with new rules. We must demand that our governments stop talking in empty phrases, demonstrating helplessness, if not complicity. As I write this, letting the discussion subside in favour of heat waves, babies and horses in McDonald’s does not seem the greatest idea.

If you want to read on:

For further information, I suggest you take a look at the following links:

A collection of information on the NSA scandal from the Guardian, called “The NSA Files”.

If you’re German, I suggest you watch the recent edition of Beckmann on the topic – there is a lot of important information, explanations and interesting discussions of what all of this means for us as people, citizens, users of the internet and so on. Glenn Greenwald also makes an appearance.

Dear Mr Ingersoll, Dear Mr Foust

In the wake of the NSA affair, a couple of interesting things happened this week, two of which caught my particular attention:

1.) NSA officials admitted to a congressional panel that they “can look at data not only from a suspected terrorist, but from everyone that suspect communicated with, and then from everyone those people communicated with, and then from everyone all of those people communicated with…” and so on.

2.) Far from scrambling collectively to report no. 1.) some of the US media once again preferred to indulge in what seems to be becoming the new favourite American pastime – Snowden bashing. Instead of finally turning their attention to the substance of his revelations, some journalists still prefer to reproduce (and apparently without double checking too) absolutely laughable accusations against Snowden, the latest of which is that he has claimed to be impervious to torture. Both the actual misinterpretation of what Snowden wrote in an exchange of emails with former GOP Senator Gordon Humphrey and the apparently unreflected multiplication of this claim by some of the media upset me.

The interpretation of what Mr Snowden wrote as a claim to be impervious to torture was made by Geoffrey Ingersoll in the Business Insider and by Joshua Foust on his website. Read my response the gentlemen below.

P.S.: I am aware of the need to discuss the substance of Mr Snowden’s revelations rather than – or I would say in addition to – what is happening to Mr Snowden himself and I am shortly going to post something on this on here. I would have done so earlier but irritating pieces of “journalism” like Melissa Harris-Perry’s open letter to Snowden or the comments made by Messrs Foust and Ingersoll just keep getting in the way 😛

That said, the following might also be noteworthy:

1.) A court order that permits the NSA’s bulk collection of phone records on millions of Verizon customers expires today (Friday, 19th July) at 5 pm. So far, the Obama administration has not commented on whether or not it will renew that order.

2.) Tanya Lokshima’s (from Human Rights Watch) account of the meeting with Edward Snowden a week ago.  Note how what she writes about the US embassy contacting her is contrary to what the US has said on the subject. While they acknowledge that a US official did contact her, they deny that “any official” asked her to relay a message to Snowden…

3.) a parliamentary committee in the UK found that GCHQ did not use PRISM illegally – this has been marked a “whitewash” by human rights groups and other critics.

*************************************************************************************************************************************

Dear Mr Ingersoll, Dear Mr Foust

I hope my letter finds you well. I am writing to you because I am hoping that you can help me.

Mr. Ingersoll, I came across your comment in the Business Insider about “torture-proof” Edward Snowden. Inevitably, this led me to Mr Foust’s piece on the same subject and I have a rather pressing question for you both: are you serious? You see, I was certain that your comments were masterpieces of irony and acidic satire, aimed at those of our peers who will not stop speculating about Edward Snowden’s character and start discussing what’s truly relevant in this whole shambolic affair. But sadly, those same peers do not seem to have got the satire or the irony at all. They are reproducing what you have written as if you really mean it, and now I am not so sure if perhaps I got it wrong.

Surely, you cannot be serious?

You maintain that in his letter to Gordon Humphrey, Mr Snowden “declares himself impervious to torture”. You further suggest that “he claims that his encryption cannot be hacked”. Now, as you say, Mr Ingersoll, claiming to be impervious to torture would indeed be a “pretty strange” thing to do.

Mr Foust, kindly allow me to quote from your blog, where you write that the idea of “the nation’s secrets in the hands of an IT worker and an angry expatriate” does not make you “brim[…] with comfort”. Your apparent belittling of Mr Snowden as a mere “IT worker” (albeit a toture-proof one) and “angry expatriate” (as opposed to fugitive hunted by government), and Mr Ingersoll’s apparent derision at a “a guy who allegedly fled Hong Kong for fear of losing internet who’s now growing “tired” of living in a Moscow airport’s hotel” are amongst my favourite examples of irony. And the way you, Mr Ingersoll, manage to introduce the sex-and-drugs-factor into the discussion one paragraph further down is just genius!

Sadly, other journalists do not at all seem to have picked up on how wonderfully tongue-in-cheek you are being, and the idea of a torture-proof, disgruntled IT worker, who apparently has the “nation’s secrets” at the touch of his fingertips, and is “selectively spilling them” after putting himself under the risk of torture, is giving them the heebie-jeebies. I can understand why it would; if Mr Snowden was really arrogant or naïve enough to believe himself entirely impervious to torture or other forms of coercion that would be preposterous, and the idea of such an individual being in possession of potentially damaging information would indeed seem a little bit frightening. But I think I understand you correctly, dear Sirs. I am sure that you are fully aware that that’s not what Edward Snowden actually wrote.

If, however, you are being serious (and I apologize most humbly to you both for even suggesting that you might be inferring something this silly from what Mr Snowden wrote), then I humbly suggest that you re-read the exchange between Mr Snowden and Mr Humphrey. Because, with all due respect, Mr Foust, the case you are making about Edward Snowden being either naïve or a liar rests on the pretty shaky foundation of an illogical inference and a couple of omissions. Worryingly, some journalists have not noticed this. What’s worse, they seem to have taken your comments at face value and reproduced them without double-checking their validity.

You both quote the closing statement of Mr Snowden’s letter in which he says that “no intelligence service – not even our own – has the capacity to compromise the secrets I continue to protect. […] I cannot be coerced into revealing that information, even under torture.”

Both of you read this as Mr Snowden claiming immunity to torture. Or, to be more precise, you, Mr Ingersoll, ask the question if “everyone is to understand […] that methods of torture that make waterboarding look like a walk in the park […] are all in a day’s work for Snowden”. Mr Foust, you dismiss this as downright laughable. Which I admit it would be, if that was what was being said.

However, the answer to your question, Mr Ingersoll, is no. Not everyone is to understand it that way. Not everyone does, either. I, for one, fail to see where it is being said that Mr Snowden believes himself to be impervious to torture. Have you omitted the part of the sentence that reads: “…even under torture – to which, by the way, I am impervious”? Has this been taken out of the Guardian transcript as well? Now, that would be strange.

So supposing that the statement ends where it does, allow me to propose a different way of understanding this, namely that Mr Snowden, for whatever reason, could not reveal these secrets even (if he broke) under torture.

Now, I can imagine the two of you might raise two accusations against me. Firstly, that I am about as “gob-smackingly naïve” as Mr Foust suspects Mr Snowden to be, and therefore do not know what I am talking about. Secondly, that what I am proposing here is an interpretation and therefore just as valid as your own arguments.

Yet, Mr Foust, you in particular seem to be constructing your case around a rather strange piece of logic. Correct me if I’m wrong but I understand that your argument goes something like this:

“I cannot be coerced into revealing that information, even under torture,” says Edward Snowden, ergo what he is implying must be: “because I am impervious to it.”

Now, to me this seems awfully non-sequitur. How exactly does the claim that Edward Snowden is impervious to torture follow logically from the one that he cannot be coerced into revealing the information he has obtained? Yes, he says he cannot be coerced either by the US or any other government. You also take issue with what he says a bit earlier on about teaching “people at DIA how to keep such information from being compromised”. But no, it doesn’t follow that he must be claiming that, one, he is impervious to torture or that, two, “his counter-cyber-intelligence capability is greater than that of the U.S. government, Chinese government, and Russian government … combined.”

Therefore, if that is really what you mean, then, Mr Foust, like you, I am deeply upset. Because rather than to discuss the substance of what Mr Snowden has revealed or what the US government’s reaction to these revelations has been, you seem to prefer to analyze Mr Snowden’s utterances in a derisive and patronizing manner, based on a questionable and badly inferred argument. Why not instead discuss what has been revealed and what that implies for people’s right to privacy or free speech? After everything that has just come to light, one of the things I find most upsetting is that you, Mr Foust, a journalist and much-quoted expert, seem convinced that the “harm judgment of a reporter” cannot be trusted “over a government official trained to assess it”.

Are we to understand, then, that we should trust the government to tell us the truth because journalists cannot be expected to make an informed judgement about what is relevant enough to the general public that the publication of it justifies a certain risk? Are you saying that journalists like yourself are in no way able to assess that risk? Do you so severely lack confidence in the good judgement of your peers? (To be fair, in light of the fact that some journalists seem to be reproducing questionable opinions without double-checking their sources, my own confidence shakes a little). If that is the case and the media – and investigative journalists in particular – cannot be expected to possess the judgement necessary to identify that which affects all of us and should be discussed by all of us, and to then make it public, then what are they for?

Unlike you, Edward Snowden seems to have some confidence in the judgement of the journalists he entrusted with his information. As you may or may not have heard, he did so on the condition that any documents be thoroughly vetted before they are made public. In contrast to what you, Mr Foust, write about Snowden’s “claims [that] he’s not provided damaging information”, both Mr Snowden and Mr Greenwald have acknowledged the fact that he did provide such information but that they do not intend to reveal it. I fail to see, therefore, where precisely Mr Snowden is “lying about the nature of the data he stole”.

Interestingly, Mr Snowden also seems to have great confidence in our – the public’s – good judgement. His confidence in the ability of an educated people to deal appropriately with information that effects all of us is such that he has chosen to make it public, despite the cost to himself. I am guessing that this may be another reason why you, Mr Foust, accuse Mr Snowden of being “dangerously naïve”. How disconcerting though that you seem to have so little confidence not only in the judgement of your colleagues, but also in the judgement of the rest of us.

You go on to concede that “everyone can debate [how far to trust the harm assessment of a journalist] if they want”. Yet, you seem to think that there is little point because no discussion “will never change the classification rules in place: no government will ever willingly outsource its declassification authority to a journalist. It’s just that simple.”

But, you see, here’s the thing: it isn’t that simple, really. The point is not for the government to outsource its declassification authority to anyone. That statement is meaningless; of course the government will not “willingly” do that. We are all witnessing right now to which lengths the government is willing to go to protect its secrets.

The point is that some information should not be classified in the first place. Some members of Congress agree with me on this. Says Senator Jeff Merkley: “If the administration feels [that its Verizon] program [for the dragnet collection of telephone metadata] is vital to our national security, it should declassify the secret court interpretations that justify broad data collection so Congress and the American public can debate it in the light of day.” I think Mr Snowden would agree with that. So, I hope, would many members of the public. Should we not have a say in how far (if at all) we are willing to sacrifice our right to privacy in favour of national security?

If that’s not a good enough argument, then how about the one that the kind of secrecy exercised by the US government and the FISA court presents us with another set of problems entirely. For example, should someone become the subject of unlawful practices by the government or its agencies, it would be pretty difficult for those people to defend themselves. I am sure you have heard of Clapper vs. Amnesty International. That case made it clear just how problematic it is to determine legal standing when any “challenge to the application [of authority] gets into classified information pretty quickly”. Indeed, how are we to know whether offenses are being committed or not and whether there is legal standing or not, if we do not have access to the information we need to make an informed judgement about that? What are we to do when things become “too secret to allow courts to rule on” and “nobody can prove that they’ve been subjected to [an unlawful act], and therefore nobody has standing to contest the constitutionality of it” precisely because everything is kept so secret? Sounds awfully like a get-people-into-jail-free card for the government, doesn’t it?

It has been said that openness is the weapon of democracy. After what we have seen recently, this rings true. But you see, gentlemen, here is what really worries me: rather than to rush to discuss the information that Edward Snowden has revealed, rather than to argue about what is now out in the open, rather than to take the chance of voicing our disagreement, we subject his character to scrutiny. We speculate about Mr Snowden’s motives, if he really has a “dead man’s switch” and how willing he is to flick it. More than that, you, Mr Foust, automatically interpret what he and Glenn Greenwald have said on the subject as it being only a matter of time or circumstance until Mr Snowden does flick the switch because he “actually has every intention of leaking catastrophically damaging information under the right circumstances”. Again, this is not what he said and moreover, the circumstances under which these documents would be revealed cannot possibly be called “right” because this would be the kind of circumstance under which something actually would have happened to Mr Snowden. And this is not as bizarre a claim as you seem to believe it is, neither is it true that the “only party casually discussing Edward Snowden’s torture and execution is […] Edward Snowden”.

Marjorie Cohn, professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, argues that “Since Bradley Manning […] was tortured by being held in solitary confinement for nine months, [it could be] conclude[d] [that] Edward Snowden might be subjected to the same fate” – a concern that many people around the world have picked up on, even if their governments and government-friendly media haven’t, or won’t admit they have. Stranger things have happened – I am sure you are familiar with the case of Barret Brown.

As journalists, can you really confidently say that there is no danger to Mr Snowden or other people trying to shine some light on potentially unlawful actions committed – and I hate to employ a worn-out metaphor but how else to put it? – behind a veil of secrecy?

Yes, like you, Mr Foust, I am upset. Not only by the fact that some journalists still seem to prefer discussions of Mr Snowden’s character to discussions of the substance of his revelations (and this at a time when NSA officials have admitted to a congressional panel that they “can look at data not only from a suspected terrorist, but from everyone that suspect communicated with, and then from everyone those people communicated with, and then from everyone all of those people communicated with…”)

I am even more upset by the “dangerous naivety” of anyone who believes that a government that “has gone after whistleblowers in an unprecedented manner, filing charges against eight people under the Espionage Act, more than twice all prior presidents combined” is really going respect the fundamental human rights of a man whom it denounces as a spy and traitor. Knowing this, can you really claim that Mr Snowden is in no particular danger, and that therefore his asylum request to Russia points to his having questionable motives rather than him reacting to the sabotage of his right to seek asylum?

And here is another upsetting thing; the self-righteousness displayed by the Obama administration over the past weeks is very deeply worrying. I think rather than to accuse Edward Snowden of being unable to “distinguish between various roles he thinks are essential to a democratic society”, things might be getting to the point where we need to be asking the question of how democratic the societies we live in really are. Now, excuse me if I’m not brimming with comfort at the thought of what that discussion might make us realize.

Sincerely

Anne

Dear Melissa

On 13th July 2013 MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry wrote an open letter to NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, asking him to “come on home” to the US to face trial and to end the media discussion about himself in favour of a discussion of what he had revealed.

I found that letter at best naive and at worst self-righteous. Not only does it patronize Snowden, but it also defies its own argument – that we should stop speaking about Snowden and address the behaviours of the US government instead – by joining in the discussion about Snowden. Also, it bespeaks an ignorance or, even worse, disregard of certain facts that I find deeply upsetting. This is why I wrote a reply. The original letter is here and my reply is as follows:

Dear Melissa,

It’s me, Anne. I came across your letter to Edward Snowden and well, wouldn’t you know, here is my idea for you! How about…you think again?

You ask Edward Snowden to come on back to the U.S.A. I can tell from your letter that, just like “Ed”, you’re not super pleased with the government these days – as hardly anyone is (except the government itself, I think). As you say, the information revealed by Edward Snowden raises serious issues about the behaviours of American and world leaders and how they justify and hide their practices from the public. You seem to have understood that. What you don’t seem to have fully grasped is what that same government’s hunt for Edward Snowden implies about its other behaviours and practices. You say it’s time for Edward Snowden to come home and face the consequences of the actions for which he is so proud. Actually, Melissa, the last time I looked the correct preposition that followed the word “proud” was “of” but then, what do I know, right? You see, I think you must be much cleverer than I am because I cannot for the life of me imagine, let alone know, how Edward Snowden must feel about giving up his job, his life in Hawaii, his passport – actually, he did not give up his passport, that was taken from him; another of the government’s behaviours that Edward Snowden and others aren’t really happy with. And yet another, I am sure, is the diversion of Evo Morales’ plane to Austria. Also, Melissa, it’s not just his life in Hawaii Edward Snowden has given up, is it? It’s his entire life. Full stop. Nothing left of it, no going back. Then again, that’s precisely what you are proposing, isn’t it? That he go back?

And maybe your intentions are really based on the belief that if he does, the “level of celebrity” you say he has cultivated will act as protection if he ever finds himself in a U.S. prison, that the Obama Administration will be very careful about how it treats him. Unlike all those other prisoners, you say. But what exactly are you saying, Melissa? Sounds awfully as if you think that by engaging in his, as you call it, Tom Hanks-worthy, border-jumping drama, “Ed” has not only made himself the story but that he has also usurped a place in the limelight by diverting attention away from others who leaked information. I’ve heard this accusation before, together with the one that Edward Snowden praised countries like Russia and Venezuela for “standing against human rights violations” and “refusing to compromise their principles.” These statements were perhaps a little ill-worded on Snowden’s part, I’ll give you that. But aren’t you overlooking the fact that Snowden was referring to a specific situation – his own – and that this is hardly a situation where he can go around biting the hands that offer him help when the US government is so vehemently lobbying to stop him receiving any help at all? Are you forgetting that Edward Snowden initially refused Russia’s offer of asylum and that it was only after the apparent interference of the US government landed him in a catch-22 that he had to reconsider it? I guess, by your reckoning that catch-22 doesn’t even exist; after all, Edward Snowden, as you say, is welcome to come back to the United States to “exercise his right to be tried by a jury of his peers”. I know, you didn’t actually say that (about exercising his right to be tried by a jury of his peers), this was said at the Department of State’s daily press briefing on 12th July, a very interesting read that sheds more light on the government’s actual take on the situation – you should have a look at it; the way in which the Department of State spokesperson avoids any direct answer to the most pressing questions is both very enlightening and deeply upsetting –  I think my favourite bit is when she says that they “broadly believe in freedom of speech”. Which brings me to my next question, where do you and your (and “Ed’s”) so-called “peers” even come up with that kind of garbage? What are you thinking?

Melissa, are you really so naïve as to believe that a government that massively spies on its own and the world’s citizens, that pressurizes other governments into refusing Edward Snowden asylum and that, to this day, still hasn’t cashed its promises regarding Guantanamo Bay, is going to be extra special careful about the way they treat him if he returns to the US? Do you really believe there is no threat of him vanishing down some dark hole to enjoy the hospitality of solitary confinement before his trial? Can you really confidently say that that’s impossible, simply because what has happened so far to Edward Snowden is now very much in the public domain?

Well, I suppose, we can only guess the answers to that and I admit that your guess is as good as mine.

Let me ask you something else though; if you find it so upsetting that we’re talking about Edward Snowden, rather than to discuss the question of how much information the US government really has about all of us, then why are you joining in? You’re talking about him yourself. And flight paths between Moscow and Venezuela, and “how much of a jerk Glenn Greenwald is”? You wrote Edward Snowden a letter! What next? A marriage proposal, maybe? If the media’s treatment of the situation annoys you so much and you’d rather be talking about whether the Obama administration is right that Edward Snowden’s leak jeopardized national security, then why are you not talking about that, Melissa? Because have I got news for you, you are the media!

You could be talking about whether accessing and monitoring citizen information and communications is constitutional, or whether the American people should continue to allow a secret court to authorize secret warrants using secret legal opinions.

I can imagine you’d say, “Well, I’ve just openly criticized this! I’ve drawn attention to it! And actually I have talked about other things as well.” But here’s the catch, Melissa: by criticizing it in this way and making Edward Snowden the recipient and focus of your letter and your show, you are in fact re-affirming that this is a subject worth talking about. If you want people to stop talking about it, set an example and start talking about something else. Try to make them focus their attention on other things. You could, for example, start by addressing some or all of the topics listed above (the ones that you reckon are so much more important than Edward Snowden’s fate). You could start by thinking about whether it is in fact not so much Snowden’s “cloak-and-dagger game” that is having real and tangible geopolitical consequences, but the way in which the government responds to the situation. Yes, let’s talk about how, by hunting Edward Snowden like they do – and this is a “29-year-old” hacker (yes, I know he is 30 now but that’s the quote) for whom President Obama was not going “to scramble jets” –  the government is trying to throw its own cloak over Edward Snowden’s revelations.

Funnily enough, until his meeting with human rights representatives in Moscow, Snowden had been lying very low whilst the government blundered about to get him, neatly diverting attention towards him and away from what he made public. Yes, let’s talk about what Edward Snowden has revealed. Let’s talk about how he and Glenn Greenwald revealed it as well, shall we? About how Edward Snowden insisted that the information Greenwald made public would be, and would continue to be, thoroughly vetted? Let’s talk about why Edward Snowden is a whistle blower, not a traitor and about why he should be applauded rather than hunted, shunted or put on trial. Let’s talk about the kind of skewered idea of justice that gives rise to the request that he exercise his right to be tried by a jury of his peers. The underlying idea that apparently, somehow, a human being can forfeit their right to free speech or – as is the case in those states that still have the death penalty – life. And while we’re talking about all that anyway, why not also talk about both the US and the UN’s flawed treatment of whistle blowers? Let’s talk about how the government’s hunt for a man who has alerted them to another of those human rights violations you criticize, is causing international incidents and straining U.S. relationships. Really? Important? Relationships? Important for whom? And to what purpose? Because it’s looking increasingly as if the importance of those relationships, for instance with Germany, France, Portugal and the rest of Europe is so heavily tilted in favour of the US that several governments refused Evo Morales’ plane entrance to their airspace, creating an unprecedented diplomatic incident.

I understand that Edward Snowden doesn’t want to come back to the US. Even though I could imagine that he may be quite homesick (although this is pure conjecture because I am not anywhere near as knowledgeable about other people’s feelings as you seem to be). But I do in fact hope he never does. Because, as you say, to do so would mean giving up his freedom, potentially his human rights, perhaps even his life, to be held, like so many others, in solitary confinement, perhaps for years, perhaps indefinitely, despite the fact that solitary confinement is cruel and psychologically damaging. Do you really think, Melissa that a man who has been stuck in diplomatic limbo for weeks because the government revoked his passport and leaned on other governments to refuse him protection might not have anything to worry about? That, ultimately, he is really so much unlike all those other prisoners?

Come on, Melissa. Stop writing silly letters to Edward Snowden and then maybe, just maybe, you will be the one who makes people talk about, you know, something else.

Sincerely,

Anne