When whistleblowers come forward we need to fight for them, so others will be encouraged. When they are gagged, we must be their voice. When they are hunted, we must be their shield. When they are locked away, we must free them. Giving us the truth is not a crime. – Sarah Harrison
In the news this week
The news this week saddens me. And that’s even though there is some pretty interesting stuff coming out of Germany in particular.
Nothing exactly new, after all, at the so-called “grilling” (read: gentle stroking) of the UK spy chiefs (MI6 chief Sir John Sawers, GCHQ director Sir Iain Lobban and MI5 director-general Andrew Parker). Legal pressure group Reprieve has called the session a “damp squib” and they are not wrong.
I refer you to the Guardian’s coverage for evidence of why this is the case: important questions mostly failed to be asked and if they were, the answers consisted of over-used and much-contradicted metaphors (such as the one with the needle in the haystack which Al Gore so recently and brilliantly rebutted).
So, Germany then. More exciting things have been going on there. Or so you might think.
I certainly got a bit giddy when Hans-Christian Stroebele of the German Green Party visited Edward Snowden in Moscow last week to discuss Mr Snowden’s potential testimony before an inquiry board into NSA and GCHQ spying. The German government is currently debating calling Edward Snowden as a witness. Sadly, that news is not anywhere near as exciting as it sounds and my enthusiasm has since cooled considerably. More on that in a minute.
…. Great Britain
First though, some news about Sarah Harrison of WikiLeaks.
Often referred to as Julian Assange’s lieutenant, she has been by Edward Snowden’s side since he made his way to Moscow four months ago. Now she has left Russia to join “the growing band of net activists stranded in Berlin”, following advice from her lawyers that it would not be safe for her to return to her native UK.
She has issued a statement, stressing that while “Snowden is currently safe in Russia, […] there are whistleblowers and sources to whom this does not apply” and that “there is still much work to be done”.
She is right, of course. Chelsea Manning, for one, is serving a 35-year prison sentence and there is no telling what will happen to Edward Snowden once his asylum in Russia expires in nine months.
Meanwhile, Glenn Greenwald’s partner David Miranda has launched a high court challenge into his detention at Heathrow airport earlier this year – the application of schedule 7 powers being but one example of precisely why Sarah Harrison is probably right not to return to the UK where Julian Assange is still holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy (and no, I am still not a fan).
I am sure we all remember that, in July this year, British government officials supervised the destruction of computers in the Guardian basement.
As Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger writes in The New York Review of Books “[t]he British state [at the time] had decreed that there had been “enough” debate around the material leaked […] by […] Edward Snowden.”
The ensuing discussion of the state of press freedom in the UK and elsewhere in the so-called Western world is ongoing.
So is reporting on the Snowden leaks. So far, the UK government’s attempts at silencing the reporting by “clos[ing] down the Guardian operation in London” have – thankfully – been “fruitless”.
Snowden himself writes:
“At the beginning, some of the governments who were exposed by the revelations of mass surveillance initiated an unprecedented smear campaign. They intimidated journalists and criminalised the publication of the truth. Today we know that this was a mistake, and that such behaviour is not in the public interest. The debate they tried to stop is now taking place all over the world.”
Stories have continued to emerge which have, at last, led to international indignation.
For an overview of the Snowden revelations and what they mean, see the Guardian’s excellent interactive guide NSA Files: Decoded.
Most recently, “[t]he British ambassador in Berlin was called in for a meeting at the German foreign ministry […] to explain allegations that Britain had been using its embassy to carry out covert electronic surveillance on Angela Merkel’s government.”
This just after a Spiegel report last week on how “the US embassy in Berlin had a structure on its roof that was used by a special unit of the National Security Agency (NSA) to monitor the mobile phone conversations of German officials, including Merkel, in nearby government buildings.”
Then Stroebele’s visit to Moscow and support for Mr Snowden from the German public.
No wonder, perhaps, that I got a little bit excited about developments in Germany at first – although only very carefully and not exclusively in a good way.
Needless to say that my excitement didn’t last. By now I am once again saddened and deeply upset. Why?
Because no matter how much Mr Snowden’s revelations have done to inform the world of the extent of surveillance, no matter how far they have gone in inspiring a much-needed public debate – never mind investigations into the legality of NSA and GHCQ surveillance programmes – I do not think that this will end particularly well for him.
Illusions are a common thing
Asylum in Germany, as demanded publicly by an increasing number of people (including celebrities and politicians), would be a fantastic thing. Yet it seems that the word “fantastic” is closely related to term “fantasy” for a very good reason: we may make-believe that it is a possibility. But it really isn’t.
Alan Rusbridger makes the point that “[i]f, say, the Chinese had behaved like this toward the Internet and toward social platforms used around the world, there would be barely contained fury in the West.”
Similarly, I would argue that if it had been, say, the Chinese or, in fact, the Russians who behaved like that, anyone making this publicly known would have been championed by the same Western governments who now continue to refuse to help Edward Snowden (and persecute others who did help him).
I fail to be impressed at the opportunism of much of Germany’s political elite. Yes sure, they would like Mr Snowden to be their witness but will they, in turn, protect him and give him shelter? No, of course they won’t.
Public support for Mr Snowden notwithstanding, the German government has once again confirmed that we need not have any illusions about asylum for Mr Snowden in Germany. “The trans-Atlantic alliance is of overwhelming value” they said.
Now, I’d be the first to concede that it is possible that our governments know so much more than we do about the intricacies of international relations that we may not be in the best place to fathom what exactly it is we are asking when demanding that our governments stand up to the US (this is what the German government claims).
However, given the way events have unfolded and the fury that is rising throughout Germany and the rest of the world, I am not sure I see how potential further damage to transatlantic relations outweighs the benefit – never mind the moral imperative – of granting Edward Snowden asylum, especially if he is to help Germany with its inquiry.
Rather, “Angela Merkel,” as Philip Olterman writes in the Guardian, “seems to be avoiding direct confrontation with Washington.” And she certainly does not want Edward Snowden in Germany.
“There is no reason to make a call on a Snowden stay in Germany at this stage,” German MP Michael Grosse-Brömer has said.
Dear German government: it is up to you to help Snowden
But is there really no reason to make such a call? I don’t know about that.
Rather, I agree with Heiner Geissler, the former general secretary of the Christian Democrats (Angela Merkel’s party, no less), who says that “Snowden has done the western world a great service. It is now up to us to help him.”
Yes, it is up to us to help him. It always has been. And it is a sad state of affairs that the German government is so eager to tap Mr Snowden’s knowledge, while at the same time refusing him that help.
In the US, the White House and Congress have rejected clemency for Mr Snowden, saying that he has “done [an] enormous disservice” to the USA. Michigan Republican and former FBI agent Mike Rogers once again accused Mr Snowden of cooperating with the Russians “and of helping three al-Qaida-linked groups to change the way they communicate in order to evade US intercepts, putting troops’ lives at risk in Afghanistan.”
Similar claims were made by UK’s spy chiefs on Thursday – and can I just remind everyone that they have been repeatedly and convincingly refuted, while there has been no concrete evidence of any damage to national security?
It is no surprise that the US (or the UK) would react in this way. Sadly, it is no surprise that Germany continues to refuse Mr Snowden asylum either.
Still, Jakob Augstein (link in German) argues convincingly that Mr Snowden should be granted asylum in Germany, and why.
Not only, Augstein says, has the argument that the conditions for asylum do not apply always been false.
More than that, offering asylum to Edward Snowden would send a strong signal that Germany and other European countries are not ready to sacrifice their rights to American supremacy. Mr Augstein argues that Germany is currently the only European country strong enough to send that signal while citing precedents for when previous chancellors have stood up to the US.
But granting Mr Snowden asylum would also send a signal to future whistleblowers that there is a country that protects their rights and freedom – which, I assume, is a position the German government is careful to avoid, even though Germany has previously offered asylum to whistleblowers and dissidents.
Asylum for Edward Snowden? If only…
All manner of reasoning and citing precedents will probably do little to convince the German government or the chancellor that offering Edward Snowden asylum is the right thing to do.
For them, the relationship between Germany and the USA takes precedence over the fall-out from the NSA revelations or, in fact, the danger of worsening US-German relations.
Yet I cannot be the only one to whom the reasoning that the relationship between Germany and the USA would be significantly damaged by an offer of asylum seems a little upside-down.
It is, after all, the US’s large-scale spying that has damaged these relations. If anyone, it is the US (and the UK) who should be grovelling, not European governments.
How can Ms Merkel’s government fail to see that it is not for Germany to worry about damage to international relations – it is for the USA to do that? The damage has been done. Isn’t it about time someone stood up and made it clear to the USA and the UK in no uncertain terms that other governments will not tolerate their behaviour?l.
Wouldn’t it be great if Mr Snowden, once his temporary asylum in Russia ends, found a new home in Germany – a country that, because of its own deeply flawed Stasi past, should be most mindful of the value his revelations hold?
Wouldn’t it be fantastic if the German government proved courageous enough to stand up to the USA at a time when this is badly needed?
Some German MPs agree. Currently, a majority seems to be forming in the Bundestag that supports the idea of offering asylum to Edward Snowden. That majority might see parliament granting Mr Snowden asylum without the chancellor’s consent.
It is not entirely impossible I suppose; the UK House of Commons recently voted against military intervention in Syria, even though Prime Minister Cameron had fiercely lobbied in favour of it.
However, a vote against military intervention by a country that is tired of war and voting in favour of asylum for a man who is wanted internationally for crimes against the Espionage Act… not quite the same thing.
And even if the German parliament were to go against Merkel and her minions, I am not so sure that Edward Snowden would do well in going to Germany. Laura Poitras and Sarah Harrison feeling safe there is one thing… Edward Snowden, quite another.
Upsetting and frustrating
I started this blog months ago because I was upset not only by Edward Snowden’s revelations in themselves but also by the international response to – and lack of support for – Mr Snowden.
The past week has done little to quench these feelings of upset and frustration. I have little faith in the German government anyway; I have even less faith in them where the USA and Mr Snowden are concerned.
More than that, while the public response in Germany is, as Sarah Harrison writes in her statement, “heartening” and, I guess, also deeply moving in its own right, in the end I fear it will prove to be little more than that. I don’t think it will do anything to alter the government’s course. We may elect our leaders to act on our behalf, yet we can do little to stop them ignoring us afterwards – especially when we have just re-elected them.
Then again, perhaps the people who voted Ms Merkel back in only a few weeks ago agree completely with her course of action. In which case we only have ourselves to blame.
Lon Snowden has warned his son against seeking asylum in Germany, saying he does not trust the German government. Instinctively, I have to agree. Yet until a short while ago I was also convinced that Russia would cave in to US pressure and extradite Mr Snowden. Instead, Russia offered him asylum.
Would that Germany proves me wrong in a similar way. Would that my own country fights for this whistleblower to encourage others.
I know it’s not going to happen. But I guess we can still fantasize.