“Snowden did a great public service… If he hadn’t blown the whistle, the gargantuan IC bureaucracy would have inexorably grown even bigger and more powerful — and neither Congress, the media, the judiciary, or our political leaders would have known enough to effectively provide oversight and direction. And of course, the public would have known nothing at all.”
Freedom and Democracy: stories of horror
I have been feeling at a bit of a loss all week.
I mean, what are we to make of the news surrounding Edward Snowden, the NSA, GCHQ, and our governments as they continue to unfold five months after the first revelations? What are we to make of our own part in the whole thing? What are we to make of what increasingly seems to be our own factual inability to do anything?
I fully agree with the above statement, the rest of which you can read here, although I still can’t quite get behind the implication further down that Snowden should go home and face the music.
Yes, it is important that the laws which protect us from the wilfulness of others are shown to be effective but they also need to be flexible. It needs to be possible to carry out important acts of civil disobedience and to be judged by intentions and consequences rather than by some rigid law – especially if that law isn’t likely to be administered and a fair and unbiased way.
Robert Kuttner convincingly argues that while Mr Snowden’s actions may have been illegal, “the actions of the NSA were arguably far more threatening to a constitutional regime of liberty.”
However, it would seem that such concerns are neither here nor there.
Because the ongoing debate in the US notwithstanding upsetting news continues to emerge.
Like, for example, this report in Der Spiegel about a meeting between Senior German intelligence officials and their NSA and CIA counterparts.
Why am I not thrilled about this potential “huge progress for Berlin”?
Well, think about it. Doesn’t it look to you as if the US were now scratching Germany’s back? And do you not think that they will expect some convenient back-scratching in return? What would that look like, I wonder? And wondering about that, I do not like what I come up with at all.
Perhaps these are just the ramblings of my increasingly disillusioned mind but I cannot help thinking that the German opposition can complain about “too little knowledge and too much ignorance” and call for “a comprehensive investigation” all they like.
I am not sure how much hope there is of such an investigation anymore (let alone of hearing Edward Snowden as a witness), given that “NSA Director Alexander has announced plans to put together a “Germany package” containing the material that Snowden is likely to release in the coming weeks.”
Make no mistake, this is not the US being kind by warning their “friends” about potentially damaging disclosures before they occur.
This “huge progress for Berlin” will not cost the NSA much if the information they are about to put together for the Germans will be revealed over the next couple of weeks anyway.
What it may just do, however, is give the German government an excuse to not press for answers as forcefully as they should.
We’re all friends here, after all. So much so that the German domestic intelligence agency saw fit to issues a warning that “an emotional response from certain segments of the population cannot be ruled out,” recommending that “security measures aimed at protecting US facilities in Germany should be increased.”
Am I the only one who thinks it’s a bit ridiculous that in addition to the obscure and ever-present threat of “the terrorist”, it is now also “emotional” members of “the population” that endanger security?
Seriously, what is that supposed to mean? I am “emotional” about the whole thing, too. That doesn’t make me a threat to any nation’s security.
Then again, what do I know? As far as the spooks and governments are concerned, simply refusing to see Edward Snowden as a narcissist, traitor and liar might earn me a place on their watch list. Then again, if Mr Snowden’s revelations are anything to go by, we’re pretty much all on some watch list or other anyway.
I am getting a bit tired of this kind of nonsense to be honest, let alone of it being repeated over and over again.
NSA chief Alexander banging on about how the leaked documents “being put out in a way that does the maximum damage to NSA and our nation” is another example.
Clearly, the argument that these documents could have been put out in a much more damaging way (by just being dumped – un-redacted and in bulk – on the internet somewhere for example) falls on deaf ears.
As do calls for support for Mr Snowden with the governments of whose evasive – or downright hostile – responses I am equally sick and tired.
Take the US this week, where Jeremy Hammond has just been sentenced to ten years after spending “the past 18 months in prison, including extended periods in solitary confinement” for seeking to inform the public of what is in their interest to know.
Note that “Hammond’s 10-year federal prison service makes it one of the longest punishments dished out for criminal hacking offences in US history” and that it was imposed by a judge who, according to Hammond’s lawyer “doesn’t understand the language that’s used in chat rooms and the internet.”
Hammond himself has called his sentencing a “vengeful, spiteful act”, motivated by a desire to “send a message to others who come after me” and a “need to save face.”
Meanwhile, the New York Times in a recent editorial warns of the threat to press freedom in the UK that is evident in the “harass[ment], intimidat[ion] and possibl[e] prosecut[ion]” of the Guardian.
The UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression is equally alarmed by the UK government’s response to the Snowden leaks, describing it as “unacceptable in a democratic society.” I have a hunch that this will do little to impress the UK government.
Just so you know, following a query from the Guardian, the UK home office pretty much said it could not guarantee that no schedule 7 powers will be used against Sarah Harrison if she returns to the UK.
And a recent report in the Guardian reveals how Cambridge police tried to spy on university students and their political activities – that is students in what is supposed to be a democracy exercising their democratic rights. Do read a bit more about the chilling implications of that little anecdote here.
What question can there be, given stories like that, that we need whistleblowers like Edward Snowden to make us aware of these threats to our democracy?
If our democratically (or not) elected leaders had any sense of responsibility (dare I say any sense at all), they would be investigating the true threats to democracy posed by the surveillance apparatus (as opposed to the bogus ones they use to justify that apparatus).
“Asbolutely alone and almost broke”?
So what of Edward Snowden?
Sadly we, the public, and journalists and members of various oppositions can demand debates and investigations, not to mention help and thanks and protection for Edward Snowden, all we like. The University of Rostock in Germany may even be contemplating an honorary PhD for Edward Snowden.
That is all good and well, but I am seriously starting to wonder what good it is likely to do?
Yes, we may agree that we need to thank Edward Snowden. And doing so publicly may raise his profile in the eyes of those who are undecided about him (and perhaps his own morale, who knows?) But as regards concrete support and action on his behalf? An entirely different story.
So this week Edward Snowden’s lawyer is being quoted as saying that Mr Snowden is ‘absolutely alone in Russia’ and ‘almost broke’.
Obviously, we have little chance of verifying this. Given that this was reported (in the English speaking world at least) by Time, Business Insider and the Daily Mail at least the latter two of which have
never been exactly supportive of openly hostile towards Snowden and the reporting journalists, this may well have been blown up to sound more dramatic than it actually is.
However, Natasha Lennard writes in Salon that “Thomas Drake, Snowden’s forerunner in NSA whistle-blowing […] told [her] earlier this year that one of the greatest burdens that attended his life qua whistle-blower was near financial ruination.”
Whether reports of Mr Snowden’s being “broke and lonely” are true or not, what they point out once again is that for “forc[ing] a debate that is long overdue and that will slow or even reverse America’s slide into a society of universal surveillance” Mr Snowden has been exiled in Russia. And broad public approval of his actions aside, still too little seems to be done in the way of direct, substantial support.
This impression may be wrong and I by no means mean to diminish or undervalue the support that Mr Snowden has received from countless individuals around the world, be it by way of public demonstrations, donations, articles, blogs, tweets or other expressions of gratitude and admiration.
Certainly, the reporting journalists, WikiLeaks’ Sarah Harrison and others deserve our utmost respect.
The problem is that our governments do not seem to share that view. They do not seem to be listening when we demand that they support and protect Edward Snowden, either – well, fat chance of them listening anyway (unless in secret of course)!
Democracy: can it be done?
Which brings me to Russell Brand.
Recently on Newsnight, Mr Brand admitted that he had never voted. He made some very excellent points but I did not quite agree that it was justified not to vote at all, no matter how frustrated we are with our political class.
I do believe in the democratic model and I would argue that voting – even if you vote for the Monster Raving Loony Party because you are fed up with the rest of them – is a way of ensuring that democracy continues.
And even if democracy doesn’t seem to be working very well at the moment, I don’t think a better alternative is available either.
I certainly agree with Mr Brand when he writes that “we deserve more from our democratic system.”
Ah but you see here is the catch. We cannot blame it all on the democratic system without having to take some of the blame ourselves. Democracy itself isn’t the problem; it’s a lack democratic responsibility that is the real concern.
Democracy is supposed to give power to the people, yet I personally have been feeling increasingly powerless. And the inability to make ourselves properly heard about our concerns for Mr Snowden or the NSA or GCHQ of the BND is but one example. I think one reason for that is that we allow ourselves to be (made) powerless.
Democracy increasingly seems to mean that we pass our power off to an elected few who then go away and do as they please – because we do not submit them to proper scrutiny. If we allow for that to happen, we ourselves become a threat to democracy. And that threat is also evident in how people who make scrutiny possible again are persecuted, detained, threatened, and prosecuted.
Edward Snowden has made us aware of large-scale of surveillance. More than that, he has made us aware of what is done in our name but without our consent. In the months that followed the worrying attitudes of the world’s governments not only towards surveillance but also towards whistleblowers, journalists, investigative journalism and, yes, us as people and citizens have come to light. Attitudes that threaten democracy.
And for exposing that threat, and for trying to give some knowledge and power back to us, Mr Snowden had to give up his home, his life, and his family.
So for me the question of what we as a crowd of more or less “silent” (that is: unheard?) supporters can do to give something back to this person who has made scrutiny possible again, and who many of us most feel we owe a massive debt, seems to be as much one of conscience as of democratic responsibility.
As the people we have elected to act on our behalf do not seem to be listening, doesn’t democracy also mean that we need to stand up for what we think is right?
So, answer me this: what can we do?
So, what can we do then, concretely, to pick up those ends that our elected leaders have left loose?
How can we support Mr Snowden when they won’t?
Say we were to try crowd-funding to ease Mr Snowden’s financial burdens. How would we be able to reassure people that donations to this fund are indeed meant for Mr Snowden? Importantly, how would we able to ensure that the funds raised on his behalf actually reached him?
As given the attitude towards Mr Snowden and investigative journalists in some supposedly democratic countries, would supporters of Mr Snowden actually have to fear legal consequences for trying something more substantial (and or course entirely legal) than “just” exercising their right to freedom of expression?
I mean these questions seriously and I am looking for answers.
Whoever has any, do let me know.
P.S. I am aware that a defense fund seems to have been set up for Mr Snowden that is to support his legal costs. Yet this can be only one step, surely. What else is there?