We the people, you the people…have both the means and capabilities to help build a better future by encoding our rights.
– Edward Snowden at HOPE.
Edward Snowden made a couple of appearances this week. One of them in an interview with Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger and journalist Ewen MacAskill (edited transcript here, even more heavily edited video here) and one at the Hackers on Planet Earth (HOPE) conference in New York.
At HOPE, Snowden – connected via video link from Russia – chatted with Daniel Ellsberg (of Pentagon Papers fame, one of Snowden’s most outspoken supporters). No need to say that watching these two inspirational men discussing things like whistleblowing, democracy and technology was a highly gratifying experience. You can watch the video here.
Amongst other things, Snowden repeated his appeal for stronger encryption and told the audience that “technology empowers dissent” as well as “democracy.”
He also said that
the only way to enable whistleblowers is to give them better tools to pass secrets to journalists, protecting their communications, their identities and preventing them from going to jail for it.
Ellsberg agreed that societies need more whistleblowers while praising Snowden (and Iraq War Logs leaker Chelsea Manning) for giving him fresh hope that there were other people like him willing to risk their lives and freedom to protect the constitution and the rights and freedoms of others.
In comments that were highly impassioned at times, Ellsberg credited Snowden with being “the only one within the [expletive] NSA who did what everybody should have done” and said that the felt “offended” when people called Edward Snowden a traitor.
You [Snowden] did the right thing.
– Daniel Ellsberg at HOPE.
Now, there has been much talk about whether Edward Snowden is hero or traitor, patriot or spy. Personally, I find that rhetoric puzzling, unnecessarily charged and somewhat meaningless. In an NBC Interview in May this year, Snowden himself made the point that “patriot is a word that’s thrown around so much it can be devalued nowadays.”
Similarly, the terms “hero” and “traitor” seem like something out of a novel rather than terms used to describe a real-life person. Arguably, what Snowden has done is heroic. It may or may not be one of the most powerful examples of what or who the word “hero” could describe these days. Daniel Ellsberg certainly seems to think so. However, the fact of the matter is that the hero-traitor dichotomy has been bandied about far too much when actually it shouldn’t matter whether or not Snowden is seen as either. His disclosures speak for themselves. There can be no question that surveillance in the US and in fact many other countries is out of control and in dire need of reform. As such, Snowden’s disclosures have served people, democracy and, yes, the US and other countries in making them aware of this need. The value of these disclosures is thus independent of how we view Edward Snowden himself.
Snowden agrees. At HOPE, he told the audience (including NSA personnel he said he expected to be present):
I could be full of sh**…Criticize me, hate me, but think about what matters […] think about the world you want to live in and then be part of building that.
Similarly, in his most recent interview with the Guardian he said:
What matters are how people feel about these issues, regardless of your opinion of me. What matters are your rights and how they’re being infringed.
He is right, of course. Yet it does seem important to Snowden – or has seemed that way until quite recently – to assert that he is a patriot. And it seems equally important to people, especially in the US, to discuss what his intentions and motivations are. It therefore may not seem surprising, if perhaps a little irritating, that the issue is being regurgitated again and again.
Patriotism and government
Actually, Snowden’s views on what it means to be a patriot are worthy of note, especially when taking a good look at our governments.
Snowden told NBC:
Being a patriot doesn’t mean prioritising service to government above all else. Being a patriot means knowing when to protect your country, knowing when to protect your constitution, knowing when to protect your countrymen from the violations or encroachments of adversaries.
Actually, this is also what being an elected representative of the people should mean: protecting the country, the constitution, and the people – something which many (Western) governments are doing a terrible job of at the moment.
Germany: sabotaging the investigation into NSA spying
For example, the German government recently has been miffed at finding a US spy within their foreign intelligence agency. The CIA station chief in Germany has been asked to leave the country. I have commented before on why that is little more than a cosmetic step. Inviting Edward Snowden to testify before the NSA investigative committee and offering him asylum in Germany is the only step that will send a clear signal, both to the US and the German people.
Speaking about the situation in Germany to the Guardian, Edward Snowden said:
I think it’s surprising in Germany that they’ve asked for me to testify as a witness and aid their investigation into mass surveillance but at the same time they’ve barred me from entering Germany. That’s led to an extraordinary situation where the search for truth has been subordinated to political priorities … I think it does a disservice to the broader public…
Snowden is right. It does do a disservice to the public. For the government not to show commitment to a full and comprehensive investigation into NSA spying – which is impossible without Snowden – is unreasonable. Yet it is very often Snowden whose true commitment is being second-guessed.
The UK: an emergency law without an emergency
Meanwhile in the UK, something called the DRIP bill (short for Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill) has passed the House of Commons. DRIP is an emergency security law that gives “security services access to people’s phone and internet records.” Civil liberties campaigners oppose it, not least because of the way in which DRIP was passed: “from announcement to enactment in eight days”. What this represents once again is “an utter failure to engage in an open, mature, public debate about the clash between privacy and security online.” The absence, in fact, of the debate Edward Snowden has been trying to instigate and that the UK government seems particularly unwilling to engage in. By passing DRIP in the way it has (which Snowden has condemned as “defying belief”), the UK government has effectively deprived the people of such a debate and that by
obvious propaganda (“emergencies”, paedophiles, terrorists, and crooks at every turn), deception (“status quo” and “clarifications” masking naked extension of interception powers and extraterritorial reach), and hypocrisy (the UK can no longer meaningfully criticise surveillance conducted under more repressive regimes).
Let us be clear: we are not at war. Passing this bill as an emergency after ignoring it for a year is unwarranted and irresponsible. Also, let’s not forget that the European Court of Justice declared mass surveillance unlawful and incompatible with the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights.
Then again, given the increasing Euroscepticism in the UK and moves to repeal the Human Rights Act, it doesn’t seem at all surprising that the UK government would pass a bill that goes against the ECJ ruling. The people of the UK need to be very mindful of what their government is doing to their rights.
Australia: put whistleblowers and journalists in prison, demands attorney general
In Australia this week, attorney general George Brandis (aka the man who calls Edward Snowden a “traitor”) proposed a new bill that could see whistleblowers and journalists put in prison for extended periods of time for leaking and reporting on classified information.
It is obvious that a bill like that would likely make people even more reluctant than they already are to risk their freedom to expose wrongdoing – something which Daniel Ellsberg bemoaned at HOPE and for which Edward Snowden has expressed sympathy both at the conference and to the Guardian.
Also, in his interview with the Guardian, Edward Snowden responded to the much-advanced national security argument – which is also being used by Brandis in Australia:
We constantly hear the phrase “national security” but when the state begins … broadly intercepting the communications, seizing the communications by themselves, without any warrant, without any suspicion, without any judicial involvement, without any demonstration of probable cause, are they really protecting national security or are they protecting state security? What I came to feel – and what I think more and more people have seen at least the potential for – is that a regime that is described as a national security agency has stopped representing the public interest and has instead begun to protect and promote state security interests. And the idea of western democracy as having state security bureaus, just that term, that phrase itself, “state security bureau”, is kind of chilling.
Make no mistake: it is chilling, plain and simple. End of. No “kind of” about it. For any “regime” not to represent the public interest but state security instead is a violation of democracy.
That is something that Edward Snowden did not want to watch happening, a society he has stated, he would not want to live in. The question is: do we? And if not, what are we prepared to do to protect our societies, our democracies and their values?
– Edward Snowden
If I could ask Edward Snowden one question (apart from the one about gun-control: I’d really like to hear his views on that), it would be what he means when he says: “The country is worth dying for.” I cannot be the only one to whom the idea of dying for something as abstract as “the country” is difficult to understand. It sounds jingoistic, no matter how much you value society and its values. Similarly, the notion of protecting ones country, constitution, countrymen from “adversaries” seems to paint a polarised picture of “us” and “them” in its apparent black-and-white simplicity. Which is just as problematic as the hero-traitor dichotomy.
However, in the NBC interview, Snowden explained that adversaries
don’t have to be foreign countries. They can be bad policies, they can be officials who…need a little bit more accountability, they can be mistakes of government and simple overreach…
Indeed, sometimes the danger to countries, people or constitutions comes from within, from “mistakes” and “bad decisions”, from governments who for example use a national trauma to justify massive infringements of civil rights.
This problem can be witnessed not only in the US but in other democracies as well – be it in the UK’s DRIP bill or Germany’s sabotage of its own NSA inquiry. From that point of view, it may become more obvious what Snowden might mean when he says that being a “patriot” is to know when to protect not only people and countries physically but also their ideals, their rights and liberties as enshrined in their constitutions. Daniel Ellsberg made a similar point at HOPE, saying that he, Snowden and Chelsea Manning never swore an oath to secrecy (they signed a non-disclosure agreement) but to protect the constitution.
In the Guardian interview, Snowden’s idea of the country finally became clearer:
when we think about the nation we think about our country, we think about our home, we think about the people living in it and we think about its values.
This includes the constitution that enshrines these values. It is what has me worried about what the German government’s shenanigans are saying about German sovereignty or about how highly the government values the constitution. Because effectively, the German government is not protecting the German constitution and the question is why. Is it because Germany isn’t, in fact, a sovereign state? Is it because the government does not have the courage to stand up for the constitutional rights of its citizens? Or is it because, actually, the government doesn’t want to? Governments, it seems, are often at odds with the constitution on whose basis they should be held accountable – and hold themselves accountable.
In the UK, which has no written constitution, government and intelligence agencies seem to revel in the freedom they feel that gives them – the freedom to infringe civil rights and to take from people their opportunity to choose, to have a say in constructing the society they want to live in.
Implicit in this kind of behaviour is a dangerous argument:
democracy is unsustainable as a model… the public… should give up on [making decisions] and move to an authoritarian system of government.
We are on our way there. Germany’s government isn’t anywhere near decisive enough when it comes to investigating US and NSA overreach. Either that’s because its representatives are not brave enough to stand up to the US, which effectively means democracy isn’t working, or it’s because their own intelligence agency is itself engaging in questionable activities – which would be even more damaging to democracy. At worst, it’s because giving power to the people limits the power of government. Either way, the government is not properly representing or defending the interests of the German people.
In the UK, the situation is even worse. The UK’s “very light oversight regime compared to all other western countries,” enables government and intelligence agencies “to implement systems and policies and target people who are not necessary to target.” DRIP is proof of that.
Building security states
“I don’t believe the US, or ever should be,” Edward Snowden told NBC. “A security state.” Nor should any other country. Most people would probably agree on that. Yet to make sure that governments and agencies do not build, or continue to build, security states without at least consulting us,
we have to be an active part of our government…If we want to be free, there is no justification, no matter how traumatic the situation, to remove… rights and liberties – at least not without asking the people first.
The question of how many of our rights and liberties we are willing to give up in the name of security, is a question that needs to be asked publicly, of the people. For someone who made it possible for this question to be debated in the open to be branded traitor or spy is incredibly disingenuous.
Building the world we want to live in
And yet, in the end it really doesn’t matter what we think of Edward Snowden. What matters is the evidence of our own eyes, of what we are confronted with every day. And that doesn’t point to governments always acting in our best interest. It doesn’t point to intelligence agencies that work, as they claim, in strict accordance with the law. It doesn’t point to working systems of oversight or to mass surveillance being useful against terrorism.
In the words of a popular British sleuth: Look at the evidence. Really look. Observe. Then make a deduction.
In the words of Edward Snowden:
Criticize me, hate me, but think about what matters […] think about the world you want to live in and then be part of building that.