The poachers – caught in the act – are now appointing themselves as the gamekeepers. Former CIA contractor Edward Snowden has performed an immense service to international public interest and democratic rights by exposing the “industrial scale” illegal spying operations of the American and British governments. The victims of this vast criminality against international laws and norms are the citizens of the world and every other government. Yet, far from showing any sense of remorse or apology, the recidivist perpetrators are crying foul and demanding justice… The supreme arrogance displayed by the American and British is the proof of the axiom: absolute power corrupts absolutely. They are acting as if they are a law unto themselves, beyond any capability of showing reason or restraint.
When poachers are apprehended in the dead of night under a sudden spotlight, carrying bags stuffed with illicit takings, it is not for them to then point fingers of accusation, much less to claim that they are the gamekeepers.
Snowden, who worked at the US National Security Agency until he fled his native country earlier this month, has taken a courageous stand as a citizen of the world to reveal the “massive surveillance machine” being built by the American government, with the help of their doughty British accomplice. Snowden called the telecommunications and internet spying operations “an architecture of oppression”. He told the British Guardian newspaper: “They [the US authorities] are intent on making every conversation and every form of behavior in the world known to them”. He added: “What they are doing poses an existential threat to democracy”.
Not only that, but senior intelligence officials and politicians in Washington and London have reacted by telling bare-faced lies to the American and British people, and the rest of the world, with assurances that the clandestine information-gathering is minor and within the law. We can expect even more damaging revelations from the former NSA employee, who arrived in Moscow this week seeking asylum in another country, possibly Ecuador, Venezuela or Iceland. Snowden has said that he intends to disclose further classified documents on the extent of American and British illegal hacking against their own citizens and foreign governments.
Snowden’s revelations have already caused an international outcry. The 30-year-old IT analyst has presented evidence to media on how American and British intelligence agencies have been colluding in massive spying programs against Russia, China, Germany, South Africa, India and Iran and many other states. The surveillance has involved the vacuuming up of meta-data from phone calls, emails and other internet communications, such as skype and social media. One of his most startling revelations was how the Americans and British tapped into the private communication of then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev during the G20 summit in London in 2009. Many other foreign delegates to that conference and a subsequent one held in London were also reportedly snooped on.
Of course, spying by all governments is as old as the hills, but what is notable from the recent disclosures is the global scale and penetration that the Americana and British authorities have overseen. Another former senior NSA official, Thomas Drake, compared the secret information-gathering to the practices of the Stasi police, which kept paper files on every citizen in the erstwhile Stalinist East German state. In Drake’s view, the vastly greater digital capacity to monitor, track and archive information on the citizens of the world and other governments makes the American and British spying operations look like “the Stasi on steroids”.
This is not a mere matter of passive voyeurism. The information gathered has huge scope for sabotage and subversion against foreign governments, as well as for repression of domestic political opposition. It is already known that warrant-less wire-tapping under the Bush and Obama administrations have targeted anti-war activists and members of the Occupy Wall Street movement, and have led to detention of investigative journalists, such as Barrett Brown. In short, the espionage technology and secretive protocols provide the infrastructure of a police state.
The hacking into the private conversations of millions of Americans is facilitated by a secret court, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. It is a rubber-stamp process that is not publicly accountable. When US President Barack Obama asserted recently that all operations are within the law, he was being economical with the truth. The FISC procedure gives a veneer of legality to what is a gross invasion of privacy and theft of information based on secret and unaccountable suspicion. That infringement makes a mockery on several counts of the American Constitution – the foundational law of the US.
Likewise, British Foreign Secretary William Hague has also maintained that his government’s clandestine collection of information is lawful. “Let us be clear about it: in both our countries intelligence work takes place within a strong legal framework. We operate under the rule of law and are accountable for it,” said Hague during a visit to the US this week. But Hague’s sophistry fails to explain how British intelligence circumvents his country’s laws by handing over information on request to the Americans. So, the British authorities, in a sleight of hand, do not need a court warrant to tap their citizens because the data is routed to the Americans, who have got a “permit” from their rubber-stamp FISC.
In any case, this pretense of official British probity when it comes to respecting its citizens’ civil liberties is patently false. During the political conflict in Northern Ireland (1969-1994), the British intelligence services would routinely and indiscriminately tap into public phone calls and postal deliveries, surreptitiously and without any warrant under so-called Emergency Powers – powers that are still extant today under the dubious pretext of the War on Terror.
What’s more American and British politicians are now invoking the self-serving excuse of tyrants by claiming that they are protecting their citizens from foreign and domestic enemies. “In some countries secret intelligence work is used to control their people – in ours it only exists to protect their freedoms,” said Hague with earnest piety. If some other international political leader was to use that rationale Hague would be the first to pour scorn. Evidently, the British and the Americans consider themselves as exceptional and above everyone else.
Washington has this week taken to castigating Russia and China for not expelling Snowden back to the US, where he is charged with espionage felonies. The White House has made veiled threats against both Moscow and Beijing for not enforcing US attempts to prosecute the runaway whistleblower.
John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, said: “I would simply appeal for calm and reasonableness. We would hope that Russia would not side with someone who is a fugitive from justice.”
Earlier, Washington was evidently rankled by the Chinese authorities allowing Snowden to fly from Hong Kong to Moscow last Sunday in spite of a request for extradition by the Americans. The Chinese said the extradition application did not comply with their legal standards.
Both Russia and China have rightly dismissed the shrill US demands and attempts to berate. China pointed out that it first and foremost wants an explanation from the Americans over the systematic hacking of its communications, as revealed by Snowden. For the Americans to bluster about Beijing’s obligations under international law is a breath-taking display of “sanctimonious hypocrisy” noted various Chinese state media outlets.
Russian President Vladimir Putin was equally dismissive of Washington’s high-horse attitude. “Any accusations against Russia are nonsense and rubbish,” he said.
Lawyers will argue over whether Snowden is permitted to travel on to his country of sanctuary without a valid passport after the American authorities promptly revoked his credentials. Their alacrity perhaps betrays a deep anxiety about the forthcoming incriminating revelations promised by Snowden. From Washington’s point of view, the Russians are obliged to prohibit Snowden boarding an international flight without a valid passport. But that is a relatively minor issue, which the US (and Britain) would like to confine the dispute to.
The much bigger and more pressing issue is the criminality of American and British industrial-scale global spying that Snowden helped to uncover. In addition, governments of the world have a higher legal and moral duty to ensure the safety of Snowden from criminal entities and practices that he has exposed. There is no doubt that if returned to the US, the American will be subjected to persecution, torture and facing a lifetime in prison, if not execution. The precedent of former US soldier Bradley Manning, having spent two years in solitary confinement and undergoing a degrading show-trial, testifies to that fate awaiting Snowden if he were to return to the US. Besides, Snowden has effectively already been tried and convicted in the US media as a “treasonous felon” by a gallery of rabid politicians and pundits. His chances of a fair trial have been destroyed.
Putin alluded to his when he also referred to Julian Assange, the founder of the whistleblower website WikiLeaks, who is currently confined to the Ecuador’s embassy in London to avoid British attempts to extradite him.
“Assange and Snowden consider themselves human rights activists and say they are fighting for the spread of information,” said Putin. “Ask yourself this: should you hand these people over so they will be put in prison?”
In confirming Snowden’s asylum application, Ecuador’s Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino articulated the priorities at stake with felicitous reason. He said: “The word ‘treason’ has been batted around in recent days, [but] we need to ask who has betrayed who? Is this [Snowden’s revelations] betraying the citizens of the world, or betraying some elites that are in power in a certain country?”
A concluding aphorism to bear mind when weighing the alleged felonies of Snowden against the evident global criminality of the American and British governments is the following: when those who are supposed to uphold the law break the law – then there is no law.