As millions take to the streets demanding political participation, social justice and freedom, opponents to change – governments and reactionary forces worldwide – centralise power, tighten control of civil society and the media and trample on democratic ideals. The dangerous accumulation of powers, “legislative, executive, and judiciary” that the “father of the [American] constitution” James Madison wrote,[i] “in the same hands whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.”
Respect and trust for political leaders and governments throughout the world is at an all-time low. In Britain MORI[ii] tells us that only “18% trust politicians to tell the truth,” and only “one in twelve believe MPs put the interests of their constituents first”. A survey by Transparency International,[iii] found that “on a worldwide basis, political parties are considered to be the most corrupt institutions”, followed closely by the police. Political leaders, politicians and members of the civil service, “those responsible, for running countries and upholding the rule of law… are seen as the most corrupt”, they are “judged to be abusing their positions of power and acting in their own interests rather than for the citizens they are there to represent and serve”.
Edward Snowden and the NSA
Perceptions of government dishonesty and deceit have been compounded by the recent revelations from Edward Snowden, which exposed extensive government spying, by America’s National Security Agency (NSA).
Snowden, a former technical assistant for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), for the last four years was contracted to work for the NSA – “the biggest and most secretive surveillance organization in America”, The Guardian (8/07/2013)[iv] report. During this time, he discovered the extensive nature of secret surveillance operations being carried out by the NSA who, he says “are intent on making every conversation and every form of behaviour in the world known to them”. It is Snowden’s affirmed belief that the people have the right to know of such paranoid, criminal intentions; “my sole motive” he has said, “is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them.”
The revelations of unconstitutional spying, on hundreds of millions of American citizens by the NSA, which appears to operate as a ‘state within a state’, shows, as Glenn Greenwald[v] makes clear, how “the rule of law [which maintains all in society – including political and financial institutions, are bound on equal terms by a set of common laws] in America has been radically degraded”. The NSA’s operations reveal how dangerously close the country is to the authoritarian and controlling regime foretold by Senator Frank Church, who in 1975 said, “I know the capacity that is there to make tyranny total in America, and we must see to it that this agency [NSA] and all agencies that possess this technology operate within the law and under proper supervision”. Far from there being “proper supervision” in place, Snowden told The Guardian that “the [US] government has granted itself power it is not entitled to. There is no public oversight. The result is people like myself have the latitude to go further than they are allowed to”.
Edwards Snowden’s act of conscience provides the opportunity to step back from a democratic precipice, and, as Daniel Ellsberg[vi] in his article, “Have we been saved from the United Stasi of America” writes, take back “what has amounted to an “executive coup” against the US constitution”. Since the tragic events of 9/11, governments worldwide have appropriated greater and greater levels of control and, in the name of national security, centralised power. In the US “a revocation of the bill of rights for which this country fought over 200 years ago”, has taken place, “In particular the fourth and fifth amendments of the American constitution, which safeguard people’s privacy from government intrusion, have been virtually suspended”.
Snowden’s courageous actions expose the shocking extent of US government spying and theft of personal data, on its own citizens and those of America’s allies – unconstitutional (and therefore criminal) practices, using previously unknown hi-tech programmes, which he felt duty bound to make public. Ellsberg expresses the widespread view that “there has not been in American history a more important leak than Edward Snowden’s release of NSA material – and that definitely includes the Pentagon Papers 40 years ago.” Whist Snowden may well have technically committed a criminal act, justice and the law are often unrelated terms, as Martin Luther King made clear in his famous ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’, “one who breaks an unjust law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustices. Is in reality expressing the highest aspect of the law”.
Us vs Them
The government has charged Snowden with “theft of government property, unauthorised communication of national defense information and willful communication of classified communications intelligence information to an unauthorised person”, The Guardian (22/06/2013)[vii] reports. He is the most recent, and perhaps the most significant, of a troop of whistleblowers to be criminalised by the Obama administration, which has indicted more people under the 1917 Espionage Act than all previous presidents combined. Indeed it is thought, that President “Obama may be breaking the record for US presidents for violation of civil rights and [the] law.” (Noam Chomsky, quoting Professor Jonathan Turley)[viii] This is quite a record for a president who, in his 2007 pre-election propaganda, attacked the Bush administration, saying it “acts like violating our civil liberties is the way to enhance our security, it is not.” Obama went on to say there would be no spying on American citizens who are not suspected of a crime. And politicians wonder why nobody trusts them.
Stating Snowden has “actively aided America’s enemies”; a charge for which there is no evidence at all, the Obama administration, US legislators and the US media are content to paint him as a traitor. The mainstream press seems unconcerned by the NSA’s gross infringement of the human rights of millions of innocent civilians, or the wider threat to media freedom that this matter has shown. Acting on behalf of the government, the media are attempting to restrict the issues of privacy, national security and violations of civil liberties raised by Snowden’s revelations, to a nationalistic discourse, of ‘Us versus Them’. With the sparkling clean men in red, white and blue, sacrificing freedom in the name of security, constituting ‘Us’, (in opposition to the unholy) ‘Them’: undemocratic disbelievers, who, disagreeing with the American model are seen as ‘Anti-American’ and therefore branded as terrorists. Snowden, unsurprisingly, is being cast as one of ‘Them’. “I know the media likes to personalise political debates, and I know the government will demonise me,” Snowden told The Guardian, but “I am not afraid”.
The NSA does not confine its illegal operations to the shores of America, nor is it alone in assuming illegitimate, unconstitutional levels of power that violate people’s human rights and invade their privacy. Glenn Greenwald author of ‘Liberty and Justice for Some’, states – that the US “imposes standards [of legal conduct] on everybody else but exempts itself”, in the same way, he maintains[ix] as the elite, who “have committed some of the most egregious crimes of the last decade”, without any legal accountability, “has implemented for everybody else the western worlds harshest and most oppressive [legal] system by far”. Double standards followed not just by the US administration that people throughout the world are waking up to, as the recent worldwide protest movement’s show.
In addition to national surveillance by the NSA, The Guardian revealed that the British had their own paranoid men in grey suits in residence at the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), who in 2009, whilst the G20 Summit in London was in full swing, monitored the computers and phone calls of “foreign politicians and officials”. This and a great deal more “evidence is contained in documents – classified as top secret. Seen by the Guardian”[x].
Soon after these revelations La Monde disclosed that France’s Directorate General for External Security (DGSE) had mass surveillance systems in place, that are “illegal and outside any serious control”. O Globo (12/07/2013)[xi] in Brazil announced that, “in the last decade, people residing or in transit in Brazil, as well as companies operating in the country, have become targets of the NSA” to the extent that “last January (2012) Brazil was just behind the United States, which had 2.3 billion phone calls and messages spied.”
Der Spiegel in Germany reported that documents provided by Snowden show that the NSA had not only been listening to millions of Americans, but they also spy on diplomats from the European Union, in Brussels, Washington DC and at the United Nations in New York. Apparently Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Britain are excluded from NSA intrusions, but in a typical month they may tap up to half a billion phone calls, emails and text messages in Germany, who are, the documents make clear, their number one target in Europe.
Since 20th May, when he left his office in Hawaii for the Chinese territory of Hong Kong, Snowden has been in hiding. We are told he is now in the international transit lounge at Moscow airport and has applied for temporary asylum in Russia. He is entitled to request political asylum from any country in the world (despite having his passport revoked by the US State Department) and Wikileaks report he has in fact requested asylum in 21 countries, one of which was indeed Brazil, who (surprisingly – given NSA intrusion) refused his application. Asked if he would “trade access to his documents for asylum. He said he would not”.
Like those other ‘consequential whistleblowers’ – Bradley Manning and Daniel Ellsberg, Snowden is a man of conscience who sees clearly that national loyalty means allegiance to the people of the country and not necessarily the government. Their stand for justice and freedom shows both loyalty and integrity, and deserves public recognition. Instead of this, they are persecuted and slandered. Having “watched the Obama administration prosecute whistleblowers at a historically unprecedented rate, Snowden “is aware that the government will “use all its weight to punish him”, as indeed it has done with Bradley Manning and other courageous public servants.
Arrested in Baghdad in May 2010 and imprisoned without trial ever since – a total of three years, much of which was spent in “extreme” solitary confinement, when he was ” forced to sleep naked without pillows and sheets on his bed, and restricted from physical recreation or access to television or newspapers even during his one daily hour of freedom from his cell, all under the pretense that the private was a suicide risk”, The Daily Beast (5/06/2013)[xii] reports. He is currently on trial facing a court martial. The most serious of a range of charges against him, that of ‘aiding the enemy’, has, Amnesty International (AI)[xiii] state, “no basis [and], the government should withdraw that charge.” However, the government-appointed military judge, (who doubles as jury), Colonel Denise Lind, has refused to throw it out. The charge made against Manning, who has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize (with to date 65,000 nominations), is one of the most severe available to the military, and is a sign of the Obama administrations continuing war on whistleblowers that, The Guardian (18/07/2013)[xiv] make clear, “could have far-reaching consequences for investigative journalism.”
The suppression of information is a major attack, not only on those whose conscience compels them to speak out, but to the freedom of the press. Chris Hedges, speaking on Democracy Now[xv], states that without men like Snowden and Manning,
“there will be no free press”. They have provided information about the unconstitutional activity of their governments to the public and should be applauded for their moral courage. The American government is attempting to demonise anyone who reveals publicly what the government is doing in secret; “we are at a situation now by which any investigation into the inner workings of government [by the media] has become impossible. That’s the real debate”.
Newspapers have been attacked as guilty accomplices for publishing Snowden’s material by American politicians, Republican member of Congress for New York, Peter King, told CNN “action should be taken … against reporters”. He is clearly unfamiliar with the first amendment of the US constitution, which protects the freedom of the press, and as Professor Geoffrey Stones makes clear is “simply wrong”. Nevertheless such comments, albeit uneducated ones, show the dangers and indeed the desire in some quarters, to impose controls on the press.
Snowden, like Manning before him is “being charged by the US government primarily for revealing its – and other governments’ – unlawful actions that violate human rights. He has disclosed issues of enormous public interest in the US and around the world”. (Amnesty International) The villains of the piece are the politicians, distrusted and disrespected, together with the men inside the NSA’s of the world, who spend their shadowy days sifting through the communications of millions of innocent men and women without their consent and, until Snowden’s revelations, without their knowledge. Political leaders are sanctioning what is dangerous and unconstitutional activity by the intelligence agencies, which, in place to protect the people, have themselves become a cause of national (and indeed international) insecurity by creating an atmosphere of mistrust and fear. The wholesale “invasion of privacy” by the NSA and others “does not contribute to our security”, states Daniel Ellsberg, but rather, “it puts in danger the very liberties we’re trying to protect”.