Operation Prism: so should we all be scared?
From his hiding place in Hong Kong, leaker Edward Snowden warns the American people about the threat of government snooping. But what’s new?
Edward Snowden is disarmingly calm as he explains in a 12-minute film interview why he has deliberately brought the entire might of the US national security establishment down on his 29-year-old head.
The former CIA analyst and telecoms specialist, who over the past week has spilled the data-collection secrets of America’s most secretive intelligence arm, the National Security Agency, contends that his conduct is fundamentally different from that of the men behind WikiLeaks or the more random and destructive hacking of the group Anonymous.
Snowden is not an internet anarchist, or a mindless mischief-maker or a hater of America; he is not doing it for money – on the contrary, he has given up his girlfriend, his family and a $200,000-a-year job in Hawaii – but says he is motivated by the belief that the United States is sleep-walking towards what he calls “turnkey tyranny”.
To prove his point, Snowden has shone a public light on two things that were actually already widely known, if not by the public, then by Congressional oversight committees and anyone who had followed closely the debates over the Patriot Act, the sweeping Bush-era legislation that was introduced after the September 11 attacks.
The first leak showed that the NSA routinely goes “data-mining” through the records of billions of phone calls made in the US every day – not listening in to the calls, but sifting them for suspicious clusters, say to Yemen or Waziristan, that might merit further investigation, which in turn would require a warrant.
The second suggestion is that the NSA and other agencies have some arrangement with the big internet companies – Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, Google, Yahoo, among others – by which they can look at the internet activities of foreigners suspected of being a threat to national security. The companies vehemently deny the existence of a permanently open “back door” to their servers, but it is still not clear how the access works and – given that this is all top secret – it may never be.
In any event, in the course of his work for the CIA and NSA, Snowden had become convinced that the US government is building an apparatus that tramples on constitutionally guaranteed freedoms and which – in the wrong hands – would be open to terrible abuse.
“A new leader will be elected,” he posits to The Guardian, “they’ll find the switch, say that 'Because of the crisis, because of the dangers we face in the world, some new and unpredicted threat, we need more authority, we need more power.’ And there will be nothing the people can do at that point to oppose it. And it will be turnkey tyranny.”
Snowden refers to the future, but when he talks about over-reacting to “some new and unpredicted threat” he is actually referring to the signing of the 2001 Patriot Act that authorised both a massive expansion of surveillance and a relaxation of the rules governing its use, which caused outcry among libertarians and liberals alike. By 2005 that had morphed into the controversy of “warrantless wire-tapping” by the Bush administration, which was eventually forced to give up the programme and submit it to the oversight of the top-secret court set up under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).
So Snowden’s leaks don’t so much spark a new debate as reopen an old one in which – to this point at least – the American public has passed a verdict. It is too soon to poll the reaction to these leaks, but in 2011 a Pew Research survey showed that only 34 per cent of Americans opposed the Patriot Act. Even at the height of controversy over warrantless wire-tapping between 2006 and 2009, public support for that programme never dropped below 48 per cent.
Snowden anticipates the fact that mainstream public opinion may not support him. “The greatest fear that I have regarding the outcome for America of these disclosures is that nothing will change,” he says. “People will see in the media all of these disclosures…. But they won’t be willing to take the risks necessary to stand up and fight to change things to force their representatives to actually take a stand in their interests.”
Those fears perhaps explain Barack Obama’s almost cocksure response to this episode, echoed by William Hague in the Commons. Both appear sanguine not about the leaks themselves, but as to what they reveal. “It’s important to recognise that you can’t have 100 per cent security and also then have 100 per cent privacy and zero inconvenience,” the president said, enumerating the layers of oversight and legal supervision required before anyone’s phone gets tapped or Facebook page snooped on. “I think, on balance, we have established a process and a procedure that the American people should feel comfortable about.”
The heads of the Senate and House intelligence committees – one chaired by a Democrat and the other by a Republican – agree with Obama that the programmes are acceptable in scope and adequately monitored: “It’s called protecting America,” was how Dianne Feinstein, the Democrat chairman of the Senate committee, bluntly put it.
This is what Snowden finds himself up against – a confident president who says he is only doing a “scrubbed” version of what George W Bush did, and an apparently compliant public who, for now, don’t appear to want to man the barricades. This is why, for all the huffing and puffing on the Right, this is not an existential scandal for Obama. Indeed, it might well serve to deepen the splits in the Republican Party between libertarians and traditional GOP voters who have always put national security over privacy considerations: some 75 per cent of Republicans backed Bush’s far more draconian warrantless wire taps in a 2008 poll.
But for both liberals on the Left and libertarians on the Right – and it appears Snowden was a campaign contributor to the libertarian presidential candidate Ron Paul – the people are asleep and they need to be woken up. They are being hoodwinked into allowing the creation, unopposed, of what Daniel Ellsberg, the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971, calls the “United Stasi of America”. To Ellsberg and others like him, the oversight that Obama trumpets as being so powerful is nothing more than a rubber-stamp sham. Congressional committees often don’t understand what they are being told and the FISA court is, Ellsberg contends, “almost totally deferential” to executive requests.
Again, the fears raised by Ellsberg and by politicians such as Rand Paul – the son of Ron Paul and very likely a Republican presidential contender in 2016 – are largely directed at some as yet unknown event in the future, which will be the trigger for this vast apparatus to be turned against the American people, not used for their defence.
“Obviously, the United States is not now a police state,” concedes Ellsberg, whose own leaks exposed the lies and half-truths told by administrations from Truman to Johnson over the Vietnam War. “But given the extent of this invasion of people’s privacy, we do have the full electronic and legislative infrastructure of such a state.”
But therein, for many Americans, might lie an important distinction. Ellsberg’s leaks revealed actual lies about past events, while Snowden appears to have blown the whistle on something that hasn’t actually happened. That explains the reaction of commentators such as David Simon, the journalist and creator of The Wire television series, which wrestled with the legality of police surveillance, who wondered what all the fuss was about. In a piece attacking journalists’ ignorance about how law enforcement agencies use electronic intercepts, he dismisses The Guardian and The Washington Post as “wailing jeremiads” whose “pretend discovery” has done nothing except show a system that was working – a legal court order created as a result of legislation that was drafted and passed in full view by the United States Congress.
“We don’t know of any actual abuse,” he wrote. “No known illegal wiretaps, no indications of FISA-court approved intercepts of innocent Americans that occurred because weak probable cause was acceptable.”
Viewed this way, the American public does not need waking up to the impending nightmare of the surveillance state. Its faith in the government is far from blind, but its trust in America – its courts, its constitution, its deeply embedded culture of freedom of speech and media – is well-founded.
With these leaks, Snowden asks Americans to reconsider their verdict on the post-September 11 world. At this point the jury remains out, considering the merits of a retrial – but on past performance Snowden should prepare for an answer he already half-anticipates, but will not like