Another hero

June 10, 2013

A recently created Wikipedia entry on Edward Snowden read as follows:

Edward Joseph Snowden (born 1984) is an American technical contractor, a former CIA employee, and a traitor. Snowden released classified material on ­top-secret United States National Security Agency (NSA) programs including the PRISM surveillance program to The Guardian and The Washington Post in June 2013.

PRISM is a top-secret government surveillance program, in operation since 2007, that enables the NSA to access the servers of nine major Internet companies, including Google, Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo! and Facebook, to collect data on the emails, documents, audio and video chats, photographs, and connection logs of not only Americans but also billions of people around the world (read you and me). For publicly revealing, through the Guardian and the Washington Post, the existence of PRISM, Snowden–as the Wikipedia entry makes clear–has been designated a “traitor.” 

According to the Washington Post, Snowden asserts that his “sole motive is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them.” And in his interview with the Guardian (shown below), he says that he’s willing to take any risk in order to let the public decide whether these surveillance programs are something they really want. And there is no question that he is taking a major risk and making a big sacrifice in revealing these top-secret surveillance programs. He has already given up a job with a six-figure salary in Hawaii and now looks forward to a fate that is likely to resemble that suffered by Julian Assange or, even worse, Bradley Manning. For doing all of this, he is being called a traitor and will surely be hunted down like a criminal.

The interview shown below  makes it perfectly clear that Snowden is an intelligent and articulate individual with an ethical conscience. He is genuinely concerned about the surveillance power the NSA is currently amassing and its potential consequences for human freedom and privacy. An increasing number of people are concerned about this very issue, but very few have any detailed insider knowledge on the nature and extent of the existing surveillance programs. One other individual who does have such knowledge is William Binney, who worked with the NSA for over 30 years. In this fascinating interview with Democracy Now, Binney speaks about the risks and sacrifices he too has faced in revealing information about the nature and dangers of the NSA’s growing surveillance programs. If whistle-blowers like Binney, Manning, and Snowden are “traitors” then what the world needs right now are more traitors. But it is clear that none of these individuals are traitors at all. They are heroes. These are people who are willing to make enormous sacrifices and risk tragic personal consequences simply in order to do the right thing.

One important question concerning the Snowden saga relates to his remark that he simply wants the public to decide whether or not they really want these surveillance programs: What “public” is he referring to? The “American public” or “people around the world”? Presumably the former, but it must be remembered that these surveillance programs are global in scope. What right does the American NSA have to collect data on non-American citizens? None, of course, but the more important point is that it doesn’t much matter what anyone outside the US thinks about these programs. One only hopes that it does matter what people in the US think about them. In the meantime—while the Americans figure out how much surveillance of themselves they are willing to tolerate–non-Americans around the world who do not want their online data being tracked by the NSA really ought, as a first step, to avoid using the internet services of American internet companies or at least internet companies that cooperate with the NSA and related agencies. 

One final point worth noting. The reaction to these latest revelations concerning PRISM from the political establishment in Washington (both Democrats and Republicans) was predictable: there were calls for an investigation into the source of the leaks and demands for prosecution. One of the few American politicians to have spoken out against these programs is Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who, according to the Washington Post, is filing a lawsuit against the government. Not coincidentally, the Wikipedia entry on Snowden states that he was a supporter of Ron Paul (Rand’s father) during the last election. It is highly interesting that at least on the important global issues of American foreign policy and global internet surveillance, these libertarian politicians hold the sanest positions in Washington; they may just be the best the rest of the world can hope for in American politics.

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