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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 31, July 20, 2013

Whistleblower for a Public Cause: Edward Snowden

Sunday 21 July 2013, by Ambrose Pinto


One must admire and appreciate Edward Joseph Snowden, the 30-year-old former American technical contractor and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) employee who worked as a contractor for the National Security Agency (NSA), for his courage and willingness to risk his life for a public cause. It is not normal for a young man to exhibit that courage in the presence of a mighty state, a state that can even do away with his life.

In sharing classified material on a variety of top-secret NSA programmes, including the interception of US telephone metadata and the PRISM surveillance programme and FISA orders related to NSA data capture efforts, Snowden had said his was an effort “to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them”.1 While states across the world have always said that they exist for the welfare of their citizens, the revelations of Snowden debunk such claims. Not that the people are ignorant of the claims a state makes. The central point of his argument that he is substantiating is that the state, while professing to be on the side of the people, is an enemy of the people.

Disclosures are of a Serious Nature

Disclosures linked to Snowden rank among the most significant breaches in the history of the NSA. They pertain to the safety and security of individuals and groups of people beyond the American frontiers. Gathering information by spying is an immoral act and that immorality has moved into unimaginary levels of statecraft in recent years with the use of technology. The American state no doubt is seething with anger at the exposition of its hypocrisy and Snowden’s actions have been denounced instead of introspection and righting the wrongs. The USA would like to cover up its evil deeds by jailing or murdering Snowden. It has termed him an anti-national. Since the release of the documents, Snowden has been the target of an increasingly vicious campaign in the corporate media and from government officials of the USA and other corporate states.

The Obama Administration has issued a document of criminal charges against him. Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner had called him a “traitor”.2 House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called for his prosecution.3 Diane Feinstein, head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, denounced him for what she called his ‘act of treason’.4 The Democrats and Republicans have denounced him as an anti-national. There is no end to name-calling. On the other hand, a picture of the USA as a country of no wrongs is presented as if all espionage and surveillance are acts of decency and honour. Snowden no doubt must have been expecting all these reactions. He knew his President who has prosecuted more whistleblowers than all other administrations combined.

People’s Response

People of course perceive him very differently. Admiration and encomiums for the young man for his action have come pouring in from across the board. Retired CIA analyst Ray McGovern noted Snowden’s “uncommon courage, uncommon devotion to the Constitution” and shared his hope for a future society: “It’s very, very encouraging to see that young people like that have been able to do some of the things that have been very difficult for people of my generation to do because we have been so hidebound behind secrecy strictures.”5 Daniel Ellsberg, the former military analyst, spoke at a panel discussion on “Our Vanishing Civil Liberties” and said how Snowden made him proud to be an American and that this NSA leak was worth risking one’s life.6

According to the Reuters/Ipsos poll, roughly one in three Americans sees this former security contractor behind the exposure of the NSA surveillance programme as a patriot and feels he should not be prosecuted.7 The Associate Editor at Reason magazine reported a poll that shows more Americans approve of Snowden than they approve of Congress.8 He has been deriving public support from people across continents. Half of the people in Hong Kong did not want Snowden to be extradited to the US. Human Rights groups and activists have commended him or his courage.

Response of the State

Though there has been support to Snowden, what however is surprising is that there have not been any mass protests in the USA or anywhere else in favour of Snowden. One can raise a number of questions on the quality of American democracy. While there is freedom of thought and expression in the country, why is it that the average American has failed to stand by Snowden? Is it mere apathy or lack of commitment to fundamental liberties? Is the average citizen too afraid of the state in the USA to stand against it because of the consequences?

The American state has not been an instrument of encouragement to dissenters even if that dissent has been for constitutional values. If Snowden has done his constitutional duty and expressed his desire to remain faithful to his conscience, why should the state treat him as an aberration? How could all the institutions of the state—the Congress, judiciary and the corpo-rations—back the programme for surveillance and intrusion if these programmes are not fair and just? Congressional leaders, from both the Republican and Democratic Parties, as well as top judges, have approved of the unprecedented domestic spy programme.

Even worse, when the pervasive spy operations were revealed, top Senate and Congressional leaders repeated their endorsement of each and every intrusion into
all electronic and written communication involving American citizens. President Obama and his Attorney General Holder openly and forcefully defended the NSA’s universal spy operations. The act of spying may be against all international conventions and treaties and yet the superpower has asserted that what they are doing is in their national interest and they are morally right.

Worldwide Anger and India’s Response

The exposure has provoked worldwide condemnation. Spying is not a hobby of the USA alone; but the level to which USA has taken the art of spying as to poke their nose into every aspect of the lives of their own citizens and others in different countries is quite shocking. Those considered enemies of the USA have been spied upon the most. India is also one of the spied upon, countries, the fifth country from the top in the list. Iran tops the list (14 billion pieces of intelligence); then come Pakistan (13.5 billion), Jordan (12.7 billion), Egypt (7.6 billion), and India (6.3 billion).9 Though India is considered a friendly country, the USA spying on India makes one suspicious of this friendship.

At the official level India has not strongly objected to the USA’s spying on India and one doesn’t know the reasons. One gets the picture that the two countries may have similar designs as far as foreign policy issues are concerned. Even if the interests of the two countries are similar, individual rights of citizens cannot be mortgaged or sacrificed at the altar of the state. The issue is not merely the interests of two states but the infringement on the citizens’ freedom of expression, violation of individual rights, constitutional guarantees and the right to privacy. A country termed as the “mother of all freedoms” and India known as the largest democracy have come to interfere into the lives of citizens within and abroad.

It must shame us as citizens of India that the country is going ahead with an ambitious programme that will let it monitor any one of its 900 million telecom subscribers and 120 million internet users. The Centralised Monitoring System (CMS) of the country will be operational in 10 of the country’s 22 telecom “circles” by the end of the year. The far-reaching surveillance programme rivals the worst in the world, and makes the US National Security Agency (NSA) look like a model of restraint.

The NSA, as revealed in media reports, has been monitoring phone-call metadata (such as phone numbers and call durations) on a widespread basis for years, but has to get the approval of a court to spy on the calls themselves or the content of e-mails. The CMS, by contrast, will give nine Indian Government agencies—including the Tax Department—the power to access, in real-time, phone conversations, video conferences, text messages, e-mails, and even internet search data and social media activity, and will work without any independent oversight. The agencies can start monitoring targets without the approval of the courts or Parliament. The top bureaucrat in charge of the federal Interior Ministry and selected State-level officials will reportedly be authorised to approve surveillance requests. Moreover, with the CMS, security agencies won’t need to request the users’ information from telcos. They’ll be able to get it directly, using existing interception systems that are built into telecom and data-service networks. The system will have dedicated servers and extensive data-mining capabilities that can be used for surveillance.

India already has a shaky track record of protecting its citizens’ freedoms online. In 2012, it made 4750 requests to Google for user data, behind only the US. In November last year, a businessman was arrested for a tweet about the son of Finance Minister P. Chidambaram. In the same month, two young women in Mumbai were arrested for questioning the total shutdown in the city for political leader Bal Thackeray’s funeral. Members of the internet hacking group Anonymous have staged protests across 15 Indian cities against the government’s crack-down on the internet. The CMS will involve an online system for filing and processing of all lawful interception requests, an electronic audit trail will be in place for each phone number put under surveillance. And who will audit the audit trail? The same Ministry that authorises the surveillance requests which is not a reassuring safeguard. With a baggage of this kind, how could India protest on American surveillance?

Maturity of Snowden

In spite of the nasty behaviour of the state, Snowden’s attack against his enemies has been one of great maturity. Making an argument for doing what he has done, he said: “I don’t want to live in a world where there’s no privacy and therefore no room for intellectual exploration and creativity.”10 He is not deterred by the political establishment’s slanderous campaign or the fact that he could be targeted for assassination by US intelligence agencies. “I’m neither traitor nor hero. I’m an American. I believe in freedom of expression. I acted in good faith but it is only right that the public form its own opinion.”11 As a citizen, Snowden is asserting that by standing against the state he is fulfilling an obligation to his state as an ordinary citizen.

When the former Vice President Dick Cheney termed him a “traitor”, Snowden said it is the highest honour Dick Cheney can give to an American. Attacking Cheney’s credentials for being responsible for the killing of over 4400 Americans and for the maiming of nearly 32,000 Americans in that bloody Iraqi war, as well as leaving over 100,000 Iraqis dead, he said if Dick Cheney had taught the nation how to be kind he would have changed the quality of life of the citizens.

For standing up against the establishment Snowden has had to pay a price. Why is the American state disturbed? He has dispensed more truth in a few paragraphs than the corporate media has in decades of twentyfour hour news cycles. His actions and words have served as a powerful refutation of the geyser of mud, endless lies and vacuity of the entire political and media apparatus. Snowden spoke of how the Obama Administration’s aggressive response to whistleblowers will only encourage better whistleblowers and how one’s conscience is something that cannot be stopped: “Binney, Drake, Kiriakou, and Manning are all examples of how overly-harsh responses to public-interest whistle-blowing only escalate the scale, scope, and skill involved in future disclosures. Citizens with a conscience are not going to ignore wrong-doing simply because they’ll be destroyed for it: the conscience forbids it. Instead, these draconian responses simply build better whistleblowers.”12

These brave individuals along with Snowden were all driven by a common belief that the public always has a right to know about the wrongdoings of governments and corporations. They stepped forward and sacrificed their safety to bring vital information into the light of day. Their allegiance to ordinary people and their right to determine their future have motivated many whistleblowers to overcome fear and act out of conscience. The only fear Snowden expressed in the aftermath of his disclosures was that he might fail to overcome public apathy and miss the chance to trigger a worldwide debate: “The great fear that I have regarding the outcome for America of these disclosures is that nothing will change.”13 Why is this fear of no change?

State, Spying and War

Spying has become central to the USA for many reasons. One of the important reasons is the growth of the war economy. The USA has been spending large sums of money to militarise and to maintain its leading role in warfare. Whichever country spends large sums on warfare does not have enough for welfare. In fact the USA has been slashing on investments on social spending and public health. More and more investments on war-related items enhance profits for bankers and corporations while imposing regressive taxes on wage and salaried workers. Prolonged and extended wars abroad in the past have been funded at the expense of citizens’ welfare at home. This policy had led to declining living standards for many millions of citizens and rising dissatisfaction in the USA.

The USA has witnessed the resistance for the increase of poverty by the “Occupy Wall Street” movement which was endorsed by over 80 per cent of the population. The popular response has alarmed the state and led to an escalation of police measures on ordinary people. Mass spying is designed to identify the citizens who oppose both wars and positively work for domestic welfare. The state labels them as ‘security threats’. It is a means of controlling them through the use of arbitrary police powers. The policy of mass spying is taken as ‘pre-emptive action’. The greater the police operations, the greater the fear and insecurity among dissident citizens and activists. The proliferation of permanent bureaucratic institutions, with over a million security ‘data collectors’, is accompanied by tens of thousands of ‘field operators’, analysts and inquisitors acting arbitrarily to designate dissident citizens as ‘security risks’ and imposing reprisals according to the political needs of their ruling political bosses. Washington’s urge to take control of the global communications environment, lock, stock, and barrel, to gather its “data”—billions and billions of pieces of it—and via inconceivably powerful computer systems, and so turn the world into a secret set of connections, represents a remarkable development.

For the first time, the superpower wants to know, not just what its own citizens are doing, but those of distant lands as well. Everything in the government is increasingly disappearing into a professional universe of secrecy. It’s hard to imagine the shock in Pakistan, or Germany, or India, on discovering that our private lives may now be the property of the US Government. As a result of all this, the world is facing a strangely contradictory future in which ever more draconian regimes of secrecy will confront the urge for ever greater transparency. We may have secrets, but we are not a secret—and we know it.

Consequences of the Spy State

The denunciations of the mass spy operations are a positive step. But equally important is the question of what follows from the act of spying. Hundreds of millions of citizens are being spied upon by the state. We know that mass spying is the official policy of the states. But we have no information on the repressive measures resulting from the investigations of “suspect individuals”. Individuals and groups, who express critical views of domestic and foreign policy, are “a risk”; those who act to protest are a “higher risk”, and those who travel to conflict regions are presumed to be in the “highest risk” category, even if they have violated no law. The question of the lawfulness of a citizen’s views and actions does not enter into the spymasters’ equation; nor do any questions regarding the lawfulness of the acts committed by the spies against citizens.

The criteria defining a security risk supersede any constitutional considerations and safe-guards. Lawful critics, illegally spied upon, have been arrested, tried and jailed. Their lives and those of their friends and family members have been shattered. We know that hundreds of homes, workplaces and offices of suspects have been raided. We know that family members, associates, neighbours, clients, and employers of “suspects” have been interrogated, pressured and intimidated. Above all, we know that tens of millions of law abiding citizens, critical of domestic economic and overseas war policies, have been censored by the very real fear of the massive operations carried out by the police state. In this atmosphere of intimidation, any critical conversation or word spoken in any context or relayed via the media can be interpreted by nameless, faceless spies as a “security threat”—and one’s name can enter into the ever growing secret lists of “potential terrorists”.

The very presence and dimensions of the police state is intimidating. While there are citizens who would claim that the police state is necessary to protect them from terrorists, but how many others feel compelled to embrace their state terrorists just to fend off any suspicion, hoping to stay off the growing lists? How many critical-minded citizens now fear the state and will never voice in public what they whisper at home? More and more people are realising how the government narrative of ‘national security’ is simply used to cover abuses of the Constitution and the right to privacy.


At Hong Kong, Snowden had said in the interview: “I am not here to hide from justice; I am here to reveal criminality.”14 Leaking the truth is what stirs vital public debate. The whistleblowers that stand up for the public interest show how courage is contagious. We now have a great opportunity to initiate campaigns against spying and surveillance as Snowden is stuck in legal limbo in a Moscow airport transit area and facing uncertainty over whether any of the destinations he is said to be contemplating—Ecuador, Venezuela and Cuba—will let him in.

Russia may no longer have sufficient reason to continue harbouring Snowden. Its intelligence services have already questioned him about the classified documents that he has admitted to taking from the National Security Agency. The Leftist government of Ecuador, already sheltering WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange at its London embassy, is reviewing Snowden’s asylum request. Venezuela’s new President, Nicolas Maduro, has spoken favourably of granting refuge to Snowden but has taken no action. And even if Ecuador or Venezuela decide to take Snowden, there is no guarantee that communist Cuba, the likely transit point for any flight from Moscow to those South American countries, would let him pass through and further complicate its own thorny relations with the United States. Adding to Snowden’s troubles, the Obama Administration, embarrassed by his disclosures on US surveillance programmes and his ability to dodge extradition when he fled Hong Kong, is bringing heavy pressure to bear on any country that might consider accepting him.

Given these constraints for Snowden, it is necessary that the world community stand up for Snowden and campaign for his rights. We need more whistleblowers to make the world respect the privacy of individuals and right to express.


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Dr Ambrose Pinto S.J. is the Principal of St. Aloysius Degree College, Bangalore.

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