Editorial Note: Americans seem divided on many issues, including whether or not Edward Snowden is a traitor or a hero. However, the rest of the world may see America’s intensive scrutiny of Internet, e-mails and texts as outright spying or worse. In this article, our UK correspondent, Gabrielle Pickard, shares her take on the Snowden affair. Read the viewpoint of a British citizen and share your own thoughts about Snowden. Is he traitor or hero? Tell us where you’re at in the world and why you feel that way.
Potential Definition of Irony: A government building an omnipresent surveillance system to spy on everyone in the world and then accusing the individual who exposed the system of “espionage”.
This would be one poignant way to characterize irony. Magnifying the fancifulness of this situation is the fact that this is exactly what is going on in America right now.
The US government has charged NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden with three felonies. Two of these felonies fall under the Espionage Act. This was a law passed in 1917, shortly after US entry into WWI, to essentially make it a crime to promote the success of the country’s enemies.
When the former NSA contract worker decided to alert his fellow citizens that the US government was involved in building a clandestine surveillance system that can track and trace Internet and telephone traffic, he knew he would be giving up a stable career.
As well as forgoing a good career, Snowden would be giving up financial prosperity and a life with his long-time girlfriend in Hawaii.
The whistleblower disclosed the information by carefully selecting certain documents that he believed should be disclosed and revealed. He then gave the documents to two highly reputed newspapers, the Guardian and the Washington Post, and insisted that journalistic judgments should be utilized about which documents should be published in the interest of the public and which should be withheld.
Snowden could have remained anonymous but instead insisted that his identity should be revealed. Snowden told the Guardian:
“I have no intention of hiding who I am because I know I have done nothing wrong.” (1)
Are Snowden’s Actions Espionage?
Snowden could have attempted to keep his identity hidden, which is of course a leading aspiration of those practicing espionage. He could have sold his information and documents to foreign intelligence for a huge sum of money. He may have covertly handed this information to one of America’s adversaries.
If Snowden had undergone such spying antics, then yes, the Espionage Act felonies would be applicable. As Guardian journalist, Glenn Greenwald said:
“That’s [exposing bad acts to enable debate and reform] a far cry from charging Snowden with multiple felonies under the Espionage Act that will send him to prison for decades if not life upon conviction. In what conceivable sense are Snowden’s actions “espionage”? (2)
As it stands, many believe that the 30-year-old has done little more than whistleblowing and now faces the prospect of spending the rest of his life behind bars. Ironically, Snowden’s so-called crimes are the very thing President Obama promised to protect as he repeatedly pledged to protect “noble” and “patriotic” whistleblowers.
“Often the best source of information about waste, fraud and abuse in the government is an existing government employee committed to public integrity and willing to speak out,” said Obama in his presidential campaign.
“We need to empower federal employees as watchdogs of wrongdoing and partners in performance. Barack Obama will strengthen whistleblower laws to protect federal workers who expose waste, fraud, and abuse of authority in government,” continued the Obama campaign. (3)
Since President Obama has been in power, he has been accused of creating an oppressive climate where America civil liberties are stifled. Where, in the words of New Yorker’s Jane Mayer, investigative journalism has been brought to a “standstill”. (4)
Civil Liberties of Americans
Since 9/11 struck, a stream of revolutionary new technologies have been developed which expand the powers of security agencies, enabling governments to pry into our private lives. As the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) states, privacy laws have failed to keep up with emerging technologies.
“The goal of the Protecting Civil Liberties in the Digital Age initiative is to ensure that expressive, associational, and privacy rights are strengthened rather than compromised by new technology, and to protect those core democratic rights again intrusive corporate and government practices that rely on new technology to invade these rights,” writes the ACLU.
Snowden strived for the reform of such an oppressive system, which many believe stifles civil liberties. Instead he became one of the most wanted men in America.
In being seen as a grave threat to US national security and with a warrant out for his arrest for felonies of espionage, ironically the former CIA worker is being accused of the crimes he was trying to reform.
There is, however, some evidence that in the wake of Snowden’s revelations that protecting American civil liberties may be prioritized. Reports surfaced that President Obama had a meeting with the executive branch’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board.
In what was the President’s first meeting with the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, Barack Obama certainly seems to be upholding his pledge to have a public discussion on top secret government surveillance programs.
The President is also reported to have tasked the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, to consider declassifying more details about the government’s phone and Internet data records. This was stated in a report by the Washington Post. (5)
As the world watches while Edward Snowden hides at an airport in Moscow, support towards the young former CIA employee’s antics intensifies. This support is proven by the “Pardon Edward Snowden” petition that is circulating the Internet, recently reaching a 100,000 signature threshold.
The attention, antipathy and subsequent manhunt Snowden’s actions have generated makes it fairly easy to deduce that there won’t be another “Edward Snowden” in a hurry.
At least Snowden’s actions have spurred Barack Obama to meet with privacy and civil liberties panels, even if it is just an attempt made by the President to temper public concern. However, without another whistleblower, what will protect American civil liberties in the future? Let us know your thoughts.
References & Image Credits:
(1) Guardian: Snowden Whistleblower
(2) Guardian: Snowden Espionage Charges
(3) Tech Dirt
(4) Real Clear Politics
(5) Washington Post
(7) ElectronicFrontierFoundation via photopin cc