Wrote this up in 2013 post-Snowden. I feel as though these stories are important to revisit down the road, to remember how we felt then, and if we still feel the same now as we did then.
In a recent Quinnipiac poll, over half of Americans consider Edward Snowden—the former technical contractor for the NSA who has released the details regarding the mass surveillance programs of the United States and Great Britain—a hero rather than a traitor. This formulation runs contrary to how the majority of media outlets have negatively portrayed Snowden, and thus such opinion suggests that perhaps Americans are beginning to find alternative ways to draw their own conclusions in spite of biased media coverage. As a populace, Americans have never been sympathetic to blatant lying either, so when top NSA and Congressional officials are caught lying under oath about the fact that millions of Americans are being spied upon on a daily basis it would make little sense to shun the man that brought forward the truth.
But does leaking classified information make guys like Snowden, Manning, or Assange heroes? Traitors? Popular belief suggests that all we want is transparency between ourselves and our government whilst still maintaining our privacy—and that is what these men are advocating for. But after all, at least in the cases of Snowden and Manning, they too are under oath to keep the information that they have access to private.
In reality, it doesn’t really matter whether we consider them heroes or traitors and neither classification seems all that apt anyway. Contemporary whistleblowers are merely doing what they believe is in the best interest of the people, and the positions that they work hard to put themselves in allow them to release information to a welcoming public. In Snowden’s case he became disillusioned with the deceitful nature of governmental spying until he could no longer live with it any longer, and he knew beforehand that he was going to be labeled a traitor and hunted down by the American government in order to be silenced. Snowden abided by his own moral compass and believed people have the right to know they’re being spied on—being heroic suggests that one goes above and beyond all expectations of normalcy rather than simply following through with the moral code that one is already embedded with. Was Snowden justified? For people that prefer being informed, that answer is a resounding yes. Heroic? Maybe.
On strict definition alone, whistleblowers are traitors more so than they are heroes. Heroism relies upon the subjective emotional response of the impacted party, while being a traitor can again simply be proven by the fact that documents were leaked in direct defiance of an oath of secrecy. Politicians cite that these types of leaks put our national security at risk, open doors for terrorists, and put our men and women in combat at risk. Such fearmongering allowed the Patriot Act to pass with flying colors, legitimized the villainization of Julian Assange following the WikiLeaks publications, and, as we now know, has allowed the Obama Administration to spy on civilians and governments all around the world relatively unchecked.
Even initiatives such as the increase in the drone striking of innocent civilians and American citizens alike and the force-feeding of detainees at Guantanamo Bay can all be considered policies that have been enabled by the fears of the American public when it comes to issues surrounding national security. For the last decade, the public has said, “We don’t want to know the specifics [the human rights abuses, the secrecy], just keep us safe.” Well, the most recent revelations of domestic spying have gone too far for a population that usually likes being blissfully ignorant: for you can do whatever you want to other people, but when you deceive us, us true Americans, well that just won’t fly.
The point is: regardless of how you perceive whistleblowers, the fact of the matter is that the information is out there and the information is telling. For starters, private companies are working hand in hand with the NSA, domestically and internationally, to spy on us. Yes, private companies! Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Skype, etc. Our last beacons of entrepreneurial hope against the tyrannies of communist state control are who has enabled this all to take place. These companies regularly meet with the NSA to discuss ways to allow the NSA to intercept more and more information, and the policies they agree upon do not coincide with the privacy agreements that we suggest the terms and conditions to when we use these companies.
Additionally, the 2008 FISA Law allows the U.S. government to intercept the communications of anybody they believe with 51 percent probability is not a U.S. citizen and is not on U.S. soil. It’s remarkable that the rest of the world let this pass into law—let alone that the U.S. government believes it has the right to intercept the communications of every non-U.S. citizen in the world that is not on U.S. soil. Coupled with its cooperation with America’s richest private holders of classified information, the U.S. government has nearly every base covered.
And let’s say you abstain from using the internet, telephones, social media sites, etc., something that is increasingly more and more difficult to do in our interconnected world we live in, well then that in itself practically gives the U.S. government grounds to get a specific warrant and invade your privacy that way. Writes Glenn Greenwald, journalist for The Guardian whom Snowden leaked his information to, “…when President Obama said nobody’s listening to your calls without a warrant, he was simply not telling the truth.”
You may think all of this sounds unconstitutional (duh!), but the government even has a way to circumvent that claim in a Catch-22-like manner. Since we are dealing with secrets, no court can rule on it and no one can prove they’re being spied on because it is all so secretive. In other words, “We’re so good at being unconstitutional that you could never prove that we are unconstitutional.”
So understandably, when U.S. media decides to focus on whether Edward Snowden is hero or traitor, the rest of the world is rather dumbfounded. How can you focus on the silly question of whether Snowden is good or bad when we have just learned that your government is spying on every single one of our civilians, and most of yours too, who uses electronic communication?
In Latin America, these revelations have dominated the news cycle. And people want answers. Specifically, in Brazil and all across Latin America, there are formal criminal investigations underway to determine the culpability of Brazilian telecoms, to find out the identity of the U.S. telecom who enabled all this mass access into the telecommunication systems of Latin America. In the words of Greenwald, “There’s real indignation and a genuine debate over privacy that is taking place throughout the world, much, much more serious and more substantive and profound than the one that has been led by American journalists inside the U.S.”
Interestingly, it is indeed Latin America that is providing the most significant backlash to the United States. European leaders pretended to sound outraged when the information was released, but the likes of Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande already knew about and/or participated in aspects of the spying, and it was released a mere few days later that France was doing the same thing to its own citizens anyway. The populations may be angry, but the leaders are not surprised, or angry, or ready to challenge American wishes in any substantial way—as evidenced by the EU blocking the President of sovereign Bolivia from using its airspace on his way to meet with Snowden.
On the other hand, Latin American governments and people are genuinely angry: they did not know about the spying and did not receive an invitation to participate in the spying. A la why Venezuela and Bolivia are entertaining the idea of offering Edward Snowden asylum—signifying a bold and unprecedented act of defiance towards American foreign policy.
Focusing on the whistleblower himself, Edward Snowden, is an interesting facet to the story—but it is only one small piece of the puzzle. Rather than considering how we should feel about Snowden, we should consider how we should feel about what the U.S. government is doing, and whether our supposed safety is worth the price of little to no privacy for everyone in the world. The rest of the world is beginning to ask the tough questions, and the American people need to do the same.