Edward Snowden’s leaks of top-secret NSA documents has unleashed a wave of very strong feelings of anger and betrayal – of the Fourth Amendment prohibition on unreasonable and unwarranted searches and seizures as well as of President Obama’s promise of more transparency. The stories in the Guardian and the Washington Post have played on the fears of those who understand that our democracy cannot function properly in a climate of excessive secrecy, with overzealous prosecution of leakers, journalists, and others who are fighting to keep information accessible adding to their concerns. Throw in an utterly dysfunctional Congress, a lingeringly unsteady economy and an increasingly acrimonious political atmosphere, and we have nothing short of a serious crisis of confidence on our hands.
It was into this atmosphere of simmering frustration on all sides of the political spectrum that Snowden decided to take action when he contacted documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras in January claiming he had information about the intelligence community. Snowden later told the South China Morning Post that he went to Booz Allan Hamilton in order to collect proof of NSC secret surveillance programs to leak to the media, where he began working in March. So it appears that somewhere between 2003 or 2004, when he attempted to serve his country by joining the Army Special Forces, and the beginning of Barack Obama’s second term as president, Snowden came to the conclusion that the United States had no right to conduct the secretive surveillance it was engaged in and that he was uniquely qualified to commit the crime of stealing top-secret information so that he could expose this wrong to the world.
The purpose of this article is not to criticize the exposure of secret surveillance programs that may be the instruments of abuse of power. Its purpose is to argue that the character, actions, and intentions of the leaker matter – a point that the insistence by Snowden and his supporters that the story should focus on the leaks, not the leaker, denies.
Ecuador and other problems
When WikiLeaks first gained worldwide attention for their publication of the Collateral Murder video in 2010, the idea of exposing all of the wrongs that the government might be hiding behind a wall of secrecy was invigorating. Then the organization’s coordinated publication of diplomatic files gave us an unvarnished look at the arrogance of U.S. diplomats, putting on display not only government corruption but also showing how spying and underhanded manipulation seemed to be more important than actual diplomacy. WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, and Bradley Manning were hailed as heroic defenders of democracy, and a wide public discussion about the damaging effects of overclassification and excessive secrecy was launched.
Now, Assange has been holed up in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London to avoid extradition to Sweden on trumped-up sexual assault charges, which, presumably, would lead to his extradition to the United States. This episode has gone beyond exposing the human weaknesses of the man behind WikiLeaks; it engendered a more critical look at what the real objectives might be of an organization that states,
“Publishing improves transparency, and this transparency creates a better society for all people. Better scrutiny leads to reduced corruption and stronger democracies in all society’s institutions, including government, corporations and other organisations. A healthy, vibrant and inquisitive journalistic media plays a vital role in achieving these goals. We are part of that media.”
Unfortunately, Assange has continually resisted relevant scrutiny of himself and his organization. Particularly problematic is his refusal to acknowledge the Ecuadorean president’s squashing of healthy, vibrant journalism, insisting that Ecuador’s status as a small nation with no surveillance network that is not under the thumb of any of the world superpowers is more important.
Ecuador is also the destination of Edward Snowden, who is now being assisted by WikiLeaks lawyers and activists. In the face of similar criticism about the hypocrisy of free-press advocates choosing to take refuge from the United States in a country that has recently taken draconian steps to stem freedom of the press, the same argument is echoed: What is important is the information that Snowden has exposed about the subversive network of private contractors working with secretive government surveillance programs, not the subversive character of li’l’ ol’ Ecuador. The Communications Law, approved by a National Assembly friendly to President Correa on June 14, establishes a government watchdog to regulate media content and faces journalists with civil and criminal charges if they fail to provide “accurate and balanced” information according the agency.
It has been painful to watch the narrative about a potentially dangerous transnational surveillance complex fail, from the beginning, to sufficiently answer to the reasonable criticism of journalists such as Kevin Drum, a blogger and writer at Mother Jones magazine whose level-headed analysis of the complexities at hand has been a breath of fresh air amid a tempest of conspiratorial hysteria. It is obvious from his prolific writing that Drum supports the cause, yet he finishes his blog post titled Jumping the Shark on Edward Snowden by stating his concerns about Snowden, along with some damn good advice:
“I have lingering questions about his motivations, his timing, his actual knowledge of NSA programs, and his judgment. That said, some of the stuff making the rounds of the chattering classes is just crazy. Settle down, folks.”
Even more painful is seeing WikiLeaks spokesperson Kristinn Hrafnsson defending Ecuador against the charges of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), brushing off their work as painting “too much of a bleak picture.” CPJ has placed Ecuador in its “risk list” of the top 10 worst countries for press freedom in the world, along with Brazil, Ethiopia, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, Somalia, Syria, Turkey, and Vietnam. Not mentioned in the Guardianarticle is the Friends of the Inter-American Democratic Charter letter, signed by dignitaries and human rights leaders from throughout the Western Hemisphere, expressing “deep concerns about restrictions on freedom of expression in the Republic of Ecuador.”
Unexplained motives and unexplored realities
As entertaining as L’affair Snowden has been to observe, it is difficult to imagine that embarrassing the most powerful nation in the world was not among Snowden’s main goals. At a time when the United States is in the midst of delicate negotiations with China on cybercrime and with Russia on nuclear proliferation as well as the situation in Syria, the revelations of spying undercut some good foreign policy that the U.S. government is, for once, engaged in.
Regarding his judgment, a look at the list of repressive governments that he has turned to for protection, appearances point to the philosophy of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” a wartime tactic that has a nasty habit of backfiring.
As to the issue of government secrecy, Snowden claims that Obama “closed the door on investigating systemic violations of law” and “deepened and expanded several abusive programs.” However, a Federation of American Scientists’ Secrecy News report titled “Secrecy System Shows Signs of Contraction” tells a different story, pointing to executive order 13526 of December 2009 that sought to reform the security classification processes.
And finally, one might consider the consequences of countries like Costa Rica and Ecuador lacking sufficient crime-fighting capabilities and thus accountability and justice. Both of these small countries are facing increasing problems with drug-related and other organized crime, aided by weak and corrupt public safety institutions, which, because of the new laws, investigative journalists in Ecuador will have little chance of exposing.