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8 May 2015

The Snowden Files and a chopping block

Harry J. Bentham


Journalist Luke Harding's 2014 book, The Snowden Files, offers the finest available British journalistic analysis of the significance of US whistleblower Ed Snowden's leaks exposing the controversial mass surveillance programs of America's post-9/11 National Security Agency.


Within weeks of the dramatic 9/11 terrorist attacks against the United States, the Internet was transformed by the NSA and British equivalent GCHQ into what Julian Assange would label the "greatest spying machine the world has ever seen" (p. 85). Edward Snowden's bold leaks to the international media in 2013 confirmed what the Internet's cryptographic elite had already suspected, as we read in Assange's pre-Snowden book Cypherpunks (2013).

Harding's well-received book came to my attention when it emerged that Oliver Stone will produce a much-anticipated thriller called Snowden, based primarily on this book's account. The book is notably favorable towards Snowden, unlike the narrow-minded majority of newspapers in the UK (minus The Guardian who published the first Snowden stories, of course).

The book contains a number of disappointments that will be duly explained here, too. Most egregious, in my assessment, is the way the author attempts to justify entirely irrelevant conspiracy theories and other politics using Snowden. On some pages, this leads him to insinuate that the Russian government's surveillance exceeds the US's and should be the real focus of global condemnation, and the book also uses innuendo to suggest Snowden discredits himself by being trapped in Russia. This, even though Snowden's exile was solely the result of the US preventing his movement out of Russia and Russia was never Snowden's choice of destination.

In the book, we see mostly emotional depictions focused on personalities, which I suppose makes good source material for Stone's movie. At times, the book reads like a novel, as if trying to exploit the characteristically British boyishness and cultural prejudice of Harding's intended English-speaking readership. The book's coverage of the journalistic implications of the publication of the Snowden files is striking, and makes it vital reading for all in that profession.

The formation of Snowden as a whistleblower is the focus of much attention, revealing the kind of person he is: shy, technically minded, humble, idealistic (p. 111). Libertarians and netizens who idolize Snowden will be especially happy with the picture drawn, showing a young man who was inspired by videogames, specifically the concept of the "everyman-warrior battling evil against the odds" (p. 38). Here was a man who saw an opportunity to use his unique privilege, his mastery of technology, to become a superhuman rebel standing up the world's most powerful state. A robot of Snowden would later say in a TED talk that he "won" this battle, the first historic victory of a lone technocrat-rebel against a superpower government. Harding's book fits with this evaluation. The government, despite its bluster that it had "mastered the Internet", reacted with inflexibility, incompetence and incredulity, unable to prevent the rapid circulation of information about its surveillance programs through the Internet.

Snowden turned against the Obama administration for a number of good reasons. The administration had failed to close Guantanamo Bay or end the unilateral drone attacks and other human rights violations started by the Bush administration. Obama pledged to end illegal wiretapping in 2007, only to expand it by voting in favor of the FISA Amendments Act (FAA) 2008, giving legal cover to the past illegal actions of the NSA. To quote Snowden, "leadership is about being the first to act" (p. 39). In that measure, Obama failed as Commander in Chief, while Snowden bore the burdens of true leadership through his zealous personal defense of the Constitution of the United States.

Using internal channels would not have worked to address Snowden's grievances, as all prior examples showed that dissent in the intelligence community was met with punishment rather than change. Snowden was not merely deterred by what had happened to Chelsea Manning, but had personally undergone punishment when he tried to suggest minor changes at the CIA. In response to him attempting to suggest minor changes, he was only bullied relentlessly by his superiors, who felt their egos bruised by anyone suggesting they had made a mistake (p. 36-37). The NSA is filled with dissent, but the leadership surrounds itself with sycophants who enforce fear and craven obedience to prevent the more lowly employees speaking out (p. 52). We can only assume that these forms of control have been escalated since Snowden's actions. There was no single abuse that compelled Snowden to blow the whistle on the NSA, but repeated instances of government figures lying and persecuting people who wanted to stop them (p. 52-53).

While Harding's book accepts that the "dark trajectory of US security policy after 9/11" is at fault, his analysis perhaps focuses too much on Snowden's personal quirks rather than accepting that Snowden's actions were inevitable. If these actions had not been taken by him, someone else would have taken them. This should be all too clear from prior occurrences, such as Chelsea Manning's story or the less known Thomas Drake (p. 51). It is likely that the profile Harding built of Snowden will be used by elements in the media who prefer to see Snowden as a perverse individual motivated by ideology or his problems rather than someone who saw the writing on the wall and acted in the passionless spirit of inevitability.

Whatever we may think of Snowden, it is hard to deny the observation that skilled individuals are now capable of springing out of nowhere and implementing massive changes in society, thanks to the responsibility endowed by new technologies. It is this trajectory that I believe should be of most consequence to transhumanist and libertarian commentators rendering their judgments on Edward Snowden. Transhumanists and futurists must understand what this man represents, not in his own right but as a model individual.

Snowden wasn't the first person to sound the battle cry of freedom against the NSA, denouncing its role as tantamount to tyranny. In the 1970s, a Senator Frank Church had already been warning that the NSA could "make tyranny total in America" (p. 86). Even as far back as the American Revolution, the rejection of "general warrants", arbitrary searches of private correspondence, justified rebelling against British rule and was one of very reasons for the founding of the United States (p. 97).

Harding points out that Britain's political climate has always been less favorable to privacy rights and freedom of speech than the climate in the US, since in Britain we are protected by no Constitution. GCHQ takes advantage of our lack of a Constitution, to arbitrarily violate freedoms "legally" whenever it wishes, simply by "interpreting" legislation (p. 88, 125-127). Similar interpretation led to journalists such as Snowden files reporter Glen Greenwald's partner, David Miranda, being held and questioned as "terrorist" suspects in the UK. Harding's illustration of how flawed the UK political system is in this regard, even compared to the US, will not fail to convince British readers and does fit with existing civil society demands for a British constitution.

The US government tried to block publication of Snowden documents by using intimidation and arguments from authority, refusing to explain how publication could be harmful. At one point, the White House's team frothed at the mouth and shouted down their phones at Guardian staff not to publish, expecting that the publication would surrender to them (p. 131).

Harding's book argues that the reason for the secrecy of US and British surveillance programs was never to protect intelligence sources and methods as claimed, but to prevent their criminal and unconstitutional behavior being spotted by lawmakers or the public (p. 90). GCHQ's internal documents specified "high level political fallout" i.e. debate, as the justification for secrecy, rather than terrorists getting hold of the material (p. 164). Top intelligence officials repeatedly lied and hid details of their work's illegality and unconstitutionality from lawmakers, even while all involved were hidden behind the curtain of state secrecy. The program STELLAR WIND, for example, was kept secret from its own internal watchdog for a year, only to be retroactively approved by the watchdog later. What is exposed by such facts is a cynical mindset. Even behind closed government doors, the NSA was terrified of any debate about its actions. It would spurn any form of oversight by the very government it claimed to serve, as if such oversight were tantamount to enemy espionage.

How can such actions tally with the claim that the NSA's secrecy is a necessary evil to protect against terrorists who might exploit knowledge of its sources and methods? For someone like Dianne Feinstein to support a regime that tries to trick her and keep her ignorant of its own details is a testament to some of the worst levels of willful ignorance or stupidity. Only the NSA has sufficient clearance to know if the Constitution isn't being adhered to, and let the law be damned.

Whether or not we like the US Constitution or think an old piece of paper is worth preserving, forward-looking people should realize that national security is no longer a valid excuse but a cop-out used by politicians. It enables a government to patronize its subjects and avoid being held accountable, without saying anything.

The claim by the high molesters of the British government that they needed to monitor the intimate details of people's lives to fight pedophiles, is comedy (p. 164). Perhaps they should have investigated their own voyeuristic online viewing habits before they investigated others. Their insinuations that the journalists who exposed their traitorous intelligence sharing arrangements with a foreign power (the US) (p. 168-169) don't "love their country" (p. 327) sound utterly sarcastic.

The book is skeptical of Julian Assange, insinuating that he is an agent of Russia and citing that his opponents see him as an "insufferable narcissist" (p. 222). However, exactly the same smearing is used against Snowden, making it difficult to see why Harding decided that these criticisms are valid against Assange but not Snowden.

Harding accuses Assange of spreading Russian "propaganda" via the Kremlin-funded RT network (p. 223-224) and dividing the world for or against him, in the same manner George W. Bush did with his "with us or against us attitude" (p. 224). The blame for dividing the world for or against the US is laid by Harding on Assange's shoulders rather than the US government's, allowing him to ignore the fact that the US government actually issued the polarizing quote he is referring to (p. 222).

Harding will similarly slide from talking about repression in the US to singling out Russia rather than the US as the world's "mafia state" (p. 275) because some of its surveillance programs resemble the US programs. The Americans, who invaded your country, kicked your door in, stripped you naked, made you wear a bag on your head, and left you chained and emaciated until you dropped dead of cold or starvation, are not the "mafia state".

Even if all Harding's incriminating talk of Russia is true - and I honestly don't care for that question - I would submit that it is simply irrelevant to the subject of the book. It has no bearing on the lives of the English-speaking readers Harding intended to reach, since Harding proves that we have our own mafia state to worry about. We can worry about the little "evil empire" of Vladimir Putin after we have dealt with the vast supranational "evil empire" of the United States.
The value judgment that Harding tries so hard to not understand is obvious. The American government is more retrograde and ready for the chop than any other regime in the world, including the Russians. Snowden knew this, Assange understands it well, and the rest of us on the blogosphere are closer to grasping it than the "informed" Luke Harding and his fellow respected journalists.

Harry J. Bentham


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