Following straight on the heels of the commencement of the Bradley Manning trial, we are now faced with another massive leak incident, which some are saying is the most important leak in US history. Edward Snowden, working as a contractor for the National Security Agency (NSA), lifted the lid last month (June 6) on the United States’ secret electronic surveillance program, nicknamed PRISM.
PRISM, which commenced in 2007, involves secret surveillance of email, voice chat, photos, file transfers, social networking details and other forms of Internet communication involving foreign citizens (although many US citizens are ‘unintentionally’ monitored). Under the Protect America Act of 2007 and the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, electronic communications can be accessed by the NSA for up to one week without requiring a court warrant. Among the companies involved in sharing information are Google, Facebook, Yahoo and Microsoft.
The program was authorised by President George W. Bush and renewed by President Barack Obama. Through implementing the program, the US government has knowingly deceived the American public, who had no idea that such legislation and programs even existed, and therefore were not aware that their privacy was being compromised in this fashion.
The information was first leaked by Snowden to The Guardian and The Washington Post. As might be expected, the NSA and several members of government condemned Snowden’s actions, with words like ‘traitor’ being liberally bandied around. Snowden took refuge in Hong Kong, but after attempts by the US government to extradite him, he flew to Moscow, where the US continues to negotiate his extradition, having revoked his passport.
In recent days, more revelations have emerged in The Guardian and Germany’s Der Spiegel newspaper from leaked information originating from Snowden that alleges the US has been conducting surveillance on its European allies. Its European partners are not pleased to say the least.
The Obama administration has defended the actions of the government in compromising the right to privacy in the interests of national security. In the wake of the leak, President Obama said, “You can’t have 100 percent security and then also have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience. You know, we’re going to have to make some choices as a society.”
Obama is referring here to a trade off, and in his mind, some loss of privacy for the sake of saving lives from terrorist attacks is necessary. He may be right. But the thing is, it was not ‘society’ that made this choice – it was government. The problem is that the moment government starts secretly making decisions for the so-called public interest is the day democracy starts slipping into totalitarianism (to the extent that it is not already). That is the first thing that disturbs me about this case.
The second thing that disturbs me is the manner in which the US government has gone about pursuing Edward Snowden, which follows a pattern that we have seen with Julian Assange and Bradley Manning. Obama, it seems, has no time for whistle-blowers. As a former lawyer and politician, Obama seems to have little sympathy for those who break the law, except of course when it is politically expedient for him to turn a blind eye (as he did when he announced that he would not hold the Bush administration accountable for its advocacy of ‘torture’ practices in Guantanamo Bay and abroad).
Obama is a man of the law. Spying on citizens and foreign governments is okay, because it is permitted by US law. Leaking classified information of these activities is wrong, because it breaks the law.
However, it is the US government making these laws, and making them in secret in some cases. Also, laws do not in themselves define what is right and wrong in an ethical sense, but simply what is right and wrong in the law-maker’s eyes. For a creature of the Establishment like Obama,who has played by the rules of the Establishment to get to the position he now occupies as President of the United States, one would be a traitor for even suggesting such things.