by Ayesha Alam (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 42, No. 7, Shawwal, 1434)
The US military-industrial complex’s pursuit of Edward Snowden, the National Security-contractor turned whistleblower, has exposed the hollowness of US claims to being a society governed by the rule of law. Surveillance and espionage even at home are what America is all about.
The Edward Snowden saga is suggestive of Hollywood espionage thrillers such as the blockbuster Bourne Identity series. That is, man outwitting political machine with its vast espionage and surveillance tentacles, racing one-step ahead of its agents of retribution. Perhaps this is intended — part of the media’s politics of misdirection is to vamp up the cult of personality and shift attention from the main issue at hand. But the magnitude of his leak cannot be mitigated — Snowden spills secrets of the very architecture of the National Security State.
Glen Greenwald, The Guardian journalist, through whom Snowden has been delivering the leaks, reflected on the magnitude noting that Edward Snowden has enough information to damage the US, more than “anyone else has ever had in history.” Snowden revealed the collusion of major tech and telecommunications companies with the Nation Security State, how secret FISA court orders order them to deliver emails, calls, search histories, and personal information of their clients to the government. The list of companies participating in the program outlines the global tentacles of the Security State — Microsoft, Apple, Paytalk, AOL, Facebook, YouTube, Skype, and Yahoo.
As Jeff Mackler noted in a July 2 article in Counterpunch, “…a government spy program, code-named Prism allowed corporations like Apple to officially deny that they were the “direct” source that inspected the information or allowed immediate government access to it. They could point out instead that they served as merely a conduit that funneled all such information into Prism.” According to the information leaked by Snowden, the NSA collects phone records on 3 billion private communications per day.
As the military industrial complex is at its very heart, a business, it appears that secret court orders for surveillance have opened up a multi-million dollar market for internet and telecommunications providers. AT&T, for example, imposes a $325 “activation fee” for each wiretap and $10 a day to maintain it. Smaller carriers Cricket and US Cellular charge only about $250 per wiretap. However, Verizon charges the government $775 for the first month and $500 each month after that, according to industry disclosures. “Terrorism” has become the military-industrial elite’s golden goose, where US taxpayers’ dollars are funneled into corporate access to their private communications.
While the spy-drama of Snowden’s dramatic escape has overshadowed the impact of the leaks in recent days, the escape also illustrates the current imperial resistance in a post-9/11 world. China and Russia have been less than cooperative with US global imperial agendas, putting up a shadow front in the halls of Great Power politics. For instance, Snowden fled Hawaii for Hong Kong when The Guardian first leaked information regarding the NSA’s PRISM program. While the US immediately issued an arrest warrant for Snowden on charges of espionage and theft of official state secrets, experts on Chinese affairs relate that China secretly delivered orders to Hong Kong authorities to disregard the United States’ arrest warrant. Snowden then fled to Russia, where he made several applications for asylum to Latin America. When the United States began pressuring Russia for Snowden’s extradition, Putin issued a denial, giving a dramatic press conference where he declared that “Edward Snowden is a free man, and can go anywhere he wants.” While thumbing his nose at the US, Putin’s press conference also served to burnish an image stained with KGB-style human rights abuses.
The Snowden drama is also entangled with US-Latin American relations, where resistance to the US empire has coalesced in leftist governments insisting on Latin America’s regional autonomy free from the ghost of the Monroe Doctrine. When the presidential plane of Bolivia’s Evo Morales was grounded in Vienna on US orders on suspicion that it was carrying Snowden to asylum, Latin America erupted into angry protest against “Yankee arrogance” that persisted in seeing the southern continent as a US backyard. Four Latin American countries came through with offers of asylum for Snowden — Nicaragua, Bolivia, Ecuador (which is sheltering WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in its embassy in London), and Venezuela.
Morales himself summed up the perspective of the millions of Latin Americans cheering for their presidents showing muscle to the US, “The Europeans and Americans think that we are living in the era of empires and colonies,” declared Morales. “They are wrong. We are free people. They think that by intervening in our affairs, staging coups, installing neoliberals or military dictatorships they can suck out our resources. But this is in the past; they can no longer do this.”
Meanwhile, Snowden remains ensconced at Russia’s Sheremetyevo airport, the logistics of a plane flight directly from Russia to Latin America without a transit stop almost an impossible task at the moment (he has since received asylum in Russia). With asylum in Russia, Snowden has appeared to accept Russia’s demand that no further leaks be made that would damage Russia-US bilateral relations. Putin has also reassured the United States that it remains committed to their bilateral relations first and foremost, and that “we have warned Snowden that any activity of his that could damage US-Russian relations is unacceptable for us.”
However, beneath the murmur of diplomatic courtesies, it is possible to observe the dynamics of a Cold War 2.0 proceeding between the US, Russia, and China. Obama’s White House has sharpened its rhetoric against Putin, while drumming up popular opinion at home against Russia. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina has declared that the president should push to move the G-20 meeting out of Russia altogether and that the United States should boycott the Winter Olympic Games set for 2014 in Sochi, Russia. Various political speakers have accused Putin of trying to “poke the United States in the eye.” Jay Carney, the White House Press Secretary, accused Russia of using Snowden as a “propaganda platform” against the US.
Even US-China relations registered a drop in temperature after China helped Snowden evade the grasp of US law enforcement. “It will take some time to repair the damage there,” groused Stephen M. Young, the consul general, who will leave his post soon. “We were frankly disappointed by the way our colleagues here in Hong Kong handled the situation.”
The Snowden affair demonstrates Russian and Chinese ire at the US for its hard ball politics in Eurasia, Africa, the Muslim East, and Eastern Europe, areas where the two newer members to the Great Powers club have been angling for expansion. The US proxy war in Syria (Bashar al-Asad government’s ties with Russia extending back to father Hafez) affected Russia’s plans to expand into the Muslim East and access the markets and energy sources desired by its companies. For China’s part, it views US support for Taiwan and other South China sea territories a direct threat to its hegemony; and has bristled at AFRICOM’s military expeditions in North Africa, Nigeria, Somalia, and the Sudan, designed to halt the expansion of Chinese firms in the resource rich, embattled continent.
The fleeing Snowden has become manna dropping into their laps. Snowden’s documents not only constitute a diplomatic disaster for the US, which has been in emergency mode putting out fires with angered heads of state, they also provide a “blueprint” of the NSA, which considerably compromises the secrecy and integrity of the organization. According to Glen Greenwald, the “literally thousands of documents” taken by Snowden constitute “basically the instruction manual for how the National Security Agency is built.” It is a reasonable guess that these documents lie in the hands of both Chinese and Russian state authorities, a gaping intelligence leak into the inner workings of the US National Security State. Even if Snowden himself is assassinated, the damage has been done — the US’ arch foes have effectively had a good look at its underpants.
It is rather sobering that the place where Snowden perhaps wished to have the greatest impact — that is, the US public — his revelations have gained the least traction. While early polls tilted in his favor (for instance, a Time poll taken on June 13 revealed that 54% of those surveyed in the United States felt he had done the right thing), commentators in Congress and the media are now attempting to fan the flames of public outrage by portraying him as a law breaker. “He took an oath,” exclaimed Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee. The reasoning is, he has humiliated the US and made it vulnerable to its Great Power competitors, and thus he is a traitor (who is now being subtly painted as a Russian agent). The irony, of course, is that the public is being asked to overlook the US government’s constitutional violation against the rights of its people — all funded by the people’s tax dollars. Perhaps this is the science of deconstructing whistleblowing.
Snowden has spoken about the fears that he could be tortured or executed if he returns to the United States, and the fate of his counterpart reflects those fears are material reality. Bradley Manning, the young Army private who is the source of Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks information, has been charged in a US military court with “aiding the enemy,” which essentially brands him with treason. Manning was sentenced to 35 years on August 21, essentially a life time in prison. Snowden’s sensational flight and Manning’s shadowy domestic court case, illustrate the slow strangulation of the constitutional rights at the heart of US democracy. The message sent across the ranks of the US National Security apparatus is a stark one — if you cross the government for a mistaken bond with civil society, you will be taken down.