- Category: War and Imperialism
- Published on Thursday, 20 June 2013
- Written by Penny Schenk
"Glenn Beck, Michael Moore call Snowden a hero." Say what? It's hard to think of two more polarizing personalities in US media and politics than Beck and Moore; hearing that these two diametrically opposed figures agree on anything is, to put it mildly, disorienting. Yet that's a genuine politico.com headline from last week. While talk in much of the British left is currently of realignment and initiatives like Left Unity and the People's Assembly, across the Atlantic, the actions of Edward Snowden, the 29-year-old Booz Allen Hamilton employee who blew the whistle on the NSA PRISM program and more, could usher in a (one-issue) red-blue consensus of a sort unthinkable in recent years. It also hints at the possibility of popular support for the whistleblower, whose role makes him one of the more significant figures in recent US history.
Who is Edward Snowden? In the days since the story broke, media pundits and politicians have rushed to characterize him, and, as is often the case, there are frequently two competing, simplistic labels on offer: 'patriot' and 'traitor'. The initial work of reporter Glenn Greenwald, who broke the story in the UK's Guardian newspaper, and the accompanying video interview with Snowden, shows a seemingly thoughtful man who, in his position as a contractor working for the NSA, became convinced that what he was being asked to do was illegal and had to be exposed in the public interest -- a classic whistleblower. With astonishing bravery, he then revealed his own identity to the world. Absent hard evidence to the contrary, I take his explanation at face value; he had everything to lose and nothing to gain by what he did. It's a damning indictment of our cynical political culture that people find his stance surprising and even inexplicable.
The reaction to Snowden's revelations has taken some unexpected turns. Figures cited by Greenwald in his June 14 Guardian article show significant public support in the US for Snowden's actions: 54% of those surveyed in a Time magazine poll said they believe that he "did a good thing." And despite some quite nasty attempts to portray Snowden as a pathetic loser, his claims have since been backed up by no less than three former NSA veterans in a USA Today roundtable. They support Snowden's contention that the government has made it impossible to blow the whistle on misdeeds through appropriate channels without being victimized as a direct result. All three of these men had concerns about the NSA's activities, but were unable to instigate a public debate; instead they found themselves being investigated by the US Department of Justice.
Snowden is a libertarian; as a revolutionary socialist, I might wonder what common cause I could have with him. The answer is to be found in the frightening degree to which the foundations of the much-vaunted US democratic system have been utterly compromised of late. Of course I'll have huge disagreements with a libertarian over many things, not least the value and necessity of communal struggle. Snowden is also not averse to nationalist statements – "This country is worth dying for" was one from the Guardian website's live Q & A with Snowden. But where Edward Snowden and I (and possibly others, from different political camps) can agree is here: if the very substrate of our society, our ability to communicate without oppressive government intrusion and to know what the government is doing so we can hold it to account, is lost, to put it crudely: we got nothin'. It's not unlike the multi-layered Internet; the lowest level has been compromised – someone's messing with our packets. Whatever you want to do with the data at a higher level – "Get our new Libertarian app today!" – it is crucially important to all of us that the information upon which we rely as citizens is not manipulated or concealed.
But wait a minute. Wasn't the Internet going to fix things? Technology will help us organize, and give us access to previously unavailable information. When governments violently suppress protest now, isn't 'the whole world watching'? The less rosy reality should have been obvious from the start, from the first giddy news of email and a novel use for the @ symbol; governments control the Internet. It started life as ARPANET at the US Department of Defense. The thought that they'd hesitate to intervene when the Internet is too useful to their opponents is ludicrous. In the name of 'national security' and cynically capitalizing on fear, the US government has been very successful in selling their new Big Brother role to the population.
And what of the role of big business? This is one of the more interesting aspects of the recent controversy, pitting as it does the interests of consumers – silly us, we thought the telcos and internet behemoths were genuinely concerned with our privacy – against overweening government snooping. You'd have to be very optimistic to believe that the customer will ultimately prevail in this battle. Already reporters are connecting the dots, with Greenwald pointing out that Yahoo! went to court in an effort to avoid cooperating with certain government requests for information. Why was this? Why do the PowerPoint slides about PRISM contradict what the companies are saying in their carefully worded public statements on the matter?
What's needed is a united voice rejecting the notion of an undemocratic surveillance state, both within the US and worldwide. This can be a broad church; Gary Younge has noted the recent phenomenon of young, outward looking Americans who are willing to take action, including the anarchist hacker Jeremy Hammond and of course, Bradley Manning, currently on trial. Snowden and future whistleblowers must be supported. We may not like the look of everyone standing on our side; indeed, we may vehemently disagree with some of their views, and should challenge them at every opportunity. But if PRISM and similar programs continue effectively unchallenged, it will be difficult if not impossible to regain what we've lost.