When Edward Snowden gave up a lucrative career in an island paradise to blow the whistle about the US government's staggeringly broad spying operations – revealing what thousands of others with access to the same information wouldn't – he was going up against a system that values loyalty to those who sign your paychecks over loyalty to principle or the public. A columnist for The New York Times, which is very much a part of that system, denounced him in terms one would think would be reserved for our leaders, declaring that Snowden had “betrayed the Constitution” and “the privacy of us all” by leaking evidence of the Obama administration doing just that.
Snowden need not be the world's greatest human being for us to recognize the courage it took to do what he did. When compliance with a system makes one an accomplice to wrongdoing, there's no virtue in being compliant. There's no virtue in abiding by the “honor codes of all those who enabled [one] to rise,” as the Times columnist put it, when that code doesn't respect the rights of everyone else. We recognize that when we go to the movies. Maybe we should stop condemning it in real life?
Instead of getting caught up in media attempts to pathologize a whistle-blower, we should also probably look more closely at what the whistle was blown on, because what Snowden revealed should be concerning, even if you don't have relatives in Yemen.
According to leaked classified documents, the US National Security Agency (NSA) is collecting data on nearly every call made by nearly every American, from the time it was placed, who was called and from where it originated. The NSA also has relationships with nearly every major Internet company, from Facebook to Google, granting the agency streamlined access to your user history. Everything you email or post to your wall could end up on an NSA server somewhere. That's a lot of data, which is why the agency is building a 1.5 million square feet server farm in Utah to hold it, at a cost of $1.2 billion.
The Obama administration claims the information it belatedly admits it collects is only later accessed with a court order. But then, those court orders are classified, granted by judges in a secret court in front of which only the government can appear. Meanwhile, the White House has refused to release its legal rationale for the spying program, which senators from the president's own party suggest is both illegal and unnecessary. It has, however, publicly credited the program with breaking up terrorist plots, though those claims – like its earlier denials that the spying program existed – have proven false.
But while it's intrusive, sure, if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear, right? Well, no. Even if you don't have grandparents in Yemen, you should be concerned about any agency – that is, a collection of fallible human beings – that claims the right and has the power to know pretty much everything you've ever done on your iPhone. Go ahead and assume the best motives on the part of those in power, just don't forget that even the most honorable people have ex-lovers too. Even saints can be seduced by power.
Most spooks aren't saints, either. They're like us: fallen. And what would you do if you were invisible? For some NSA employees, listening to your phone calls is the equivalent of sneaking into the locker room, several of them telling ABC News that the agency routinely eavesdrops on the phone calls of Americans abroad as they call friends and family back home.
“Hey, check this out,” the agents would tell each other, according to one whistle-blower. "There's good phone sex or there's some pillow talk, pull up this call, it's really funny, go check it out.” Not exactly the model of professionalism one would hope for in someone who has god-like eavesdropping powers.
"These were just really everyday, average, ordinary Americans who happened to be in the Middle East, in our area of intercept and happened to be making these phone calls on satellite phones," said another military whistleblower. Journalists and aid workers had their communications intercepted on a regular basis.
That was a decade ago.
It's Gotten Worse
These days, the NSA is now known to be intercepting a much broader range of communication. Revelations to The Guardian show it claims the ability to tap into not just email communication, but live Skype calls. Basically everything you do on the Internet could potentially be viewed by a US government agent. There's no need for black helicopters when you voluntarily divulge your life secrets with the help of a black box made by Sony. Or a white one by Apple.
You should be especially concerned if you have opinions about things going on in our world. When a group of Pennsylvanians began working to stop a natural gas fracking project in their community, they found themselves listed on a state Department of Homeland Security bulletin. “We want to continue providing this support to the Marcellus Shale Formation natural gas stakeholders while not feeding those groups fomenting dissent against those same companies,” the Secretary of Homeland Security, a Democrat, stated in an email.
If you oppose corporate America's destruction of your community, you could end up being lumped in with actual terrorist threats. And once the word “terrorism” is invoked, all bets are off, potentially leading to a government agent, working on behalf of their corporate stakeholders, going through every ill-considered email you ever sent.
Sometimes, simply stating one's political beliefs is enough to grab the state's attention. In Seattle, the NSA's partners in surveillance at the FBI tracked a group of young anarchists to a May Day demonstration, not because they were wanted for any crimes, but because they called themselves anarchists.
“Although many anarchists are law-abiding,” an FBI agent explained, “there is a history in the Pacific Northwest of some anarchists participating in property destruction and other criminal activity in support of their political philosophy.” And so we track them. And with the surveillance capabilities we have today, it's not hard to make even the most innocent acts seem sinister, particularly when one has unpopular political beliefs or presents a challenge to corporate or state power.
It Could Be You
Combined with expansive terrorism laws, that could be a nightmare for those who fall in the arbitrary crosshairs of a government prosecutor looking to make a name for themselves. In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that humanitarian groups can be convicted of “material support” for terrorism even if that support consists solely of helping seek conflict resolution. As former president Jimmy Carter said at the time, “the vague language of the law leaves us wondering if we will be prosecuted for our work to promote peace and freedom.”
Others don't have to wonder. Since 2010, antiwar activists across the country have been subpoened and forced to testify before grand juries into a “material support” for terrorism investigation that has succeeded in scaring those who do humanitarian work in Palestine and Colombia, but as of yet yielded no convictions. Perhaps our broad spying and terrorism laws are working, just not in the way our leaders tell us. And, as these activists can attest: you don't need to be convicted of anything to be constantly spied on.
As another NSA whistle-blower, William Binney, recently told journalist Amy Goodman, “if you're doing something that irritates or is against what the government wants to be expressed to the American public, then you can become a target.” It's as easy as that. And whenever you call a friend, keep in mind that you're calling every friend your friend has ever called. Are you absolutely sure you have nothing to hide?
In Washington, most politicians seem annoyed that you now know this. They wish you didn't. As Senator Al Franken explained, “Anything that the American people know, the bad guys know so there's a line here, right?”
That's how those in Washington often view those they claim to represent in our representative democracy: lumped in with the bad guys. Indeed, aiding us in our knowledge of what the government is doing in our name, as Bradley Manning and now Edward Snowden have done, is often likened with aiding the enemy.
“I don't look at this as being a whistle-blower,” Senator Dianne Feinstein said of the NSA leaks. “I think it's an act of treason.”
Feinstein voted for a war in Iraq that she and her husband personally profited from, so she knows a thing or two dozen about treachery. But she's off base here. The American public is not the enemy, nor should informing them about the things being done to them with their own money be construed as the act of a traitor. Edward Snowden may not be the world's greatest human being; who reading this has met him? What we do know his act did a lot of good by exposing a lot of wrong and took a lot more courage than it takes to criticize him on Capitol Hill. Since they don't see that very often there, no wonder they mistake it as treason.