The exposures by intelligence whistleblower Edward Snowden of the mass surveillance programs of the U.S. government are evidence, if any was needed, of just how far the United States, the historical beacon of democracy and liberty, has slid down the path of totalitarianism.
Snowden, a former CIA employee and a contract infrastructure analyst at the National Security Agency, disclosed a vast security apparatus that intercepts and collects logs of every telephone call and Internet communication worldwide. He said he leaked the information “to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them.”
The disclosures have sparked a global debate on surveillance and several countries have expressed outrage at the infiltration of their communication networks by U.S. spy agencies. Opinion in the United States is almost evenly split on both the legal basis and the efficacy of the surveillance, which the Obama administration has defended in the interests of national security. The administration asserts, without providing any details, for security reasons, of course, that the global spying has disrupted several terrorist plots. We are asked to take their word for it.
Trouble is, the U.S. government has a lengthy record of lying. Lying about Weapons of Mass Destruction to justify its invasion of Iraq; lying, in fact, about the surveillance program that Snowden disclosed, but which it all along claimed did not exist. We are told that lying is necessary to protect the programs. No doubt.
The arguments advanced by the U.S. government for its civil rights abuses, are parallel to those asserted by autocrats for centuries. As the idealist philosopher William Ernest Hocking observed almost seven decades earlier in 1947: “Every public order, simply because it promotes order, serves freedom to some extent. Men are generally freer under a despotic regime, which establishes firm law than in social chaos. But a public order may easily serve the orderer more than the ordered. Every existing social order, every inherited technique, every historical context with its cumulative wisdom is an instrument of liberty for which individuals will and do pay a great price; but in each case that price may be needlessly great. The choice is not between the heavy burden and chaos. The choice is between this heavy burden and a lighter burden which will serve the same end.”
The extraordinary lengths the U.S. government has gone to in its bid to block Snowden from securing political asylum — including pressuring European governments to revoke flying privileges over their countries to Bolivian President Evo Morales’ plane on the suspicion (wrongly) that Snowden was on board — shows just how much it fears exposure of its spying apparatus. Its concern is no longer Snowden, who has already disclosed much of what he knows, but rather that if he succeeds in evading its arm, other whistleblowers in its security apparatus may feel emboldened to rip open the myriads of other equally odious and extra-constitutional spying programs. Indeed, The New York Times disclosed that the U.S. Postal Service’s Mail Isolation Control and Tracking program photographs and catalogs every envelope, package and postcard shipped through it — 165 billion items annually! Computer security expert Bruce Schneier told The Times it tracks the “names, addresses, return addresses and postmark locations, which gives the government a pretty good map of your contacts, even if they aren’t reading the contents.”
Snowden demonstrated remarkable personal courage by exposing the expansive domestic spying by the U.S. government, writing to one media outlet: “I understand that I will be made to suffer for my actions, and that the return of this information to the public marks my end.”
Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua have publicly announced their willingness to offer Snowden political asylum, but he has to figure out a way to get there, which in light of the relentless U.S. pressures on foreign governments, will be no mean task.
U.S. officials have mocked Snowden for seeking refuge in autocratic regimes, such as China, Russia, Ecuador, etc. More to the point, the very fact that he had to turn to these countries for protection from persecution in the United States for his valiant acts exposing the egregious surveillance of U.S. citizens by its own government, shows just how far the country has drifted from its moorings, post 9/11.