Whistleblowing: Edward Snowden

This was my essay from 2015 regarding Edward Snowden and the idea of Whistleblowing. I wanted to post it here (edited) to talk about heroism and Edward Snowden.

First of all it’s important to discuss what Edward Snowden did before we get into the subject of him being a hero. “Despite dropping out of college and a failed interlude in the army (he broke both legs in a training accident), Snowden’s tech skills eventually got him good defence jobs, first at the CIA, then at the NSA, and finally at a private firm, Booz Allen Hamilton, which serviced the NSA’s computer systems.” After getting his hands on the secret documents of the government, Snowden took a while to meditate on what was truly going on in the world. Soon he realized that the truth that we have been told is completely fictional he decided to act. He contacted Glenn Greenwald, a journalist working at The Guardian, in late 2012, calling himself “Cincinnatus”, after a Roman Farmer, who was appointed to be the ruler of the country to win the attacks against their enemy who returned to being a farmer after the war was over. Cincinnatus has become a symbol of the use of political power in the public interest worth of limiting or even relinquishing individual power for the greatest good. He informed Glenn that he had “sensitive documents”. They made a deal to share documents, and Glenn took all measures told by Snowden to secure their communication, later in the next year. Snowden then contacted Laura Poitras, a documentarian. Snowden started to share documents with them in the beginning of 2013.

What did these documents contain? Proof that the United States government keeps track of everything that’s written into the internet. “Under PRISM, the National Security Agency gathers huge volumes of online communications records by legally compelling U.S. technology companies, including Yahoo and Google, to turn over any data that match court-approved search terms.” National Security Agency says that the only things that they overturn and look at is the possible acts of terrorism or any type of harm. “We do not know exactly how the National Security Agency and GCHQ intercept the data, other than it happens on British territory. But we do know they are intercepting it from inside the Yahoo and Google private clouds, because some of what National Security Agency and GCHQ collect is found nowhere else.” He showed people what MUSCULAR, XKEYSCORE and FASCIA are. MUSCULAR is a program that steals all the data from the major internet companies like Google and Yahoo!. Which means that our emails, our internet searches or anything else have been stored away without anyone in our “common” society knowing about this (before Snowden). XKEYSCORE is much worse, it records nearly everything a user does on the internet. Social media profiles, browsing history, emails and so on. The worst part here is that the employees of National Security Agency use this program to snoop on their loved ones. FASCIA is by far the worst program created, this program records all of our cell phone GPS location data. It has been hidden from the American Public for years, and if not for Snowden we would have never known that we can be tracked with our cellphones without us even knowing about this. Other than us having no privacy on the internet, not even email or our private social medias, the government has the potential to use all this information against us and to create an utterly strict government. Snowden freed all this information to his people, and for telling the truth he was considered evil.

Douglas Rushkoff is a writer, media theorist, columnist, lecturer, graphic novelist, and documentarian. In his special article to CNN Edward Snowden is a Hero, as the title dictates, he discusses Edward Snowden’s incident, explaining why it makes him a real national hero. He starts off by discussing the known case of New York Times v. United States where Daniel Ellsberg disclosed Pentagon Papers to the New York Times, which contained classified information about the Vietnam War. The government tried to limit people from being able to tell the nation the truth, but the court ruled the opposite. People need to know what they need to know, and New York Times v. United States is the beginning of the media. So if Daniel Ellsberg is seen as a national hero, how come Edward Snowden is treated differently? All of U.S. stood by Ellsberg’s side when he was being tried, and as it would be fair and square: he won. So now, roughly 43 years later – how is this so different? Both, Ellsberg and Snowden contacted major newspapers to spread the story, both of them uncovered secret documents and both of them did this for a good cause to let everyone know the truth. “You’d think we would be even more outraged by what he [Snowden] uncovered than we were by the surveillance of Ellsberg. After all, it’s not just one loose cannon being wiretapped here, it’s all of us being monitored.” says Rushkoff. Snowden showed everyone the truth of our government, where what the United States was known for, its “freedom”, is all fake and fiction. How are we free, if every word I type into Google will stay in the database and can be uncovered at any time needed? Edward Snowden calls this “turnkey tyranny”, how a malevolent future government could create an authoritarian state with the flick of a switch. And as we see from what Snowden has shown us, there’s already an easy possibility for that to happen.

What is a traitor of a country in the Snowden case? Someone who gave out secret documents to the enemies of the country. Spencer Ackerman, an American national security reporter and blogger touched on this subject in his article for The Guardian, Edward Snowden Is a Whistleblower, Not a Spy – but Do Our Leaders Care? He discussed the legal part of the idea of Snowden being a traitor, by asking the main question: “Where is the evidence?” Can the government provide the evidence that Snowden gave out the secret documents to, lets say Russia? No. Why? Because he never did, since that wasn’t his intention. “Those documents [National Security Agency documents], however, were provided to the Guardian and the Washington Post, not al-Qaeda or North Korea.” Says Ackerman. Which is completely true, there is no betrayal of the country in spreading the truth to the rest of the nation. Especially when its something as crucial as this. So then if the government calls Snowden a traitor and a spy for telling the world the truth, are journalists also traitors and spies? No, since they are not being tried and caught after every new article they write. It’s legal, it’s constitutional and it’s fair for people to know the truth. The actual charges being brought against Snowden are theft of government property, unauthorized communication of national defence information, and willful communication of classified intelligence information to an unauthorized person, but he was indicted under the Espionage Act. The government has no evidence to prove that Snowden is a spy, because even though he stole from the government – so did Daniel Ellsberg as mentioned before but he was held not held guilty, so how come Snowden is any different? “The information he revealed speaks to some of the most basic questions about the boundaries between the citizen and the state, as well as persistent and real anxieties about terrorist.” So then doesn’t this prove that what he did was heroic? He gave the people the information which they had the right to know. How can anyone call Edward Snowden a spy after what he has done for us?

Ackerman is not the only one who takes on the legal side of this story. John Cassidy, a British-American journalist, who is a staff writer at The New Yorker decided to tackle this issue himself in his article Why Edward Snowden is a Hero. He compares Snowden to Mordechai Vanunu, a former Israeli nuclear technician who, citing his opposition to weapons of mass destruction, revealed details of Israel’s nuclear weapons program to the British press in 1986 and Daniel Ellsberg, the two men who did everything they could so that they could benefit their nation and the whole world as much as it was in their power, “Snowden has brought to light important information that deserved to be in public domain, while doing no lasting harm to the national security of his country…they [the leaks] didn’t reveal anything about the algorithms that the National Security Agency uses, the groups or individuals that the agency targets, or the identities of United States agents. They didn’t contain the contents of any United States military plans, or of any conversations between United States or foreign officials.” So then what is the problem? Aside from the fact that Snowden let people know that the government eavesdrops on their citizens through cell phones and the internet, which the people have the right to know about, Snowden did no real harm to the United States. The United States goes beyond the physical borders of their country and watches their ally or enemy countries, or even the ones they have no relations to. Does the United States have the right to do this? Of course not. And Snowden let people know how sneaky and untrustworthy the government of the United States truly is. Ellsberg himself had something to say about this in Cassidy’s article:: “Snowden did what he did because he recognised the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs for what they are: dangerous, unconstitutional activity. This wholesale invasion of Americans’ and foreign citizens’ privacy does not contribute to our security; it puts in danger the very liberties we’re trying to protect.” So if the Hero himself acknowledges that what Snowden did was completely right and gallant, isn’t that enough for people to stop asking questions and agree that Snowden is a hero?

But people ask the question “why?” why would a 29 year old man risk his personal safety and maybe even life for something like this? Because when he saw what was truly going on in the world he knew he had to take a stand. “He got hardened. In other words, the more information he saw about what he viewed as… mass surveillance, the more disillusioned he became. He says quite explicitly that he thought that (President Barack) Obama would roll back some of these programs when he came into the White House, and when this didn’t happen, essentially Snowden decided he would take things into his own hands, and become a whistleblower.” Says Luke Harding in his critically acclaimed book The Snowden Files. This seems like a good enough reason to start a possible national revolution, doesn’t it? Because when the expected hero, the current president Barack Obama didn’t do what he was expected to do, someone else had to take this into his hands. Was Snowden a little naive? Maybe, but the fact that he was the bravest man of our times is certain. He risked a lifetime in jail because he knew that what the United States was doing was wrong and that people had to learn about this one way or another. Snowden nicknamed this surveillance operation by the National Security Agency the “Panopticon”, after Jeremy Bentham’s all-knowing, all-seeing prison system according to Luke. That’s how bad the surveillance is, Snowden compared it to this hell-like concept of an all-seeing prison, which makes perfect sense. In his book Luke Harding discusses the inner details of Snowden’s story, even though he was never directly a part of it. But in his book he seems to criticize Snowden a little bit, its not very obvious but after reading the book it seemed to me that he was a little disappointed by him. Why? I wouldn’t know. But he always refers to him as someone like a hero, not directly calling him a hero but more of a praising tone could be heard. Does this sound contradicting? After reading the book, it should be obvious what I’m talking about. But since even the author approaches Snowden’s case as a very contradicting one in the beginning and in the end still decides to side on his heroic side – doesn’t this become enough of an example for people to realize what Edward Snowden is a hero! What he did was not expected by anyone, what he revealed was not expected by anyone, but most of all how the world reacted was not expected by anyone, especially Snowden himself. After sacrificing his safety and revealing such crucial information about the world and our safety people even dare to call him a traitor and a spy? People don’t do anything to revolt against the National Security Agency and the rest of the agencies that have to be punished for what they are doing? Where is the constitution, where is the natural law that protects our safety and privacy? If the government breaks the constitution on a worldwide scale why should we be expected to follow it?

But who other than Glenn Greenwald could tell the story the best? In his book No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State he discusses every detail of how and why this all happened. Starting with the first email which Glenn received from “Cincinnati” which he completely ignored, till the last time he spoke with Snowden face to face. Now what is the view on Snowden from the person who was personally a part of the story? He adores him. Completely. Every word that he writes in his novel points to that direction. He praises him, he worships him, he idealizes him. But not by calling him perfect, he’s too good of a writer to make a mistake like that. He shows what really happened, how much struggle Snowden had to go through emotionally to do this much for his country. Greenwald knows the truth, he was one of the first ones to receive it, and he realized how much danger the rest of the world was in. The United States of America was gaining too much power by controlling the internet, something that has become more important to our people, especially the younger generation, than actual social interaction. Because its easier to type the words “I love you” than to actually say them in person. And Snowden tried to save our generation from being controlled like this, he tried to save the whole world and instead what he got was a brief response, most of the people don’t even remember what happened and who Snowden is now. What struck me the most in Greenwald’s novel was when he described the final choice Snowden had to make, if he was truly ready to sacrifice his liberty for such a cause. “Apart from anything else, I [Glenn] wanted to be sure he had made his choice with a genuine and rational understanding of the consequences: I was unwilling to help him take so great of a risk unless I was convinced he was doing so with full autonomy and agency, with a real grasp of his purpose.” Now what is more striking, the fact that a reported who would become famous in moments after this story was published, who would benefit more than anyone else after this all went viral wasn’t willing to help his source or the fact that he started to care for Snowden this much? Both seem to be pretty outstanding. But this proves the fact that what Snowden was ready to do was heroic, if it’s still not convincing enough then his response to this should do the job: “The true measurement of a person’s worth isn’t what they say they believe in, but what they do in defense of those beliefs. If you’re not acting on your beliefs, then they probably aren’t real.” Aside from the fact that Glenn’s writing gives goosebumps to readers, hopefully what was said word for word by Snowden proves the fact that his sacrifice was for nothing more than mere justice for the world. He knew the world had to know what was going on in the world, how much the National Security Agency was messing with the internet and interfering the lives of their citizens, and not just their citizens but into the whole world.

Glenn Greenwald didn’t stop here to show the truth about Edward Snowden. He collaborated with Laura Poitras, his “partner in crime” with Snowden to make a visual storyteller – a movie. Citizenfour, an insider for a different type of an audience. Greenwald and Poitras made sure that everyone had a chance to learn about Snowden, whether they prefer to read or to watch. It was made in a documentary style, which must have been hard to make since there’s so much information that has to be transferred in such a short time. The movie is 114 minutes, and Laura Poitras does a wonderful job telling the story that needs to be told. Citizenfour shows the Obama administration in a pretty bad way, as Snowden explains how the government has violated privacy rights on a massive scale. The movie puts an accusation against the Presidents of the United States, which is a pretty enormous allegation. But what’s the most interesting part in this movie is that it was shot objectively, at least that how I saw it, meaning that there were no extra things added to make the story better or to make Snowden look more like a hero. It is a documentary after all. And since a documentary shows the true character of Snowden, who was in the movie himself, it becomes pretty obvious what Snowden really is. Number one reason for this is that he’s not spreading the story to become more popular and known, he’s doing it because he really knows what people need to know. Second, because he doesn’t take in his hands what isn’t his job – he lets the journalists decide what has to be shown to the world. He asks Greenwald and Poitras to decide what has to be shown in the public. The most touching moment in the movie was when Greenwald and Snowden discuss if Snowden should reveal himself to the world, and in the end they decide they should. Greenwald describes this as “the fearlessness and the f*ck-you”. Now what describes a hero more than the word itself – fearless? He is possessed with an uncanny calm as he is about to become forever targeted. Yet Snowden’s eyes redden and his shoulders stoop when he grasps the burden he is placing on his family and girlfriend. But he doesn’t stop there, he knows that some sacrifices have to be made to make the world know what a horrible place this truly is, how untrustworthy and controlled we in reality are. The movie itself shows a pretty tense and nervous nature, which was in reality true – because how would you feel if you had to sacrifice your freedom forever because the world has to learn more about what is really going on in this world. And what does Snowden get in return? A discussion on whether he is a hero – or a traitor. How is this story any different from the acclaimed heroes like Ellsberg and Vanunu? How did the United States government suffer so much from this exposure that he is being called a traitor? Not that much, and what he needs to be called is a hero – because you can’t call an apple a banana.

Now what do these newspapers, The Guardian and The Washington Post, that took place in this exposure need for their work? A prize. And do they get it? Yes they do. These two newspapers receive Pulitzer Prizes, The Pulitzer Prize is an award for achievements in newspaper and online journalism, literature, and musical composition in the United States. They received it because it shows real information that the world needs to know, real exposure to the truth and who did this? These two newspapers? Of course not, who truly did this, and who truly sacrificed more than anyone ever did was Snowden. And does he receive a prize for his wonderful job? No, because apparently telling the world the truth is not a good enough reason for people to appreciate it. They need a new music video or a new “sick album” that has to be “dropped” for them to appreciate it. People lost the understanding of what’s truly important.

***

Citations:

Clairmont, Nicolas. “8 Indisputable Reasons to Support Edward Snowden (And Many Disputable Ones Not To) | Big Think.” Big Think. Big Think, 4 Jan. 2014. Web. 21 Apr. 2015. .

Gellman, Barton. “NSA Infiltrates Links to Yahoo, Google Data Centers Worldwide, Snowden Documents Say.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 30 Oct. 2013. Web. 21 Apr. 2015.

Gellman, Barton. “How We Know the NSA Had Access to Internal Google and Yahoo Cloud Data.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 13 Nov. 2013. Web. 21 Apr. 2015.

Maass, Peter. “How Laura Poitras Helped Snowden Spill His Secrets.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 17 Aug. 2013. Web. 21 Apr. 2015

Harding, Luke. The Snowden Files: The inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man. London: Bloomsburry, 2014. Print.

Greenwald, Glenn. No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State. New York: Metropolitan, 2014. Print.

Rushkoff, Douglas. “Opinion: Edward Snowden Is a Hero – CNN.com.” CNN. Cable News Network, 10 June 2013. Web. 21 Apr. 2015. .

New York Times Co. v. United States, 403 U.S. 713 (1971)

Paglen, Trevor. “Turnkey Tyranny: Surveillance and the Terror State.” Creative Time Reports. 25 June 2013. Web. 21 Apr. 2015.

Ackerman, Spencer. “Edward Snowden Is a Whistleblower, Not a Spy – but Do Our Leaders Care?” The Guardian. The Guardian, 15 July 2013. Web. 21 Apr. 2015. .

Cassidy, John. “Why Edward Snowden Is a Hero – The New Yorker.” The New Yorker. The New Yorker, 10 June 2013. Web. 21 Apr. 2015. .

Mordechai Vanunu.” The Guardian. The Guardian, 17 Apr. 2009. Web. 24 Apr. 2015

Harding, Luke. The Snowden Files: The inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man. London: Bloomsburry, 2014. Print.

Greenwald, Glenn. No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State. New York: Metropolitan, 2014. Print.

CitizenFour. Perf. Edward Snowden. Praxis Films, 2014. Film.

Shedlock, Mike. “Mish’s Global Economic Trend Analysis: Snowden Film “Citizen Four” Reveals How He Did It; Second Leaker Involved; Files on 1.2 Million People; Snowden Vindicated.” Mish’s Global Economic Trend Analysis. Global Trend Analysis. Web. 24 Apr. 2015.

“What’s New.” The Pulitzer Prizes. Web. 24 Apr. 2015.

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