Identifying the ‘good guys’ and the ‘bad guys’ used to be a function of political alignment with the left or right back in the days of, oh, about a month or two ago. Then the leaks and scandals that had been building out of sight for months and years seemed to suddenly erupt. Practically all at once. Skipping past Benghazi, the IRS, the Justice Department and the initial NSA revelations, we’re now at a point where Edward Snowden and Julian Assange and Bradley Manning are being talked about in the same sentence with an odd sense of disorientation.
What the heck has happened in America lately?
That’s too difficult and tricky to answer, and it requires defining ‘lately’ and maybe even ‘happened’ and it’s not confined just to America, after all.
So, to reset. Bradley Manning was in the US military and smuggled secret national security documents to Julian Assange who posted them on WikiLeaks and has been holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London for about a year, because public revelation of classified documents compromising national security is criminal.
Now, National Security Agency program details have been leaked by a contractor who believed they posed an abuse of power and a hazard to citizens’ privacy rights, and he has willingly identified himself through international media, accepted the consequences, and – though that action is illegal and therefore criminal – he is considered a hero by many people but a traitor by others. And this time, the lines have blurred, and both camps contain Democrats and Republicans, the left and the right, conservatives and liberals.
Edward Snowden revealed himself and what he did and why on Sunday, in an interview with the Guardian and exchanges with the Washington Post.
In an interview Sunday, Snowden said he is willing to face the consequences of exposure.
“I’m not going to hide,” Snowden told The Post from Hong Kong, where he has been staying. “Allowing the U.S. government to intimidate its people with threats of retaliation for revealing wrongdoing is contrary to the public interest.”
Asked whether he believes that his disclosures will change anything, he said: “I think they already have. Everyone everywhere now understands how bad things have gotten — and they’re talking about it. They have the power to decide for themselves whether they are willing to sacrifice their privacy to the surveillance state.”
At the same time many Americans were hailing him as a hero for standing up to a tyrant state power, Julian Assange joined them, in an odd day of reactions.
The WikiLeaks founder said the question of surveillance abuses by states and tech companies was “something that I and many other journalists and civil libertarians have been campaigning about for a long time. It is very pleasing to see such clear and concrete proof presented to the public.”
Assange told Sky News that Snowden was “in a very, very serious position, because we can see the kind of rhetoric that occurred against me and Bradley Manning back in 2010, 2011, applied to Snowden”.
Following the Cablegate exposures in 2010 there were calls from some US politicians for Assange to be tried for treason and even assassinated. Manning, who has admitted leaking classified US military secrets to WikiLeaks, is on trial facing 21 charges, including “aiding the enemy”.
Now, news talk shows are filled with analyses of what damage has been done, and what abuses exposed by all this. Like the existence of the Prism program and the facility in Utah to house all the data collection and storage. Der Spiegel says it has “implications for the world.”
South of Utah’s Great Salt Lake, the National Security Agency (NSA), a United States foreign intelligence service, keeps watch over one of its most expensive secrets. Here, on 100,000 square meters (1,100,000 square feet) near the US military’s Camp Williams, the NSA is constructing enormous buildings to house superfast computers. All together, the project will cost around $2 billion (€1.5 billion) and the computers will be capable of storing a gigantic volume of data, at least 5 billion gigabytes. The energy needed to power the cooling system for the servers alone will cost $40 million a year.
Former NSA employees Thomas Drake and Bill Binney told SPIEGEL in March that the facility would soon store personal data on people from all over the world and keep it for decades. This includes emails, Skype conversations, Google searches, YouTube videos, Facebook posts, bank transfers — electronic data of every kind.
(They told Spiegel this in March. This is June. Was there follow up? Anybody ask any questions? This may have just erupted, but clearly people knew a lot before now.)
“They have everything about you in Utah,” Drake says. “Who decides whether they look at that data? Who decides what they do with it?” Binney, a mathematician who was previously an influential analyst at the NSA, calculates that the servers are large enough to store the entirety of humanity’s electronic communications for the next 100 years — and that, of course, gives his former colleagues plenty of opportunity to read along and listen in.
This is only beginning to break open across the media. And they’ve grown sadly and notoriously slow to do their job of investigative journalism and asking the right questions and reporting details accurately and without bias.
It’s interesting to see the hand-wringing consternation over what Snowden did and whether he’s a hero or traitor (a question which has already become cliche by Monday). More will come out, investigations will follow.
But for now, the good I take from this is that people are wrestling with the difference between right and wrong, and ends justifying means, and human rights deprived, and the abuse of power and authority and the rule of law. Those questions transcend politics. And ultimately pre-date the State. The sooner we work this out the better.