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Snowden in Wonderland

Analysts even utilised programmes to spy on their spouses, lovers and would-be lovers, which was hard to discourage because ‘you can’t exactly convict someone of abusing a secret system of surveillance if you refuse to admit the existence of the system itself.’ Even Catch-22 never had it so good

KURT JACOBSEN and SAYEED HASAN KHAN | New Delhi |

Patriotism can be a very peculiar thing that only a mind as sublimely subtle ~ and comical ~ as that of Lewis Carroll might be equipped to reason out. Case in point: renowned whistleblower Edward Snowden resides in furtive exile for disclosing to fellow US citizens massive state surveillance crimes committed against them, which they otherwise were not allowed by the indignant perpetrators to discover. A few months ago Snowden also had all royalties to his autobiographical book ‘Permanent Record’ seized because he failed to submit it for clearance to the very agencies whose gross misdeeds he was exposing. All this illogicality is, of course, perfectly understandable if you look at it in just the right way.

If we were state security czars who routinely violated our oaths to the Constitution, we too likely would conceal it in the holy name of national security, which absolves everything. Disregard the facts that Federal Courts in 2016 and again in 2020 ruled that the unbridled surveillance programmes Snowden exposed were illegal and that intelligence leaders deliberately deceived the public. Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, still at large, flatly lied to a Senate Committee in March 2013 when he replied with a denial to the question “Does the NSA collect any kind of data at all on million or hundreds of millions of Americans?” Clapper later pleaded that he misunderstood the question.

So it is worth revisiting Snowden’s book in the aftermath of the court decision to scoop up royalties and speaking fees. At least he got his side of the story out. Unlike the typical post-Cold War spy scandal, Snowden didn’t funnel information to foreign agents nor do it for the bucks and bling. He gave up a six figure salaried sinecure to reveal his bosses’ lawless intrusions into all our lives. Meanwhile, the urbane lawbreakers Snowden exposed go on pocketing their handsome pay and pensions, nursing grudges against spoilsport whistleblowers, and prattling on major news broadcasts.

This son of a US Coast Guard engineer and a Mayflower descendent mother hardly fits the profile of a turncoat. Early on, the geeky teen hacked into the Los Alamos weapons lab site and then alerted the lab to its vulnerability, which required a dismaying amount of persistence. After 9/11 Snowden enlisted in the Army but suffered a disabling injury in training. At age 22 he “didn’t have any” politics, just a web savant’s giddy sense of the internet “as a wild, open new frontier”. The intelligence services, where public and private entities now merged, hired the talented techie just as it transitioned from “targeted surveillance of individuals of mass surveillance of entire populations.” with no limits on state power or corporate connivance. A contractor for the CIA at first , Snowden eventully worked for the National Security Agency where he abetted “the agency’s ultimate dream which is permanency ~ to store all of the files it has ever collected or produced in perpetuity and so create a perfect memory. The permanent record.”

A post-9/11 programme under George W. Bush urged the NSA to collect data without restriction but was outed. The ensuing reforms, Snowden found, were mere ruses to re-enable the programs so that any NSA spook could, “as easily as flicking a switch, instantly track everybody with a phone or computer, know who they are, where they are, what they were doing with whom, and what they had ever done in the past.” The cumulative metadata can be mined to make perfect maps of anyone’s life. Snowden foresaw the rise of a Robocop world where “if you ever get out of line we’ll use your private life against you.” Analysts even utilized programmes to spy on their spouses, lovers and would-be lovers, which was hard to discourage because “you can’t exactly convict someone of abusing a secret system of surveillance if you refuse to admit the existence of the system itself.” Even Catch-22 never had it so good. What Snowden beheld in the next few years was a “cynical attempt to turn terror into a permanent danger that required permanent vigilance enforced by unquestionable authority.”

In this loco “Alice in Wonderland” atmosphere the NSA defended itself against a civil liberties lawsuit on the grounds that no one could not prove the Agency snooped on their clients. The court obligingly only recognized evidence the government permitted, not leaked documents, which were classified and so inadmissible. The intelligence community existed divinely above the law.

GCHQ, the NSA’s British counterpart deployed a program that captured a snapshot every five minutes of everyone chatting on Yahoo. Another US program XKEYSCORE could burglarize computer records and leave no trace. How to rein it all in? Snowden opted against WikiLeaks because it resorted to data dumps, without the careful contextualizing he judged it required. Turning to certain press luminaries, ‘I would be aiding and abetting an act of journalism,” which is indistinguishable these nervewracking days from treason. The US Espionage act forbids any chance of defense since it disregards changes in law caused by Snowden or the beneficial civic effect of public debate following his actions.

Despite the US Fourth amendment protecting against unreasonable searches and seizures, “you surrender your privacy rights in the very act of using modern technologies.” Marooned in Moscow in 2013 after his passport was revoked while he was en route to Ecuador, Snowden now expresses more faith in encrypted smartphones than in legislative safeguards, though he views the 2016 EU General Data Protection Regulation as a step in the right privacy-protecting direction. He awaits an unlikely outbreak of logic and reason.

Though getting a helping hand via Julian Assange at a crucial moment, Snowden disapprovingly referred to Assange’s “feral opposition to central power,” which indicates not even he is totally immune to government smear campaigns.