A photograph taken on July 6, 2013, of a copy of the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court order requiring Verizon to give the NSA information on all landline and mobile calls of Verizon Business in its system. (AP Photo)
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It’s hard even to know how to take it in. I mean, what’s really happening? An employee of a private contractor working for the National Security Agency makes off with unknown numbers of files about America’s developing global security state on a thumb drive and four laptop computers, and jumps the nearest plane to Hong Kong. His goal: to expose a vast surveillance structure built in the shadows in the post-9/11 years and significantly aimed at Americans. He leaks some of the documents to a columnist at the British Guardian and to The Washington Post. The response is unprecedented: an “international manhunt” (or more politely but less accurately, “a diplomatic full court press”) conducted not by Interpol or the United Nations but by the planet’s sole superpower, the very government whose practices the leaker was so intent on exposing.
And that’s just for starters. Let’s add another factor. The leaker, a young man with great techno-savvy, lets the world know that he’s picked and chosen among the NSA files in his possession. He’s releasing only those he thinks the American public needs in order to start a full-scale debate about the unprecedented secret world of surveillance that their taxpayer dollars have created. In other words, this is no “document dump.” He wants to spark change without doing harm.
But here’s the kicker: he couldn’t be more aware of previous whistleblower cases, the punitive reaction of his government to them and the fate that might be his. As a result, we now know, he has encrypted the full set of files in his possession and left them in one or more safe places for unknown individuals—that is, we don’t know who they are—to access, should he be taken by the United States.
In other words, from the time Edward Snowden’s first leaked documents came out, it was obvious that he was in control of how much of the NSA’s secret world would be seen. It would be hard then not to conclude that capturing him, imprisoning him, trying him and throwing away the key is likely to increase, not decrease, the flow of those documents. Knowing that, the Obama administration and the representatives of our secret world went after him anyway—after one man on a global scale and in a way that may not have a precedent. No thought of future embarrassment stopped them, nor, it seems, did they hesitate because of possible resentments engendered by their heavy-handed pressure on numerous foreign governments.
The result has been a global spectacle, as well as a worldwide debate about the spying practices of the United States (and its allies). In these weeks, Washington has proven determined, vengeful, implacable. It has strong-armed, threatened and elbowed powers large and small. It has essentially pledged that the leaker, former Booz Allen employee Edward Snowden, will never be safe on this planet in his lifetime. And yet, to mention the obvious, the greatest power on Earth has, as yet, failed to get its man and is losing the public opinion battle globally.
An Asylum-less World
Highlighted in all this has been a curious fact of our twenty-first-century world. In the Cold War years, asylum was always potentially available. If you opposed one of the two superpowers or its allies, the other was usually ready to open its arms to you, as the United States famously did for what were once called “Soviet dissidents” in great numbers. The Soviets did the same for Americans, Brits and others, often secret communists, sometimes actual spies, who opposed the leading capitalist power and its global order.