Edward Snowden: Permanent Record
I found some hypocrisy (contradictory standards) in Edward Snowden’s beliefs. On the whole, a good book explaining the background of the person and the rationale behind the actions he took.
Any review involving this author is never going to be completely about the wording of the one book but will also be influenced by what the reader has been told about him already. I think most people will be far from tabula rasa and will already have taken a side (thankful for protecting constitutional rights or indignant that he shamed the US government), so a 1 or 5 star review becomes a vote about whether you approve of his actions, not an evaluation of the text.
Anticipating these preconceptions and entrenched positions, Act I builds an impression that the subject is a loyal average Joe making normally-motivated career choices, someone that could easily have been you in the same position. We see it through his eyes, so have been covertly jostled into the optimum chair for viewing. The character is drawn to convince US citizens that he’s not a villain and had patriotic intentions.
In Act II we reach the classic crisis point where the soul of the hero is tested. A conundrum where, if something is badly wrong (and isn’t an isolated incident but is a deliberate institutional policy), do you keep quiet and hang on to your well-paid job or sacrifice yourself to end it (breaking your oath)? I’d say doing the latter is quite rare because people aren’t brave. ‘Whom do you serve?’, your employer or humanity — in the context that your employer claims to be the guardian of humanity’s interests. Which do you trust? Snowden had seen enough to make that decision, but delayed for a long time.
Act III, in 2013 Edward Snowden released to selected journalists evidence of the US mass surveillance programme, a drag-net to gather the private communications and movements of everyone they could get to in the world. Dear reader, probability suggests they collected your personal data too, which belonged to the data corporations and phone companies (according to US legal precedent) and was their property to hand over. Every call you’ve made, everything you typed into a search box, every password you used belongs to someone else.
Perhaps you would agree to a limited version, if a judge agreed there was enough criminal suspicion to issue a warrant for surveillance on an individual. If so, that’s the Fourth Amendment, already in place. If you can catch the wrongdoers anyway using current laws, why spy on every member of the public as well? That’s greedy. It gives one government the means to threaten the people of the world on an individually tailored basis. It was said about the build-up of people, weapons and munitions preceding WWI that ‘if you have assembled all these assets, it is inconceivable not to use them.’
Whistleblowing about your own country’s intelligence work involves deciding whether back-of-house unveiling does more good than harm to public safety (displeasing the governing corpus is different). Someone gets their safety reduced, not necessarily the person who took decisions. Snowden insisted that journalists applied public safety criteria to publishing. WikiLeaks never took this step, as far as I’m aware, so the US is lucky it was Snowden who leaked and not someone with fewer principles.
The Snowden controversy must be a particularly thorny dilemma for patriotic US citizens. Normally, they would expect to detest someone who undermines presidential/national authority and takes refuge in Russia. In this case, the individual has only done so in order to restore US citizens’ constitutional promise (government of the people, by the people, for the people). Any American setting themselves up against this alleged traitor is un-American because they reject the US Constitution and Bill of Rights. Checkmate.
Edward Snowden on the Joe Rogan podcast sounded eminently reasonable, a public privacy advocate, but on social media apparently contradicted his own philosophy (or displayed a dim understanding of governance in other countries). It seems probable that anyone who has bought this book is comfortable with a fraction of their payment eventually making its way to Edward Snowden, so that selects in favour of a receptive readership (and a few spooks who don’t leave book reviews).
The US government tried to block publication of this book, not because it revealed anything damaging but because they wanted to deny the whistle-blower income. Despite being spiteful, there is a much larger issue here: If Mr Snowden runs out of money and is forced to move back to the US to be prosecuted, the expected 150 year sentence to make an example of him will strongly discourage anyone else from speaking up against any future abuse by authority (action harming the public). Think about it, as no realistic channel was left open by the US government to object to secret mass surveillance policy, the binary choice was to collude with one crime or commit another crime leaking evidence. Internal complaint processes? The management (White House, NSA, CIA) knew of the crime and wanted it to continue. Did Snowden betray the government or did government betray a contract with the people? The ‘Should we be financing Snowden?’ question becomes ‘Do we want to allow anyone to speak up against abuse of power in future?’ If no, we’ll have to live with the consequences.
Whistle-blowers are sources for investigative journalism into closed activities. If no one is resolute enough to become a whistle-blower (to reveal important truths), journalism will descend to the puerile level of celebrity culture. Should we end scrutiny?
Edward Snowden is charged not with a normal crime, but with a ‘strict liability crime’ (a national security provision in which the defendant is not allowed to mention in court most of the aspects of their defence case, e.g. why they did it, what they found out, why they thought it would be in the public interest to say). This type of crime only draws a jury composed of people living within the two mile radius of the CIA headquarters in Virginia… Snowden offered to return to the US to face the justice system if he is allowed to use a public interest defence in court. The US government response was no, that could not happen because it would put the government on trial rather than the defendant. Therefore, a fair hearing is not possible. Would you return on those terms?
Positives? He criticises the US state for secretly breaking the fourth amendment (unconstitutional action by government = illegal), using a topical external threat to approve disproportionate information gathering on all US citizens and foreign nationals. The US intelligence services curated everyone’s emails, texts and Google browser searches as a tool — understanding and leverage. The US made a dossier on YOU — and wouldn’t that be helpful to inform potential blackmail if you won’t serve them?
Edward Snowden argued that governments cannot expect free reign to remove the elected checks and balances that protect the population’s rights, the state breaking foundation-level permanent laws taught in schools to fit their daily policy rather than the other way around. He makes the case that the government acts with permission of the people and should not have the autonomy to fool or disregard that population, treating it as subservient. White hat.
It seems though that his good intentions only apply to the United States of America. Rather strangely, he goes along with authoritarian government, public disenfranchisement and removing checks and balances on power if it happens in Europe. Black hat.
He got permanent residency in Russia, which isn’t known for fair-minded and transparent leadership but at least the government has been elected. Russian citizens who defect, journalists who criticise the state, or the leader of a political party which opposes the President run the risk of being poisoned to death. For Snowden, who irritated the state, to ask a leader (who almost certainly signs-off action to murder irritants) for protection from state retaliation is strange. Entering Russia was only supposed to be a stopover but, for equivalence, he should also condemn his host’s methods. In truth, Snowden said that Alexei Navalny (anti-corruption campaigner) should not have to fear reprisals for speaking the truth (antagonising Vladimir Putin). This quote tested his welcome but was pretty tame.
Edward Snowden subsequently chose to request political asylum in the European Union, which is another very incongruous move because the governance of the European Union abjectly fails Snowden’s tests of democratic accountability and, in my country, even legitimacy (the population were strongly against joining, 68% opposed signing the Maastricht Treaty in polling, so this authoritarian shit was imposed on us without consent).
Why does the EU not satisfy public accountability tests? The EU’s government (the European Commission) has no elected members at all and its laws (directives) over-rule all national governments, passing straight into law. No one elected to the European Parliament is in the Government of the EU. It is democratically illegitimate for an unelected individual to make any law they like and put it directly into force over half a billion people and their national governments (directives are never debated in parliaments). No legal or democratic mechanism exists to remove Commissioners (EU government ministers) if they abuse power. There are no checks and balances on law making, if they use directives and there is no public representation in government or appointments. The President of the EU was convicted of fraud and then given the job without election — and that’s fine because there’s no rule that members of the EU government cannot also be convicted criminals. It looks to me like Snowden is running from the US system to a much worse system. If he wants government to be accountable to the people, he should avoid the EU.
Edward Snowden annoyed me when he tweeted his opposition the UK’s referendum decision to become a free country and a democracy in 2016 “#Brexit polls demonstrate how quickly half of any population can be convinced to vote against itself.” What he doesn’t know is that nothing had changed here, a majority of population has always rejected EU membership, since 1992 when a new unelected government was forced on us without asking. Snowden feeding anti-democracy propaganda and unwelcome conquest is quite annoying, when we thought he stood for protecting the people from these sort of sweeping power abuses.
Edward Snowden is globally consistent on privacy, chairs a committee on the subject, but his EU position suggests freedom and democracy are mistakes and imposed authoritarian rule without checks and balances is fine — as long as it happens to people outside America. These are not very liberal things to believe, especially when you have set out your stall as a protector of the private citizen’s defences against abuses of authority. Couldn’t he find a protector which shares his principles, instead of knocking on the doors of two authoritarian bugbears?
It’s important that governments should serve and be answerable to their populations — ‘people first’ is fair guidance. Governments should not break established boundaries without good reason and open consultation, an action worsened when they disguise it. The statute book should be transparent, scrutinised and pass a test of elected representative approval. Exceptional laws in a crisis can be time-limited, if passed at all. It is important that ruling mandates are renewed regularly and that government officers can be removed by a defined lawful process if they abuse power. Unwelcome power grabs, conquest, abusive authoritarianism, disregard for public opinion and denying voting rights are all uncivilised and wrong. — Except when the EU does these things, in which case they could have the Edward Snowden seal of approval. That’s perversely contrarian to his self-portrayal as a defender of liberal rights and I sincerely hope this impression is wrong. He should be a thorn in their side.
When US citizens speak of Edward Snowden as heroic, having sacrificed his future to alert people to an abuse of power (mass surveillance without reasonable suspicion or a warrant), I do understand what they mean and think he must have had enormous fortitude and be a very principled person to have gone through with this. However, outside of the United States, he should not smartly change sides and tacitly support removing democracy and allowing a government with no mandate to do anything they like. In the US, they had to erase the constitution to do this. In Russia or in the EU, they can do the same thing or worse to us without needing to break any law. The EU can write a dictat saying it’s allowed, which can’t be opposed. This is Snowden’s tragedy, that he doesn’t understand it’s all part of the same thing, a desire by authority in more than one place to stop the population interfering in the ruling group’s expansion toward excessive control.
Edward Snowden is a guardian of public privacy and the US Constitution. The action he took was in the public interest, globally. He acted to restore safeguards on power. Afterwards, he’s been compromised by needing external forces to shelter him and it looks like his ethical standards are flexible. His new allies are more flawed than the US and conversely need Edward Snowden’s approval to shore-up their image.
If Edward Snowden decries public disenfranchisement in one state and then supports imposing it in another, I lose respect for him. If I have misinterpreted what he stands for outside US borders, I expect he has internet access and can say something to explain which side he is on (public vs. unaccountable government) in the comments below. If he endorses unaccountable and unelected government for Europe, then what can I say?
Buy the book, consider the information, form an opinion and voice it. The best way to find out if you live in a free country is to test what you are allowed to say about power. Edward Snowden can hardly be blamed for that.