Bert Olivier honours the courage of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and argues for the importance of the democratic right to freedom from government surveillance.
It happens too seldom that credit is given to those few brave souls among us who – at great risk to themselves – speak out on behalf of the vast majority of people in the world who (misguidedly) believe that all is well in their democracies. There are probably too many such people among us for anyone – like myself – to know all their identities, but two of them are Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, on both of whom I have written before.
As most informed people are probably aware, these two individuals were persecuted – and one of them, Assange, eventually apprehended and imprisoned – for revealing a trove of information on covert government activities involving citizens, which, arguably, it was in the public’s interest to be informed about. But far from being universally hailed as heroes for risking their freedom (and their lives) for the sake of exposing state practices that make a mockery of the values of democracy (specifically privacy), the vast majority of people seem to have fallen for the lie, that these people were the ‘enemies of the state’, and deserve incarceration (if not worse). Most of the initially available details surrounding their persecution are available in the three pieces linked above, in the context of philosophical arguments concerning the limitations and paradoxes of much-vaunted democratic freedoms, on the one hand, and the extent to which Jean-Francois Lyotard’s assessment (in 1979) of the growing links between information and power has been actualised.
Here I want to focus on Snowden, who is now a Russian citizen, specifically in relation to the 2014 documentary film (CITIZENFOUR), directed by Laura Poitras, that focuses chiefly on the interviews Snowden gave to two journalists in Hong Kong after his initial flight from the NSA. (I recall reading somewhere about Snowden’s remark that, had he not made use of the encrypted messaging application, Signal, he would never have been able to outsmart the agents who were after him.)
Anyone who would like to gain an understanding of the reasons for Snowden risking his freedom, if not his life, by making highly classified documents public, via the two journalists who conducted the interviews, and doing so in his own name, should view the film linked above. Apart from anything else, the extraordinary courage of this young man comes across in these interviews, where he makes it clear that he believes the public should know the full extent to which their private communications are recorded and archived – for possible use against them – by agencies such as the NSA in America.
Dr Joseph Mercola has published an article in which he urges people to view the movie because, although it came out in 2014, its relevance has only increased since then, given that surveillance has become even more intense and penetrating since the advent of the so-called ‘pandemic’. He draws attention to several things that emerge in the film, reminding readers that its title derives from the encrypted email that Poitras received from someone calling himself ‘Citizen Four’ in January 2013 (a codename Snowden apparently assumed in acknowledgement of three NSA whistleblowers who preceded him, namely Thomas Drake, Bill Binney and J. Kirk Wiebe).
It makes sense that Snowden decided to contact Poitras, in particular, given that she had been working on a film focusing on government surveillance programmes, which he – as an agent tasked with monitoring such activities by citizens – was in an ideal position to know. After all, in view of her actions as a film director – she had also made a 2006 film about Iraqi people during the US occupation of their country – her name had already been added to a secret ‘watch list’, and he would have known this.
Mercola quotes from Snowden’s first email message to Poitras, which was a calculated risk on Snowden’s part:
“Laura. At this stage, I can offer nothing more than my word. I’m a senior government employee in the intelligence community. I hope you understand that contacting you is extremely high risk and you’re willing to agree to the following precautions before I share more. This will not be a waste of your time …
The surveillance you’ve experienced means you’ve been ‘selected’ — a term which will mean more to you as you learn about how the modern SIGINT system works.
For now, know that every border you cross, every purchase you make, every call you dial, every cell phone tower you pass, friend you keep, article you write, site you visit, subject line you type, and packet your route, is in the hands of a system whose reach is unlimited, but whose safeguards are not.
Your victimization by the NSA system means that you’re well aware of the threat that unrestricted secret police pose for democracies. This is a story few but you can tell.”
Needless to say, Poitras was interested, and in June 2013 she and two reporters – Glenn Greenwald and Ewan MacAskill – met Snowden at the Mira Hong Kong hotel, where they conducted interviews with him for four days, all of which she filmed for the documentary. (In Snowden’s book, Permanent Record [Macmillan 2019] an account of this event and its sequels starts on p. 220.) At the end of this process, at his request, Snowden’s identity was revealed. Unsurprisingly, the US government did not waste time to demand that Snowden be extradited, prompting the latter to arrange a meeting with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to apply for refugee status. Needless to say, the application was turned down.
Laura Poitras’s video of Snowden identifying himself as the source of the classified files that had been made public via the work of the journalists involved – filmed in the Mira hotel room, in an impromptu fashion – was posted on the website of the Guardian on 9 June. Of his decision to appear in the glare of publicity he writes as follows in his book (p. 223):
While I’ve never once regretted tugging aside the curtain and revealing my identity, I do wish I had done it with better diction and a better plan in mind for what was next. In truth, I had no plan at all. I hadn’t given much thought to answering the question of what to do once the game was over, mainly because a winning conclusion was always so unlikely. All I’d cared about was getting the facts out into the world: I figured that by putting the documents into the public record, I was essentially putting myself at the public’s mercy. No exit strategy could be the only exit strategy, because any next step I might have premeditated taking would have run the risk of undermining the disclosures.
And after his exposure, anticipating the backlash against himself, he writes (p. 224):
From the moment that Laura’s video of me was posted on the Guardian website on June 9, I was marked. There was a target on my back. I knew that the institutions I’d shamed would not relent until my head was bagged and my limbs were shackled. And until then—and perhaps even after then—they would harass my loved ones and disparage my character, prying into every aspect of my life and career, seeking information (or opportunities for disinformation) with which to smear me. I was familiar enough with how this process went, both from having read classified examples of it within the IC and from having studied the cases of other whistleblowers and leakers.
With the help of many friends, Snowden managed to leave the hotel and eventually Hong Kong, en route to Ecuador, which his research had revealed to be the safest bet when it came to seeking asylum in a country. He and Sarah Harrison, a Wikileaks editor and journalist, who had been assisting him voluntarily regarding everything relevant to his attempt at leaving Hong Kong safely – including securing a UN-recognised laissez-passer for safe travel – managed to get on to an Aeroflot flight to Moscow, from where they would fly to Ecuador via Cuba. Snowden’s account of what happened from the time of their departure is captivating (pp. 230-237 in his book). The succinct version is that, when they reached Sheremetyevo international airport in Moscow, they had a Russian security ‘reception committee’ waiting for them, and were informed that they (strictly speaking, he) could not travel further because the US had cancelled Snowden’s passport. In the end they were marooned at the airport for 40 days, until Snowden was granted temporary asylum on 1 August. Since then he has not left Russia, and was eventually joined by the love of his life, Lindsay Mills. They are married and live in Russia.
The point of reconstructing this part of Snowden’s story is to enable readers to get an inkling of him as a human being – an extraordinary one, but one of the species anyway. This comes across irresistibly in his memoir, particularly his insistence that his (excessively daring) actions were not about himself, but about the public learning about the illegal spying the American government was conducting – not merely on their own citizens, but on everyone in the world who had an online presence. That is heroically selfless, to say the least. Add to this that, in his book, he unfailingly acknowledges everyone who, sometimes at great risk to themselves, assisted him in his quest, to escape the minions of an unaccountable US government.
One should never forget the irony, that – like Chelsea Manning before him – he is the one who should be lionised and showered with gratitude for revealing to the world what a supposedly democratic government was doing on the sly; instead, he is the persecuted one who, if he had been apprehended by NSA or CIA agents, would probably have spent the rest of his life in prison.
In light of what has happened in the US and elsewhere since 2020, in the guise of surveillance having been exacerbated in virtually every country where lockdowns, ‘contact tracing’ and ‘vaccine mandates’ were implemented, it is significant that (as Dr Mercola reports) in his correspondence with Poitras, Snowden warned her that ‘telecommunication companies in the US are betraying the trust of their customers’. Through the ‘Stellar Wind’ programme – which has a colossal data centre in the Utah desert – all text messages and phone calls, as well as internet searches, purchases and bank transactions were intercepted, and it has since only expanded. Snowden called it ‘…the greatest weapon for oppression in the history of man’.
In the film a crucial aspect of control through surveillance is explicated through the ‘linkability of data’. Even then it was clear to people like Snowden that all the (recorded) data about someone are interlinked, through debit and credit card purchases, for example. And the spatiotemporal coordinates of your movements on a specific day can be reconstructed in this manner, to include information on the people you met, by connecting their corresponding data with yours. Add one’s cellphone data, and there is hardly anything you could hide from the snoopers.
So what, would be the predictable response from many. If you have done nothing illegal, what does it matter? This response would testify to two things – that some (probably most) people don’t know that privacy is a democratic value enshrined in many constitutions – as Sherry Turkle points out in Alone Together (Basic Books, 2011, particularly pp. 262-264) – and secondly, that they care little whether this is ignored by ‘authorities’ or not, even if ‘authorities’ themselves break the law in spying on people without their consent. Regrettably, as governments have become more autocratic since the beginning of the 20th century – remember the Patriot Act in the US after 9/11? – more and more people have adapted to this, and accepted it.
In the film, Greenwald asks Snowden what prompted him to blow the whistle. Here is Snowden’s reply (quoted by Dr Mercola):
“It all comes down to state power against the people’s ability to meaningfully oppose that power. I’m sitting there every day, getting paid to design methods to amplify that state power.
And I’m realizing that if the policy switches that are the only thing that restrain these states were changed, you couldn’t meaningfully oppose [them].
I mean, you would have to be the most incredibly sophisticated tactical actor in existence. I’m not sure there’s anybody, no matter how gifted you are, who could oppose all of the offices and all the bright people, even all the mediocre people out there with all of their tools and all their capabilities.
And as I saw the promise of the Obama administration be betrayed … and in fact, [how they] actually advanced the things that had been promised to be sort of curtailed and reined in and dialed back … As as I saw that, that really hardened me to action …
We all have a stake in this. This is our country, and the balance of power between the citizenry and the government is becoming that of the ruling and the ruled, as opposed to the elected and the electorate.”
The last paragraph, above, reflects the exemplary, democratic stance that Snowden represents, and that very few people in the western world are capable of emulating. Viewing a video where Andrew Bridgen, a well-known British MP (and another very courageous person) makes a speech in parliament about the need to launch an investigation into the so-called ‘vaccines’ in light of growing evidence of their destructive effects on the ‘vaccinated’, and noticing that there are hardly any other members in the chamber to listen to him, speaks volumes about the waning of democratic sentiments, let alone courage, among the people’s ‘representatives’. Most of them have either been bought, or capitulated.
In sum, it is no exaggeration to say that Snowden’s fears have been actualised to the nth degree, and that, unless people start rallying to defend their democratic freedoms, before a massive global power grab (which is already underway) precludes such a rallying once and for all, they might find themselves in a nightmarish social reality that would make the dystopia created by the Nazis’ look like beginners’ stuff. In honour of his courage and the risk he took for our sake (and those taken by others like him), we should stand up to the tyrants who would imprison us in a gaol of total surveillance before they succeed.