When NBC aired its interview between Brain Williams and Edward Snowden on May 28, 2014, I happened to be reading Glenn Greenwald’s new book “Nowhere to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the U.S. Surveillance State,” which chronicles how Snowden first contacted him and filmmaker Laura Poitras, and the subsequent interactions that led to many of Snowden’s revelations. These were first published by Greenwald through The Guardian, a British paper that was recently awarded a Pulitzer Prize for their Snowden work (you could ask why no American newspaper was given access to Snowden’s material; although one article appeared in the Washington Post by Barton Gellman on the Prism surveillance program, Snowden did not trust the New York Times and was very wary of American newspapers in general—which is a sad state of affairs for American journalism). As I sat down to watch the Williams-Snowden interview, I was primed from my reading of the first few chapters of Greenwald’s book wherein he arms the reader to the fact that Snowden is a highly focused, articulate and knowledgeable twenty-nine year old, who, in the absence of a high school education, managed to reach the pinnacle of security clearance within the NSA system (at the time he worked for Booz Allen Hamilton, a government contractor) and divulged the largest whistleblowing sensation in our nation’s history, a status bestowed on Snowden by Pentagon Papers’ whistleblower Daniel Ellsburg. During Snowden’s interview with Brian Williams, we witnessed a calm, composed, articulate and self-assured whistleblower who was in Russia because our State Department had rescinded his passport after which Putin had granted him a one year asylum. I came away from the interview thinking Brian Williams was shocked to see how little he could penetrate the Snowden shield: throughout the interview Snowden had the upper hand as if he had been advised by a superb coach, perhaps one named Glenn Greenwald. During the interview Williams showed a film clip of Secretary of State John Kerry, advising Snowden to “man-up” and come back and face his “music.” That “music” would be a trial under the Espionage Act, which means that the defendant is unable to defend the reasons for their actions. In short, such a trial almost guarantees conviction. Many have argued that since the Espionage Act was passed in 1917 (related to WW I) it is flatly unconstitutional, yet several court rulings have upheld the basic law. One time in which a conviction was not obtained when tried under the Espionage Act, was when the government tried Daniel Ellsburg and Anthony Russo and came up empty because Nixon had previously engaged E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy who broke into the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist to find incriminating evidence (why this ploy is only known to the planners). Both Hunt and Liddy had already been convicted of conspiracy, burglary and wiretapping in the Watergate case. When this was revealed in court, the charges against Ellsberg and Russo were dismissed.
From Glenn Greenwald “Prior to Barack Obama’s inauguration, there were a grand total of three prosecutions of leakers under the Espionage Act (including the prosecution of Dan Ellsberg by the Nixon DOJ). That’s because the statute is so broad that even the US government has largely refrained from using it. But during the Obama presidency, there are now seven such prosecutions: more than double the number under all prior US presidents combined. How can anyone justify that?
Greenwald’s book revealed how stunned he himself was when he finally met Edward Snowden, who proved to be serious, well composed, determined and thoroughly organized when they met for the first time in Hong Kong. He was flabbergasted to see how young Snowden was because he expected to meet someone much older and a more seasoned veteran of the surveillance environment, perhaps someone for whom surveillance seemed to be a tiresome issue with no end in sight. Snowden was not only very young but he brought an impressive level of organization to the material that he downloaded from his NSA sources. Snowden’s material was so impressively organized that he must have been thinking and planning his actions for several years. Anyone looking at this material for the first time would have to be completely intimidated: the jargon, obtuse phraseology and terms used by insiders made it impossible for an outsider to comprehend the documents or even make sense of the power point slides which were also part of the Snowden revelations. Anticipating these problems, Snowden provided dictionaries and term definitions that proved to be not only invaluable, but essential and served as a Rosetta stone, necessary to tackle the vast array of material he provided. Still, Greenwald states that he had to read documents several times and consult with more knowledgeable insiders to gain a better understanding of the material that Snowden provided. The Williams interview and reading Greenwald’s book made it clear to me that Snowden is a patriot—he sincerely believes that the NSA surveillance system is not only illegal (NSA is not supposed to be spying on Americans) but if not checked could be destructive to our democracy. The last point, the threat to our tattered democracy should be self-evident for all Americans, yet sadly, in the present climate, it doesn’t seem as if it is a serious threat at all. Too many Americans feel that they have no choice but to go along with such enhanced surveillance, despite the fact that there is no evidence that lives have been saved or terrorist attacks have been thwarted by such sophisticated and massive intrusion into our private lives. I think we are too Twittered and Face Booked out to understand what privacy means and the value it gives to our democracy. After all, Google and Face Book are on record for advocating the end of privacy and of course both companies have aided the government in pursuing those objectives, something that we would not have known without Snowden’s revelations.
Glenn Greewald’s book is a riveting story of how the scope of the NSA surveillance program came to light and the secrecy with which Snowden planned the leaks, which are still providing new insight into the scope of the NSA surveillance programs, best summarized by NSA’s intention to access all forms of communication, including emails, social media, phone calls and the metadata that relates to their expansive mission. To make sure that the NSA can “take it all in,” they have even devised a way of monitoring phone calls from travelers, who make them from jet passenger planes in flight, thus conquering the last hurdle for accessing everything. The NSA has also developed methods of breaking email encryption codes so they can be read directly, leaving virtually nothing that can’t be harvested through their surveillance techniques. While the principal focus of this surveillance activity is claimed to be directed towards terrorism, there is no doubt that the scope of this surveillance program includes industrial and diplomatic spying which I have commented on previously. Indeed, it seems likely that the program is defended by the government on the theory that we are being protected from terrorist attacks, but in reality the commercial espionage and diplomatic spying may prove to be the real reason for which this massive surveillance system was put in place. And although Snowden’s revelations have had an impact on some minor fine-tuning of the surveillance system, Obama has insisted that the system can be changed, but only if the changes don’t compromise nation’s abilities to combat terrorism, meaning only small perfunctory changes will be permitted.
Snowden is innocent of charges that have stemmed from the Espionage Act. What he did was expose surveillance activity that is unconstitutional, invades our privacy, as it threatens our Democracy; at least one Federal judge has already characterized the surveillance system now in place using those exact words: unconstitutional. One of my favorite bloggers is William Blum. He has an recent article on Snowden which is worthy of a read.
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