After the largest leak in NSA history, the unprecedented scale of the PRISM global spying program sparked a global controversy. Whistle-blower Edward Snowden, responsible for the release, has been at the eye of the storm of international attention as he left Hong Kong to find sanctuary.
The tired drumbeat of government rhetoric grew louder, with officials calling Snowden a ‘traitor’ and ‘villain’, while Hong Kong citizens and others around the world rallied in support of him. Apparently the idea that anyone virtually anywhere in the world has a huge unaccountable government constantly spying on them didn’t sit well with a lot of people.
On Friday, the US revealed it had charged Snowden with three felonies, including two under the Espionage Act, the 1917 statute enacted to criminalize dissent against World War I. Despite Obama’s campaign promise of transparency and protection for whistleblowers, Snowden is the seventh person to be indicted under the Espionage Act by Obama’s highly secretive administration.
Two days after the charges were announced, the former NSA contractor left Hong Kong on an Aeroflot flight bound for Moscow. This was reportedly his first stop on the way to South America. With help from WikiLeaks’ legal team, Snowden had applied for asylum in Ecuador. On Saturday, his passport was revoked by the US, yet he was allowed to exit Hong Kong through lawful channels with a refugee document of passage supplied by the Ecuadoran government.
The Hong Kong Special Autonomous Region (HKSAR) released their response to the US government’s issue of a provisional warrant of arrest for Snowden. The statement claimed that the U.S government didn’t provide the necessary documents, thus the Hong Kong government had no legal basis to interfere with the NSA leaker as he was leaving the country. It also included remarks by the Chinese government regarding their concern about Snowden’s revelation of the US government hacking of computer systems of major Chinese telecom carriers and a prestigious university in Hong Kong. They requested an explanation of this egregious US government invasion on Chinese civilian infrastructure. China’s Xinhua news agency called these actions “troubling signs” and said “they demonstrate that the United States, which has long been trying to play innocent as a victim of cyber attacks, has turned out to be the biggest villain in our age.”
The timing of this open challenge to the hegemony of the US government is striking. It comes at a time when the authority and legitimacy of major Western aligned governments are being increasingly challenged by their own people. Even though the news has been suppressed, huge anti-government uprisings are ongoing in a number of countries that are generally allies of the US. In Turkey, police continue to attack peaceful protesters with water cannons and tear gas. In Brazil, a million demonstrators took to the streets as part of a sweeping nationwide movement against government corruption and inequality. In Rome on Saturday about 100,000 people marched to protest crippling austerity and soaring unemployment.
Despite the mainstream media’s reluctance to cover the uprisings, images from the streets are coursing through social media networks and breaking the walls that have insulated the public from the decay and imminent breakdown of the neoliberal empire. The message is clear. From Istanbul to São Paulo, people around the world are questioning the legitimacy of their own governments. The Guardian’s Peter Beaumont argued that the growing global protests is a sign of a loss of faith in the political state. Drawing from the Global Edelman Trust Barometer that measures public confidence in institutions, Beaumount suggested there is a loose inverse relationship between the scale of trust and likelihood of protests. In his article, Beaumount cited author Paul Mason’s take on the trend of global uprisings and contends how these social movements are driven mostly by online networks and a growing recognition of the systemic abuse of power in modern corporate-dominated political systems.
While countries are going through social and political upheaval, Whistleblower Snowden’s saga has drawn international attention and appears to be adding fuel to the growing distrust of the imperial authority exercised by the US government.
There is no doubt that Snowden became the face and symbol of dissent against the NSA’s secret operation, but he also has come to represent the ordinary citizen anywhere in the world that sees this type of system as a blatant abuse of power and has concluded they won’t tolerate it anymore.
The revelation of the global NSA surveillance reminds us that we live in an interconnected world and the global impact of government foreign policies carried out under the hollow guise of national security affects everyone in the world in mostly negative ways.
This leak shed light on an invasion the US government has been carrying out all along in secret. This draconian Stasi-like system effectively has no oversight and violates the 4th amendment by spying on its own citizens with no due process. At a global level, it revealed the true actions behind the façade of hypocritical US rhetoric touting itself as an internet freedom advocate.
After identifying himself as the source behind the leak, Snowden spoke of anticipated risks of his deed:
“You can’t come forward against the world’s most powerful intelligence agencies and be completely free from risk, because they’re such powerful adversaries that no one can meaningfully oppose them. If they want to get you, they’ll get you, in time.” He continued “But at the same time, you have to make a determination about what it is that’s important to you”.
After the US filed espionage charges against Snowden, they canceled his US passport. Michael Ratner, President Emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights and attorney for WikiLeaks, spoke about this aggressive move by the US. He said it has no legal basis as there is no international arrest warrant for him and that it is just meant to intimidate other countries so the US can maintain its dominance in the world:
They’re trying to bully other countries, not only by pulling his passport away so that he can’t travel, but by saying, ‘Send him back to us. Don’t take him in. There will be consequences.’ But none of those are legal. They’re all just a big country beating up on small countries …
Snowden’s act of risking his safety to inform the public was courageous. One person’s courage in the face of huge personal sacrifice calls out a courageous response in others. It can awaken ones obligations to ones fellow man. In the wake of the extradition threats against the person who blew the whistle on this operation of the machine, a new alliance is emerging that is committed to principles of justice, freedom, and the public’s right to know.
On Saturday, after marking one year since he sought political asylum in the London Ecuadorian embassy, Julian Assange urged countries to stand up for Snowden and defend his rights:
The effort to find asylum for Edward Snowden must be intensified. What brave country will stand up for him, and recognize his service to humanity? Tell your governments to step forward. Step forward and stand with Snowden.
WikiLeaks has been providing legal and diplomatic advice to Snowden. They directly assisted his exit from Hong Kong and his bid for asylum. Sarah Harrison, a journalist and legal researcher representing the organization, accompanied him in his flight to Moscow.
A statement released on Sunday contained the following message from former Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzon, legal director of Wikileaks:
The WikiLeaks legal team and I are interested in preserving Mr Snowden’s rights and protecting him as a person. What is being done to Mr Snowden and to Mr Julian Assange – for making or facilitating disclosures in the public interest – is an assault against the people.
Upon hearing of Snowden’s departure from Hong Kong and Russia’s defiant offer of safe passage, the US government was dismayed. They warned countries in the West not to allow him to travel further. Washington demanded the Russian government explore all options available to expel Snowden to the US, a suggestion which they rejected.
There is no doubt that pressure from below played a role in the Chinese and Hong Kong city government’s decision not to interfere with Snowden’s departure. Public opinion in China and in Hong Kong was lit up by Snowden’s revelations. Support for the NSA whistleblower has been growing. A White House petition to pardon Snowden has reached the threshold of 100,000 signatures for earning an official reply.
In addition to the outcry of grassroots support for protecting Snowden, other governments have also been willing to stand up to the United States in this matter. Venezuela has indicated that they would consider an asylum request if it was asked for and Ecuador stepped forward to call out Washington on its hypocrisy. On Monday, Ecuador’s foreign minister, Ricardo Patino held a press conference on Snowden’s asylum request. He stated that the right of asylum is recognized by the Ecuadoran constitution and that Ecuador places principles of the Declaration of Universal Human Rights above its own interests. Patiño raised questions regarding the US government’s treatment of whistleblowers like Snowden as traitors:
There is a denunciation of a secret plan of world spying … It affects all the citizens of the world, and it’s violating the rights of all the citizens of the world. Is it betraying all the citizens of the world or betraying the elites in power of a given country? What is the concept of treason? … the question is treason against what, against whom? Do we betray principles, betray the principles of the interests of humanity or do we believe that in one case there is betrayal of the interests of the elites in power of one country?
In responding to the espionage charges against Snowden, Glenn Greenwald emphasized that the leaks released by his source have not harmed anyone or the national security of the US. He argued instead what has been harmed is “the ability of its political leaders to work against their own citizens and citizens around the world in the dark, with zero transparency or real accountability.”
Contrary to the Obama administration’s claim that whistleblowers are traitors, Snowden’s courageous act for the public good supports universal human rights. In the wake of massive surveillance that penetrates the entire world, Snowden’s fight for asylum is symbolic as people are stepping out to become independent from the corporate neoliberal world order that is led by the US government in its foreign and domestic policy.
Snowden remarked that the “truth is coming and it cannot be stopped.” Information and solidarity now crosses borders freely as Snowden himself transcends those same borders to seek his freedom. Around the world, from Bosnia and Bulgaria to Brazil, people are challenging the trend of governance based on illegitimate authority and which has corrupted the duty to the people for corporate payola.
What does this crossing of borders and spreading global unrest reveal? Perhaps it is showing the truth about who we really are. These seemingly separate events are connected at the roots. The pretense of the consent of the governed is wearing thin. The new generation is showing how they are a majority that has till now been silenced. This silenced majority is now standing up against the neoliberal corruption that shuts people out from vital social and political decisions.
In the age of the internet, the whole world is watching as Snowden moves across borders seeking safe haven from US retribution. Over the last years, social media networks have proven that ordinary people can be counted on to bear witness to injustice and come together to act out of conscience.
Snowden expressed his belief in citizen level connection and he put his faith in it. In an interview with the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald, he spoke to the possible criticism of him seeking aid from an ‘enemy’ of the United States:
[is] China…an enemy of the United States? It’s not. I mean, there are conflicts between the United States government and the Chinese PRC government. But the peoples, inherently, you know, we don’t care. We trade with each other freely. You know, we’re not at war. We’re not……armed conflict, and we’re not trying to be. We’re the largest trading partners out there for each other.
The late historian Howard Zinn put it all in perspective:
I wonder how the foreign policies of the United States would look if we wiped out the national boundaries of the world, at least in our minds, and thought of all children everywhere as our own. …
The words of the Declaration [of Independence] apply not only to people in this country, but also to people all over the world. For it to be truly valid, everyone around the world would have the same right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. When any government becomes so destructive to people’s safety and self-determination, then it is patriotic to dissent and to criticize – to do what we always praise and call heroic when we look upon the dissenters and critics in totalitarian countries who dare to speak out.
Liberated from the narrow confinement of passé national interests, people are uniting with common laws of dignity, liberty and basic rights by freely communicating with one another. All this has been triggered by ordinary people like Snowden. Snowden spoke to a South China Morning Post reporter: “I’m neither traitor nor hero. I’m an American.”
What is emerging is a picture of a new kind of citizenship that is not defined by the narrow confines of national interests but is informed by a sense of responsibility for the whole world. People’s awakening to this shared responsibility forms a new court of public opinion and diplomacy powered by grassroots peer-to-peer networks in common concern. Snowden’s act of conscience interrupted the official narrative. It showed that not only can we challenge the most powerful governments on earth, but we must do so when this power becomes irrevocably corrupt.
History is in the making and we are the primary protagonists in the story. Snowden’s story is our own. It is a history of ordinary people uniting to transcend national interests for shared universal human rights. His saga continues within each of us in our quest for a truly just society.