Edward Snowden, a former contractor to the US Central Intelligence Agency, was trapped in the transit lounge of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, while the United States government strives mightily to get him back in its clutches. Last week it even arranged for the plane flying Bolivian President Eve Morales home from Moscow to be diverted to Vienna and searched, mistakenly believing that Snowden was aboard.
Former US army intelligence analyst Bradley Manning is already in the US government’s clutches. He is on trial for “aiding the enemy” by passing a quarter-million confidential files, mostly on the Afghan and Iraq wars, to the WikiLeaks website.
These two American whistleblowers have much in common. They are both young idealists who had access to the inner workings of the US “security community” and were appalled by what they learned. But there is one big difference between them.
Bradley, the more naive of the two, was shocked by facts more experienced observers take for granted: that governments, including the US government, routinely lie, and armies at war, including the US army, sometimes commit terrible crimes.
Edward Snowden, however, has exposed something that even experienced observers did not take for granted: that the US government has created a massive apparatus for discovering everybody else’s secrets. Under the cover of the “war on terror,” it has been secretly trawling the telecommunications networks of the whole world for information not just on terrorism, but on any other subject that affects its interests.
Never mind the hypocrisy of this. (American secrets are sacred but the United States has the right to know everybody else’s.) It’s the sheer scale and brazen arrogance of the operation that are so stunning. Exhibit A is the PRISM program run by the National Security Agency. It began in 2007 and collects data from all nine major American internet giants ó Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, Google, Skype, etc. and they are not allowed to reveal the fact they are passing the data to the US government.
As you would expect, PRISM didn’t stay focused just on “terrorism” for long. The NSA started spying on foreign governments, including those of America’s allies. “We hack network backbones like huge Internet routers, basically ó that give us access to the communications of hundreds of thousands of computers without having to hack every single one,” Snowden explained in late June.
Americans, on the whole, are untroubled by the NSA’s actions. Almost a million people work in the US security industry, and most of those jobs would disappear if Americans did not believe that “terrorism” is the greatest threat facing their country. So the industry works hard to sell them this fiction, and most of them accept it.
Foreigner governments, by contrast, are angry. The countries targeted by the NSA included not just obvious candidates such as China and Russia, but US allies like France, Italy, Greece, Japan and South Korea.
But foreign protests will not force a shut-down of the PRISM program. At most, it will be renamed and re-hidden. The US government gains major advantages by knowing everybody else’s secrets, and the million people in the “security community” are a huge domestic lobby.
Manning and Snowden have done the world a service by exposing the US government’s illicit actions past and present but Manning’s future is probably life imprisonment, Snowden’s a life in exile (if he’s lucky). No good deed goes unpunished.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.