Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Harding: The Snowden Files

Less than a year has passed since Edward Snowden passed his sensational material to Glenn Greenwald. In that time the governing establishments of the Five Eyes alliance, particularly the USA and the UK, have been regularly embarrassed by a series of disclosures that reveal how extensive is their scooping up of data from phone calls, email, and other web traffic in a manner that historically we might associate with the KGB or the East German Stasi. Unquestionably these events and their ramifications for our supposedly democratic societies will be raked over for many years and there will be accounts from all quarters, each giving their own spin, of the rights and wrongs of state surveillance.

The first comprehensive such account has just been published. Unsurprisingly the author is a Guardian reporter Luke Harding who has written the very readable book The Snowden Files. Harding has a track record in writing books based on award-winning Guardian exposés (most recently with David Leigh a book about Wikileaks and Julian Assange) and knows how to write a rattling good yarn.  Expect other accounts to come thick and fast very soon. Indeed Greenwald himself will soon be publishing No Place to Hide (maybe this explains why he was critical of the Harding book on the grounds that Harding had not met Snowden). It will be interesting to see the inevitable books that will take a more hostile view towards Snowden but Harding and Greenwald treat him as the hero he is.

Even if you have followed all the Snowden revelations you will value that the whole extraordinary story is collected in one place. But, for me, an interesting section was the description of Snowden's life as an online libertarian geek and the insights this gives into how he came to his decision to become a whistle-blower. A picture emerges of a politically aware and brilliant techno-geek; and his journey from defender of his country's security, through a dawning realisation that the US and the UK were trampling on civil liberties, to a personal compulsion to let the world know what was happening. He knew what he was in for, knew that the safeguards for whistle-blowers were effectively worthless, but nevertheless sacrificed his comfortable existence for the life of a fugitive.

We all know the aftermath. The Guardian and the Washington Post received the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. Yet many senior members of the US/UK establishments have publicly called Snowden a traitor. One of these critics is Senator Dianne Feinstein who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee. She has strenuously defended the NSA's intelligence gathering - although she took a very different view when it emerged that the CIA had been eaves-dropping on her Committee's staffers. Another critic is former Vice-President Dick Cheney and British PM David Cameron has also weighed in. Cameron's House of Commons statement about the forced destruction of Guardian laptops is breath-taking and worth quoting at length:

I think the plain fact is that what has happened has damaged national security, and in many ways the Guardian themselves admitted that when they agreed, when asked politely by my national security adviser and Cabinet Secretary [Sir Jeremy Heywood] to destroy the files they had, they went ahead and destroyed those files.
"Politely asked to destroy the files"! That typifies the eyewash that is spewing from the mouths and pens of our embarrassed politicians. One of the most bizarre aspects of the whole drama has been the schizophrenic reaction of our governors. President Obama has been forced to admit that the NSA's activities have gone beyond their remit and that we know this only because of Edward Snowden; at the same time the US Department of Justice has charged him with treason.

The result has been a meltdown in the way that citizens trust their government. For many years we might have suspected it, for many years we had tantalising hints of it; but now we know for certain that our rulers lie to us on a routine basis. We have to thank Edward Snowden for exposing this once and for all.

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