Edward Snowden and U.S. Mass Surveillance: Who Are the Real Criminals?

June 9, 2014 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us


On May 28 Edward Snowden spoke directly for the first time to a wide audience, in an interview on prime-time network TV. (The interview, which aired on NBC, can be seen online.) It was almost a year ago that Snowden—who had worked for a decade inside the "intelligence community" at the National Security Agency, the CIA, and the Defense Intelligence Agency—came forward to blow the whistle on the massive, illegal, and illegitimate surveillance that the U.S. has been carrying out on the phone and Internet communications of literally billions of people, here and around the globe. (Extensive exposures, based on the secret documents leaked by Snowden, continue to come out, including the new book by journalist Glenn Greenwald, No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State.)

Snowden's revelations shocked the world—and the U.S. government launched a furious attack, accusing Snowden of "betraying his country" and charging him with felonies under the Espionage Act, which could land him in prison for a lifetime. These charges and the cancellation of his passport by the U.S. forced Snowden into exile in Russia—which is where the TV interview took place. In the interview Snowden, in the face of difficult circumstances he currently faces, made clear that he hasn't been shaken from the courageous and determined course of action he took to expose U.S. mass surveillance: "I think the most important idea is to remember that there have been times throughout American history where what is right is not the same as what is legal. Sometimes to do the right thing you have to break a law."

At one point in the interview, NBC interviewer Brian Williams hands Snowden a "burner"—a phone for temporary use to avoid being monitored. Williams says he had Googled the score of a hockey game on the way to Russia, and he asks Snowden, "What can the NSA do with the device and my life?" Snowden replies that the NSA can turn the device on remotely and use it as a microphone and take data off of it—but what the NSA might do with information about the Google search is "also pretty scary." Snowden explains, "They’d be able to tell something called your 'pattern of life.' When are you doing these kind of activities? When do you wake up? When do you go to sleep? What other phones are around when you wake up or go to sleep? Are you with someone who’s not your wife? Are you someplace you shouldn’t be—according to the government, which is arbitrary, you know. Are you engaged in any kind of activities that we disapprove of, even if they aren’t technically illegal? These things can raise your level of scrutiny even if it seems entirely innocent to you, even if you have nothing to hide, even if you’re doing nothing wrong."

Just before the full TV interview aired, John Kerry, Obama's Secretary of State, appeared on multiple news shows to call Snowden a "traitor" and accuse him of making it harder to "protect" the people from terrorists. Kerry and other powerful voices attacking Snowden serve and represent a system that has created and thrives on a planet of slums and sweatshops grinding up countless millions of lives as part of its daily workings... that has brought about vast ecological disasters and threatens global environmental catastrophe... that wages constant wars against any forces that get in their way—and these rulers bring down the hammer of repression and terror against legitimate protest and opposition that endanger their hold on power in any way.

That is why these rulers see the vast majority of people—here in the U.S. and across the world—as potential threats to their power. That is why, even as they talk on and on about democracy and rights, they are driven to build and maintain such a vast network of surveillance. Programs like the bulk collection of the metadata for virtually all phone calls in the U.S. (information about the duration of calls, who the calls were made to, details about the phone used, etc.) are not the result of a "national security state" gone wild or bureaucrats drunk with power. The NSA and other intelligence agencies are a crucial part of their whole state apparatus—the dictatorship of the ruling capitalist-imperialist class.

These rulers order murderous drone attacks on individuals and whole villages thousands of miles from U.S. borders, and imprison their own population at a higher rate than any other country. It's not concern about the "safety" of people in the U.S., much less people in other parts of the world, that is driving these rulers to spy pervasively on a historically unprecedented level. People in the U.S. and around the world became aware of the reality thanks to Snowden's leaks. This was a serious blow to the capitalist-imperialist state. And that is what's behind the accusations by Kerry, Obama, and other ruling class figures that Snowden is a "traitor" and has endangered American "national interests." So when they talk about protecting "national interests," they're talking about the interests of their class—which are not the interests of the great majority of people.

This mass surveillance is not just about monitoring people's thoughts and actions, so that the full repressive force of the state can be brought down quickly—which is horrific in itself. It is also about controlling and constraining people's thinking and activity. To cite one example: In his book, Glenn Greenwald cites a 2013 report from the writers' group PEN America titled Chilling Effects: NSA Surveillance Drives U.S. Writers to Self-Censor, which found that many writers now "assume that their communications are being monitored" and have changed their behavior in ways that "curtail their freedom of expression and restrict the free flow of information."

"Hero or traitor?" As we said shortly after the Snowden revelations first appeared: "By any objective measure, and from the perspective of a morality that values lives and freedom, the facts speak for themselves." ("Five Points of Orientation on the Revelations of Government Surveillance.") After the 9/11 attacks, Snowden volunteered for the U.S. military because, he said, "I believed the government's arguments—that we were going to do good things in Iraq, that we were going to free the oppressed. And I wanted to do my part to help share the national burden, and to help create not just a better America but a better world." But then he, like millions of others, realized that the government had outright lied about the war. And as Snowden rose up in the ranks of the "intelligence community," he became increasingly alarmed by the immorality, illegitimacy, and criminality of the ways in which the U.S. government was intruding into the private lives of billions of people. He decided that it was his responsibility to act on his conscience, fully aware that he was risking a lot and even putting his life on the line.

Exposing great crimes is NOT a crime! All people of conscience must oppose the ominous threats against Snowden, and demand that the unjust charges against him be dropped.

In his attacks on Snowden after the TV interview, Kerry declared that Snowden should act like Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the famous Pentagon Papers some 40 years ago laying bare the government's lies around the Vietnam war, and face trial in the U.S. For Kerry to bring up Ellsberg's name is utterly slimy and insidious. At the time, the government wiretapped Ellsberg's conversations with his defense lawyer and broke into his psychiatrist's office to try to steal damaging information—and it was only when all this came out that the court was compelled to dismiss charges. This hardly shows the possibilities for a "fair trial" for Snowden. And Ellsberg himself has said that Snowden is the most important whistleblower in U.S. history and should be supported.

The extent of U.S. surveillance technology that Snowden's whistleblowing exposed points to the reality that the ruling forces of repression are very powerful—but they aren't all powerful. They ultimately depend on people—and that's a big contradiction for the system. There are people like Snowden, as well as Chelsea Manning and others, who start out believing the lies they are told about America being "the best country in the world"—and then come to see some of the bitter truths about this monstrous system, and are compelled to act to do the right thing, in the face of personal risk and sacrifice.

It's going to take a revolution, nothing less, to defeat and abolish the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie and create a radically new state power that will allow society to be organized in a whole different way—a society that is led and mobilized to end exploitation and oppression around the world, and in that context is not just allowing but promoting a flowering of debate and dissent. In order for this revolution to be real, there must be a profound crisis in society, a revolutionary people in the millions, and a highly organized and disciplined revolutionary vanguard. There IS a movement for revolution, with the Party as its leading core, that is working right now to prepare for the time when the fight to defeat the old power and bring about a new power is possible. Looked at from that strategic perspective, the actions of Edward Snowden and other whistleblowers, and the ripples they send out throughout society, are very significant.

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