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The Limits of US Power


By trying to crush these young whistleblowers with espionage charges, the U.S. government is taking on a generation, and that is a battle it is going to lose.

— Julian Assange, quoted in New York Times, Jun 23, 2013

There is no mores striking anger than that which comes from impotence.  This is well illustrated by the bullying line being taken by Washington regarding countries granting passage to Edward Snowden as he veers his way to Ecuador.  Cooperate with us, or else.  Precisely – and what of it?

The case of Snowden is becoming a cornucopia of diplomatic ferment and dazzling excitement.  A senior Obama official, as recorded in The Guardian (Jun 22), threatened that, “If Hong Kong doesn’t act soon, it will complicate our bilateral relations and raise questions about Hong Kong’s commitment to the rule of law.”  This is the obscenity of the absurd: When we spy on you through secret mass surveillance, the law is served.  It isn’t if the public is told about it.

Despite the U.S. request formally requesting Hong Kong authorities to proceed with the extradition process, the whistleblower could still get on a commercial flight on Sunday (hardly anything covert about it) and head to Moscow.  It was brazen, but it was still fabulously ordinary for being so open.  This also came as Hong Kong legislators such as the democratic political activist Leung Kwok-hung urged residents to “take to the streets to protect Snowden.” The final call rested with Beijing, and Chinese authorities were in no mood to comply with the U.S. request.

The key in combating any clandestine culture is to treat matters as normal, open and ordinary.  It is the double bluff – to deceive the deceivers by disregarding their worth, their strength, their ploys.  The prosaic nature of a secret world mocks it to death. Then gather allies, mutual interests and antagonisms.  Journalists getting off the plane in Moscow were thrilled to bits at the adventure, showing passengers happy snaps of Snowden.

No sooner had Snowden touched down in Moscow, he disappeared.  He apparently had the Ecuadorean ambassador, Patricio Chávez, in tow.  The suggestions here are that Snowden will be heading for Quito via Havana.  If this takes place without a hitch, it will be a brilliant coup, one orchestrated by those outside standard government channels.  It will also have the finger prints of Julian Assange over it.

WikiLeaks has provided assistance of a logistical kind to Snowden, delivering special documentation enabling him to travel in the absence of his revoked passport.  WikiLeaks British activist Sarah Harrison was also accompanying Snowden in his flight.  “He is bound for the Republic of Ecuador via a safe route for the purposes of asylum, and is being escorted by diplomats and legal advisers from WikiLeaks.”

The statement released from the organisation on Sunday further explained that Snowden had “requested that WikiLeaks use its legal expertise and experience to secure his safety.  Once Mr Snowden arrives in Ecuador his request will be formally processed.”

And what of Washington’s incandescent fury?  A good deal of egg found its way to the faces of its officials when it came to light that the National Security Agency had hacked Chinese mobile phone companies in an effort to access millions of private messages.  Only some days prior, Presidents Barack Obama and Xi Jinping had spoken about the need to cultivate ties of “mutual trust”.

Snowden has not merely been devastating in his revelations; he has been wise in divvying the detailed muck.  Richly deserved mistrust has been sown.  The South China Morning Post (Jun 23) was the grateful recipient of Snowden’s disclosures on that occasion.  The paper’s editorial (Jun 24) went so far as to regard his “choice of Hong Kong to hole up while he revealed who America was spying on and how its surveillance operations were conducted” as “genius”.

There was also more.  NSA’s cyber snooping had involved attacks on the networks of Tsinghua University and computers at the Hong Kong headquarters of Pacnet, owner of one of the most extensive fibre optic submarine cable systems in the region.  Pacnet’s cables amount to 46,000 kilometres in length linking data centres through mainland China, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan. Tag one, and you tag them all.

Little wonder then that Beijing is hardly in any mood to cooperate on this score, nor was Hong Kong.  The latter authorities contended that the U.S. arrest warrant was defective at law.  Restraining Snowden, to throw the comment back at the Obama administration, would have been contrary to law.  State media went so far as to label Washington the “villain” of the peace.

Over the weekend, from the detained abode he is residing in London, Assange called for a global effort to assist the likes of Snowden. He is the near perfect genotype of exposure and revelation, indispensable to combating the cocksure goons of secrecy who perforate privacy and undermine personal dignity.  Something stirring is afoot, and the alarums are getting louder by the day.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email:




Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email:

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