Collect it all.
This phrase appears verbatim in NSA documents released by whistleblower Edward Snowden, and revealed in Glenn Greenwald’s newly released book, “No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State.” As Greenwald noted to a packed house at the 6th and I historic synagogue in Washington, DC Wednesday night, the phrase could easily be “the institutional mandate of the NSA.” In fact, the NSA document goes even further, saying that the NSA’s new goal is to “collect it all, sniff it all, process it all, partner it all, exploit it all.”
And this is the world we’re living in now. One where privacy is quickly becoming a thing of the past – where the government collects our metadata using dragnet surveillance. Who you talked to, where, when, and for how long are collected with each and every phone call. Facebook, Google, Yahoo, Skype, Microsoft, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, Oracle, and numerous other corporations partner with the NSA to subvert your right to privacy. The NSA has even been physically intercepting packages containing servers and switches, taking it from FedEx or the US Postal Service, opening the package, and planting a device that redirects information sent over these servers back to the NSA.
When Edward Snowden encountered this information, he understood that even though it meant that he could very likely spend the rest of his life in jail, it needed to be released to the public. He understood the need to spur public discourse on the indiscriminate and limitless spying of the US government on its own citizens and abroad. For that – Snowden has been demonized and vilified by the US government and its puppet: the mainstream media. He was called a Chinese spy, then later, a spy for Putin. “Almost overnight,” Greenwald explained, “all of these journalists who had never heard the name Snowden before…were able to instantly diagnose him – medically/psychologically….that he was a fame-seeking narcissist.” And thus the mainstream media did what it does so well: argumentum ad hominem. Instead of engaging with the very real, very terrifying, and very revelatory information that Snowden released to the public on government overreach and spying, they attacked Snowden’s character, questioned his motives, and obsessed over his love life.
“He is aiding the enemy!” “This puts American lives at risk!” “The terrorists will win!” “You have compromised the security of the American people!” We have heard the same condemnations leveled against every major whistleblower that has challenged the power-elite and cast sunlight on the darkest and most iniquitous of government agencies and operations. Thomas Drake, who blew the whistle on the NSA’s Trailblazer project in the early 2000’s which violated the Fourth Amendment, was indicted under the Espionage Act and called a traitor and a spy. John Kiriakou, who released classified information confirming the use of the torture method known as waterboarding, was charged with the Espionage Act in 2012. He took a plea deal but will spend more than two years in prison. Chelsea Manning, the whistleblower who revealed thousands of previously undisclosed civilian deaths in the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, cases of torture and abuse by US and allied forces in the same countries, and released the Collateral Murder Video which showed a US Apache helicopter gunning down civilians and two Reuters journalists in Baghdad, will spend the next 35 years of her life in prison. Even Daniel Ellsberg who released the Pentagon Papers in 1971 which disclosed information related to the Vietnam War was, at the time was marked a traitor and a spy. Snowden, if he returned to the US, would face the same fate as Manning, Kiriakou, and Drake. His trial, like Manning’s, would be a farce – a way for the government to keep appearances yet still, ultimately, get what it wants.
And what does it want? To send a message. Greenwald noted during the talk that when he was researching Chelsea Manning’s cruel and inhumane treatment while being held at Quantico (for three years without trial), he wondered why the government would want to treat someone like Manning in this way and risk making her a martyr for the cause. And the reason, he said, is the same reason that they have over-prosecuted whistleblowers time and time again. It is the same reason we put people in orange jumpsuits and throw them in Guantanamo prison without charge or trial for decades. It is the same reason that the Occupy movement was first ridiculed and then violently dismembered: they want to send the message about what they will do to people who cross them. If you try to expose us – we will ruin your livelihood like we did to Thomas Drake. If you try to blow the whistle – we will throw you in jail and cripple your family like we did to John Kiriakou. If you speak up, we will torture you and hide you away for years without trial and then, once we’ve provided you with a trial that can only be likened to something in Alice in Wonderland, we will hide you away in jail for 35 years, like we did to Chelsea Manning. You should think twice next time you think about lifting your heads.
Yet whistleblowers are still knowingly risking their lives to speak truth to power. By coming forward, Snowden was literally able to change the discourse. A year after the NSA revelations, we are still talking about privacy, government spying and the NSA. Despite the fear-mongering purveyed by the American media and government pundits, Snowden is still heralded as a hero by many. Greenwald, at least, is still optimistic that we can make change. That Snowden’s whistleblowing had such a profound change on the public discourse “should be a permanent antidote to defeatism.” He continued, “We always have a way to unleash all sorts of profound changes.” People are angry – but the question becomes, how do we translate that anger into something meaningful and purposeful? How do we begin to show people that simply casting a vote for the “lesser evil” – for this Democrat or that Republican – is not the end of our civic duty? In fact, it is hardly even the start of it. Throughout the history of the United States, whenever a new outrage breaks out about government policies or practices, the first response by the government, Greenwald said, is to “stamp it out.” When that proves unsuccessful, the government tries to “engage in symbolic reform” that looks progressive but is, in reality, just a more effective way of cloaking the business as usual policies that go on behind closed doors.
The only way that change can be made is from the bottom up. True, meaningful change has never been a top-down process. When the system is fundamentally corrupt, working within it will accomplish nothing. Those that hold the power will not all of the sudden find their morality. To make history, we need to fight from the bottom. This is how society progresses. Women’s suffrage, civil rights, the labor movement, environmental advances, only happen because the oppressed, the weak, disenfranchised, and the marginalized decided that change must happen and they took action. Our strength is in our unity and our resolve. This is what we must harness now if Snowden’s – like Drake’s, Kiriakou’s, Manning’s – are to mean anything.