Edward Snowden, the leaker of the National Security Agency top-secret PRISM surveillance program has voluntarily stepped into the public limelight. The 29-year-old former technical contractor for the CIA and system administrator for defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton had a good family, girlfriend and comfortable living in Hawaii. What made him risk this privileged life to be on the run or possibly end up in Federal prison?
“I do not want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded,” the young whistleblower told The Guardian newspaper. His day-to-day insider knowledge about the conduct of the NSA led him to the conclusion that the NSA surveillance poses “an existential threat to democracy.” He related how he was motivated for the public good and not for personal gain; “If I were motivated by money, I could have sold these documents to any number of countries and gotten very rich …..” He continued, “The government has granted itself power it is not entitled to. There is no public oversight. The result is people like myself have the latitude to go further than they are allowed to … My sole motive is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them.”
In the same spirit of statements made by army whistleblower Bradley Manning, Snowden wanted this crucial information to be publicly available so people could make informed decisions about what is being done in their name by their government.
At his court-martial proceedings, Bradley Manning testified about his motivation behind the largest leak of classified information in history. He said: “I believed that if the general public, especially the American public, had access to the information … this could spark a domestic debate on the role of the military and our foreign policy in general.”
Snowden claimed he had examined the documents closely to assure that they are clearly in the public interest and will likely not harm anyone. His whistleblowing, and furthermore his courageous act of identifying himself to the public proves how the Obama administration’s unprecedented persecution of whistleblowers has not scared people from acting out of conscience to reveal illicit actions of the government behind closed doors
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who has also been a target of the US government and now been in asylum at the London Ecuadorian embassy for nearly a year, spoke of his positive outlook in the future of politics. In a prerecorded speech at a Veterans for Peace event in April this year, he spoke about how the newest generation has grown up with the internet and that many of them appear to be willing to defend the values of transparency and privacy, even at great risk to themselves:
“These young people under the age of 30 are the people that are going into the military, the people going into the CIA and intelligence agencies … They’re also forming the political base on which decisions are made.”
Snowden spoke of his own action; “I am not afraid, because this is the choice I’ve made.” Standing tall today is such a member of this younger generation that has been shaped by the Internet Age. Like the late Aaron Swartz who dedicated his life to the virtues of sharing and a free Internet, Snowden also regards the Internet as “the most important invention in all of human history.” He supports organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and TOR, a technology that enables online anonymity.
In his interview with the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald, Snowden spoke of why he was sacrificing his comfortable life; “I can’t in good conscience allow the US government to destroy privacy, internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they’re secretly building.”
Regarding these brave acts on behalf of the public, Greenwald tweeted that ‘courage is contagious’. Only hours after his initial statement, the Twitter hashtag #IStandWithEdwardSnowden trended in the US as people around the world voice their support for this young whistleblower. In New York, a rally for his support was already in the works.
When he learned about Snowden, the former United States military analyst and whistleblower that took down Nixon, Daniel Ellsbergcalled Snowden a hero, saying he had been waiting for someone like him for 40 years. Jesselyn Radack, a former justice department attorney who represents whistleblowers, told Reuters Snowden has become “one of the most significant leakers in my lifetime and in US history.”
On Sunday evening, member of Icelandic Parliament Birgitta Jonsdottir and executive director of the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative Smari McCarthy issued a statement of support for Snowden and noted they were working toward granting him asylum.
Snowden will surely go down in history as one of America’s most influential whistleblowers, along with Daniel Ellsberg and Bradley Manning. But, as he himself stated in his interview, it is important that he not be thrust into the media spotlight, as that may take the focus away from the content of his disclosures. It is not the messenger but the message that is vital for sparking lasting change.
Snowden’s damning evidence of the NSA’s surveillance activities clearly showed that the Obama Administration has been collecting blanket surveillance on nearly every electronic communication in the US, regardless of the Constitution protections of privacy for those not suspected of a crime. Snowden ominously cautioned that this will likely turn out badly, as any leader in the future would only need to claim a new dangerous threat and no one could stop them from taking that last step. He warned that this will be a “turnkey tyranny”.
This man’s unvarnished courage has revealed the tip of the iceberg of an outrageous abuse of power and trashing of the Fourth Amendment. He did this by handing the evidence straight to the people. It is now up to the people to choose; to resist this dangerous authoritarian approach and turn the key for a new generation of democracy, or allow the world to descend into tyranny.
Nozomi Hayase is a contributing writer to Culture Unplugged, and a global citizen blogger, at Journaling Between Worlds. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org