Why the Ruling Class is So Upset About Edward Snowden

I don’t have a weak stomach, but I confess that watching TV news does get me nauseated. So I do so sparingly. I have of course been following the coverage of the Edward Snowden story, just to see how opinion is being shaped.

In the days immediately after June 5, when Snowden revealed that the U.S. government daily collects meta-data of all phone call records in the U.S. and beyond, the cable news networks seemed puzzled about how to deal with the story.

They couldn’t very well denounce Snowden out of hand, lest they be accused of being shameless lackeys of the state (even though that’s in fact what they are). They all like to posture as “fair and balanced,” so they did initially pose the question: is Snowden a hero, or a villain?

Early opinion polls showed considerable support for Snowden’s action; a Time poll released June 13 showed 54% of those surveyed in the U.S. thought he’d done the right thing. Some unlikely people (Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck) called Snowden a “hero.” But that may be changing, as the networks now compete with one another to generate outrage—not at the spying, mind you, but at Snowden for violating the law. O’Reilly’s current position is that while a hero, Snowden should be placed on trial and judged by a jury. Which is to say, he should be apprehended abroad, brought back in handcuffs and treated to the same benefits of the U.S. judicial system enjoyed by a Bradley Manning or a Guantanamo detainee.

He broke the law! He told us: “Any analyst at any time can target anyone.

“He took an oath,” thunders Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee (and thus someone complicit in the spying programs). What she means by this is that he broke his pledge, made when he became an employee of the CIA contractor Booz Allen Hamilton—which helps handle the massive effort to monitor all of us daily—to conceal any secrets he obtained as an employee. She is of course not referring to the oath he made at the same time, to uphold the Constitution of the United States, which says very clearly that “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated…”

Snowden has not merely revealed that the U.S. government has forced service providers Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube and Apple to share all their records with itself, in the form of meta-data that can only be accessed for content following the issuance of warrants from (secret) courts, in order to thwart real or imagined terrorist plots.

He hasn’t merely shown that the NSA intercepts 1.7 billion electronic records every day (in order, of course, to thwart the terrorists). He has charged the following:

“Any analyst at any time can target anyone. Any selector, anywhere… I, sitting at my desk, certainly had the authorities to wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant, to a federal judge, to even the President…”

He is referring to tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of employees of the state security apparatus. (The numbers are of course secret.)

That was and is the main story. Obama may say, “No one is listening to your phone calls,” and acknowledge, now that Snowden has come forward, that the government “merely” has available for perusal (following clandestine court procedures that secretly authorize such inspection) all of your telecommunications addresses and locations, all of your email and online contacts, lists of all the sites you visit online such that an analyst may sit at his desk with this comprehensive picture of your life but no access to the content of your communications. That’s bad enough.

But Snowden indicates that those with that power can indeed gain access to what Bill Clinton recently called the “meat” of your communications. That is, every word you’ve spoken on the phone recently, or maybe for several years; or test-messaged or instant-messaged online; can be accessed by government “analysts” at their whim.

Now why should this bother anybody? A virtual industry of bloggers has mushroomed overnight, people boasting, in the wake of Snowden’s revelations, that they have nothing to hide. Why should anybody not doing wrong be concerned?

Well, recall how, in 2008, ABC News revealed that National Security Agency staffers enjoyed monitoring satellite phone sex involving U.S. officers in Iraq. It’s worth quoting at length.

“‘These were just really everyday, average, ordinary Americans who happened to be in the Middle East, in our area of intercept and happened to be making these phone calls on satellite phones,’ said Adrienne Kinne, a 31-year old US Army Reserves Arab linguist assigned to a special military program at the NSA’s Back Hall at Fort Gordon from November 2001 to 2003.

Kinne described the contents of the calls as ‘personal, private things with Americans who are not in any way, shape or form associated with anything to do with terrorism.’ […]

Another intercept operator, former Navy Arab linguist, David Murfee Faulk, 39, said he and his fellow intercept operators listened into hundreds of Americans picked up using phones in Baghdad’s Green Zone from late 2003 to November 2007.

‘Calling home to the United States, talking to their spouses, sometimes their girlfriends, sometimes one phone call following another,’ said Faulk. […]

‘Hey, check this out,’ Faulk says he would be told, ‘there’s good phone sex or there’s some pillow talk, pull up this call, it’s really funny, go check it out. It would be some colonel making pillow talk and we would say, ‘Wow, this was crazy,’ Faulk told ABC News.”

If that’s the way NSA analysts could deal with U.S. military officers in Iraq—fellow cogs in the system, fighting on behalf of U.S. imperialism—how much respect do you suppose they have for you and your privacy? For your security from their searches, their violations?

But the main issue is not your protection from phone-sex interlopers, but protection from those who want to do you harm. The FBI’s “Counterintelligence Program” (COINTELPRO), active from 1956 to 1971, collected information through wiretaps and other means with the specific objective of destroying civil rights and left-wing organizations. One of its stated missions was to use surveillance on activists to release negative personal information to the public to discredit them. In many instances the agents succeeded, and they ruined lives. And their abilities to do so pale in comparison with the abilities of Obama’s NSA.

Tens of Thousands of Spooks, with Access to Your Data

Snowden says that his personal history should not be the issue in the media, but rather his revelations. Certainly this is true. But his history is a part of this story. It shows that the monitoring of personal communications is so vast, requiring so much labor power, that those overseeing it enlist even high school dropouts without formal academic credentials to do what they do.

(I do not mention this out of any disrespect for Snowden. On the contrary, I think he’s obviously highly intelligent and plainly very competent at his former job. One can question the wisdom, judgment and political consciousness of Snowden at  age 21, when he joined the Army as a Special Forces recruit thinking he’d fight in Iraq, as he put it,  “to help free people from oppression,” or his subsequent involvement with the CIA. But I think he’s extremely bright, and more than that, at this point in his life, a real moral exemplar.)

What I mean is that the demand for “analysts” in this data-collecting apparatus is so vast that those running it are surely signing on some people who have excellent computer skills but little understanding of anything else, are control-freaks, bigots, voyeurs (like those referenced above)… And they have ready access to your information.

Just as one example of ignorance within this stratum: after 9/11 a friend of mine was visited by FBI agents inquiring about a recent computer game purchase. She and her husband answered all the questions posed, but she was astounded by the agents’ lack of sophistication.  They asked where the couple was from; India, they replied. “Is that a Muslim country?” they were asked. My friend was both intimidated and amused by the visit. She’d assumed U.S. intelligence personnel would have some basic grasp of geography and history.

Imagine such people accessing your personal information with impunity, thinking, well, here’s a reason to investigate—and doing it even if only just to pass (well-paid) time at their desks?

Remember the “Information Awareness Office” under Admiral John Poindexter, set up by a mysterious agency in the Defense Department in January 2002, and its creepy “Total Information Awareness” program?  The one with the weird icon of an eye atop a pyramid, staring down at the planet, illuminating the Greater Middle East? That was specifically advertized as a body to gather personal information on everybody in the country—phone records, emails, medical records, credit card records, etc.—so that all this could be made immediately available to law officials when required and without warrants. It generated unease, even during that period in which the Bush-Cheney administration was systematically using fear to justify all kinds of repressive measures. It was defunded by Congress the following year. But the mentality remained, and Congress notwithstanding, the machinery of “total” surveillance obviously grew, along with the culture of secrecy.

In 2004 there were reports, citing Russian intelligence, that the former East German spy chief Markus Wolf had been hired as a consultant by U.S. Homeland Security. I have not found confirmation of them (and Wolf is now dead.) But I thought at the time it was entirely plausible that the Bush administration would be willing to learn a thing or two about domestic spying from the experts of the former Stasi. What ruling elite has ever gained more total information awareness about its citizens than the old German Democratic Republic?  And done it with such elegant legal scaffolding?

Legal, Like East Germany

As historians such as Katherine Pence and Paul Betts have shown, the GDR authorities operated within scrupulously observed legal constraints. One sees this in the film Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others) produced in the reunited Germany in 2006. It depicts the surveillance culture of the former East Germany, leaving the viewer nauseated. As it happens, the protagonist, a popular writer and regime loyalist named Georg Dreyman, is subjected to meticulous surveillance. His home is thoroughly bugged; an agent reports on his conversations, visitors, love-making, etc. He is never charged with anything nor punished. At one point his apartment is raided on a suspicion that he’s authored an article critical of the GDR published in the west. He cooperates politely; nothing is found; the authorities leave money for the repair of furniture they’d torn up. Everything according to law.

I thought of that film while reading the lead Boston Globe editorial on June 13. It concludes that the “policies that [Snowden revealed], however objectionable, are properly authorized” while Snowden himself “broke the law.” Thus, you see, he’s not a whistle-blower but a criminal. The editors call for him to be placed on trial, as do virtually all mainstream journalists. I should not be shocked, but it is quite amazing to see Keith Olbermann’s successor, MSNBC’s “progressive” Ed Schultz join the crowd, labeling Snowden a “punk” and lawbreaker. (Chris Hayes however remains, somewhat timidly, pro-Snowden.)

The message to the masses is: How dare Mr. Snowden tell the people that they are virtually naked in the eyes of the state, that the  U.S. of A. has become one huge airport body-scanner! Because in so doing he betrays state secrets, and helps the terrorists who will now take more precautions to escape surveillance.

And how dare he tell the Chinese that Tsinghua University and the Hong Kong headquarters of Pacnet have been hacked by the NSA, even as the U.S. has accused the Chinese of hacking (in all likelihood, in response to U.S. actions, and less effective, and on a smaller scale)!  How dare he consort with the “enemy”!

U.S. to World: “You Must View Snowden as a Criminal, and Give Him Back”

Suddenly, the Cold War has reappeared. Snowden is charged with espionage, some of his critics alleging that he’s in the service of the PRC and/or Russia or other “enemies.” It in fact appears that Beijing and Moscow both were taken by surprise by this episode, and that both have attempted to handle Snowden’s unexpected presence carefully to avoid annoying the U.S.

But how should they respond to Washington’s logic, thoroughly embraced by the TV talking heads? “Look,” says the U.S. State Department, expecting the world to cower and obey. “This man has been charged with felonies. We’ve gone through the legal process, through treaties we have with other countries, to have him appropriately returned to face justice. We’ve revoked his passport, so he can’t legally travel, except to be returned to the U.S. So damn it, do the right thing. Turn him over!”

That’s supposed to be convincing? The media’s complaining of Russian “defiance.” Senator Chuck Schumer appeared on some show suggesting that Putin never misses an opportunity to “poke America in the eye” (referring no doubt to Russian refusal to cooperate in “regime change” in Syria, and refusal to toe the U.S.-Israeli line on Iran). But imagine if a Russian in the U.S. revealed to a U.S. paper that Putin had a massive surveillance program, and Putin demanded his immediate extradition for breaking Russian law? How would the U.S. public react?

Kerry’s talking tough. He’s demanding that Putin not allow Snowden to fly out the country (presumably to Ecuador via Cuba). His tough talk might explain the reported fact that Snowden missed his planned Monday flight out of Moscow. (Might he have threatened to force the Aeroflot plane to land in the U.S.?)

It all, in my humble opinion, boils down to this. The entirety of the ruling elite and the journalistic establishment are keen on defending the programs Snowden has exposed; keen on punishing him for his whistle-blowing; determined to vilify him as a punk, narcissist, egoist, attention-hungry ne’er-do-well (anything but a thoughtful man who made a moral choice that has enlightened people about the character of the U.S. government); feverishly working on damage control while anticipating more damning revelations; and determined to get those four laptops with their incriminating content back into the bosom of the national security state.

What sort of state is it, that says to its own people, we can invade a country based on lies, kill a million people, hold nobody accountable but hey, when one of us does something so abominable as to reveal that the state spies constantly on the people of the world, we have to have a “manhunt” for him and punish him for treason?

The Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, has the audacity to tell NBC News, “It is literally gut-wrenching to see” Snowden’s revelations… because of the “damage” they do to “our intelligence capabilities”! As though there were really an “our” or “us” at this point. As though we were a nation united, including the mindful watchers and the grateful watched.

No, there are us, and there are them. The tiny power elite that controls the mainstream press and cable channels, the corporations that dutifully hand over meta-data to the state (and then deny doing so to allay consumer outrage), the twin political parties, are sick to their stomachs that they’ve been so exposed.

We in our turn should feel, if not terrorized, nauseated.

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@granite.tufts.edu

Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu