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Edward Snowden’s revelations of top secret domestic surveillance programs has provoked a much-debated debate on the extent, morality, legality and utility of such activities by the National Security Agency and other American (and we can presume, foreign) intelligence agencies.
But while the documents he released have shed a bright light on previously clandestine programs, the focus they’ve received in the media and by the US Congress (which legally has oversight over the intelligence bureaucracy), from progressives, mainstream figures and conservatives alike, has ignored relevant questions and issues that should have been considered, and instead centered almost entirely on two issues.
The first is whether his actions constituted espionage or treason. The US government clearly thinks his disclosures rise at least to the level of espionage, and have now filed a criminal complaint against him on (so far) three counts: theft of government property, unauthorized communication of national defense information, and willful communication of classified communications intelligence information to an unauthorized person.
There is little chance that Snowden will avoid indictment and trial, although his circuitous – and at the time of writing, still in progress – journey towards political asylum, apparently in Ecuador, might forestall a trial for the foreseeable future.
At the same time, his travel itinerary – from China to Russia and on to two or three of the most anti-American regimes in Latin America (Cuba, Venezuela and Ecuador), as well as his most recent leaks of US attempts to hack into various Chinese communications networks (which cannot come as any surprise to the Chinese government) – will surely facilitate accusations of traitorous behavior by his critics.
The just published oped by former CIA operative Valerie Plame (herself outed in a very different and far more dangerous leak of classified information) and her husband Joe Wilson epitomizes the outrage at the NSA program’s potential for abuse displayed by intelligence professionals who nevertheless don’t think to explore the more fundamental foreign policy choices the “metastasized intelligence-industrial complex” symptomizes. As they write:
“Snowden has already been the object of scorn and derision from the Washington establishment and mainstream media, but, once again, the focus is misplaced on the transiently shiny object. The relevant issue should be: what exactly is the US government doing in the people’s name to ‘keep us safe’ from terrorists?”
As Plame and Wilson’s oped makes clear, the main focus of critics in particular surrounds the activities themselves: Have they succeeded in preventing terrorist attacks? Do they violate the Constitution or Federal law? Should Americans accept unprecedented intrusions into their privacy in exchange for greater security from political violence?
These are all important questions, which the American public and its elected representatives would better have confronted before rather than after the programs were put in place. Yet they ultimately deal with second order, process-oriented issues, leaving untouched the even more fundamental questions behind the surveillance policies.
To paraphrase a much-cited 2004 Defense Science Board report, Why do “they [Muslims] hate our policies” so much that terrorism becomes an inevitable response across the region. It is precisely this violence that provides the primary justification for a trillion dollar a year defense-intelligence complex, of which the NSA’s activities constitute a mere one percent (roughly $10 billion) of the total budget?
The tough questionsAssertions by the President and senior intelligence community officials that the NSA programs have prevented 50 terrorist attacks have rightly been met with skepticism. But even if we accept their claims, what about the programs and policies that helped encourage the terrorism these programs are supposed to prevent?
Questioning what role US policies play in encouraging the terrorism directed against it does not justify or apologize for such acts, or place blame for them solely on American shoulders. Instead, it provides the only avenue for understanding, and thus addressing, the root causes of anti-American violence, which has always been inseparable from (although not solely reducible to) more than three quarters’ of a century’s worth of US support for many of the region’s most authoritarian, brutal and corrupt regimes.
Untrammeled American support for Israel, which is so often the focus of critics in and outside the Muslim world, is only part of the reason behind anger towards the US and its European allies. Let us remember that Osama bin Laden first took up arms against his former American patrons not because of the Israeli occupation but because of the continued US presence on Saudi soil, and the wholesale support for the Saudi regime it represented.
Despite early signs that the Obama Administration would seek to recast its relationships with the Arab and larger Muslim world on a more sustainable foundation the President has continued and even extended the policies of his predecessors, much as he’s done with President Bush’s domestic surveillance programs. Even one-time adversaries, such as Mu’amar Ghaddafi and the Assad family, played important roles in this system until they became more of a liability than asset to broader strategic interests, and thus became expendable.
Obama has offered unwavering economic, diplomatic and military support and aid to nearly every undemocratic regime from Morocco to Malaysia, regardless – and in many cases, because of – the innumerable systematic violations of human, political and civil rights they perpetrate.
He has done so precisely because such repression is the only way that America’s “empire of bases” (well over 1,000 strong world-wide), its massive military budget, hugely profitable arms industry and hegemonic position in the corporate petroleum industry can be maintained.
The citizens of the Arab/Muslim world understand both the extent of and the reasons for American support for such an undemocratic regional system, and how such support frustrates their desire for “freedom, dignity and social justice,” as one of the main slogans of the Arab uprisings declares.
While the initial Arab Spring protests were focused on toppling their governments, the millions of people who chanted for the “downfall of the system” well understand that systematic change in their own countries will be well nigh impossible without systematic change in the basic policies of the United States and other major powers.
None of these realities were discussed at the most recent hearing of the House Select Committee on Intelligence, evocatively titled “How Disclosed NSA Programs Protect Americans, and Why Disclosure Aids Our Adversaries.” Instead, supporters of the NSA, such as Committee Chair Mike Rogers, focused on the dangers caused by “giving the enemy our playbook,” while criticism, such as there was, focused on the potential for abuse of the PRISM program and a broader lack of oversight of government requests to the secrete intelligence court that rules on FISA wiretapping requests.
One might ask, How can the Intelligence Committee carry out its mandated function to “overs[ee] the United States Intelligence Community” if it doesn’t ask the deeper questions? What good is intelligence if it’s not used to shape policy in a public and proactive way and instead props up a system that violates its stated purpose?
And yet a review of other House and Senate Intelligence Committee hearings, as well as of related committees such as Foreign Affairs and Homeland Security, reveals a similar lack of willingness to confront the roots of anger and violence against the United States.
Better use of monies?Hardly anyone with real political power in Washington ever asks whether the trillions of dollars that have been spent to shore up the current system and line the pockets of all the corporations that support it (including many of the biggest NSA contractors) could be better allocated in pursuance of policies that actually encourage freedom, democracy, dignity, and sustainable development across the Muslim world. Even those from within the system who’ve been most burned by it, such as Plame and Wilson, are not connecting the dots to this level.
The military, security and intelligence behemoth that Edward Snowden has, for the moment, brought out from the shadows, may have, in the words of NSA Director General Keith Alexander, brought “relative security in the United States.”
Relative to what, however, none of the Committee members thought to ask. And whether another system, based on a very different allocation of wealth, resources and political commitment, would enable far more people, including Americans, to achieve security – in their food, health, shelter and futures – is clearly a question no one in Washington, least of all in the intelligence community, wants to ask either.
Most likely because they know the answer is yes, and that by refusing to consider such a possibility they are condemning a large share of the world’s population – including tens of millions of Americans – to endemic poverty, oppressive rule and ecological and environmental disaster, something the US military has long understood, and in fact used as a justification for ever higher budgets.
Indeed, there is a telling irony surrounding Snowden’s adventure, which is that at the same time he was turning 30, a well-known Iraqi war veteran, Dan Somers, also 30, committed suicide.
In his detailed note, he explained how years of trying to cope with and make amends for having participated in the killings of numerous Iraqis, many of them (according to him) involving war crimes, the guilt and the psychic pain of the violence he committed proved too much. As he wrote, commenting on his relatively privileged life upon returning from his last Iraqi tour of duty:
“The fact is that any kind of ordinary life is an insult to those who died at my hand. How can I possibly go around like everyone else while the widows and orphans I created continue to struggle? If they could see me sitting here in suburbia, in my comfortable home working on some music project they would be outraged, and rightfully so.”
There is a clear line between the activities in which Snowden participated as an NSA analyst and contractor, which ultimately drove him from a life of even greater luxury than Somers into self-imposed exile, and that of the Iraqi war vet. Snowden understands that whatever the claims of protecting America, the surveillance and spying activities in which he either participated or learned about ultimately produce injustice and, almost assuredly, the spilling of innocent blood.
It’s hard to understand why almost no one, including The Guardian and Washington Post reporters who broke and have continued to spearhead the Snowden affair, has made the connection between the NSA’s activities and the more fundamental rationales and goals underlying American foreign policy.
It’s worth remembering that Bradley Manning, who released thousands of classified correspondents to WikiLeaks, suffered the same pangs of guilt over the actions in which he was ordered to participate, including providing the Iraqi government with intelligence on political activists that had already led to arrests, torture and potentially death at the hands of the US-sponsored and trained government police forces.
(It was the refusal of his commanders to stop cooperating with the Iraqi police after he informed them that they were aiding the detention of political activists and not terrorist suspects that finally pushed him to give Wikileaks the documents he’d obtained).
There is little hope that the intelligence community will address the core questions surrounding US foreign policy raised by the Snowden revelations; but there isn’t any excuse for the media and the numerous public intellectuals commenting on the leaks not to explore its deeper relevance.
If such questions remain unexplored, Snowden’s blockbuster revelations will quickly fade from view. The “security” all sides in this affair say they are trying to preserve and promote – for Americans and the millions of peoples whose lives are affected by American policies – will remain precarious, and in the long run, a mirage.