Yet again Edward Snowden’s predicament – his asylum-seeking and the penalties he will likely face at the hands of the US prosecutors ‒ is back in the news. With appropriately implausible dramatic irony the former NSA staffer finds himself scrambling to remain in autocratic Russia just as the trial of Bradley Manning, the US soldier who leaked more than 700,000 classified documents, reaches its sentencing phase. Manning was found not guilty of “aiding the enemy,” but the charges he pleaded guilty to left him facing up to 100 years in prison. Snowden – whose revelations have proved far more embarrassing for the US government – can hardly expect leniency.
Commenting on the Manning trial, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange noted that at no point in the trial did the prosecution offer evidence, or even claim, that “a single person came to harm as a result of Bradley Manning’s disclosures.” Assange quipped that, “The only ‘victim’ was the US government’s wounded pride.” Despite his own rather questionable publicity-seeking behaviour, Assange’s point is well made. As with the WikiLeaks disclosures, which were at first treated as little more than a series of minor diplomatic embarrassments, the full importance of Snowden’s leaks is still coming into view.
The American media critic Jay Rosen coined the term the ‘Snowden Effect’ to describe the “direct and indirect gains in public knowledge from the cascade of events and further reporting that followed Edward Snowden’s leaks.” This informational cascade has already been considerable. Not only have other governments, (among them Brazil, Canada, France) been forced to admit, shamefacedly, that they have engaged in comparable domestic espionage, but civil society all over the world has begun a long overdue conversation about the proper role of surveillance.
For many years it has been fashionable for Western democracies to denounce the paranoid national security apparatus in countries like China and Iran. Now, thanks to the Snowden Effect, American citizens have learned, among other things, that according to the New York Times United States Postal Service computers “photograph the exterior of every piece of paper mail that is processed in the United States — about 160 billion pieces [in 2012].” This is, essentially, the real world version of metadata gathering, for the letter of the law allows the US government, and several others, to inspect the container of a message even though it forbids them from reading its contents. What the Snowden leaks have shown is that given a sufficiently large and predictable stream of metadata, the messages’ containers become nearly as valuable as the messages themselves.
After Snowden, it is not possible to treat government statements about national security – in the US or elsewhere ‒ in good faith. Slate magazine recently published a refreshingly sceptical “lexicon for understanding the words U.S. intelligence officials use to mislead the public.” This pointed out that the NSA had taken care to alter the meaning of the word “collect” in its documents so that “‘collection’ occurs not when the government acquires information but when the government ‘selects’ or ‘tasks’ that information for ‘subsequent processing.’” As the authors point out, this verbal sleight of hand has allowed the US government to “to acquire great reams of information while denying that it is ‘collecting’ anything at all.” If these Orwellian manoeuvres can take place in the United States with all of its elaborate checks and balances, one can only guess at the questionable statements that less robust democratic governments have been getting away with.
Beyond its national security implications, the legacy of the Snowden saga is most likely to be a necessary and quite democratic questioning of institutions that take the high moral ground. Last week, for example, the former oil executive who now leads the Church of England publicly admitted his embarrassment on finding that the Church’s pension fund held investments in ‘payday’ lending agencies – which charge exorbitant interest on short-term loans. The admission followed the Archbishop’s sharp – and fully justified – criticisms of such agencies for taking advantage of poor families.
The Archbishop’s remarks were prompted by a Financial Times story that examined the Church’s investments. (Pressed on the question of whether the Church could tolerate “a little sin” the Archbishop produced a wonderful sound bite: “Sin is a bad thing by definition. Just for the record, I’m not in favour of sin.”) With near-perfect synchronicity, Pope Francis openly condemned his own church’s questionable financial practices, at the Vatican Bank and elsewhere, in a groundbreaking private exchange with the media as he left Rio.
The true significance of Edward Snowden’s whistle-blowing is how deeply it speaks to our yearning for institutional transparency. Whatever the denouement of his personal story, the curiosity and public questioning occasioned by his disclosures have been overwhelmingly positive.