Edward J. Snowden a 29 year old National Security Agency (NSA) contractor has joined a list of former whistleblowers who achieved a degree of renown for exposing government secrets or illegal activity. In order to consider the Snowden case in context, let me briefly recall the history of two prominent whistleblowers whose actions not only garnered international attention, but had effects both national and international on US policies.
Daniel Ellsberg was a former United States military analyst who, according to Wikipedia “while employed by the Rand Corporation precipitated a national political controversy in 1971 when he released the Pentagon Papers, a top-secret Pentagon study of US government decision making in relation to the Vietnam war to the New York Times and other newspapers.” Ellsberg’s action was a result of his disaffection with the Vietnam War. The Papers revealed that the US government had knowledge early on that the war in Vietnam was unwinnable, contrary to the optimistic accounts that it touted to the public. The Nixon government’s attempts to muzzle Ellsberg and his whistleblowing were unsuccessful. This is probably the most famous case of whistleblowing in recent memory. It undoubtedly reinforced US public opinion against the war.
Julian Assange an Australian editor and journalist is the founder of WikiLeaks which according to Wikipedia “publishes submissions of secret information, news leaks and classified media from anonymous news sources and whistleblowers.” WikiLeaks became internationally known in 2010 when it began to publish US military and diplomatic documents which had been supplied to it by Bradley Manning, a junior US Army analyst. Manning is currently facing a court martial trial on treason charges. Assange who has been embroiled in a sexual assault case in Sweden has been granted political asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. He feared that if he agreed to go to Sweden to answer questions on the accusations against him as demanded by Swedish law enforcement, he would be extradited by Sweden to the United States where he could possibly face the death penalty for espionage.
The Snowden case is similar to the above two cases in that he has revealed what he considers illegal surveillance by the NSA of the phone calls and emails primarily of US citizens but also foreign nationals. President Obama himself has denied Snowden’s allegations suggesting that the NSA’s activities complied with US laws.
On the other hand, the US authorities have exerted themselves to apprehend Snowden. He was based in Hawaii from where he departed with his materials to Hong Kong. When the furor over the materials that he had shared with the media surfaced, Snowden went underground. The US asked the Hong Kong authorities to extradite him to the US. An Extradition treaty exists between the US and Hong Kong. Instead of complying with the US demarche the Hong Kong authorities almost certainly after consulting and obtaining orders from Beijing, allowed Snowden to leave its territory for Moscow. The United States was infuriated with China’s action. It then requested Russia to deport him to the United States for indulging in criminal activities. President Putin has refused the US request stating that Snowden is a “free man” but also saying that Russia would like him to leave its territory.
It is fairly clear that while the Snowden drama is being played out in the transit lounge of Sheremetyevo airport, the US relationship with both China and Russia has come under strain over their non-cooperation in handing over Snowden to Washington. Whether this strain is temporary or will adversely affect the Washington – Moscow – Beijing relationship in the long run is difficult to discern right now. Some analysts feel that in standing up to the United States, Russia and China are signaling that they no longer consider it to be the world’s sole super power and therefore do not fear the consequences of their defiance.
It is quite possible that similar to the extensive material exposed in WikiLeaks by Assange, Snowden has in his possession considerable material on the NSA’s eavesdropping activities above and beyond its legal remit. If so, the disclosure of such material could be a serious blow to the credibility of the Obama administration. It is more than possible that if Snowden succeeds in obtaining asylum in Ecuador (where he has applied) or in some other country, where he could disclose further NSA materials, he could create a major embarrassment for the Obama government, not dissimilar to what happened to Nixon after the Pentagon Papers disclosures.
Since the Second World War at least if not earlier, the United States has established a clear supremacy over other countries in electronic surveillance. The US has used this expertise to eavesdrop on friend and foe alike. The temptation to do so for the NSA on the vast trove of data on US citizens, in its possession, must be overwhelming, notwithstanding the restrictions enjoined in the Fourth Amendment which guarantee privacy rights to US citizens.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has reportedly already filed a legal suit against the government for illegal wiretapping of US citizens. Regarding foreign nationals, the German newspaper Der Spiegel has reported that the NSA has collected information on millions of German nationals which have discomfited the German government and people.EU officials have also protested to the US authorities citing media reports of wide ranging surveillance by the US on EU meetings. Some observers are opining that the mistrust engendered in the EU countries could have a negative impact on the trans- Atlantic trade pact currently being negotiated between the US and the EU. We have therefore not seen the back of the repercussions, international and national, ignited by Edward Snowden’s dramatic disclosures.