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Three things learned from the Snowden files

The line they crossed separates the possibly legitimate, though dirty and distasteful tactics of spies from the impossible-to-justify, “let’s hope it never becomes public” stratagems of an out-of-control surveillance establishment.

Jay Rosen
30 December 2013

Before the year ends, I wanted to capture a few points that stand out for me about what is unquestionably the biggest news story of 2013.  

The document shows for the first time that under the Obama administration the communication records of millions of US citizens are being collected indiscriminately and in bulk – regardless of whether they are suspected of any wrongdoing…

The moment I read that — it’s in Glenn Greenwald’s first report from the Snowden files on June 5 — I started following, closely, the story of the surveillance state’s unveiling by Edward Snowden and the journalists who received the documents he took.

I also wrote about it: a lot. I attended Eben Moglen’s lecture series, Snowden and the future. I watched countless television segments about the revelations. Over Thanksgiving, I talked to my brother, a computer engineer, about the NSA and encryption. And of course I have had hundreds of conversations with journalists, colleagues and friends about what is without question the biggest story of 2013.

Before the year ends, I wanted to capture a few points that stand out for me from all that.

It’s not “privacy” but freedom

In news coverage of the Snowden files you frequently see this shorthand: “privacy advocates say…” From an AP story:

Feinstein’s committee produced a bill last week that she says increases congressional oversight and limits some NSA powers under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Privacy advocates say the measure codifies the agency’s rights to scoop up millions of American’s telephone records.

So you have defenders of the NSA on one side, and this creature called “privacy advocates” on the other. But at stake is not just privacy. It’s freedom. This point was made by British philosopher Quentin Skinner in his July openDemocracy interview:

The mere fact of there being surveillance takes away liberty. The response of those who are worried about surveillance has so far been too much couched, it seems to me, in terms of the violation of the right to privacy. Of course it’s true that my privacy has been violated if someone is reading my emails without my knowledge. But my point is that my liberty is also being violated, and not merely by the fact that someone is reading my emails but also by the fact that someone has the power to do so should they choose. We have to insist that this in itself takes away liberty because it leaves us at the mercy of arbitrary power. It’s no use those who have possession of this power promising that they won’t necessarily use it, or will use it only for the common good. What is offensive to liberty is the very existence of such arbitrary power.

The point holds for collecting phone records. Even if no one in the government reviews whom I’ve called or texted, my liberty is violated because “someone has the power to do so should they choose.” Thus: It’s not privacy; it’s freedom. But “freedom advocates” would be an awkward construction in a news story.

“Collect it all” was the decisive break

Over the summer, I told Glenn Greenwald that he should title the book he’s working on, “Collect it all.” Because that was the point of no return for the surveillance state. The Washington Post took note of it in this profile of NSA director Keith Alexander:

“Rather than look for a single needle in the haystack, his approach was, ‘Let’s collect the whole haystack,’ ” said one former senior U.S. intelligence official who tracked the plan’s implementation. “Collect it all, tag it, store it. . . . And whatever it is you want, you go searching for it.”

This was the fateful decision. The people whom Eben Moglen calls “the listeners” passed some invisible barrier (invisible to them) when they decided to go for the whole haystack. The line they crossed separates the possibly legitimate, though dirty and distasteful tactics of spies from the impossible-to-justify, “let’s hope it never becomes public” stratagems of an out-of-control surveillance establishment.

Moglen calls Collect it All one of the “procedures of totalitarianism.” He’s not saying the U.S. has become a totalitarian state. He’s saying it adopted one of that state’s procedures. Legitimating such a move before a self-governing people is very, very difficult. And this is why the surveillance state is in such trouble, politically.

Snowden going public changed everything

I have written about them before, but for me these words from Edward Snowden are the most important he has uttered since his name became public. They are in Barton Gellman’s June 9 report:

Whistleblowers before him, he said, had been destroyed by the experience. Snowden wanted “to embolden others to step forward,” he wrote, by showing that “they can win.”

By deciding to go public — as the one who leaked the documents to journalists because he could no longer live with himself if he didn’t — Snowden ended the whodunit before it could start. It wasn’t only that he revealed his name, security clearance and position. It’s that he made arguments for why he did what he did.

These arguments, the most important of which was that the public should decide if the surveillance state has gone too far, were met with a furious counter-attack, and of course many of his fellow citizens rejected them.

But this is precisely what he meant by “win.” Now there was a debate. It was easy to despise and reject Snowden. Much harder to despise and reject the discussion he touched off. (Obama couldn’t.) None of that would have happened if he hadn’t gone for the win by revealing himself and his motives for leaking the documents.

This piece, originally published on December 29, 2013 on the author's blog, PressThink - Ghost of Democracy in the Media Machine is republished with thanks.

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