Edward Snowden should face the music... but not yet

Up on 'Peak Snowden', the fog of surveillance still hangs thick

And so, not to Wales. But welcome nevertheless to ‘peak’ Snowden, where we have the US release of Oliver Stone’s movie and simultaneous calls to give the surveillance whistleblower a Presidential pardon. But does any of this take us further in addressing a signature issue of our times? Does Snowden even deserve such largesse.

I haven’t seen Stone’s film, though I will get round to it (It opens in Blighty next month). That however will be mostly out of professional responsibility rather than enthusiasm. Laura Poitras’ Oscar-winning documentary Citizenfour told the tale well from Edward Snowden’s point of view (and, despite my own ambivalence, that is meant as a strong recommendation).

Amid the renewed controversy though, the most striking contribution has come not from cinema’s leading conspiracy theorist, but a newspaper that won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting Snowden’s original revelations, The Washington Post.

Notwithstanding its laurels – and remember too that The Post exposed Watergate – its editorial board last week published an op-ed column in which it came out strongly against a pardon.

The Post recognised Snowden’s contribution to the surveillance debate in revealing the National Security Agency’s wholesale collection of cellphone metadata. The programme was, it rightly says, “a stretch, if not an outright violation, of federal surveillance law, and posed risks to privacy. But, the article continues, “The complication is that Mr Snowden did more than that.”

How much more? The Post is worth quoting in full.

“[Snowden] also pilfered, and leaked, information about a separate overseas NSA Internet-monitoring program, PRISM, that was both clearly legal and not clearly threatening to privacy. (It was also not permanent; the law authorizing it expires next year.) Worse — far worse — he also leaked details of basically defensible international intelligence operations: cooperation with Scandinavian services against Russia; spying on the wife of an Osama bin Laden associate; and certain offensive cyber operations in China.

“No specific harm, actual or attempted, to any individual American was ever shown to have resulted from the NSA telephone metadata program Mr Snowden brought to light. In contrast, his revelations about the agency’s international operations disrupted lawful intelligence-gathering, causing possibly ‘tremendous damage’ to national security, according to a unanimous, bipartisan report by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. What higher cause did that serve?”

Notwithstanding my personal distaste for PRISM, that is a fair question. And there is more to come.

Respected media analyst Michael Wolff was given leave this week to publish an unquestionably serious allegation in a new book by investigative reporter Edward Jay Epstein, How America Lost its Secrets: Edward Snowden, the Man and the Theft. Due for publication in January, it claims Snowden traded US secrets with the Russian government in return for asylum.

This is Vladimir Putin’s same administration that today stands accused of undertaking a series of hacks aimed at influencing the outcome of this year’s US presidential election.

Wolff quotes Epstein as saying, “The Snowden story, an undeniably good one, features an idealistic and photogenic young man, standing up to the government for doing insidious things — pay no attention to the fact that mostly what it did is what it’s supposed to do — and who is now in lonely exile — pay no attention to the elaborate, Putin-approved machine that supports, handles and profits off of him in Russia.”

Many will suspect dirty tricks from the security services as behind both The Post’s stance and Epstein’s reporting. However, there are a couple of uncomfortable realities here.

First, Snowden gave the media with whom he cooperated a full overview of the material he had taken. As one of those newspapers, The Post should be credited for knowing what was in the whole package. Second, Epstein is hardly an NSA shill; his reputation is that of a maverick with little love for the Washington establishment. Still, we don’t have to take either view as definitive.

And anyway, dismissing Snowden as either a traitor or even just a seriously tarnished man may not be that helpful, if you now see that as the be-all and end-all of the debate. But it is all rather discomforting, isn’t it? So, what does it actually tell us?

Epstein makes an important point when he says that the US government “mostly… did what it’s supposed to do”. But Snowden’s actions made an equally important one in showing that the tools it used probably took it beyond the rule of law and did not have the informed consent of either the people or their representatives (infamously, James Clapper, the US Director of National Intelligence, explicitly denied at a congressional hearing that any industrial-scale harvesting of communications metadata was taking place shortly before Snowden went rogue).

In the light of Snowden’s revelations, the US government brought the NSA to heel. Yet it did so as the result of a leak, not a societal discussion as to how far surveillance should extend. That debate remains in the doldrums. Hollywood’s marketing men are happier to provoke discussion around the man rather than the issue. They give audiences a ‘hero’. Broader concerns about informed consent are relegated.

But here’s an awkward, recent twist. The most recent wave of terrorist outrages – including last week’s bombs in New York and New Jersey – points towards an ISIS enemy that is looking to radicalise individuals and inspire attacks rather than explicitly building terrorist cells. How deep should data mining go to tackle that?

To be honest, I don’t know. And, even if you work for somewhere like GCHQ, chances are that neither do you. What we all have are ‘positions’, and they need to be more rigorously tested. As things stand, we can only agree that Snowden shows ‘good’ leaks often come alongside many ‘bad’ ones. So, where do you stand on collateral damage?

Were we to have a proper discussion, we could create an environment in which the common view would be, I believe, for Snowden to go home and face the music, as high-profile whistleblowers have generally done. And we could decide how the critical issues of digital-age privacy and security should be resolved within democracies. The environment would be less febrile, less polarised by – depending on your view – desires for retribution, exoneration or, indeed, martyrdom.

And, frankly, a damn sight less corrosive – on a macro scale, we’re seeding a world where the real bad guys still get too many ‘wins’. Let’s remember what we all truly want, including, I suspect, Edward Snowden himself.

Twitter: @dempseypaul

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