Nothing brings out hypocrisy like espionage. Secrets are a radioactive currency. They buy influence and power, but they corrode the principles and values of their bearers.
Spy fiction is so engaging a genre because of all the damaged personalities on offer.
Secrets make responsible politics difficult, not least when they come out. Revealed secrets can dazzle publics and confuse citizens, even as they illuminate unknown facts. In such situations, it is easy to strike stances of indignation and shock, or make poses of high principle.
Responsibility is also difficult because those who deceive, those who participate in the secret world in various ways, are prone to self-deception. This is a trait spies often share with politicians. Their often quaint or simple ideals are overwhelmed by webs of secrets and lies, powers and interests. They get entangled in the course of events.
When the world of secrets erupts into the public sphere, then, we need to think carefully. There are serious matters of politics, principle and security at stake in the multifaceted affair that began with Edward Snowden’s revelations, and not all are getting an equal airing.
Farce - in its clarifying juxtaposition of high mindedness with base motives - is a useful way into some of these points. Europe, as ever, has a good supply.
Some think such surveillance is protecting them from terror attacks, and there is something in this. Others may be of the view that in a world where states and their rivals and enemies lie and spy, it’s best if their state does too.
In an affair which remains as yet unexplained, several European countries prevented the Bolivian president’s plane from entering their airspace, forcing it to land in Vienna. It had been rumoured that Snowden was on board, making good his escape from Moscow. In Vienna, the plane was searched, but Snowden remains, apparently, in the transit zone of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport.
Snowden had only just provided the Europeans with a feast of secrets with which to embarrass the US. The US taps and stores global internet traffic; it was spying prodigiously on European embassies and international missions in New York and elsewhere.
European officials expressed shock and horror. How could one Western ally spy on another? It then emerged that, of course, European countries also spied, and tapped into the internet, and cooperated with the NSA in the very programmes European politicians were condemning. Yes, but the problem with what the Americans are doing is the scale, argued one French expert in response.
Evidently, the problem for the Europeans is that the Americans are better spies.
Still, the Europeans were apparently willing to cooperate with the US to bring Snowden in, and to rifle through President Morales’ plane, as if he were some native from the colonies of old or a terrorist suspect.
Had it been successful, the gambit at Vienna airport might have been worthwhile. But what the US and its allies have now done is to validate the fears of Julian Assange and his supporters that he will be subject to US rendition should he leave the Ecuadorian embassy in London.
Those who leak secrets gain legitimacy when the state acts outside the law to detain or stop them. For those of us who doubt Assange’s motives in avoiding Swedish police (who want to question him about allegations of sexual assault) this is unfortunate. The larger point is that secrets make values relative, even murky, neither the leaker nor the state is operating in the realm of licit politics.
Is Assange a determined and effective dissident, or a rapist? It is impossible to tell. He may well be both.
What is certain is that European states can be trusted no more, if not less, than the US to protect civil liberties. It is also clear that, generally speaking, states and their officials lie and spy, as do other power organisations like corporations, political parties, trade unions, terrorist and insurgent groups, and so on. To expect otherwise is naive.
But what about Snowden? Are not his values and purposes clear, a righteous lamb among jackals? Is not his only motive to make us aware of the extent of modern surveillance?
In the first place, how many of us are surprised to learn that the NSA, Britain’s GCHQ, etc, tap the internet? We do have proof now, thanks to Snowden, and that is politically significant.
The cost of that proof may be significant also. NSA ways and means have been revealed. One of them is the ability to penetrate Skype. It was a widespread myth that Skype was secure against those trying to listen in (as it may well still be from lesser intelligence agencies). It is often used by journalists in China and in other vulnerable situations for that reason. We can be sure that in future the US will be collecting less intelligence from Skype, as terrorist plotters as well as other allies and rivals whom the US may be interested in change their communication practices.
That is just one example of the kind of material damage done by leakers like Snowden. Whether or not one thinks it is a good or a bad thing to chip away at US power, it is undeniably political. It harms some and helps others. The various effects unleashed do not necessarily serve the grander cause or ideal originally intended.
Consider Snowden’s choice of escape: the PRC, and then Russia. Now he has an offer of asylum in Venezuela. None of these states are committed friends of press freedom, or civil liberties. Whatever issues one may have with the NSA, the CIA, and the FBI, there are far more possibilities for politically regulating intelligence services in the US than in Putin’s Russia or in China.
Whether or not Snowden has offered, or been made to offer, additional intelligence to his hosts, he has emboldened authoritarian rivals of the US and the affair around him continues to compromise US policy, for good or for ill. A question that must be asked is why he felt it necessary to flee the country in the first place? Consider Daniel Ellsberg, who famously leaked the Pentagon’s secret history of the Vietnam War.
Ellsberg first tried to persuade US Senators to read the so-called Pentagon Papers into the US Congressional Record. Senators cannot be prosecuted for anything they say on the floor of the Senate. Although he hid for nearly two weeks after he finally released the papers, Ellsberg publically surrendered at the US Attorney’s office in Boston and defended himself in a court of law.
Ellsberg had no intention of assisting communist dictatorships like the PRC and the USSR, but sought to stop his own country from waging a murderous war in Indochina. He desperately wanted his fellow citizens to know how extensively their government, its officials and elected representatives, lied to them in the course of conducting that war.
Snowden proceeded otherwise, and few seem to have noticed. One reason is that since 9/11 the Western democracies have badly compromised their image as beacons of liberty and justice. It was plausible for Assange to claim the US would get him if he travelled to Sweden for a police interview. Bradley Manning was a soldier subject to military law when he leaked secrets, but his rough handling convinced many he was being denied his rights. Snowden had examples like these in mind in choosing his course of action.
Ellsberg had been inspired in part by a draft resistor who was willing to go to jail for refusing to serve in Vietnam. Such willingness to personally sacrifice is a classic means by which purity of motive is demonstrated. It also makes one’s acts all the more powerful politically.
Manning is getting his day in court. Snowden might well have considered the advantages of fighting a legal and political battle at home, his honesty and willingness to sacrifice helping to generate a movement around him.
But here there is a disturbing parallel with Ellsberg. Ellsberg thought that, when they knew the truth, the American people would do something to stop the war. Instead, they elected “Tricky Dick” Nixon to another term of office, and he promptly expanded the war in the name of ending it.
Americans don’t mind being lied to about what their country got up to in Vietnam, as anyone who has seen the Rambo movies can attest.
Snowden’s revelations face a similar problem. Most Americans are not only not surprised to hear the NSA is tapping the internet, they are supportive of it. Some think such surveillance is protecting them from terror attacks, and there is something in this. Others may be of the view that in a world where states and their rivals and enemies lie and spy, it’s best if their state does too.
Tarak Barkawi is Associate Professor in the Department of Politics, New School for Social Research
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.