Snowden, Greenwald and Wikileaks are winning

Americans are becoming more concerned that government ‘anti-terror’ programmes are actually restricting civil liberties.

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NSA whistle blower Edward Snowden and Sarah Harrison (L), a legal researcher for WikiLeaks, leave Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport after Snowden spent nearly six weeks in hiding there [Reuters]

“It is a slap in the face of all Americans,” said Senator John McCain (R – AZ), referring to Russia’s decision to grant asylum to Edward Snowden. He demanded that the Russians face ” serious repercussions ” for their decision.

Well, turn the other cheek, I say. McCain ran for president in 2008 promising to be more belligerent towards the Russians, so this is normal for Dr.Strangelove and his crusty Cold War foaming at the mouth.

Not to be outdone, Democratic Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) said that Russia had “stabbed us in the back,” and that “each day that Mr. Snowden is allowed to roam free is another twist of the knife”.

The spectacle of US attorney general Eric Holder trying to offer Russia assurances that his government would not torture or execute Snowden speaks volumes about how far the US government’s reputation on human rights – even within the United States – has plummeted over the past decade.

Twist and shout! The Russians did a big favour for the freedom-loving peoples of the world, including those in the US who can still think with our own brains. The self-righteous pundits who complain about Russia’s own human rights record, as if this were even remotely relevant, might try to recall how Snowden ended up there in the first place. He was passing through Moscow on his way to South America, and it was only by virtue of Washington’s “gross violations of his human rights,” as Amnesty International called it, that he got stuck there.

Indeed, the whole chase scene is symbolic of the difficulties in which Washington finds itself immersed. Unable to win their case in the court of public opinion, the self-styled leaders of the free world resort to threats and bullying to get their way – which kind of sums up American foreign policy in the second decade of the 21st century. And the spectacle of US attorney general Eric Holder trying to offer Russia assurances that his government would not torture or execute Snowden speaks volumes about how far the US government’s reputation on human rights – even within the United States – has plummeted over the past decade.

Meanwhile, Snowden and Glenn Greenwald and Wikileaks are winning. At the outset Snowden said his biggest fear was that people would see “the lengths that the government is going to grant themselves powers unilaterally to create greater control over American society and global society and that ‘nothing will change‘”. But his disclosures have already created a new debate, and political change will follow. 

Two weeks ago there was a surprisingly close call in the US House of Representatives, with the majority of House Democrats and 94 of 234 Republicans defying their House (and Senate) leadership, the White House, and the national security establishment in a vote to end the NSA’s mass collection of phone records. The amendment was narrowly defeated by a vote of 205 to 217, but it was clear that “this is only the beginning,” as John Conyers (D-MI), ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee announced. 

A week later Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Democratic Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, called a hearing where he challenged the Obama administration’s claims that the NSA dragnet had been effective in disrupting terrorist plots. According to Leahy, the classified list that he had been shown of “terrorist events” did not show that “dozens or even several terrorist plots” had been thwarted by the NSA’s surveillance of domestic phone calls.

It is beginning to sink in that the main target of the NSA’s massive spying programmes is not terrorism but the American people themselves (as well as other non-terrorist populations throughout the world). Pew Research finds for the first time since 2004 that there are more Americans concerned that government “anti-terror” programmes have “gone too far in restricting civil liberties” than those who think not enough has been done to protect people from terrorism.

Then Glenn Greenwald broke the story of the NSA’s XKeyscore programme, the “widest reaching” of its secret surveillance systems, based on Snowden’s revelations.  Greenwald has become a one-man army, swatting down attackers from the national security/journalistic establishment like a hero from a video game.  Here you can see him wipe the floor with CNN’s Jeffrey Toobin, or David Gregory of Meet the Press; or the most devastating takedown ever of a Washington Post journalist, Walter Pincus, who had to run a massive correction after promoting a false, far-fetched conspiracy theory about Greenwald and Wikileaks. 

Greenwald was joined on CNN by James Risen, a 15-year veteran of the New York Times , who is himself being threatened with jail for refusing to testify in a criminal trial of former CIA employee Jeffrey Sterling. Sterling, like Snowden, has been charged under the infamous Espionage Act for leaking classified information to Risen.  It is another case with ominous implications for civil liberties and investigative journalism.

“I can tell you, I’ve been an investigative reporter for a long time,” said Risen. “And almost always, the government says that when you write a story, it’s going to cause damage. And then they can never back it up. They say that about everything….It’s getting old.”

Indeed it is. And as Washington threatens to worsen relations with Russia – which together with the United States has most of the nuclear weapons in the world – over Snowden’s asylum there, it’s hard not to wonder about this fanatical pursuit of someone Obama dismissed as a “29-year-old hacker”. Is it because he out-smarted a multi-billion dollar “intelligence community” of people who think they are really very smart but are now looking rather incompetent? 

If Snowden really leaked information that harmed US national security, why haven’t any of these “really very smart” people been fired? Are we to believe that punishing this whistleblower is important enough to damage relations with other countries and put at risk all kinds of foreign policy goals, but the breach of security isn’t enough for anyone important to be fired? Or is this another indication, like the generals telling Obama what his options were in Afghanistan, of the increasing power of the military/national security apparatus over our elected officials?

Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington, D.C. He is also president of Just Foreign Policy.