What Snowden really revealed

Government agencies empowered after 9/11 have been transforming themselves into the real holders of power in the US.

The NSA leaks by Edward Snowden had far reaching implications beyond bureaucratic overreach by the government [Reuters]

When Edward Snowden made the decision to pull back the curtain on the military-intelligence complex, he was doing more than merely exposing their internal plans and activities. He was bringing our most lurid fears about the nature of the world to light for examination.

We have sacrificed our freedoms and morals in order to make war on those abroad, and, more subtly, on ourselves; but it was the necessary cost to stop the scourge of terror which stalked us so relentlessly. Indeed, in their ostensible search for this threat, the NSA did not leave any stone unturned. No place was too private or too sacred to escape their surveillance. They nakedly spoke of their desire to control every bit of communications information on the planet. Throughout this, the idea that anyone was entitled to personal privacy was treated as a quaint joke.

As it turns out, while the NSA was remarkably good at violating the innermost thoughts and feelings of Americans, it was remarkably poor at finding actual threats to the US. A White House panel, convened in the wake of Snowden’s leaks this week, was forced to admit that massive NSA spying had not produced evidence revealing even a single terrorist plot against the country. The spectre of terrorism had been used as a bludgeon to compel Americans to give up every last shred of their privacy. But incredibly, upon finding nothing, the government simply kept prying further still. One intelligence official, who was on the White House’s panel, made this incredible admission: “It flies in the face of everything that they have tossed at us.” The American people could easily be forgiven for feeling the same way.

So what was the NSA doing for all these years if not finding terrorists? What were those billions of dollars being spent on? It turns out they were bulk collecting domestic phone records, online searches, emails, videos and voice chats. Not satisfied with this Orwellian level of invasiveness, NSA agents were even found to be infiltrating video game communities and developing techniques to blackmail individuals with their online pornography usage. Throughout all this, they found nothing about terrorism. The entire planet was placed into  a panopticon, only to reveal that the omniscient threat of dangerous terrorism was in fact largely a middling lie. To paraphrase the writer Jonathan Schwarz: The Snowden leaks mainly revealed that the US has so few threats the NSA could just waste endless amounts of time and money.

Inside Story Americas – NSA leaks and US democracy

While this is certainly true, it’s also worth examining what the organisational response of the NSA was to discovering that their spying powers were massively excessive and superfluous. Instead of disclosing to the American people that they were largely safe and could take a deep breath, they actually fought to ramp up the fear even higher. The spectre of terrorism was invoked to justify even more expansive spying powers. In short, they publicly played up a threat of terrorism which they privately knew was almost non-existent.

Thus, what Snowden revealed was far worse than simple bureaucratic overreach or inconsistencies with the law. Instead a narrative which had been promulgated by government officials over the past decade – that Americans would need to sacrifice their basic freedoms in order to be safe – was revealed to be brazenly false. Americans had given up their most personal freedoms and were not any safer for it. This was not because the NSA didn’t have enough power to search, but because it turned out there was literally nothing out there for them to find. Their response to this discovery mirrored those of powerful intelligence agencies throughout history: it made them want even more power. The American people had given the NSA a free hand to hollow out their democracy and they zealously took up the opportunity. They sought out the holy grail of “total information awareness” for no apparent reason other than the fact that they could.

All this came to a grinding halt with the Snowden disclosures. Snowden said: “I couldn’t, in good conscience, allow the US government to destroy privacy, Internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world.”  Admirable as this is, it’s clear now that stopping this project is only a by-product of what he’s done.

Snowden’s decision to leak the details of NSA spying has revealed the fundamental deceit that lies at the heart of governance in the “War on Terror” era. By raising the constant spectre of terrorism to justify every governmental power grab – cynically manipulating the existential fear of every American citizen – the agencies empowered in the post-9/11 era have slowly been transforming themselves into the real holders of power in the US government.

Unaccountable, opaque, powerful and pervasive; they magnified a threat they knew was immaterial in order to compel Americans into handing them every last vestige of their personal freedom. Therein lies the real heart of this scandal. And with every sordid new revelation, it seems that Snowden’s claim to have “defected from the American government to the American people” rings truer.

Murtaza Hussain is a journalist with First Look Media. His work has previously appeared in the The Guardian, Salon.com, The Globe and Mail, and Muftah.org.