Monday, June 10, 2013

American Heroes, Edward Snowden, and Glenn Greenwald

The bombshell news of the past week is that Edward Snowden has now come forward as the leaker of NSA surveillance programs.  

The story started when Glenn Greenwald reported in the British newspaper the Guardian that NSA has been collecting Americans' phone records through Verizon.  More NSA surveillance programs are revealed in quick successions by Glenn Greenwald and the Washington Post.  This is such a significant development that everybody has to respond to these revelations, whether he believes they are justified, lawful, or whatever.  And predictably, people in power are clamoring for the head of the leaker, much like towards Bradley Manning, the so-called Wikileaks leaker.  Nobody needs to wait long: on Sunday, Edward Snowden, a 20-ish American like Manning, currently in Hong Kong, revealed himself.  Edward knew full well he risked a lot for his actions, and he explained in no uncertain terms why he did this.

The whole thing, while dramatic, contains two non-surprises and one semi-surprise.

The first non-surprise is that NSA has such programs at all.  At least since mid-1990s many people me included have known that NSA collects global communication data.  Remember the movie Enemy of the state?  What is novel here is that everybody now sees the most current, solid documents to prove it.  Yet, what else should we expect?  Every country, if it can do it, will do it.  In the US, the big brother is the most powerful government in the world, so it will be silly to think it does not do the most of such things.

One can accept it as a fact of life.  Or consider it a gross intrusion of privacy and freedom.  Or consider that the government is becoming too big; although many anti-big government folks cheer the loudest for these programs.   

People in power are quick to pile up on Snowden.  Most of their responses are so predicted and not worthy of a thought.  There is one that does raise eyebrow; a congressman declared that if Snowden had a problem with NSA programs, he should have come to the Congress.  Never mind the Congress has an approval rate of 10%.  Never mind the there are so many morons and so many idiotic words coming out of the Congress.  Never mind 99% of the Congress quickly fall in line every time "National Security" is invoked to serve as a stop of any conversation.  Never mind the Congress actually passes the laws and supported the practice. 

Thus, what is more revealing and resigning is that, unlike the recent Obama "scandals" such as the IRS scandal, what NSA does is perfectly legal, at least in the eyes of the ruling elites, with the Congress already codifying it with the PATRIOT Act and others, and various Courts always rubber-stamping such requests by NSA, CIA, FBI, etc, for many years.  This is a reason why there has never been real democracy in the world, because the system is so rotten to its core.  What Snowden did is to send the issue back to the people, by itself not a guarantee of anything but is the essence of democracy.  Perhaps the US Supreme Court can even review the constitutionality.

But at it goes, people will talk about it, then likely nothing changes.  A common catch phrase is that 911 changes everything.  A newer catch phrase is, apparently, that Boston bombing also changes everything.  One wonders how many times everything can change, but it is a truism that the more things change, the more they stay the same.  Because NSA has been doing this well before 2001.  

The second non-surprise it who broke the story.  Glenn Greenwald is considered primarily as a lawyer, a writer, and a commentator (see my earlier post "Learning from the Americans"), so it seems odd that he first reported the news, not the other, mainstream news organizations, like NYT, LAT, CNN, ABC (except WP).  But Glenn has been a prominent supporter of Wikileaks and especially of Bradley Manning in the US for the past years.  So Edward Snowden has a very good reason to trust him.  Like Manning, Snowden also contacted other news outlet(s), but received at most lukewarm responses even at WP, making Glenn Greenwald the perfect conduit, and Glenn did not disappoint, in print and on TV.  One would think that the American news media have learned their lessons after the Manning treatments and DOJ investigations of AP and a Fox News reporter.  But they have long become part of the system to be servile to their masters in power. 

While still young, Glenn can go down among the best reporters and commentators US ever sees.  Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden already join Daniel Ellsberg as the most influential leakers in human history.  All three's motives are clear and noble.  Technically the three broke the laws.  Ellsberg escaped due to technicality, Manning is now on trial, and Snowden's fate is unclear.  But what they did simply exposes the dirty work of those in power and the system.  The system covers its behind by legalizing their own dark practice, but it does not change the fact that what they do and try to hide is much much worse than revealing classified information.  Heroes such as Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald give the world hope.

The semi-surprise is that Edward Snowden is now holding up in HK, China.  There are no inherently wrong and right choices for Edward, only that how HK, China handles the matter is interesting.  What Edward reveals has no direct bearings on China.  HK police is well-known to do wide-ranging surveillance, China is presumed to have similar practice as in the US, although the reach is unlikely on par with the US, and China knows very well US is doing its things globally.  Thus, people in HK and mainland China will not think what Edward did is such a big deal at all, and they will not attach much significance to the case as Americans might think.  But there will be two things to consider.  First is that American business, media and politicians have been accusing China of hacking, and the exposure by Snowden will certainly blow in the face of the Americans.  

Second is that how some people in HK will react.  HK has a group of loud people that antagonize the Chinese central government and sees the US as their savior.  Freedom and democracy are two words in their every sentence.  How will they react now that they suddenly have a truly American problem on hand, especially when the core of the problem is about freedom and democracy?  According to HK laws and in contrast to many pundits in the US say, Edward might not be extradited to the US due to political reasons.  And the Chinese central government can still step in even after HK has opted for extradition.  

It is a problem that HK and Chinese government did not ask for, but how it plays out has global ramifications.  The process will take years, as in the situations of Manning and Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.  A plausible scenario, if Ellsberg' case has any predictive power, is that Manning will get convicted on some minor counts and receive very mild sentencing.  And as China and US are negotiating, something happens, likely in the US, e.g., DOJ decisions, that makes the entire extradition talks moot.  With Daniel Ellsberg, Manning and Snowden will be idolized in history, no matter what the courts say. 


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