The Edward Snowden case is far from over, but as of today it is a catastrophe for the superpower reputation of the United States and for President Barack Obama’s campaign against whistleblowers. Public opinion remains divided and confused, but a stream of disclosures about the Big Brother/Big Data complex is sure to trouble most Americans, cause an outcry among civil libertarians, and cast a further shadow over the American reputation in the world.
At the moment, the vaunted US security apparatus has been unable to find and detain Snowden, and unable to force another country to turn him over despite massive pressure. The narrative of an individual David taking down Goliath, combined with the likely willingness of Ecuador to harbor him, will attract growing sympathy across the world. The irony is that capturing, somehow extraditing and putting Snowden on trial could become a greater public relations fiasco than letting the fugitive go.
The unified and punitive stance thus far of most politicians of both parties also exposes the dysfunctional nature of US Congressional oversight in the face of the national security state.
Also ascendant for the moment is the WikiLeaks network, which has been advising, and supporting Snowden on his surreptitious journey. A recent documentary on WikiLeaks, “We Steal Secrets,” by Alex Gibney, while containing significant interviews and footage, rests on the false assumption that Julian Assange has self-destructed into irrelevance, which is anything but the case. Without radical reform of the over-classified security state, whistleblowers will predictably arise again, inspired and materially helped by WikiLeaks. Assange is isolated in the Ecuadoran embassy in London, but the power of the Internet hardly rests on physical space.
While the drama has captured media attention globally, the lasting impact may lie in the content of thousands of e-documents yet to be released.
The prudent course for Obama, whose support is being seriously damaged by the whistleblower controversies, may be to avoid public trials of figures like Snowden and Assange in American courtrooms, which could turn into public relations nightmares, while proceeding with an American version of Michael Gorbachev’s glasnost policies in the Soviet era. The president needs to deal immediately with the huge problem of over-classification, which reflects the unchecked growth of the surveillance state. He needs to implement the essence of the proposed Shield Act – without any language removing WikiLeaks from the protected category of investigative journalism. Having moved Bradley Manning to safer prison conditions than the dangerous Quantico Marine facility, it is in Obama’s interest to lessen the sentence Manning is likely to receive. And he needs to make peace with investigative journalists, both mainstream and alternative, who are on the front lines of the war against secrecy.
It is a false frame to define open-society advocates as having no interest in security safeguards. The problem is that the forces of classification and snooping have gone completely overboard since 9/11. New revelations come by the day, like news that the CIA embedded four agents in the New York Police Department during the past decade, blurring the line between domestic and foreign jurisdictions. One long-time national security reporter, who for obvious reasons declines to be named, argues that former CIA Director David Petraeus was bent on carrying out counterinsurgency at home, through training programs, “fusion centers” and the like. Former Homeland Security director Tom Ridge now works for the fracking industry as a lobbyist, and The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual is being used as a text for suppressing and isolating anti-fracking activists as “terrorists.”
Most Americans tend to be skeptical of whistleblowers deciding unilaterally that “all information is free,” but a majority is strongly sympathetic to greater transparency and the release of secrets that have nothing to do with national security and everything to do with protecting bureaucratic reputations and power.
Having unleashed the hunt for leakers in response to 9/11, Obama may be crucified by the Republicans and their security establishment allies. Obama will have to navigate carefully around the blowhards of both parties, some of whom wanted Assange hanged and who now propose that Obama shoot down any plane which Snowden is on.
The choices ahead are among the most serious ones the president will make. If he defaults to the security bureaucracy, who knows what revelations or new whistleblower revolts may surprise him next?
For more, please see Todd Gitlin’s comprehensive analysis, “The Wonderful American World of Informers and Agents Provocateurs.”