Since The Guardian began to serialize leaks by a former CIA contractor named Edward Snowden, the affair, as presented by American media, has taken on the familiar tropes of Hollywood cinema: one part Leonardo DiCaprio in Catch Me If You Can, another part Tom Hanks in The Terminal, a smidgen of Gene Hackman in Enemy of the State. This drama may have peaked yesterday, when an aircraft carrying Bolivia’s president was forced to the ground in Europe as a result of what its ambassador to the United Nations claimed was intense pressure from American authorities, who were apparently driven wild with unfounded suspicion that Snowden might be aboard. The grounding was a flagrant violation of international law, and around the world today, it is being taken as evidence both of America’s pathological obsession with Snowden, and of its heavy-handedness.
Outside America, the story focuses on the “NSA surveillance scandal” and the substantive revelations that followed from the Snowden documents. But inside America, it is the “Snowden scandal,” and everything seems to revolve around his persona. We are treated to tales about his schooling, his family, his girlfriend, and endless speculation about his psychology — as if any of this had some bearing on the credibility of the documents he revealed, when in fact it does not.
It’s worth probing the American media’s eccentric approach to the story. Certainly this can be traced to the prevalent tabloid style, which values personalities over facts and policy issues, but it also reveals the hand of a government, and an intelligence community, that has developed considerable skill in media management. The Snowden case, as it has been unfolded to the American public, bears a striking similarity to those of Bradley Manning, Julian Assange, John Kiriakou, Russell Tice, and Thomas Drake — nameless government spokesmen identify the source of the leaks as an enemy of the state who has “put lives at risk in wartime.” The source is vilified, his character darkened, and he himself — rather than the leaked materials — is turned into the real story.
Just as the first Snowden documents were working their way into the press, McClatchy got its hands on a June 1, 2012, Pentagon memo that outlines the Insider Threat Program, a systematic-response program designed to help the government combat leaks related to national security. Curiously, the ITP targets not foreign enemies, but the American public. Treat the leaker as a spy and a vital threat to the country, the Pentagon counseled: “Hammer this fact home . . . leaking is tantamount to aiding the enemies of the United States.” The memo failed to take into account the possibility that a leaker might be motivated by a sense of civil duty, a concern about illegal, immoral, unethical conduct, a sense of corruption and incompetence that will continue unchecked unless disclosed to the public.
Recent reporting on leaks suggests that the ITP has been an enormous success. The unintentionally comic highpoint of the media’s ITP shuffle probably came in an editorial run by the increasingly incoherent and irresponsible Washington Post. Having published some of the most powerful initial disclosures by cooperating with Snowden, then having lost the battle for control of the story to The Guardian, the Post’s editorial board appeared to advocate prosecuting those responsible for the very leaks it had helped bring to light, possibly including its own staffers.
Outside the United States, however, the ITP isn’t working (though it apparently wasn’t designed to address non-American audiences). The NSA’s response has also focused on the unverified contention that the vastly expanded surveillance practices of the agency are limited in their application to U.S. citizens. No such assurances, however truthful, can be given to citizens of the Atlantic Alliance. Documents published last weekend in Der Spiegel “prove that Germany played a central role in the NSA’s global surveillance network — and how the Germans have also become targets of U.S. attacks,” in the publication’s words. “Each month, the U.S. intelligence service saves data from around half a billion communications connections from Germany.” Der Spiegel went on to note that among America’s allies, special treatment (i.e., exemption from broad surveillance) is accorded only to the Anglo-Saxon community of states: Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. NSA surveillance in Germany and of Germans violates the country’s stringent data-protection legislation, among other laws — a point to which the NSA is indifferent.
Espionage among nations, and even among allies, is a global fact, and no one expects it to end over episodic disclosures of abuse. Yet the enormous scope of the NSA’s surveillance program; the agency’s reach; its massive storage capabilities, as reflected in the huge new NSA building program in Utah; and the considerable resources it has dedicated to snooping on close allies and their governments clearly reflect the emergence of a new phenomenon. America has given birth to a surveillance state. It’s not the dystopia that George Orwell foresaw in Nineteen Eighty-Four — it still has some vestiges of democratic control and oversight. But one increasingly gets the impression that the intelligence-gatherers run the show, while the institutions of government that should provide checks on abuse — the Justice Department and Congressional committees — neither fully understand what is up nor possess the political will to exercise meaningful restraint.
The threat this situation presents to global civil liberties is increasingly better understood by America’s allies than by America herself. Heribert Prantl, an editorial writer for Germany’s leading newspaper, the reliably pro-American Süddeutsche Zeitung, summarizes the case well: “The NSA scandal has taken on a horrifying aspect. It is a slap in the face for the rule of law. What is called for is an understanding that you cannot combat terrorism by subverting every precept of the rule of law.”
The first victim of this new surveillance state may well be the Atlantic Alliance, which has been the bedrock of America’s security for two generations, and which ultimately means far more to the security of ordinary Americans than the NSA’s fancy electronics. Inside the Beltway, however, the obsession with high-priced technologies peddled by price-gouging contractors far outweighs such trivial concerns. It’s yet another sign of a national intelligence community that is dangerously out of touch with the world it is supposed to understand.