It was two years ago that the name Julian Assange was skipping over holiday tables, provoking shouts of "traitor" or toasts of tribute in varying degree and vigor. The word "peace" never seemed so far away in 2010, but Assange, in shaking the very norms of government secrecy and duplicity, opened doors to a new, yet to be defined era of activist journalism and whistleblowing, where perhaps the scales of fairness were finally tipping in the public’s favor.
Without the War on Terror creating a surveillance and war state not only transforming American freedom but coercing and manipulating world governments across the globe, "there would be no WikiLeaks, at least to the earth-shifting extent it is today," I wrote in December 2010.
"And Julian Assange would be just another brilliant information activist, not a nearly martyred hero who has just dealt a blow to the solar plexus of the world order."
Three years later, Assange sits in exile and in a virtual prison – he found sanctuary from Swedish persecution (on non-WikiLeaks charges) in the Ecuadorian embassy in London a year and a half ago. Ecuador has given him asylum but he cannot leave the premises or he will be arrested by British authorities. He continues his activism and WikiLeaks soldiers on, too, though it has been hurt by the financial blockade on the organization’s fundraising, baggage brought on by negative portrayals of Assange, and the conviction of Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning this year.
Pfc. Manning was convicted of downloading classified files and handing them over to WikiLeaks. So, in essence, two men sit in confinement today – for Manning, a maximum of 35 years in real prison – for believing that the release of the documents best known now as the Afghanistan and Iraq War logs, plus thousands of State Department cables, were vital to the health of American democracy (the Brits and Swedes insist Assange is wanted solely on sex charges, more on that here).
Their sacrifices are not in vain, however, because they clearly inspired Edward Snowden. On the cusp of the New Year, stories based on secret government documents he leaked to the press continue unabated – nearly on a weekly basis now – revealing critical truths to the public about what the surveillance state has been doing in the comfort of darkness over the last 13 years. In June, Snowden, a 29-year-old intelligence analyst for contractor Booze Allen, joined the ranks of self-sacrificing whistleblowers when he dropped a bomb on the American public about the access the NSA has to our phone records and how much the government has been working with Internet and telecommunications companies to exploit our personal email, Internet browsing and social media habits.
From there, over the course of five months and counting, the Snowden-spawned revelations have been no less than explosive (useful timeline here):
We know now that the US has been spying on world leaders, allies’ embassies, and major international conferences, sometimes with the help of the other countries. It has been gathering and storing five billion foreign cell phone records a day often netting American records in the process. It has manipulated and coerced major computer and Internet companies like Google, Microsoft and Yahoo, to get access to our "metadata," and has even piggybacked on the cookies corporations like Google use to hack targets. It has put malicious spyware on more than 50,000 networks worldwide to steal sensitive information. It’s spied on the Vatican (the NSA denies this) and the online video gaming community. It has repeatedly skirted and flouted the law, according to recently released FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) Court records.
For all of that, NSA Chief Keith Alexander has claimed that 54 terrorist threats have been thwarted – a data point that has been roundly dissected and criticized as largely exaggerative and simply misleading.
But he is not the only official or politician to say foolish and duplicitous things throughout this most enlightening time. As the scales tip closer toward The People, members of congress like Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-CA, and administration apologists like Director of Intelligence James Clapper, are finding themselves on the wrong end of the swinging pendulum. Clapper, for example, had to apologize in July for a clearly erroneous statement he made in an earlier Senate grilling. When Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, asked him during a March hearing, "does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans," Clapper answered, "no sir … not wittingly."
The answer was "startlingly false," Wyden told Ryan Lizza in "State of Deception," an in-depth piece about the Obama’s maintenance and proliferation of the Bush secret surveillance programs in The New Yorker this month. Wyden, who has been warning about the NSA’s activities and the ineffectual safeguards on the new intelligence powers under the Patriot Act way before it was fashionable, has been more vindicated everyday.
On the other hand, Obama himself has made statements over the last six months that have made him look weak on the subject, and not fully honest with the American people. It all started when he said, "no one is listening to your phone conversations," back in June at the start of the revelations. Sure, technically, the NSA phone records program exposed by Snowden’s leaks collected only the phone numbers to and from and the dates and times phone calls were made. Millions of Americans’ phone calls. If the leaks stopped there, maybe the President’s remarks – "in the abstract you can complain about Big Brother or how this is a potential program run amok, but when you actually look at the details I think we’ve struck the right balance" – wouldn’t seem so trite and well, empty.
First off, we still can’t "look at the details," because they’ve never been made fully available, save the drip-drip of information the administration has been forced to share.
Furthermore, we now know the government is doing everything but listening in on our phone conversations. With all of the new capabilities we are learning about today, we can safely say the surveillance state is not only using that pricey Smart Phone we’re all carrying around to map out the location of nearly everyone on the planet, but it knows who we are talking to, what we are doing online, what we are buying and selling, and our many interests – and storing all of this so-called "meta data" for a time when somehow, somewhere, our life-connections might bring us in range of a terrorist.
Snowden’s leaks will certainly keep the revelations coming, as long as papers like The Guardian are still willing to print them. The last year has not only heightened government mistrust (just look at what this issue has done to politics, rightwing and leftwing can agree on something – that something stinks in Washington), but it has opened the doors to a new era of independent journalism. Instead of being run out of town and marginalized, the individuals who broke the first Snowden stories, former Guardian writer Glenn Greenwald and documentarian Laura Poitras, have become household names. Sure, they have their detractors, but no one gives journalists $250 million to start their own independent online news enterprise if they think they’re a bunch of losers.
More so, whistleblowers have been given a second look. Tom Drake, Jesselyn Radack, even John Kiriakou, who was sent to jail this year, have become Big Names in their own right. Radack, along with Snowden, Greenwald and Poitras, was named to this year’s uber-establishment list of 100 Leading Global Thinkers by Foreign Policy magazine last week. One could say that the mainstream media likely softened to the activists’ cause when they learned they were being spied on and bullied by the government, too.
Snowden, for his part, joins the ranks of Assange and Manning, in that he is exiled and not free to travel from his sanctuary in Russia. Will there be more like him to make the same kind of sacrifices in 2014 or beyond? How many whistleblowers will it take to turn back the clock on this runaway surveillance state and rein the NSA in at last?
"We pick up more support as more and more of this comes out," Wyden told Lizza. "After a decade, we think this (Snowden leaks) is the best opportunity for reform that we’re going to have, certainly in my lifetime, and we’re not going to let it go by."
However, most Americans, as of a November Washington Post-ABC News survey, think Snowden went too far and has harmed US security (though a majority in that same poll say surveillance programs intrude on personal privacy, some 46 percent think the NSA oversteps, and for the first time, less than half say Obama is honest).
The truth is, the government will never be able to put this genie back into the bottle, and frankly, most Americans would probably rather know the extent of how much they are being watched than not. They may not know it now, but someday they might just thank Edward Snowden for the favor.
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Above photo credits: Kelley B. Vlahos