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The secret surveillance programmes of the NSA.
on 5 February 2014
Whatever one thinks about Edward Snowden, whether he is a traitor who deserves a very long term of imprisonment, or whether he is a hero who has sacrificed his future to expose an Orwellian world of unauthorized surveillance and law breaking, one cannot deny the the importance of the devastating revelations in this well-written, riveting book.
It starts by describing Snowden's development as a young man. Surprisingly, he has little formal education, not even a high school diploma, the very minimum passport in America for a reasonable job, but has obvious intelligence and an early keen interest in, and ability with, computers. He first surfaced as a prolific contributor to online forums. At this stage he was politically a conservative, with a strong belief in the sanctity of the American constitution, something he had been taught by his father. He was a patriot who wanted to serve his country in the military, but his short stint in the US army was a disaster, when he broke both his legs and was discharged.
Somehow, despite his lack of qualifications, he manage to get a job as an IT specialist in a small outfit that was a covert facility for NSA (National Security Agency) and from there he moved on to work for the State Department in Europe and began to have access to classified information. His internet posts at this time show that he was strongly opposed to leaking any secret information, regarding it as a despicable act, but by the time he had finished a period in Geneva working with CIA officers he began to experience a `crisis of confidence', and became increasingly disillusioned at his government's activities. He resigned from the CIA and became a contractor in a NSA facility at a military base in Japan. Here he realized just how all consuming were NSA's surveillance activities and how the oversight of its work that was enshrined in law was being ignored and/or subverted to make it ineffectual. By the time he left Japan in 2012 to work in another NSA facility in Hawaii, Snowden was a whistleblower in waiting.
From then on he used his high security clearance to amass a vast collection of tens of thousand of highly secret files, which he was able to remove from the facility due to appallingly lax security. He initially tried to release these to Glenn Greenwald, a well-known American journalist, political commentator, and advocate of citizen's rights, who was living in Brazil. But because of the latter's lack of knowledge about internet security, Snowden eventually communicated via a friend of Greenwald, a filmmaker called Laura Poitras, and another strong critic of the American security services. Gradually Snowden convinced her, and through her Greenwald, that he was not a crank, but had hard evidence to support his claims. When the three eventually met, in a hotel room in Hong Kong, Greenwald and Poitras were stunned to find a serious 23-year-old and not a 60-year-old disillusioned security veteran they were expecting.
What followed then is told in great detail, but admirable clarity, in this book; how the Guardian newspaper was given the material, and began to publish, latterly in collaboration with other media outlets, notably the New York Times, documents that were deeply embarrassing to the NSA. They revealed the existence of a startling number of major surveillance programmes, previously unknown to the public, or even Congress. The examples were numerous: NSA had been systematically collecting vast amounts of cyber data about American citizens (something that was almost certainly illegal, and which the Director of NSA had denied to a Congressional committee); it had forced the major internet service providers, such as Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook etc., to hand over data about their customers by using orders from a secret court few even knew existed; it had even hacked into their data storage facilities without their knowledge; it had also hacked into the computer systems of major commercial organizations worldwide and the personal emails and phones of numerous national leader, including those of allies such as Germany. The result storm of indignation was deafening, but not in the UK where the cosy archaic D-notice system successful warned off nearly all the large media outlets, including the BBC. This was hardly surprising, since the UK had actively collaborated with the US via it own organization, GCHQ.
There were occasional bizarre humorous events, including when the Guardian was forced, under threat of closure, to destroy its computers that held the files, under the watchful eyes of two spooks from GCHQ, even though the latter knew full well that copies of the files existed elsewhere, including Brazil and in the offices of the Guardian's US office, well out of their jurisdiction, in a country where the press enjoyed far greater legal protection than in the UK.
Snowden comes across as a serious young man whose actions were prompted by a sense of obligation to his beliefs about citizen's rights in America and not for the publicity of instant fame. He knew very well that he would suffer for his actions and has paid a very high price for them. He is presently in Russia on a temporary asylum visa that could be revoked at any time, and is a wanted man in the US, where he faces criminal charges that could carry a 30 year jail sentence if found guilty. His `punishment' may remain with him for the rest of his life, but at least he will have the comfort that his actions may just possibly have started a debate that will profoundly strengthen citizen's rights against the actions of governments and their secret services. Even the latter should be grateful that having incidentally exposed the abysmal state of security around `state secrets', Snowden did not simply upload everything onto the internet, as Julian Assange did with the Wikileaks files. Both he and the media outlets that published the files did so in a thoroughly responsible way.