PERSPECTIVES: Of Spooks and Whistleblowers

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By Jayantha DhanapalaPhoto: The Writer | Credit: Wikimedia Commona

KANDY, Sri Lanka - Suddenly, a cascade of leaks has been affecting the sole superpower in the world. First there was Pfc. Bradley Manning, the American who leaked 700,000 government files to WikiLeaks, and Julian Assange, an Australian and the founder of WikiLeaks. Then in May, Edward Snowden, at the time a United States intelligence analyst, fled with his cache of surveillance program secrets first to Hong Kong and on to Moscow.

Manning has been exonerated of the most serious charge of “aiding the enemy” but has been convicted on other charges and was recently sentenced to 35 years in prison. Assange languishes in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London while being a candidate in Australian Senate elections. The cumulative damage that all three have caused the security of the United States is incalculable, quite apart from exposing to American friends and allies that they have been the subject of cybersnooping or, to put it bluntly, espionage.

Equally important is the embarrassment these three players have caused the Obama administration by revealing to US citizens that, in an Orwellian scenario, they are under relentless scrutiny by their government in the name of being protection from terrorism.

Meanwhile, the argument will go on as to whether Manning and Snowden are conscientious objectors standing up for truth and transparency or plain traitors violating the oath of secrecy they took in their jobs. The excellent documentary directed by Alex Gibney, “We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks” portrays both Manning and Assange as being neither heroes nor villains but as citizens with honest convictions together with their complexes and frailties.

Indeed, Daniel Ellsberg, the Pentagon official who, in 1971, famously leaked the Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam War has said, “In my estimation, there has not been in American history a more important leak than Edward Snowden's release of NSA material — and that includes the Pentagon Papers, for which I was responsible 40 years ago. Snowden’s whistleblowing gives us the possibility to roll back what has amounted to an ‘executive coup’ against the US constitution.”

Democracies pride themselves on their adherence to human rights and none more so than the US. In the period after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, however, a serious encroachment on citizens’ rights in the name of counterterrorism has occurred within the US and abroad. A CIA program of secret detentions, torture and extraordinary rendition was set in motion with the Guantánamo prison as the most notorious festering sore. Concurrently, Snowden has revealed that Prism — a clandestine program of electronic eavesdropping and data mining involving extensive invasion of the privacy of citizens, was started by the National Security Agency in 2007 with no proper Congressional oversight. He has also disclosed that the Xkeyscore secret computer system used by the US for searching and analyzing Internet data about foreign nationals across the world has been in operation.

Human-rights treaties provide for detracting such rights under certain circumstances and within certain limits. Article 4 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which the US ratified, is most commonly cited for this action. But derogations must be temporary and take place only in exceptional circumstances, such as emergencies, periods of civil unrest or natural disasters. Derogations must also be legally proclaimed, have prescribed time limits and be governed by principles of proportionality and nondiscrimination. Some rights and freedoms, like the right to life and the freedom from torture and slavery are not derogable.

The purpose is to have a balance between human security and national security. Civil liberty groups in the US argue that the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution is being violated. Belatedly, Obama called for a discussion on a balance between freedoms and security.  Without the high caliber of such senators like William Fulbright or Frank Church, the reaction of the US Congress to the Snowden leaks has been largely negative, clearly failing in the tasks vested in its intelligence committees. A few isolated voices like Senator Rand Paul and some representatives in the House offered tentative support for Snowden, calling his actions civil disobedience.

US-Russian relations

An immediate casualty in the fallout over Snowden has been US-Russian relations. After Snowden was granted temporary asylum in Russia, Obama’s canceled his visit to Moscow to meet Putin and has put the next round of bilateral nuclear disarmament talks on hold.

This is not the first time that US-Russian relations have been disrupted by a spying scandal. In 1960, a CIA U2 spy plane piloted by Gary Powers was shot down over the Soviet Union and Powers parachuted into Soviet custody.

As a result, a well-known secret that the CIA was spying on the Soviet Union was exposed, and a planned meeting between President Eisenhower and Premier Khrushchev was abruptly canceled. Powers was tried and sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment, but after two years he was exchanged for a Russian prisoner.

In the Snowden case, the Russians are not involved in espionage since Snowden was not on their payroll but was seeking political asylum after leaking secrets he had access to as a National Security Agency contractor. Putin’s admission of Snowden to Russia cannot be faulted in terms of realpolitik, especially as Snowden must comply with certain conditions. Indeed, it is Obama who is being faulted by some US commentators, like Robert Kaplan who wrote, “Because there has not appeared to be sufficient coherency in America's Russia policy in the first place, the U.S.-Russia dust-up over Snowden seems instigated by Obama toward no larger plan or purpose.”

Adding to the fiasco was the grounding of the plane of the Bolivian president, Evo Morales, flying over Europe on the suspicion that Snowden was on board. China had adroitly avoided causing any problem with the US when Snowden left Hong Kong for Moscow.

Perhaps the most serious abdication of responsibility is by American media in protecting democracy. Remember when The Washington Post courageously took on President Nixon over the Watergate scandal, and The New York Times went to court to publish the Pentagon Papers? In a frank interview with The New York Times, Snowden gave his reasons for going elsewhere with his story.

He said: “After 9/11, many of the most important news outlets in America abdicated their role as a check to power – the journalistic responsibility to challenge the excesses of government – for fear of being seen as unpatriotic and punished in the market during a period of heightened nationalism. From a business perspective, this was the obvious strategy, but what benefited the institutions ended up costing the public dearly. The major outlets are still only beginning to recover from this cold period.”

The media in other democracies may well ponder this message. *Jayantha Dhanapala is currently President of the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize recipient the Pugwash Conferences on Science & World Affairs, a former UN Under-Secretary-General and a former Ambassador of Sri Lanka. [IDN-InDepthNews – August 25, 2013]

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