When President Obama inherited George Bush’s war on terror, he also inherited the metastasasing, multi-billion dollar surveillance apparatus created to fight it. We – including, one suspects, the president himself — now know a lot more about this apparatus than we did a week ago, and it’s not pretty.
What’s really troubling, though, is not that the National Security Agency, America’s global eavesdropper, has authority to troll through everyone’s telephone records or that its boffins have access, through a programme called PRISM, to the Gmail and other online accounts of anyone they consider a legitimate target.
Actually, what those disclosures bring to mind, more than anything else, is Captain Renault’s immortal line in Casablanca that he was “shocked – shocked” to hear that gambling was going on in Rick’s Café Americain. There is a war on – jihadis are still trying to kill and maim Americans — and what history teaches is that when America fights wars, its constitution usually suffers collateral damage.
No, the more alarming discovery concerns the calibre of the people the security-industrial complex is hiring and giving access to everyone’s conversations, the apparent laxness of security and, from a fiscal standpoint, the amount contractors are getting paid.
Edward Snowden, who gave the Guardian and the Washington Post the documents on which their scoops were based, is a callow-seeming 29-year-old drop out not only of high school but of the community college where he went to try and complete the US equivalent of matric. Only later did he manage to earn a high school diploma.
He served in the military in Iraq without evident distinction before being injured in an accident. On his return, according to the account he gave the Guardian, he landed a job as a security guard at an NSA facility outside Washington. From there he was signed up as an IT technician by the CIA which sent him to its station in Switzerland, where, by his account, he witnessed an operation to recruit a banker as a source.
He landed up in Hawaii earning $200 000 – four times median US household income — as an “infrastructure analyst” for NSA contractor Booz Allan Hamilton, a major beneficiary of the war on terror. The job, he says, involved “relatively little work”.
He was appalled, he says, both by the NSA’s capacity to hoover up and store communications and by the casual approach analysts took to abuses of the power this “architecture of oppression” gave them. So he laid his hands on some documents, selected, he says, on the basis that their disclosure would not place any agent or sources in danger, and leaked them.
The material includes a secret order by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court authorizing blanket collection of phone records; a Powerpoint on the PRISM programme; some graphics showing the NSA is – surprise, surprise – gathering a lot of date from Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan; and a presidential directive setting out the legal framework under which the US is to conduct defensive and offensive “cyber operations”.
Snowden flew to Hong Kong and gave the documents to Glenn Greenwald, described by National Public Radio as a blogger-activist, under whose byline they appeared in the Guardian. The Washington Post also received a set. Publication, serendipitously or not, coincided with the summit between Obama and China’s President Xi Jinping at which Obama was to take China to task for engaging in cyber espionage.
It’s likely that that are a lot more shoes to drop in this drama. Opinion, as evidenced by the comments readers are furiously posting on the websites of the Post and New York Times, is very much divided. To some Snowden is a patriot in the mold of Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers exposing the dark side of US involvement in Viet Nam. To others, he is traitor with some kind of martyr complex.
With the administration already under fire for prosecuting leakers and subpoenaing journalists’ records to catch them, Snowden’s fate will probably weigh heavily on Obama for the remainder of his term.
Whatever becomes of Snowden, it is to be hoped his disclosure triggers a hard look not simply at what the NSA is doing, but at the quality of the institution and its personnel and the extent to which it relies on outside contractors like Booz Allen Hamilton.
History may ultimately rank Snowden with Ellsberg, but it still needs to be asked: if the NSA can be compromised by someone in Snowden’s position and with his qualifications, is this an organization you really want to trust with the staggering power it has to pry.