Whistleblower and American hero Edward Snowden is being sued by the Department of Justice over the release of his new book, Permanent Record. The DOJ claims that the contents of the book violate a non-disclosure agreement Snowden allegedly signed when he worked as an NSA contractor and that the government is therefore due all of the proceeds from the sale of the book. Snowden famously revealed in June 2013 that the U.S. government was conducting a mass-surveillance program, indiscriminately collecting phone records, internet search history and metadata from all Americans without a warrant, spying on various allied nations and international corporations, planning cyber attacks against foreign countries like China and hacking into their military systems, and even tapping the phones of various world leaders, including German chancellor Angela Merkel, among various other violations of the privacy and civil liberties of Americans and others around the world. For exposing the vast and widespread criminal activity of the U.S. government and in particular, the NSA, Snowden became one of fewer than 100 people in history to be charged under the Espionage Act of 1917, legislation originally created to go after enemy spies during World War I, and he has lived in exile in an unknown location in Russia ever since.
In this excerpt from the DOJ’s lawsuit against Snowden, the government argues the illegality of the book on the grounds that Snowden did not first seek the approval of the NSA or CIA before publishing. In other words, the agencies responsible for violating the law and basic constitutional rights of all Americans so egregiously that a formerly loyal government worker was willing to give up all his freedoms in order to inform the American people must first be asked nicely before you’re allowed to say anything more about their own criminal behavior. As Snowden states in his tweet thread regarding the lawsuit, “It is hard to think of a greater stamp of authenticity than the US government filing a lawsuit claiming your book is so truthful that it was literally against the law to write.”
Establishment Cover Up and Response to Snowden Leaks
Just three months prior to the Snowden revelations of 2013, then Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified before congress, saying that the U.S. does not “wittingly” collect bulk data from American citizens, a statement proven indisputably false by the documents Snowden leaked. For his blatant act of perjury and oversight of a highly illegal spying apparatus that violated the privacy and 4th Amendment rights of all Americans, Clapper’s feet would of course be held to the fire, right? As we’ve learned from the recent Russiagate fiasco, even the most trivial of falsehoods when told to the government can get you into a world of trouble, see Michael Flynn, Roger Stone, George Papadopoulos, etc. Instead, Clapper simply trotted out a token apology, saying, “my response was clearly erroneous—for which I apologize,” before going on to serve out the remainder of President Obama’s term as Director of National Intelligence with not so much as a slap on the wrist and was subsequently hired by CNN as a national security analyst. Meanwhile, the network continues its struggle to discern why the American people no longer trust it and its fellow corporate media outlets.
In fact, Clapper aside, the Snowden leaks resulted in not one bit of noticeable accountability or self-reflection from the U.S. government or the mainstream corporate press whatsoever, as the majority of the focus centered around the persecution of Snowden for revealing classified information, with almost none on the individuals and agencies responsible for committing the crimes that Snowden revealed. Snowden remains in exile and in danger of being prosecuted to the highest degree if found and extradited, while the NSA continues to conduct mass surveillance of the American people in violation of the 4th Amendment, and our basic privacies from Big Brother in Washington continue to diminish in the name of protecting national security.
Rather than making any effort to rein in the exorbitant powers of the state to conduct illegal spying in response to the Snowden revelations, the government has instead attempted to further normalize the idea of mass surveillance by passing legislation like the Freedom Act in 2015, essentially a modified version of the PATRIOT Act of 2001, which gave the state a vast array of powers to conduct warrantless surveillance. Now, the government is coming after Snowden once again for his memoir, perpetuating the Orwellian idea that those who display the immoral actions of criminals to their victims are in fact the true criminals, while the immoral actors themselves are really the victims for having their secrets exposed.
The Dangers of Mass Surveillance
So the government indiscriminately spies on its own citizens, but what’s the big deal? After all, they’re just doing it to keep us safe, right? Even if you assume the best of intentions from our watchful overlords, this willingness to cede so much power to the federal government is naive to say the least. The primary danger is that if the government ever decides in the future that they want to come after you for any reason, they now have the ability to construct a narrative about you through your online and cellular activity. The more data they have, the more easily they can manipulate that data to create a story that portrays you as a criminal. Even if you’re not doing anything that most people would consider to be wrong, the standard for what the government considers criminal often has more to do with what it perceives as being harmful to its own interests rather than some objective standard of immorality, as we have seen through the Snowden case itself that. This means that anyone expressing dissent or opposition to the state in any way is at risk of being considered adversarial to the state’s interests, and therefore an enemy of the state that may need to be dealt with. The state being able to closely monitor those who express such dissent through its mass surveillance program is extremely detrimental to free speech in this country because people fear the consequences of dissenting and will self-censor, knowing the potential ramifications of speaking out against the state.
“If you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear,” some will still contend. This argument neglects the fact that there is a major difference between what most people would consider something “to hide” and what the state considers criminal. If I had a plant in my house that the government considers illegal, it’s likely not something I would feel the need to hide, except for my knowledge that if a government official saw it, I could be arrested. As a result, I may hide something from the state, not because I’m doing anything wrong or immoral, but simply because I want to protect myself from government goons arresting me and locking me in a cage for something they have arbitrarily deemed illegal. The “If you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear” line of argument is only valid if you assume that all government laws are handed down by God as irrefutable moral truths.
Additionally, the notion that people should have no objection to having anything in their life exposed to federal bureaucrats and agents unless it’s something they could be arrested for is preposterous and does not hold up to any other normal human standard of privacy. Would you feel comfortable knowing someone snooped through your house every day while you were at work or had a secret camera to watch you in the shower? After all, they didn’t actually take anything or physically hurt you and you aren’t doing or hiding anything illegal, so if you had nothing to hide, you should have nothing to fear. There is a basic level of privacy that we as humans value by nature. The reason we have non-see-through walls to our homes or have passwords on our phones or computers is not solely to protect our security, but also because we value keeping certain things secret and that is in no way an indication that we are hiding something nefarious. As Snowden put it, “Arguing that you don’t care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say.”
But we need mass surveillance to keep us safe from terrorists, proponents of the government’s boundless spying apparatus like Clapper or former NSA and CIA director Michael Hayden will say. If our guardian angels in Washington don’t know that you called your mom last Tuesday to check up on how her old dog Biscuit is doing, then we might have another 9/11. The idea that mass data collection is in any way necessary or beneficial to the goal of protecting national security is the predominant myth espoused by surveillance state propagandists.
As James Bamford lays out in detail in A Pretext for War, it was the overabundance of communication data collected by the NSA that played a major role in making it so difficult for them to find the actual information that could have helped prevent the 9/11 attacks. Everything the U.S. government could have possibly needed to prevent those planes from flying into the twin towers was there, from the names of key al-Qaeda members to the locations of important al-Qaeda meetings around the world to the immigration of many of the future hijackers into the United States and their activities in the months leading up to the attack. Yet, they were unable to put the pieces together, in large part because there was so much noise surrounding the truly important details. Imagine trying to put together a 100 piece jigsaw puzzle with 1,000,000 extra fake puzzle pieces mixed in with the 100 real ones.
There is a major difference between targeted surveillance, where you have probable cause to investigate a particular person or line of communication, acquire a warrant, and surveil the relevant activities that could help you prevent a crime, and mass surveillance, where you simply collect everything from everybody, hoping that casting a wide enough net will provide valuable intelligence. What Snowden revealed was that the U.S. government has been pursuing the latter strategy of mass surveillance, a method that not only violates the basic privacy rights of American citizens, but proved highly ineffective leading up to 9/11 and has shown little if any evidence of being beneficial to national security and the prevention of terrorism.
Consequences of the Leaks
In addition to the absurdity of the claim that absorbing communication data from all Americans is somehow crucial to protecting our freedoms, there has never been legitimate proof that Snowden’s leaks caused any real harm to the nation’s security or to anyone other than those who were responsible for committing the crimes that Snowden revealed, whose ability to operate in secret was somewhat impaired. Snowden did not reveal specific details regarding individual spies or methods of operation that a foreign adversary could take advantage of and use to put Americans at risk, but instead revealed broad overviews of ways in which the U.S. government was abusing its power. In fact, Snowden left all final decisions regarding which documents to declassify to journalists like Glenn Greenwald whom he trusted to be responsible and take proper precautions, rather than simply dumping them all to the public, giving them to an organization like Wikileaks that could potentially release them all indiscriminately, or giving them to a foreign adversary like Russia or China. According to Greenwald, Snowden even instructed him to give the government the opportunity to plead its case as to why any given document was too sensitive and should not be released before he did so.
Meanwhile, people like Clapper are guilty of violating the privacy of every American citizen and making a mockery of the 4th Amendment and the foundational American principles behind it, that all Americans should be free from unwarranted search and seizure and are not to be treated as criminals or terrorist threats who must be constantly monitored despite no evidence whatsoever of any wrongdoing. However, Clapper is a member of the ruling class and his actions, although harmful to the entire nation, do not explicitly harm the state itself, but to the contrary, empower the state by expanding its reach and control over its subjects. And what do you know, the state decided it was Snowden who must be punished to the fullest extent of the law and continues to pursue retribution against him to this day, while Clapper’s crimes were swept under the rug and barely acknowledged as he continued to loyally serve the ever-expanding secret surveillance state.
The ongoing Snowden persecution reveals a very basic problem with a system that grants such massive and unconditional powers to the central government and, in particular, unelected federal agencies like the NSA and CIA, to conduct policy in secret in the name of national defense. If it is up to the state itself to decide what behavior is criminal and what consequences should be imposed on those it considers to be criminal, then we have no reason to be surprised when the state imposes extreme punishment on those who commit acts that in any way harm the state’s interests, while absolving itself and its own loyal members of any responsibility for their actions, regardless of how much damage they do to their own citizens.