Whether it was the weakest leak or the leakiest week still remains to be decided by straw poll. But one thing is sure, Edward Snowden has successfully outlasted his 15 minutes and even his own shelf life, since being jokingly (and not very funnily) fingered for “disappearance” by US security officials and treated as terminally foolhardy by the author of this blog (see Edwin Drood's Column, 11 June
Over the weekend he dropped bombshell number 2 by informing The Guardian
of the existence of Tempora, a British system for tapping fibre-optic transmissions at source or as they pass through one of the relatively few internet junction boxes prior to crossing the Atlantic. This taxpayer-funded mammoth project, Echelon’s baby on a gigabyte scale, can track, monitor and store millions of communications per second. The staffs of 85,000 techies affiliated with British GCHQ and the NSA must have their work cut out to interpret even half a percent of all that data. Fortunately for them and unfortunately for us, they can stock for several months so as to effectively backtrack any new trail that may appear or reverse tag any cold trail that gets warm again.
Mr Snowden is a patriot to many, a hero to average citizens throughout the world and a wanted criminal for his own government. Why? For calling them out publicly for distinctly un-American, unconstitutional, uncivilized and downright illegal behaviour, that’s why. But one man’s whistle-blower is another man’s pariah and it is very uncertain whether Snowden’s search for sanctuary in Iceland, Russia or Ecuador will be successful. Anger the mighty at your peril. However much egg is on the face of the US and UK administrations, it is Edward who will be served up finely grated into an omelette. This will all end in tears, though Snowden insists they will not be his, because his conscience is clear:
“I have no intention of hiding who I am because I know I have done nothing wrong. I understand that I will be made to suffer for my actions but I will be satisfied if the federation of secret law, unequal pardon and irresistible executive powers that rule the world that I love are revealed even for an instant. My sole motive is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them. What they [the US government] are doing [poses] an existential threat to democracy. I don’t want to live in a world where there’s no privacy and therefore no room for intellectual exploration and creativity
. The government has granted itself power it is not entitled to.”
The idea of privacy being a space for “intellectual exploration and creativity” is refreshingly old-school. Most of us thought it was all about who we slang on the phone, where we surf or who we go to bed with. But with these few words, Snowden reminds us of a more traditionally “enlightened” era, when the concept of privacy was that physical space and halo of ideas that surrounds an individual, their dignity and intimate character, their self-definition and inherent purpose. Privacy at once becomes more of a spiritual than material reality.
The phrase surprised me a little when I first read it and Edward Snowden jumped a rung in my estimation, moving from web2.0 warrior to the thinking man’s Jesse James. And he’s right, of course: if truth is the first casualty of war, then creativity is the first casualty of control.
However, as anyone who has lived under an obviously repressive regime can tell you, necessity, that proverbial mother of invention, grants even greater creativity to those who must get their message out at any cost, despite censorship. The most extraordinary works have emerged from repressed societies and many are the awards they have garnered. But when forced into paraphrase and ellipsis, metaphor and symbolic language, the creative urge – that pure spring bubbling from the rock – is compromised. Art that resists repression can only sing the song of repression; can only play the piper’s tune, yearning for a vision of freedom, never experiencing the vastness and contradictory intimacy of its reality. Whereas the art that arises in a free state is like a gazelle, running and leaping in the bright morning air, unconstrained and self-evident.
Of course, the UK government has been quick, in the persons of Messrs. Rifkind and Hague, to insist that if
such powers as are being ascribed to them by Mr Snowden really
exist, and it’s purely hypothetical, then they are subject to the usual caveats and procedures. Such privileges, they say, would only be used in genuine ‘smoking-gun’ enforcement and security situations … and of course we believe them, because they’ve never lied to us before about dubious US missions they’ve been involved in: not about Iran in 1953, not about torturing the Mau-Mau, not about Echelon, not about Saddam and the WMD, not about freeing up airspace for extraordinary rendition, not about providing intelligence for extra-judicial drone assassinations …
At a time when the Americans and their British lapdogs are effectively telling us who we can talk to, when and what about, at a time when EU legislators are deciding that only officially licensed types of seeds will be permitted for planting in EU-based commercial agriculture (thus sounding the death knell for most of our native fruits, vegetables and even trees), it is legitimate to ask whether there is any long-term future for the human race in a form we would recognize as human: meaning with all our senses and capabilities intact and all our natural and political freedoms preserved. Do any of these people have a plan B? Did they ever have a plan A? Such knee-jerk, reactive, commercially-driven legislation, lacking a long-term vision of where it is leading ten or a hundred years down the road, leaves the “body politic” twitching on the ground in spasms of legislative frenzy, incapable of voluntary motion in any new direction or of evaluating new challenges as anything other than more of the same … unending sensory overload. Imagine a game of football where a new rule had to be adhered to every few minutes and none of the old rules were ever abrogated. Complete gridlock would result before the half-time whistle, assuming that all the players and spectators had not already died of boredom.
Our forebears gave their lifeblood fighting for the survival of nations dedicated, ostensibly at least, to principles of constitutionalism. This has come mean democracy and the rule of law, a rule that enshrines the right to freedoms of speech, faith, assembly, individual dignity, privacy, access to professions and occupations, trade and intellectual exchange. In the space of a few short years we are jettisoning entire swaths of such ‘common law for the common weal’ by allowing our elected representatives to tie it up in counter-legislative paragraphs whose true meaning is kept deliberately obscure and that are open, through diverse security clauses, to the most scary and Orwellian interpretations. Who watches the watchman? Who spooks the spooks? Failing the installation of truly transparent and permanent commissions to monitor how our security is “maintained” – by whom, on whose account and to what ends – we are at the mercy of those who can wilfully bend legality and the constitution in order to increase their hold on power … and they tell us they do it for our own good. Right! Let’s put the sharks in charge of the paddling pool, just for good measure.
Meanwhile, Turks are throwing rocks in Istanbul, Brazilians are trashing their city centres, Greeks and Italians are boiling with rage, unemployment is at its highest since the 1930s … but the band is still playing a jolly enough tune and the stewards at the G8 are merrily moving deckchairs. So please make way, if you will, for the passing of the world’s last statesman. If you ask me, Nelson Mandela has picked a good time to leave the building.
© Edwin Drood
, June 2013
See also: A leaky week, or 2.37 cheers for Edward Snowden
Edwin Drood's Column 11 June 2013.
Illustration: photo by © David John