One June 5th, The Guardian published the first of a series of articles that have shed light on the breadth of the US government’s unconstitutional (but in many instances legal) surveillance programs. Further stories from The Guardian, The Washington Post, The South China Morning Post, and Der Spiegel have helped reveal that the US government can basically spy on any US citizen with a cell phone or an email account and many foreign governments. This scandal has been made possible by Edward Snowden; a former CIA employee and NSA contractor who leaked the classified information to various news outlets. The public has been rightfully outraged at these revelations. The latest leak drama has been illustrative in a number of ways. Here are 5 lessons that the Snowden saga has helped bring to the fore.
Lesson 1: The US Government is Spying on Everyone
I won’t go into too much detail because the aforementioned publications have done a good job of breaking this one down. But, in a nutshell, the US government has the ability (and has exercised that ability) to: track who’s communicating with who, listen to phone calls, read text messages, and read emails; all without a warrant. The government has also spied on foreign governments and institutions (many of whom are considered allies).
Lesson 2: It’s Using Contractors To Do It
Though Snowden was a CIA employee for a time and his information has shed light on the CIA’s activity as well, the bulk of Snowden’s leaks have revealed NSA practices. Snowden, however, was never directly employed by the NSA. Instead, he worked for Booz Allen Hamilton, a for-profit consulting firm which is contracted by the NSA. This is an example of not just public dollars being sent to a private entity, but also for-profit corporations gaining access to extremely sensitive information to which the government doesn’t even have the constitutional right to collect.
Lesson 3: The US Government Has Legislated Its Way Around the Constitution
Though the government spying programs violate of the 4th Amendment of the Constitution, they’re “legal.” That is to say that through a series of legislation, the 4th Amendment has been weakened to a degree where this type of surveillance is both legal and classified. Congress has gradually eroded the 4th Amendment for decades if not longer.
There’s a lot of good language about freedom, liberty, justice, and equality in the Constitution. The government recognizes that people like those rights and it’s in the ruling class’s interest to keep people happy and appreciative of their (perceived) rights. Quietly, however, lawmakers have engineered a series of stipulations which leave the Constitution full of holes; Snowden’s leaks have exposed some big ones.
Lesson 4: Democrats and Republicans are on the Same Side
Though some lawmakers have criticized the US spying programs, most members of congress, both Democrat and Republican, have shown a united front of support for the surveillance state. Whether it’s denouncing Snowden, defending the spying programs, or pressuring other countries to expel Snowden or reject his asylum bids, the Obama administration and legislators on both sides of the aisle have collaborated seamlessly. Once again, the ruling class is behaving like just that, a class with common interests. It seems that on the issue of privacy, Democrat vs. Republican is a false choice once again.
Lesson 5: The Media Focuses on the Small Story, Not the Big One
What has frustrated me the most about this whole saga is how the story has become less and less about the US government’s unconstitutional trespasses and more and more about Edward Snowden. I respect his decision to reveal his identity. On a human level, it’s nice to know where this kind of information is coming from and, on a strategic/paranoid/conspiracy theorist level, his decision to go public makes him less likely to become the target of a quiet assassination or “freak accident” death.
His decision to reveal himself, however, has allowed the US government and mainstream media to focus more on him, distracting us from the substance of the leaked information. As a result, the American people know all about his house in Hawaii, his family, where in the world he is, what countries might grant him asylum, his criminal charges, even his girlfriend, but not too much about PRISM, Boundless Informant, Tempora, or Dropmire (some of the programs that he revealed). (Yes, “Boundless Informant” is really the name of one of the spying programs). The media tends to turn a blind eye to larger societal problems when it has an opportunity to focus on the superficial and the Snowden leaks have proved to be no exception.
Like the rest of the world, I’ll be following Edward Snowden and the fallout from his leaks closely. Hopefully, we’ll learn our lessons.