What is Hidden Behind the Snowden Case?

Edward Snowden is not an isolated case but part of an independent community which is increasingly resolute in asserting itself and rejecting “raison d’Etat” and behind-the-scenes manipulation. The direct results of Snowden’s disclosures are most clearly evident in the context of Russian-American relations. The Snowden case has humiliated Europe, which Putin took the opportunity to remind them of.

Various countries are actually converging in the face of a digital revolution that threatens to rob the state of some of its sovereign prerogatives. There is the risk that the security agencies of both authoritarian and democratic countries will present this digital tide as a global threat with a role similar to that of “international terrorism” after September 11.

How an odd fugitive opened a new international era

Edward Snowden burst into prominence after the recent scandal. But what do we know about this young man with his youthful face, born in June 1983? What are the psychological and political motives that prompted him to divulge PRISM secrets? A hero for some and traitor to others, he personifies the shifts in society that are driven by progress in information and communication technologies. The Snowden case reminded the unaware that spying was one of the oldest state vocations in the world and that progress in political liberalization would in no way prevent a country from engaging in covert operations. On the contrary, it only promotes this kind of activity. It is important to note that spying has been part of statecraft as far back as there were states. Intelligence services were formed and became integral parts of state apparatus in the latter half of the 19th century. In recent years, voices can be heard warning of dangerous trends in both authoritarian and democratic governments that have been using electronic equipment for surveillance, monitoring and, occasionally, even reprisals.

The Snowden case shows that a single person is able to destabilize the entire system of diplomatic relations. We need, therefore, to understand the underlying motives of this act and evaluate the reaction it caused. Edward Snowden is seeking to publicize the data and documents on state interference in the private lives of its citizens and on clandestine agreements between US authorities and certain components of digital big business. Certainly, various types of manipulation are possible in this sensitive area. Consequently, we should remind careful in terms of interpretation. However,the Snowden case has highlighted the dichotomy in attitude with regard to personal freedom versus national security that exists between the public and the state. This is not a new dispute, but today it is relevant to everyone in the world.

Putin's understanding

Edward Snowden is not an isolated case but part of an independent community which is increasingly resolute in asserting itself and rejecting “raison d’Etat” and behind-the-scenes manipulation. Even the most active members of this community maintain anonymity. Snowden, on the other hand, became a world celebrity in only a few days. Ironically, he found asylum in Russia, reviving memories of Cold War dissidents, albeit the other way around. It may be worth our while to consider some points in his life.

Born into the family of a US Coast Guard officer and a federal employee, he was a computer buff from an early age. In 2004, he attempted to join the Special Forces, an elite group in the US military, but his efforts came to an end when he broke both legs in a training accident. After this he started his career as a contractual analyst in the intelligence community.

The White House is clearly worried about Snowden’s revelations, and more for political than practical reasons. Indeed, the scandal has put the US in an ambiguous position: while holding up freedom of expression, including online, as a crucial element of foreign policy, the US is simultaneously pursuing an unprecedented surveillance program targeted at both US citizens and millions of foreign citizens all over the world in the name of the war on terror. It seems clear that defense is an area where President Barack Obama, a lawyer and Nobel Peace Prize winner, is unable to control the military bureaucracy and intelligence. The 2011 budget for the US intelligence community was $75 billion, or 150% more than in 2001. Addressing a news conference on August 8, 2013, Mr. Obama explained e-surveillance by the need to find a needle in the haystack of world telecommunications systems and said that he didn’t think Mr. Snowden’s actions were in the best interest of the United States.

The US president’s point of view is challenged by his Russian counterpart, who skillfully handles the Snowden case during his public appearances. Speaking in a Channel 1–Associated Press interview on September 4, 2013, Vladimir Putin portrayed Snowden as a dissident, who fled from America to defend “human rights.” Mr. Putin said there was no extradition agreement between Russia and the United States and, in passing, reproached Washington for refusing to extradite fugitive Russian nationals whose hands were stained with blood while Snowden had committed no crime. He also mentioned the fact that Snowden had contacted the Russian consulate in Hong Kong, asking for assistance in his personal fight with the Obama administration. According to Putin, this proposal was turned down because Russia was not a non-government organization but a country minding its national interests. Moscow, therefore, agreed to grant him asylum under the condition that he discontinues his activities on Russian soil and thus refrain from jeopardizing Russian-American relations further. At the same time, the president said that a Russian Snowden would have been treated with the strictest conformity to the law.

The latter demonstrates a convergence of different countries in the face of the digital revolution which is threatening to rob the state of some of its sovereign prerogatives. The Russian president explained this decision as concern for the traditional system of interstate relations rather than by an interest in the dissident’s fate. In referring to Snowden, he said he was sincerely at a loss: “You know, sometimes I think about him; he’s an odd character.” It’s all the more strange that Snowden had chosen to complicate his life himself, he went on. He allowed that over time America would possibly come to understand that Snowden was a freedom fighter with convictions of his own and that he did not deserve to be treated as a traitor and a spy. Putin left room for a compromise, but was in no hurry to specify what kind of compromise and said in conclusion that Edward Snowden saw himself as a champion of high ideals for which sacrifices were in order. “It was his choice!”

Serious consequences for diplomacy

The direct results of Snowden’s disclosures are most clearly evident in the context of Russian-American relations, for his case is now of symbolic importance for both Moscow and Washington. After Barack Obama was elected in 2008, Russian-American relations slowly grew better owing to the new administration’s reset policy meant to patch up ties with Moscow after the challenges of the Bush administration. The aim was to minimize the damage that Russian intransigence could inflict on US interests and outline feasible points of cooperation on certain issues, primarily antiterrorism. Obama’s reelection in 2012 coincided with Putin’s return to the Kremlin, where he was determined to pursue a tough foreign policy stance in the hope that it would bear fruit. But relations between the two countries have only become more strained; Moscow is increasingly reluctant to tolerate Washington’s arrogance and sermons and is using this ideological disarray in the West to justify its own style of development and unique foreign policy.

The Snowden case has complicated Russian-American relations beyond the numerous other issues from the Magnitsky list to antimissile defense. Since the Libya war, Russian-American tensions have been most evident over Syria and, as a consequence, over Iran. Moscow has reproached Washington, Paris and London over their liberal interpretation of new UN international law initiatives, specifically the R2P (Responsibility to Protect) concept. The Snowden case is seen as yet another moral defeat for America, while Russia appears more favorably as an example of hospitality and tolerance. Like Guantanamo, PRISM has become a symbol of retreat from the democratic values in a country which is uncomfortable to strike a balance between its own constitutional principles and antiterrorism. Referring to the Snowden case, Putin, of course, didn’t miss the chance to invoke this contradiction, suggesting it was behind the decline in America’s moral prestige.

Since 2008, the Obama administration has been using e-diplomacy in a bid to infuse the term “smart power” with real content and thereby refurbish an image tarnished by eight years of Bush rule. It was necessary to theorize the “connectivity principle,” which made a person’s influence directly dependent on his ability to create ties and contacts and thus bring his ideas to others while winning their trust. But this could likely be termed “soft power” while the Snowden exposure shows the extent to which the mastery and control of information technology is essential to America’s “hard power.” Evidently, e-diplomacy was meant to carry out a high mission to promote the “democratization” of the world by emphasizing freedom on the internet and internet freedom. In May 2009, Hillary Clinton unveiled her 21st Century Statecraft program heralding outreach beyond the traditional diplomatic and interstate relations and the coming of a new era of direct communications between the state and the individual and inside communities of individuals. In January 2010, Ms. Clinton made a public address urging the disbandment of all e-borders in order to avoid the emergence of an information iron curtain.

At the same time, the National Security Agency was collecting and using metadata and was accountable to no one for its actions. Much metadata was obtained through cooperation with major US internet companies (search engines, social networks, and interface cable producers) that originally held the promise of personal emancipation and democratization. It is mainly these behind-the-scenes agreements between the NSA and these companies, which are still in existence today, that Snowden exposed. This merger between state power and the resources of private business directly serves US interests in that it creates an unprecedented concentration of power on a global scale that allows America to conduct an imperialist “policy of interpenetration.”

In indirect terms, the Snowden case has humiliated Europe, which Putin took the opportunity to remind them of. By closing their airspace to Evo Morales’ plane on the suspicion that the Bolivian president was trying to smuggle Edward Snowden to his country, Paris, Madrid, Rome and Lisbon “caved in” to American dominance. These developments coincided with US-EU talks on Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) whereby Washington hoped to consolidate its technological and economic preeminence with a stagnant Europe. These plans, by the way, could interfere with the WTO trade principles and organizational initiatives put forward by the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, China, India and South Africa) member countries. The silence of Europe betrays its leaders’ habituation, or perhaps indifference, to direct or indirect pressure from the United States.

As for Paris, its silence can be explained by two reasons that have something to do with the nature of its relationship with its main ally. First, its cooperation with Washington, particularly in antiterrorism, has always been very close. For reference: The Alliance Base antiterrorist center was organized in Paris between 2002 and 2009, and was used for the rapid exchange of intelligence data between the US, Britain, Germany, Canada, Australia and France. The campaigns in Libya and Mali, as well as the intended strikes against Syria, have strengthened the military-political ties between Paris and Washington despite some friction over Iraq some ten years ago. Second, Paris’ silence could possibly be explained by the fact that it has resorted to similar surveillance tactics on its own. The lack of a European response might also be attributed – and this could be the main reason – to their inability to become a principal industrial and political internet development center. As many believe, the Old World has been on a downward path in terms of information technology and this seems to have encapsulated one implication of the Snowden case: it has revealed Europe’s weakness.

Upholding the principles

The unorganized but resolute mass of activists, fighters and ordinary citizens wish to achieve the “democratization” through internet in the hope that this irreversible process will entail transformations in existing institutions and a revision of positions. Information technology offers unlimited opportunities for “coordinated action”. The term “empowerment” means the investment in or acquisition of power by individuals or groups with the aim of influencing the political and economic conditions in which they live. All of society is subject to change and the most unassailable fortresses and “forbidden zones” like foreign policy, defense and security can come under matter as well. But forms of involvement in this activity may vary considerably depending on the personal qualities of those implicated: some stay within the law, while others think it necessary to overstep the limits.

It is hard, for example, to compare WikiLeaks with Anonymous or Telecomix. The important thing is to distinguish the political motives guiding these groups and initiatives. WikiLeaks is firmly associated with the name of Julian Assange, who has been in hiding in the Ecuadorean embassy in London since June 2012, and that of Bradley Manning sentenced to 35 years’ imprisonment in August 2013 for violations of the Espionage Act. WikiLeaks has openly called into question the “raison d’Etat” principle and has portrayed itself as an “alternative” authority. Anonymous, on the other hand, is an umbrella for different communities of internet users who profess advocacy for freedom of expression on the internet and beyond. These diverse groups are more concerned with finding weak spots in security systems of major organizations than developing a project of any kind. WikiLeaks and Anonymous have supported Edward Snowden who was given temporary asylum in Russia in July 2013. He was accompanied by Sara Harrison, WikiLeaks legal adviser, on his trip to Russia. Their revelations, incidentally, reached the public thanks to banner headlines in the world press. The less well known Telecomix group specializes in restoring telecommunications after they are blocked by governments which resort to repressions to crush protest movements, as was the case in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria.

Born in the second half of the 1960s, the internet culture was fed by two sources simultaneously, which are much more closer than it seems to US researchers: the military science that developed ARPANET (the Pentagon-financed computer network disbanded in 1990. – Ed. ) and the protest movement against the Vietnam war. The internet culture is close to a counterculture; it is extremely versatile and promoted by avowed liberals (in the sense that this word has in America), libertarians, left radicals, anarchists, computer enthusiasts, or, simply put, people defending freedom of expression, association and organization. In this sense, we can draw a historical parallel between the Snowden case and the publication of the “Pentagon Papers,” which prompted Hanna Arendt to speculate on “government decision-making” and mechanisms for official “deception.”

Remind, in 1971, a RAND military analyst, Daniel Ellsberg, released about 7,000 pages of classified documents with descriptions of Vietnam hostilities to The New York Times . As is only natural, Ellsberg welcomed what was done by Julian Assange and Chelsea (Bradley) Manning. In a recent commentary he said that the extent of invasion of people’s privacy by the US intelligence services is “today beyond any comparison with what existed in the pre-digital era.” According to Daniel Ellsberg, Edward Snowden was not afraid to “put his life on the line” to convey information related to fundamental private and public liberties; what he did should inspire “others with similar knowledge, conscience and patriotism to show comparable civil courage.” In late September 2013, Congress initiated a bill for NSA reform designed to impose limits on intelligence programs while keeping them as “efficient” as possible.

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Thus, this 30-year-old contractual analyst managed to create a storm in diplomacy, followed, three months after his revelation, by a congressional debate on e-surveillance in the United States. There is no doubt that his example will be emulated by others, although the majority of them will prefer anonymity to open disclosure with its personal consequences. This may meet with a hostile reaction. It is possible that the intelligence services in both authoritarian and democratic countries will portray the deluge of digital information as a global threat; after September 11, this threat was manifest by international terrorism (alias Al Qaeda). The Snowden case is likely to result in a paradigm change that will occur imperceptibly without being exposed to broad democratic discussion. But a different result could also follow. It could force a revision in the current practice of intelligence interference in private life in the face of increasingly loud demands to tighten democratic control over these agencies. Most importantly, it could accelerate the realization – by Europe in particular – that an “internet governance” is of prime importance in their relations not only with the United States but also with authoritarian states, namely Russia and China. In that sense, the Snowden case should convince European authorities to react politically on the digital governance.

This article has been initially published: “De quoi Snowden est-il le nom?, Revue des deux mondes , décembre 2013.

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