Conservatives, spy chiefs, President Obama, right-wing administrations, the Abbott government: they were all choking on their corn flakes when the Pulitzer Prize, the most prestigious award in journalism, was handed to the UK’s The Guardian and the Washington Post for their articles about the surveillance activities of the National Security Agency (NSA) based on the leaks of Edward Snowden.
Even more galling for them would have been that the Pulitzer Prize was awarded in the category of “public service” for the newspapers’ “aggressive reporting to spark a debate about the relationship between the government and the public over issues of security and privacy” – since they consider Snowden to have done a great disservice to the public, even putting unnamed lives at risk.
It is hard to think of a figure that divides public opinion more than Edward Snowden: “hero”, “whistleblower”, “traitor”, “treasonist”. These are the words used to describe the 30-year-old former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and NSA contractor, now in hiding in Russia.
The US government has charged him with espionage and revoked his passport, at the same time Norwegian parliamentarians Snorre Valen and Baard Vegar Solhjell have nominated Snowden for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Australia’s attorney general George Brandis called Snowden “criminally dishonest, treacherous and having put Australian lives at risk” in a speech in parliament. In response to Brandis, Greens Senator Scott Ludlam called Snowden a “whistleblower who I hold in highest regard”.
Where you stand on Edward Snowden defines your views on things like individual freedom, the right to privacy, the role and responsibility of government, access to information and democracy itself.
The Snowden leaks uncovered a hidden world of secret government activities in the US, UK and Australia including:
- the bulk collection of phone records of US citizens by telecom Verizon including calls made to other countries, regardless of whether they are suspected of wrong-doing.
- that the UK and US governments had access to user data held by Google, Facebook, Intel and others, including audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails, documents, and connection logs.
- that the NSA monitored the phone conversations of 35 world leaders including German chancellor Angela Merkel, – a supposed Western ally
- That the Australian government listened in on the phone conversations of Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s and his wife.
- that the NSA “spied on the staff of prominent human rights organisations” including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch;
- that there were programs like Prism or XKeyscore, clandestine mass electronic surveillance data mining programs, which use sophisticated techniques to screen “trillions” of private communications.
These leaks highlighted the secret activities of the NSA, depicting it as a shadowy government organisation resembling “Big Brother” as described in George Orwell’s hugely influential 1949 novel “1984”. It was this book which coined the adjective “Orwellian” to mean official deception, secret surveillance, and manipulation.
It is not that surprising then that in the wake of the revelations about the NSA, sales of Orwell’s prophetic dystopian novel skyrocketed.
I regard Edward Snowden as a hero, an incredibly brave man who has sacrificed his own personal freedom to expose a government organisation obsessed with power, secrecy, data and control. Were it not for Snowden, the full extent of NSA activities and those of its UK and Australian counterparts would never been known.
But what of the other argument – the one that beats its fists against its chest proclaiming Snowden a thief, traitor and criminal?
My own newspaper, the Australian Financial Review published an interview with General Keith Alexander, a spy and former head of the NSA, who not surprisingly slammed the Edward Snowden leaks.
This of course is the equivalent of asking the CEO of McDonald’s if he agreed that hamburgers were healthy.
According to General Alexander, the NSA is a “noble organisation that is “protecting our civil liberties and privacy” and that saves lives.
He says the very reports that won The Guardian and Washington Post the Pulitzer Prize are wrong and that it is a “fabrication” and “misperception” that the NSA is “listening into everyone’s calls, and reading everyone’s emails”.
General Alexander says the NSA has been “demonized” and painted as a “villain” by these very articles. when in fact the NSA is full of “honest, well-intentioned, hard-working, and patriotic people”.
The actions of Edward Snowden and the subsequent reports by The Guardian and the Washington Post, General Alexander says “have put so many lives at risk”.
The job of the NSA, General Alexander says, is to “stand watch” over our safety, which he says it does within legal means.
Of course he cannot actually tell us the details of what the NSA is doing because that would compromise its role. In essence, we just have to trust him and the NSA.
Or if not him, then perhaps UK foreign minister William Hague who said in an interview that reports British intelligence agency Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) was gathering intelligence from phones and online sites “should not concern people who have nothing to hide” – a phrase that could have come straight out of an Orwell novel or perhaps the East German Stasi or KGB.
So do you believe General Alexander that the NSA is acting responsibly that the “overwhelming evidence falls in favour of the legality and legitimacy of what NSA has done”?
Or do you believe Edward Snowden, when he says the NSA is intent on “gathering intelligence where ever it can, by whatever means possible”?
There is of course a third view – that you accept that the NSA and other secretive government agencies are – as Snowden says – acting way beyond their remit, but in the name of protecting its citizens, that the end justifies the means.
But if you do, then you must also accept that your right to individual privacy is gone and that you are comfortable with the idea of a “Big Brother” watching over you as you type your email or make a phone call.
Perhaps it’s worth remember these chilling words of O’Brien, a member of the inner party who attempts to trick Winston Smith, the doomed hero of Orwell’s 1984:
There will be no loyalty, except loyalty towards the Party. There will be no love, except the love of Big Brother. There will be no laughter, except the laugh of triumph over a defeated enemy. There will be no art, no literature, no science. When we are omnipotent we shall have no more need of science. There will be no distinction between beauty and ugliness. There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always — do not forget this, Winston — always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — for ever.’