Why is Snowden still trapped?

July 16, 2013

Nicole Colson reports on the latest developments with whistleblower Edward Snowden.

EDWARD SNOWDEN remains stuck in limbo--or, more accurately, in Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport.

The former defense contract employee who last month leaked National Security Agency (NSA) documents and other information to the Guardian's Glenn Greenwald and other journalists that revealed the extent of the U.S. surveillance state has become a virtual prisoner of U.S. power.

While countries such as Bolivia, Nicaragua and Venezuela have offered Snowden asylum, the U.S government has revoked his passport and charged him with espionage and theft of government property. The effect has been to trap Snowden in the Moscow airport's "transit area"--a space that is legally "between" countries.

There are no signs that the U.S. will ease off the pressure anytime soon--in fact, quite the opposite. Earlier this month, a plane carrying Bolivian President Evo Morales had to be rerouted to Vienna, Austria, after France, Spain, Portugal and Italy refused to let the plane cross their airspace--almost certainly at the behest of the U.S., which suspected that Snowden was on board and wanted to nab him before he could reach a country offering asylum.

Edward Snowden
Edward Snowden (Laura Poitras)

Despite all this, Snowden has remained adamant that going public was the right choice. In a press conference at the airport on July 12, he explained:

A little over one month ago, I had family, a home in paradise, and I lived in great comfort. I also had the capability, without any warrant, to search for, seize and read your communications--anyone's communications at any time. That is the power to change people's fates...

I did not seek to enrich myself. I did not seek to sell U.S. secrets. I did not partner with any foreign government to guarantee my safety. Instead, I took what I knew to the public, so what affects all of us can be discussed by all of us in the light of day, and I asked the world for justice. That moral decision to tell the public about spying that affects all of us has been costly, but it was the right thing to do, and I have no regrets.

Snowden has now suggested that he will apply for at least temporary asylum in Russia--but whether the Russian government will allow him to remain if it might harm its relationship with the U.S. is unclear. Russian President Vladimir Putin has already made it clear that any approval of an asylum request will be contingent on Snowden refraining from releasing any more information that might damage U.S. interests.

AT THE heart of what Snowden revealed is the government's ability to collect massive amounts of data from U.S. citizens. Every phone call, e-mail and Internet search is being vacuumed up--if not for actual content, then for "meta data" like ISP addresses and records of who we are calling and e-mailing and when.

As Glenn Greenwald wrote, "Aside from how obviously menacing and even creepy it is to have a state collect all forms of human communication--to have the explicit policy that literally no electronic communication can ever be free of U.S. collection and monitoring--there's no legal authority for the NSA to do this."

The information Snowden has leaked shows the extreme lengths the government has gone to in order to collect such data from its own citizens. Last month, the Guardian and Washington Post uncovered the existence of a government program known as "Prism," which is alleged to have allowed the government to access the servers of major U.S. Internet service providers and companies, including Google, Facebook, Skype, Apple and others.

While tech industry leaders denied any knowledge of the program at the time, the Snowden revelations illustrate the dog-like obedience of Silicon Valley and the telecommunications industry in handing over our personal communications to the government. According to a recent report from the Guardian, the files released by Snowden show that:

-- Microsoft helped the NSA to circumvent its encryption to address concerns that the agency would be unable to intercept web chats on the new Outlook.com portal;

The agency already had pre-encryption stage access to e-mail on Outlook.com, including Hotmail;

[Microsoft] worked with the FBI this year to allow the NSA easier access via Prism to its cloud storage service SkyDrive, which now has more than 250 million users worldwide;

Microsoft also worked with the FBI's Data Intercept Unit to "understand" potential issues with a feature in Outlook.com that allows users to create email aliases;

In July last year, nine months after Microsoft bought Skype, the NSA boasted that a new capability had tripled the amount of Skype video calls being collected through Prism;

Material collected through Prism is routinely shared with the FBI and CIA, with one NSA document describing the program as a "team sport".

As the Guardian noted when it first broke the story about the existence of PRISM, "Some of the world's largest internet brands are claimed to be part of the information-sharing program since its introduction in 2007. Microsoft--which is currently running an advertising campaign with the slogan 'Your privacy is our priority'--was the first, with collection beginning in December 2007."

Documents revealed by Snowden, which include top-secret NSA newsletters, suggest that cooperation between the tech industry and the Obama administration's NSA is "deep and ongoing," according to the Guardian.

Despite the Obama administration's best efforts to demonize Snowden, such revelations about the erosion of our privacy and the extent of government surveillance on U.S. citizens have shocked millions of people. Earlier this month, a poll by Quinnipiac University found that 55 percent of American voters view Snowden as a whistleblower--not a traitor.

The poll also found that 45 percent of voters say the government goes too far restricting civil liberties in regard to its anti-terrorism efforts--as compared to 2010, when 63 percent felt the government didn't go far enough.

EDWARD SNOWDEN'S whistle-blowing has not only revealed the extent of the U.S. surveillance state, but also the compliance and rot at the heart of the mainstream U.S. media, which has lined up to smear Snowden and defend the Obama administration's actions.

Among the many examples: CNN's Jeff Toobin denounced Snowden as a "clown" and "a grandiose narcissist who deserves to be in prison." MSNBC's Melissa Harris-Perry attacked Snowden for having fled the U.S., stating, "Once you've decided to be a defender of those ideals, you have to be prepared to face the consequences." Those "consequences," by the way, include Snowden not only giving up his home and comfortable life, but being given the death penalty.

In a column for the Washington Post, veteran reporter Walter Pincus speculated that Snowden, as well as reporter Glenn Greenwald and filmmaker Laura Poitras, were being either helped or directed by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange--despite zero evidence for the claim. The Post was forced to append a three-paragraph-long correction to Pincus' story, but only after Greenwald publicly took Washington's paper of record to task for its errors.

But perhaps the ugliest attack came last month from NBC's Meet the Press host David Gregory. In an interview with Glenn Greenwald, Gregory attacked Greenwald, asking him, "To the extent that you have aided and abetted Snowden, even in his current movements, why shouldn't you, Mr. Greenwald, be charged with a crime?"

Greenwald replied:

I think it's pretty extraordinary that anybody who would call themselves a journalist would publicly muse about whether or not other journalists should be charged with felonies. The assumption in your question, David, is completely without evidence--the idea that I've aided and abetted him in any way...

If you want to embrace that theory, it means that every investigative journalist in the United States who works with their sources, who receives classified information, is a criminal. And it's precisely those theories and precisely that climate that has become so menacing in the United States.

Gregory's response? "Well, the question of who's a journalist may be up to a debate with regard to what you're doing."

In Gregory's world, Greenwald is not a "real journalist" because he supports Snowden's whistleblowing. But Gregory applies the label of "journalist" to himself, despite the fact that he is friends with Liz Cheney (daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney) and other high-profile Washington insiders. As New York Magazine writer Frank Rich commented:

[I]t's easier for Gregory to go after Greenwald, a self-professed outsider who is not likely to attend the White House Correspondents' Dinner and works for a news organization based in London. Presumably if Gregory had been around 40 years ago, he also would have accused the Times of aiding and abetting the enemy when it published Daniel Ellsberg's massive leak of the Pentagon Papers.

The same people who failed to challenge the lies that took us to war with Iraq, who wouldn't use the word "torture" to describe the policies of the Bush administration, and who refuse to call the Obama administration out for its illegal use of drone strikes and extrajudicial assassinations are today the same people who criticize Snowden and Greenwald for their work in revealing crimes committed by the U.S. government.

Snowden and Greenwald should be applauded for their actions--and media lapdogs like Gregory should hang their heads in shame.

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