Charles Kennedy is never likely to figure in the pantheon of Britain’s greatest postwar politicians. Under his leadership, the Liberal Democrats became a byword for cynical political calculation: their 2005 offer to the electorate was less a manifesto, more a shopping list of electoral bribes with no discernible vision or overarching purpose other than to maximise the party’s share of the vote.
But that does not mean that Kennedy deserved this week to find himself succeeded as rector of the University of Glasgow by Edward Snowden. Lubna Nowak, one of the students who campaigned for Snowden’s election, said that the intelligence ‘whistleblower’ followed a ‘proud tradition’. And if we put to one side Think Of A Number host Johnny Ball – one of those rather more off-the-wall choices that students habitually make when provided the opportunity to elect a university figurehead – that is certainly the case. In 1962, Glasgow students picked Albert Lutuli, president of the ANC and the first African to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1987, long before her reputation was subsequently sullied, they choose Winnie Mandela. There is even something understandable about the choice of Pat Kane, one-time half of the 1980s pop duo Hue and Cry and a long-time and intelligent advocate for Scottish independence, who defeated Tony Benn to become rector in 1990.
Snowden, however, has no part of that ‘proud tradition’. There is an entirely legitimate debate to be had about the correct balance between electronic surveillance, the protection of civil liberties and the preservation of human life in the face of a continuing threat by terrorists intent on inflicting mass casualties. It is one that Barack Obama’s speech last month on the subject attempted to tackle: ‘Those who are troubled by our existing programmes are not interested in a repeat of 9/11, and those who defend these programmes are not dismissive of civil liberties … I have often reminded myself that I would not be where I am today were it not for the courage of dissidents, like Dr King, who were spied on by their own government; as a president who looks at intelligence every morning, I also can’t help but be reminded that America must be vigilant in the face of threats.’
Compare that with the rather less nuanced approach adopted by the president’s predecessor: ‘To defend our homeland we need the best possible intelligence. We face a new kind of enemy. This enemy hides in caves and plots in shadows, and then emerges to strike and kill in cold blood in our cities and communities.’
It was, however, on George W Bush’s watch that Snowden decided to go to work for America’s National Security Agency. In an interview with the Guardian last year, Snowden argued that he did not ‘want to live in a society’ that intercepts private communications – a comment that prompted the American lawyer and legal analyst Jeffrey Tobin to ask: ‘What, one wonders, did Snowden think the NSA did? Any marginally attentive citizen, much less NSA employee or contractor, knows that the entire mission of the agency is to intercept electronic communications.’
But while Snowden later claimed that his misgivings about government eavesdropping programmes began under Bush – and that he believed Obama’s election in 2008 would lead to reforms – his true motivations appear to be rather more complex and troubling.
As Sean Wilentz, professor of American history at Princeton University, argued in a piece for the liberal New Republic magazine earlier this month, ‘Snowden’s disgruntlement with Obama … was fuelled by a deep disdain for progressive policies … Contrary to his claims, he seems to have become an anti-secrecy activist only after the White House was won by a liberal Democrat.’ To back up his assertions, Wilentz details the posts Snowden – under the username ‘The TrueHOOHA’ – made over a number of years in the public chat room of Ars Technica, a technology news and information website. They make somewhat disturbing reading. In January 2009, two years after Snowden claimed his concerns about the work of the NSA began, he exhibited little sympathy for the New York Times’ decision to expose a secret Bush administration operation to sabotage Iran’s nuclear capabilities. Asked online whether he thought it might be ‘ethical’ to report ‘on the government’s intrigue’, Snowden replied: ‘VIOLATING NATIONAL SECURITY? No. That shit is classified for a reason.’
Once Obama took office, Snowden proceeded to rail against the possibility that the new president would try to revive the Clinton-era ban on assault weapons that Bush had allowed to lapse: ‘See, that’s why I’m goddamned glad for the second amendment,’ he wrote. Obama’s stimulus bill he regarded as a deliberate attempt ‘to devalue the currency absolutely as fast as theoretically possible’, while the high levels of unemployment it was designed to counter did not seem to unduly concern him: ‘Almost everyone was self-employed prior to 1900,’ he suggested. ‘Why is 12% employment [sic] so terrifying?’ Of America’s social security programme, Wilentz records Snowden suggesting that the elderly ‘wouldn’t be fucking helpless if you weren’t sending them checks to sit on their ass and lay in hospitals all day.’
In April 2012, around the time that, working as an NSA contractor for Dell Inc, he began downloading classified information, Snowden sent two $250 contributions to Ron Paul’s Republican presidential primary campaign. In some ways, this would appear a natural fit: Paul is an extreme libertarian who opposes American military action abroad on the basis that it enlarges the state at home. But the Glasgow students who believe Snowden to be so worthy of their admiration might also want to reflect on the man their hero wanted to see occupying the Oval Office.
Paul believes that the government should have no role in healthcare, civil rights or welfare, opposes income tax, believes global warming is a ‘hoax’ and wants to see the US pull out of the United Nations. The Atlantic magazine dubbed Paul ‘The Tea party’s brain’, while Georgia political scientist Keith Poole calculated that Paul had one of the most conservative voting records of any member of Congress. And, as was widely reported during his presidential campaigns in 2008 and 2012, for a number of years a newsletter was published under Paul’s name. ‘The newsletters are, at times, virulently racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, and conspiratorial,’ reported the leftwing US magazine Mother Jones. Among other things, the newsletters claimed that 95 per cent of black males in Washington DC were ‘semi-criminal’ or ‘entirely criminal’; attacked Ronald Reagan’s decision to approve a national holiday in honour of Martin Luther King; referred to those with AIDS as ‘Darth Vader types’; and suggested ‘I miss the closet. Homosexuals, not to speak of the rest of society, were far better off when social pressure forced them to hide their activities.’ Although Paul later disavowed these remarks, and suggested that he had not been aware of the content of the newsletters before they were published, in January 2012 the Washington Post disputed these claims, quoting his former secretary as suggesting: ‘It was his newsletter, and it was under his name, so he always got to see the final product … He would proof it.’ Paul denied these accusations.
But what of Snowden’s leaks themselves and his flight first to Hong Kong and then to Russia? Whistleblowing has a long and honorable history. In 1971, for instance, the New York Times published excerpts from what later became known as the Pentagon Papers, a series of classified documents leaked to the paper by military analyst Daniel Ellsberg, which revealed that the Johnson administration had consistently lied to the American people and Congress about both the likelihood of the US prevailing in the Vietnam war and the number of casualties that were likely to result. Ellsberg has since praised Snowden, although his leak was both more targeted and he had attempted – via repeated conversations with anti-war senators – to get the documents released and debated on the Senate floor. In short, what actions might a genuine whistleblower have followed? The Economist’s Democracy in America blog provides some useful criteria: ‘One condition is that he should have come across activity that was actually illegal (he didn’t: he saw stuff he didn’t like, and worried about where it was heading). He should have exhausted all available legal and constitutional options (he didn’t). The information he published should have been collected and distributed in a way that did the least damage for the desired effect (it wasn’t; he stole a colossal number of documents, mostly quite unrelated to the points he wanted to make, and their release is accompanied by colossal spin and considerable inaccuracy).’
As Tobin argues, Snowden engaged in ‘a wholesale, reckless dumping of classified information’. Indeed, he exercised no discretion at all in the information he decided to leak, as Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian, has implicitly admitted: ‘Of the material we’ve seen,’ he told a Radio 4 documentary hosted by David Aaronovitch, ‘we haven’t published much of it, and there’s some stuff that in my judgement should remain secret.’ When asked why, Rusbridger answered: ‘Because it would endanger individual people or it’s about operations that are rightfully properly secret.’ The Washington Post, in fact, chose to publish only four of the 41 slides Snowden provided. ‘Its exercise of judgment,’ writes Tobin, ‘suggests the absence of Snowden’s.’
Nonetheless, it is difficult to justify the point served by some of the material which has been disclosed. Who, for instance, has been assisted by revelations about how the NSA intercepts emails, phonecalls and radio transmissions of Taliban fighters in Pakistan? ‘One bunch of leaks concerned Swedish intelligence cooperation with America against Russia. Another concerned similar operations involving Norway. Nobody has explained the public interest in revealing how democracies spy on dictatorships,’ suggested one Economist writer.
But then Snowden and his allies in Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks seem to have a rather lose definition of the term ‘democracy’. Snowden’s first port of call after leaving Hawaii was Hong Kong, a city he valued because of its commitment to ‘free speech and the right of political dissent’. But as Evan Osnos wrote for the New Yorker magazine: ‘Going to Hong Kong out of devotion to free speech is a little like going to Tibet out of a devotion to Buddhism; the people love it, though they live under authorities who intervene when they choose.’ Perhaps more pertinently still, as Snowden will well have known, fleeing to Hong Kong carried a high risk that his secrets would end up in the hands of the Chinese government, whose commitment to human rights, democracy and free speech, and aversion to snooping on its citizens, is not exactly renowned.
Snowden did not, of course, end up in the hands of the Chinese, but Vladimir Putin, WikiLeaks claiming the credit for having arranged ‘political asylum in a democratic country’. In Russia Snowden no doubt has had the opportunity to discuss his concerns about the dangers of a an overweaning state with his lawyer and spokesman, Anatoly Kucherena, a man appointed to the Public Chamber, a body described by the Moscow Times as ‘little more than window dressing of a civil society’, by Putin. But, then again, maybe Snowden does not have such concerns about his new host. As he remarked about those countries which offered him assistance: ‘Russia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Ecuador have my gratitude and respect for being the first to stand against human rights violations carried out by the powerful against the powerless.’
With time on his hands, Snowden may wish to learn a little more about the commitment to human rights of three of those five. Human Rights Watch provides some useful insights, noting of Ecuador that its ‘sweeping new communications law … regulating broadcast and print media … undercuts press freedom’. President Rafael Correa’s government, it suggests, ‘continues to subject members of the media to public recrimination. Prosecutors use overly broad counterterrorism and sabotage offences against government critics who engage in public protests.’ HRW also provides a pithy summary of Hugo Chavez’s 14-year presidency, suggesting that it was ‘characterized by a dramatic concentration of power and open disregard for basic human rights guarantees’. And, those who have paid a little more attention to Russia’s authoritarian slide under Putin than Snowden evidently has, will be unsurprised to see HRW report that: ‘After his return to the presidency, Vladimir Putin oversaw the swift reversal of former president Dmitry Medvedev’s few, timid advances on political freedoms and unleashed an unprecedented crackdown against civic activism. New laws restrict nongovernmental organizations, undermine freedoms of assembly and expression, and discourage international advocacy.’
It is not hard to understand why Snowden may believe that a country’s commitment to human rights and its willingness to harbour him are indivisible. Nor indeed why a man who donated to the presidential campaign of a hard-right Republican found his conscience about surveillance pricked by the arrival of a liberal Democrat in the White House. It is a shame, however, that more of the University of Glasgow’s students did not find these facts concerning before they chose to place Snowden on a par with those who fought apartheid, Charles Kennedy or, indeed, Johnny Ball.
Robert Philpot is director of Progress. He tweets @Robert_Philpot
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