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Snowden back

Ted Rall


Page 45 Review by Jonathan

"In [George Orwell's] 1984 the telescreen could never be turned off. The NSA brought that dystopia to life. The agency can use your smartphone to track your movements and listen to conversations in your home, even if your phone is powered down to 'off'. Program name: Captivated Audience."

Just digest that fact for a moment. You can be monitored inside your own house, in fact anywhere, by the security services using your own phone, even whilst it is completely turned off...

But surely, they aren't doing this to everyone, right? So it doesn't matter, it's just an extremely useful tool in the war on terror.

"A program called 'Mystic' records 100% of the audio content of phone calls in some countries. Some say it captures 80% of U.S. calls as well. NSA programs called 'Blarney', 'Fairview', 'Oakstar', 'Lithium' and 'Stormbrew' can intercept and store 75% of all internet traffic in the US: e-mail, text messages, web browsing, app activity, voice over internet phone calls, online banking, video." In fact the NSA also "intercepts and stores 99% of the metadata (number called from, number called to, duration of call, location of caller, and recipient) of Americans' phone calls."

Hmm... you can begin to see why people might be mildly perturbed by this information, the NSA being authorised by its charter to spy on people only overseas, but not domestically. That is in fact illegal without the expressed permission of a judge. And yet it is still happening. And let us not kid ourselves that this isn't going on in the UK, to the same extent, by our security services too. Of course it is.

So, why did Edward Snowden choose to whistleblow (or betray his country, depending on your perspective)? He had from the outside a fairly idyllic life living in Hawaii with an extremely well paid job, an attractive girlfriend. Why did he decide that he needed to inform the people of what the US government was doing?

This is an excellent, insightful piece of graphic journalism, piecing together the Edward Snowden story from the beginning and simply presenting the facts, much like Darryl Cunningham's SUPERCRASH did with the global financial crisis. It opens with a few pages recounting the fictional totalitarian world that George Orwell created in 1984, the degree of surveillance that population was subject to, and then invites us to draw the comparison with what the US security services are up to now. It's extremely unsettling that the fiction Orwell created can now be held up as a near perfect allegory to what is occurring today.

Ted Rall (SILK ROAD TO RUIN) forensically examines the early life and upbringing of Edward Snowden searching for the clues as to what made him different from virtually every other employee or contractor of the US security services. Why was he prepared to throw away his perfect life when all the others were content to simply carry on being cogs in the machine? Especially knowing as he did that whistleblowing and working within the system to achieve change wasn't a serious option, because those who had tried to do so in recent US political history were inevitably destroyed by the system.

So, if he was really determined to reveal the truth, it would then leave him no option but to go on the run and spend the rest of his life as an outcast. Even now, his asylum status in Russia is anything but certain and could be revoked at any moment. If he ever does end up back in the US, lifelong imprisonment with little chance of parole would be extremely likely. So why do it? What in his makeup or upbringing made Edward Snowden take such a momentous, life-changing decision?

Ted Rall does an extremely good job of trying to answer that question, painting a portrait of a good and honest man tormented by what he has learned. I find myself wondering whether I would have had his courage were I in the same position. It is undoubtedly true that the world needs people like Edward Snowden, who are prepared to stand up and be counted, and make those impossible decisions. How much difference his sacrifice will ultimately make is debatable. The cynic in me suspects none at all, but still, I'm glad he did what he did.

I think we do have a right to know what our governments are doing. I do accept there are specific facts that need to be kept secret, but not the means and mechanisms and reach of their surveillance capabilities, not when it affects us so directly. Undoubtedly every government's response to that would be, "Well if you're not doing anything wrong, what's the problem?" I think I'll leave the last word to Ted on that, who towards the conclusion of the book posits an extremely interesting observation that shows just how radically different people's perception of Edward Snowden and - to some degree, by extension - the United States government, both from an international and domestic perspective, can be...

"Where you stand on Snowden tends to be linked to how much you trust the government. If you see the U.S. Government as a flawed institution that employs patriotic people trying to do their best to keep the country safe and strong, you're likely to take politicians at their word when they say they don't abuse their power, that their surveillance targets are all terrorists.

"If on the other hand, you see the United States as a militaristic empire out to conquer most of the world and dominate the rest, defined by a long history of genocide, systemic racism, and ruthless suppression of dissent, then you probably think that the government can't be trusted."