September 2014

Essays

Robert Manne

The Snowden files

Edward Snowden on screen in Germany, 16 May 2014. © Axel Heimken / AAP

What drives Edward Snowden, the world’s most wanted whistleblower?

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures,” proclaims the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution, adopted in 1792, “shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath and affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” Veneration for the Constitution lies at the heart of American political culture. The inspiring story of Edward Snowden must remain elusive without an understanding of the power these words still possess for him and other citizens of the United States.

Until the mid 1970s, the collection of intelligence about foreign powers inside the US was unregulated by law. It was then discovered that under President Richard Nixon this power had been abused by the highly secretive National Security Agency (NSA), responsible for signals intelligence, which had helped other services to conduct their unlawful secret surveillance on American citizens. The Church Committee established by the Senate concluded that before 1973 the NSA had conducted surveillance of “individuals, groups and organizations involved in domestic antiwar and civil rights activities in an attempt to discover if there was ‘foreign influence’ over them”. In 1978 Congress passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which created the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (also known as the FISA court). The purpose of both the Act and the Court was to ensure Fourth Amendment protections for American citizens concerning foreign intelligence collection. Inside the NSA, the lessons of the 1970s were well learnt. By the late 1990s, during General Michael Hayden’s tenure as director, posters with the words of the Fourth Amendment were plastered over the walls of NSA headquarters at Fort Meade, Maryland. The eyes of the NSA looked only beyond American borders. Intelligence threats inside the US were the responsibility of the FBI.

The attacks of 11 September 2001 changed all that. A top secret 2009 NSA report explained the reason clearly: “Here is NSA standing at the border looking outward for foreign threats. There is the FBI looking within the US for domestic threats. But no one was looking at the foreign threats coming into the US. That was a huge gap that NSA wanted to cover.”

Inside the NSA, one story was of particular significance. The agency had overheard telephone conversations between one of the September 11 terrorists, Khalid al-Mihdhar, and an Al Qaeda operational centre in Yemen. Because it looked only outward, it did not discover that the calls were coming from San Diego, California. September 11 seemed to prove that the future of the US rested on the immediate discovery of the links between Al Qaeda’s leaders overseas and the hundreds of Al Qaeda cells supposedly inside the US. The predominant trope was now the vital need to “connect the dots” between the foreign and the domestic elements of the Al Qaeda threat.

Under the leadership of Vice President Dick Cheney, the administration of George W Bush gave the NSA the task of searching for Al Qaeda cells in the US via a secret program of warrantless wiretapping that appeared to violate US statutory law, FISA and the Fourth Amendment. On 4 October 2001, the president signed an authorisation for a program of domestic electronic surveillance that before September 11 would have been regarded as obviously unlawful.

Cheney turned to a deputy assistant attorney general, John Yoo, to provide some legal respectability. Yoo argued that the Constitution granted the president, as commander-in-chief, total authority in the conduct of war. No statutory law, like FISA, nor even the Fourth Amendment, could limit what the president might do to defend the US in its war against Al Qaeda.

Yoo’s revolutionary legal opinion was regarded as the most tightly protected state secret, shown to neither the director of the NSA nor the US deputy attorney general. Moreover, apart from those NSA operatives who volunteered to conduct warrantless wiretapping, knowledge of the program’s existence was restricted to a very select circle, including the chief judge of the FISA court (but not the other judges) and, at Hayden’s insistence, with the scandals of the 1970s in mind, the four members of Congress who led its Senate and House intelligence committees. At first, the program was regarded as a short-term measure at a time of “extraordinary emergency”. After the initial 30 days, however, the legal authority for the program was renewed time and time again.

In early 2004, a conservative professor of law, Jack Goldsmith, newly appointed to the Department of Justice, cast his eye over the most recently drafted authorisation. He had never seen such a legal mess. He pointed out that one of the four kinds of surveillance measures proposed, concerning email metadata, would have been regarded by the FISA court as transparently unlawful. Goldsmith convinced the deputy attorney general, James Comey. In turn, Comey convinced both the attorney general, John Ashcroft, and the director of the FBI, Robert Mueller.

Cheney was livid. Were thousands of American lives to be lost as a result of legal pedantry? By chance, as this battle was joined in March, Ashcroft fell dangerously ill. President Bush ordered his legal counsel, Alberto Gonzales, to go to Ashcroft’s hospital bed for his signature. Comey and Mueller sped to the hospital. Ashcroft, at death’s door, refused Gonzales’ request. Cheney was not yet defeated. He convinced Bush to sign the authorisation without the signature of his attorney general. Virtually all the senior members of the Department of Justice, likely including even Ashcroft, were now ready to resign. Bush learnt that in addition he would also lose his FBI director. Facing the near-certainty of impeachment hearings in an election year, he backed down. The authorisation was amended. Nonetheless, the program of warrantless wiretapping continued.

Inside the NSA, someone cracked. Details of the entire post–September 11 program of secret domestic surveillance were leaked to the New York Times in the northern spring of 2004. The story was written. The White House begged the paper not to publish. Was it really willing to shoulder responsibility for another September 11 or for something even worse? As it turned out, it was not. Following the re-election of Bush in November 2004, the journalist who had received the leak, James Risen, decided that if his newspaper lacked the courage to publish, he would provide details in a book. Faced with the public exposure of its spinelessness, the New York Times eventually decided to ignore the pleas of the White House. On 15 December 2005, the public learnt for the first time that Americans’ phone calls and emails had been tapped and read illegally for the past four years.

The response of the American political class was highly revealing. Rather than moving to impeach the president, after protracted negotiations they brought the program of mass surveillance, implicitly acknowledged now to have been illegal, under the cover of statute. Some of this involved secretly pressing old law into service: section 215 of the Patriot Act of 2001 was used from May 2006 to collect telephone metadata in bulk. Some involved new laws like the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, section 702 of which was used for the collection of content from leading US internet corporations. The amended FISA also provided immunity for telephone companies that had previously been involved in warrantless wiretapping. In this politics of forgiveness, a key moment arrived when a once-savage critic of Bush’s program, the Democrat candidate for the presidency, Senator Barack Obama, announced in June 2008 that he had decided to support the amended FISA legislation.


In late 2009 a 26-year-old American, Edward Snowden, entered the National Security Agency as a contract employee of Dell Corporation, serving first in Tokyo. Snowden came from a family with a tradition of government-security service on both sides. In 2004, he had joined the army in the hope of helping to liberate the people of Iraq. He broke both legs in a training accident soon after. Somewhat shamefacedly, he quit. Even though Snowden had not completed high school, he had benefited from what he has described as “a deep informal education in computers and electronic technology”. Several of those who worked with Snowden have described him as an IT “genius”.

Because of this, in 2006 he found employment in the CIA working primarily undercover in Geneva. Snowden’s politics were, in American terms, libertarian. He supported the right to bear arms. He was sceptical of social welfare. He wore Electronic Frontier Foundation T-shirts to work. In 2012 he sent money to Ron Paul in support of his presidential bid.

Snowden’s disillusionment with the American security state began during his time in the CIA. The story he has frequently told to illustrate his disquiet concerned a Swiss banker whom the CIA encouraged to drive while drunk in the hope of subsequent blackmail. The disillusionment deepened at Dell. As a systems analyst, working primarily in Tokyo, Fort Meade and Hawaii, Snowden had privileged access to the most secret programs of the NSA. Gradually, he formed the idea of alerting Americans to the secret nightmare world he believed he had become a witness to.

Around the middle of 2012, Snowden began collecting tens of thousands of NSA documents. He transferred employment from Dell to Booz Allen Hamilton, one of the NSA’s largest contractors, to get even better access to sensitive documents. In mid May 2013, he flew in secret from Hawaii to Hong Kong. He had already contacted two critics of the US security state, the documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras and the journalist Glenn Greenwald, and they joined him in Hong Kong. When they met in Snowden’s hotel, Poitras and Greenwald were astonished to discover not a grizzled intelligence veteran but a pale 29-year-old.

Snowden had decided that, unlike most previous whistleblowers, he would not try to remain anonymous. He was convinced that the public had a right to learn his motives and determined to protect his NSA colleagues from investigation. Nor would he allow all his documents to be dumped indiscriminately, as Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning, the whistleblower who gave a vast trove of classified material to WikiLeaks in 2010, had been accused of doing. Snowden placed responsibility for what should be published in the hands of trusted journalists, who were asked to ensure, if necessary with the advice of government, that no individual would come to harm as a result of publication.

On 5 June 2013, the Guardian published Greenwald’s first story based on Snowden’s documents. Snowden’s greatest fear had been that his revelations would be greeted with indifference. To put it mildly, his fears were not fulfilled. During the past 15 months, as hundreds of articles based on the Snowden documents have been published in some of the world’s most important newspapers, it has become clear that Snowden has provoked the most significant global debate about the relationship between democracy and intelligence collection that history has seen. Because of Snowden, US Congress and the European Parliament are presently considering the question of how to regulate mass surveillance. Earlier this year, he told a conference of youthful supporters: “I am living proof that an individual can go head to head against the most powerful adversaries and the most powerful intelligence agencies around the world and win.” It was not an idle boast.


The Snowden documents have been meticulously analysed in several publications, most importantly by Greenwald in the Guardian and the Intercept, and Barton Gellman in the Washington Post. What they revealed was global surveillance by the NSA of trillions of phone calls, emails and internet communications. Before Snowden, the world might have been abstractly aware of the pervasiveness of American electronic intelligence; after him, it knew what was being done in vivid, precise and concrete detail. It was as if, to borrow an analogy from the Slovenian thinker Slavoj Žižek, a woman who knew her partner was unfaithful was then sent steamy webcam images of his many sexual liaisons.

Most initial interest fell on those Snowden documents that revealed the NSA’s dragnet surveillance of Americans, in apparent breach of the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition of warrantless search and seizure.

To its considerable surprise, the public learnt that the NSA had compelled the three most important US telecommunications companies to hand over the metadata of all their customers’ phone records – the numbers, dates, times, locations and lengths of calls. This practice began during the warrantless wiretapping Bush–Cheney episode. After exposure of the scandal, it had been continued with the blessing of the FISA court, which in May 2006 agreed with the NSA’s lawyers that telephone metadata were “business records” that, under section 215 of the Patriot Act of September 2001, the government was permitted to acquire without warrant or probable cause. It based its decision on a 1979 Supreme Court judgement, Smith v Maryland, which found that because telephone company records were public, from which no expectation of privacy could arise, the police did not need a warrant for their seizure. On the legal foundation of this single criminal case, the NSA had in secret collected billions of the metadata phone records of Americans suspected of nothing. Even the ultra-conservative senator Jim Sensenbrenner, the primary author of the Patriot Act, was astonished to learn about the way section 215 had been interpreted to justify this massive intrusion on rights that citizens had once imagined were protected by the Fourth Amendment.

The public also learnt that the NSA had compelled almost every major American internet company, beginning with Microsoft in 2007, to hand over not the metadata but the content of their users’ records – emails, chats, searches, videos, voicemail and so on. This collection had taken place under section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act. All these companies’ records – of both Americans and non-Americans – had been hoovered up for storage by the NSA for five years. The ostensible purpose of this surveillance was to target non-Americans. However, the surveillance also necessarily involved Americans in contact with foreign targets. The communications of Americans, acquired and analysed without warrant via foreigners, were described by the NSA as “incidental”. To protect the Fourth Amendment rights of the Americans whose communications had been incidentally acquired, the FISA court and the NSA had developed complex “minimisation” procedures. In reality, however, as the American public now learnt for the first time, billions of their internet communications had for years been secretly sent to vast government-controlled storage warehouses without warrant, and an unknown number had been subject to analysis.

The internet companies were of course aware, although many at first dissembled, that the NSA acquired their records. Google and Yahoo were genuinely unaware that, in an operation code-named MUSCULAR, the NSA had also arranged for its British counterpart, Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), to hack the underwater fibre-optic cables linking their data centres. Much of this data was from American customers. As the acquisition occurred outside US borders, it did not even benefit from the weak kinds of Fourth Amendment “minimisation” protections that section 702 of FISA accorded communications “incidentally” collected in the US.

Intelligence the NSA collects exclusively from non-Americans, usually under the presidential Executive Order 12333, is not protected by laws crafted with the Fourth Amendment in mind. Americans were far less interested in the non-American dimension of the Snowden documents than they ought to have been. As Snowden remarked, the Constitution did not say: “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all US persons are created equal.” What the surveillance of non-Americans revealed was massive dragnet NSA operations across the globe. According to one of the Snowden documents, for example, in a 30-day period the NSA collected 70 million metadata phone records from France, 60 million from Spain and 47 million from Italy. Nor was its telephone collection restricted to metadata. Recently it was revealed that the NSA collects the content of almost every phone call made in Afghanistan and from the Bahamas, presumably not with terrorism in mind but rather the drug trade. Dragnet surveillance without suspicion of course covers not only phone calls but the entire internet. By mid 2012, the NSA was collecting 20 billion “communication events” each day. It was able to calculate its daily ingestion through a program code-named BOUNDLESS INFORMANT, and was able to gain access and make some sense of this unimaginably vast data haystack in warehouses in Maryland and Utah through highly sophisticated programs, like the one Snowden regarded as critical known as XKEYSCORE.

Many of the NSA’s targets are not enemies of the US. We learnt from the Snowden documents, for example, that the NSA bugged G8 and G20 meetings in Toronto, the Copenhagen Climate Conference, the United Nations, and the European Union, including the office of its astonished counter-terrorism coordinator, Gilles de Kerchove. Even more famously, we learnt that among several dozen world leaders it had successfully targeted were the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and the president of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff. Some of the NSA’s foreign targets suffered from more than eavesdropping. The NSA played a crucial part in the 2500 or so anti–Al Qaeda drone killings by the CIA or the shadowy Joint Special Operations Command, carried out primarily during the Obama presidency.

The Snowden documents showed the methods used by the NSA to increase its level of global communication penetration. It had taken direct control of 100,000 computers worldwide. It had introduced malware into the computers of users it hoped to harm. It had spent hundreds of millions of dollars on programs like BULLRUN, aimed at attacking the various systems of encryption that are its greatest technological enemy. A Snowden document succinctly captured the NSA attitude to one of the most successful encryption systems: “TOR Stinks.” Nor was the NSA’s struggle to take control of the world’s communications systems always remote. One of Snowden’s documents outlined how NSA operatives had stolen servers and routers produced by the US corporation Cisco, and then inserted beacons inside them before posting them on, repackaged, to their intended destination. As this document justly pointed out: “SIGINT [signals intelligence] tradecraft is very hands on (literally!)”

According to Michael Hayden, while previous whistleblowers had produced buckets of information, Snowden had revealed the NSA’s plumbing. The documents, however, showed even more than this. They revealed an organisation driven by a dystopian vision – to take entire control of the world’s communications system, an ambition captured in the personal motto of Hayden’s successor as director, General Keith Alexander: “Collect It All”. They also revealed an organisation whose morale was high. One of the most interesting Snowden documents, for me at least, was an exuberant NSA mission statement that gloried in its achievements, was supremely confident about its future, and characterised the present historical era as “the Golden Age of SIGINT”.


After fleeing Hong Kong in late June 2013 – extraordinarily enough with the assistance of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, operating from his sanctuary in the Ecuadorian embassy in London – Edward Snowden became marooned in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport on his way to Ecuador. After a month, Russia granted him temporary asylum. As a consequence, Snowden’s enemies, including General Alexander, claimed he was a Russian spy.

This was absurd. As Snowden has several times pointed out, if he were a Russian spy why would he have flown to Hong Kong? Why would the Russian government have left him in limbo at Moscow’s airport for a month? Snowden has admitted that “of course” he was approached by the Russian secret service. They got nothing from him, in part because he had decided not to hold on to any of the documents he had given to Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras to avoid precisely this possibility of compromise, and in part because he was accompanied at the time by one of Assange’s gallant offsiders, Sarah Harrison, who had instant access to WikiLeaks, described aptly by Snowden as one of the world’s loudest megaphones. As someone struggling “to expand the domain of our rights and our privacy”, Snowden has admitted he is pained to have found asylum in one of Europe’s most illiberal states. Recently, Alexander’s successor at the NSA, Admiral Michael Rogers, has acknowledged that Snowden is no Russian spy. Many people with whom I have discussed Snowden are still not convinced. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once put it: “Slander is a hummable tune.”

Snowden first explained the reasons for his decision to blow the whistle on the NSA to Greenwald in Hong Kong. From Moscow, over the past 15 months, he has spoken at length to several journalists – Brian Williams of NBC, Barton Gellman of the Washington Post, Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian and, most recently, James Bamford for Wired. By video link he has addressed several human rights and internet activist conferences, and provided detailed testimony before committees of both the European Parliament and the Council of Europe. Shortly after Snowden’s defection, President Obama dismissed him contemptuously as a mere “hacker”. Nothing could be further from the truth. From his many interviews and interventions, it has become increasingly clear that Snowden is not only an extraordinarily talented information technologist but also a formidable thinker – of depth, penetration and maturity. What follows is a brief account of Edward Snowden’s sophisticated explanation for his action, frequently in his own words.

Snowden had read the top secret NSA document outlining the history of STELLARWIND, the earlier Bush–Cheney warrantless wiretapping program. This had been for him “an earthquake moment”. He discovered from it that the plotters had been aware of their crime against the Constitution. Mass surveillance had continued after its December 2005 exposure. From his privileged position as a systems analyst with the NSA, Snowden believed he was a witness to an unprecedented assault on the values at the heart of American and Western civilisation: privacy and the right to freedom from all-intrusive state surveillance. Snowden was shocked by the power their programs gave the NSA analysts. He told Greenwald, “Any analyst anywhere can target anyone … I, sitting at my desk, certainly had the authorities to wiretap anyone from your accountant to a federal judge to even the president if I had a personal email.” Analysts had access to every detail of a targeted individual’s life – “your text messages, your web history, every Google search you’ve made, and every plane ticket you’ve ever bought, the books you buy at Amazon”. They had the ability to watch in real time the computer keystrokes of those they targeted, giving them an intimate understanding of an individual’s way of thought. Snowden did not believe one needed to be a lawyer to understand that these current programs of suspicionless surveillance involved “criminal, and even unconstitutional” violations.

For a number of reasons, Snowden regarded the FISA court, which had been established in 1978 to protect American citizens’ Fourth Amendment rights, as a sham. It operated in secret. It was appointed by a single judge. It was subservient to the agency it was meant to police. In some 34,000 decisions it made between 1979 and 2012, it ruled against the NSA on only 11 occasions. The court was dominated by 125 lawyers employed by the NSA, “who interpret decisions, interpret rulings, interpret laws and regulations in the most permissive way”. The FISA court did not even hear arguments from lawyers representing the privacy interests of citizens. In Snowden’s view, no court of this kind should have the power in effect to create constitutional law. “The interpretation of the Constitution has been changed in secret from no unreasonable search and seizure to, hey any seizure is fine, just don’t search it.”

The only thing preventing even greater abuse of the NSA’s technical capability was something Snowden called “policy”, a reference to the thicket of rules and regulations established by the FISA court for searching the agency’s trillions of collected communications. Snowden regarded hopes that there might be some natural trajectory towards restraint of dragnet surveillance under current policy settings as fanciful. The apertures that the analysts used in their searches were always the widest the rules permitted. Policy was, moreover, “a one-way ratchet that only loosens”. It was also inherently unstable. Policy might change with the next NSA director, the next Congress, the next president. In a future crisis, a new leader was likely to say: “Because of the dangers we face in the world, some new and unpredicted threat, we need more authority, we need more power.”

Snowden was appalled by the culture he had witnessed inside the NSA, driven not by the employees, whom he respected and whom he felt were often unjustly “demonised”, but by its unaccountable leaders. These leaders devised secret programs that they knew the public would reject. They used the cover of the post–September 11 terrorist threat, which Snowden did regard as serious, to implement programs – like BULLRUN, the attack on encryption – that Congress had previously rejected. Worst of all were the barefaced lies the leaders of the NSA told the public about their activities. They had consistently informed Congress that there was no way to make even a “ballpark” estimate of the numbers of Americans whose communications they collected. This was precisely what the program BOUNDLESS INFORMANT was designed to achieve. In March 2013, the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, told Congress that the NSA conducted no mass surveillance of Americans. After Snowden heard this, there was “no going back”.

Snowden knew by now that no internal NSA channels were available to him. On many occasions in 2012 he had brought what he regarded as abuses to the attention of colleagues, either “laterally” to fellow workers or “vertically” to his superiors. Fellow workers might have been disquieted, but did nothing. They advised him not to “rock the boat”. Superiors warned him not to put anything in writing. Everyone, in short, regarded the abuses as someone else’s problem. This was hardly surprising. The abuses were not at the margins but at the heart of the system. Snowden was aware that recent federal whistleblower legislation afforded him no protection, both because the legislation exempted intelligence workers and because he was a contract employee rather than a public servant.

Snowden was also vividly aware of what had happened to previous NSA whistleblowers, like William Binney and Thomas Drake, whose lives had been ruined after their efforts to bring NSA abuses to public attention, by brutal FBI raids and criminal charges. From their experiences he had learnt two lessons: that defection was unavoidable if he was to be effective, and that he needed to prove his case with solid documentary evidence. Challenged time and again by his enemies to return to the US and to face the legal music, Snowden has responded in two main ways. He has pointed out that, under the Espionage Act of 1917, he would not be able to make a public-interest defence. Even the exculpatory evidence he would like to bring forward would be ruled inadmissible on state secrecy grounds. More importantly, he argued that there were times when the moral course of action was not legal. Warning about the dangers of suspicionless state surveillance on the basis of documentary evidence was such a case. This dilemma led him to propose an original idea: the creation of a new international court that could judge those cases where individuals had been driven to break their nation’s laws in pursuit of some generally acknowledged global good.

Snowden had decided to become a whistleblower in part because he was a democrat. He was certain that the NSA’s secret programs of suspicionless mass surveillance would never have survived public scrutiny. The characteristic phrase he used to express the democratic content of his thought and his democratic ambition was his desire to see the people resume their “seat at the table of government”. He did not think it necessary for the public to understand intelligence programs or targets in specific detail, only “the broad outlines of the authorities that the government have granted themselves”. Snowden believed in the importance of the work of intelligence. Indeed, he thought his whistleblowing was in the long-term interests of the US security agencies, which he insisted he was still serving. However, he believed “the priorities of any secret service are subordinate to the priorities of a free society”. He was not a revolutionary. He did not want to “destroy” government, only to “improve” it.

He had also decided to become a whistleblower because he was a patriot. He had done what he had done as a matter of conscience. For him, the US was not just a country but what he called “an ideal”. His defection, he insisted, had not made him stateless but even more an American than he had been before. There were some things “worth dying for and I think the country is one of them”. The behaviour he had observed at the NSA, he said to the Council of Europe in a telling phrase, was “beneath the United States”.

Snowden was clearly exercised by the principal argument of his enemies, some of whom called for his execution, that by his actions he had gravely damaged for years or decades the capacity of the intelligence services, aided the terrorist enemy, and exposed the citizens of the country he loved to extraordinary and unnecessary risk. He answered this charge carefully. In his estimation there was surprisingly little security value in the mass surveillance programs. The independent Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board of Congress had reached the conclusion that the collection of telephone metadata under section 215 of the Patriot Act had not prevented even one terrorist act. Court records showed that in the chief success story the NSA claimed for section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act – concerning a New York subway bombing plot – the role dragnet surveillance had played in its discovery was greatly exaggerated.

Snowden was also aware of the studies that had shown how overblown the threat of terrorist attack had become in the imagination of Americans since the atrocity of September 11. Even if September 11 were included, the chance of an American dying in a terrorist attack in any year since 1970 was one in 3.5 million. The threat of death following a bathtub fall was greater. Even if in theory the terrorists might learn something about the NSA’s surveillance methods from Snowden’s revelations, most in practice were unlikely to benefit. They were generally alienated and ill-educated. And if they now felt “caged” and unable to communicate, through greater awareness of the NSA’s capabilities, Americans would if anything be safer. Most deeply, however, Snowden argued that even if it were true that the risk of a successful terrorist attack would increase “by some percentage” without mass dragnet surveillance, the programs were nonetheless indefensible. They ought to be rejected for the same reason that torture is rejected, “because it is barbaric, because it is immoral, it is contrary to our basic principles as a civilisation”.


Those who have come to know Edward Snowden, or even to observe his behaviour at a distance, invariably describe him as modest and reticent. Richard Cohen of the Washington Post, who had once described Snowden as a “narcissist” before knowing anything about him, later admitted that he was entirely wrong. One of the more attractive features of Snowden’s character, despite the audacity and gravity of his actions, is his capacity to admit self-doubt: “I’m a human being, I could make mistakes … I could make the wrong call.” Nonetheless, no one could sacrifice their life to a cause in the way Snowden has done without a grand animating passion. In Hong Kong, Snowden told Glenn Greenwald that as a young man he had been influenced by Joseph Campbell’s study of heroic archetypes in mythology and history, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. He believed individuals had a duty to act in defence of their principles. He believed such individuals might spark great social movements and therefore affect the course of history.

Snowden sacrificed his life of comfort for two great, interrelated causes. One was opposition to the global rise of the mass-surveillance security state, whose foundations he had witnessed inside the NSA and whose technical capacities were certain to grow “by orders of magnitude” every year. The technology it had developed represented “the most significant new threat to civil rights in modern times”. He did not believe the US “was uniquely at fault”. He did, however, believe that the NSA – “the most capable actor” in the field because it was “the most well-funded” – had become a global laboratory in which a dystopian human future could be discerned. The trajectory of history was imitation of the practices of the most advanced societies by the less advanced. Unless the American mass-surveillance security state was resisted and dismantled, it would become the model for other states. As he put it: “If we allow the NSA to continue unrestrained, every other government will accept this as the green light to do the same.” If anything, he was more concerned about what authoritarian or totalitarian governments might do with the surveillance capacities pioneered in the US than he was about the future of his own society. To avoid such a future, Snowden saw only two exits. One was the creation of “new international norms” of behaviour, perhaps through the negotiation of a new international “convention on the prevention of mass surveillance”, before it was too late. As a realist, Snowden was not convinced that this would be successful. The less ambitious alternative was the preservation of liberty and privacy through the decision of individuals to employ systems of encryption in all their transactions with others that states, no matter how powerful, would be unable to crack. As Snowden has never tired of telling his audiences, “Encryption works.”

The other great cause for Snowden was the integrity of the internet, on which he believed the NSA had declared war. It was appalling to him that it had “intercepted and scrutinized and analysed … our private homes, our private beds, our private feelings and thoughts”. In Hong Kong, Snowden told Greenwald that he had come to know who he was through roaming the vast resources the internet made available. “Basically, the internet allowed me to experience freedom and explore my full capacity as a human being.” In this he knew he was not alone. Snowden saw himself as a representative of the “generation that had grown up with the internet”. For them it was a means of what he called “self-actualisation”. He called upon his generation to join him in the struggle to take back the freedom of the internet from the NSA. Snowden had given up his comfortable life, then, to the defence of two countries and two ideals – the United States and the internet – one actual and one virtual.


I do not want to suggest that aspects of Snowden’s case about the NSA and suspicionless mass surveillance – and even more the case made by some of his more radical supporters – are not open to question. Even if everything Snowden has argued about the secrecy and subservience to government of the FISA court is true, it is still the only such foreign intelligence court in the world. As Snowden himself acknowledges, government oversight of the UK’s GCHQ is “light” compared to US oversight of the NSA.

Nor is it irrelevant that, despite the secret mass surveillance programs of the NSA, so far as I am aware, no innocent citizen in a democratic society has suffered serious harm as a consequence. It is beyond the West that the NSA’s surveillance regime has proved lethal. When Michael Hayden said, “We kill people based on metadata”, it was the NSA’s role in the drone assassination program in the war against Al Qaeda that he had in mind. Even the relation between the two strongest charges laid by Snowden and some of his supporters – the anti-democratic secrecy of NSA surveillance on the one hand and its psychological effects on citizens through its assault on privacy on the other – is more complex and contradictory than they realise. While the mass surveillance remained secret, no one was aware that their privacy was being violated. Ironically, it is thanks to Snowden that this is now clear.

Some of Snowden’s supporters, even one as perceptive as Greenwald, have used the word “totalitarian” to describe the US because of the NSA’s mass surveillance programs. This involves an obvious category mistake. In totalitarian states, surveillance is linked to the secret police and the interrogation cell; its purpose is control over society and the crushing of dissent. In the US and other democratic societies, mass surveillance plays no such role. Snowden is here more moderate than many of his supporters. But even his descriptions of the programs – the creation of an “architecture of oppression”, opening up the possibility of a “turnkey tyranny” – presuppose future radical changes in the character of the political culture of the US or other democratic systems that seem to me remote.

None of this, however, ought to undermine the historical significance of what Edward Snowden has achieved. As perhaps no other figure in contemporary history, he has forced the world to confront a question of civilisational significance. His story is, in the end, about a world where, in the most prosperous and privileged society on Earth, technological wizardry in the service of political paranoia and disproportionate security fears have begun to build a universal surveillance regime. But it is also a story about a world where an exemplary act of courage and intelligence has alerted us to the consequent madness and dangers.

Almost everyone who has written favourably about Snowden makes reference to George Orwell and Big Brother and the totalitarian threat. They might rather have taken another idea from Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith believed that if there was hope it lay with the proles. What the Snowden story seems to me to show is that if there is hope for us it lies with the young.

Robert Manne

Robert Manne is emeritus professor of politics and vice-chancellor’s fellow at La Trobe University. His most recent book, The Mind of the Islamic State, will be published in the US this month by Prometheus Books.  

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September 2014

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