Workers Vanguard No. 1097
7 October 2016
Give Back His Passport!
Drop All Charges Against Edward Snowden!
The release of Oliver Stone’s sympathetic and powerful biopic Snowden has rekindled the national debate over the fate of the courageous NSA leaker. Three years ago, Edward Snowden became Washington’s “Public Enemy Number One” after he turned over to various media outlets a trove of classified documents proving the colossal scale of U.S. government spying and its shredding of basic democratic rights. The target of an intense international manhunt, Snowden was forced into exile in Russia, where he remains on a temporary residence permit. Unable to travel because his passport was revoked, he is still wanted by the Feds on theft and espionage charges.
By shining a bright light on the government’s all-pervasive snooping, Snowden provided an invaluable service to working people and the oppressed the world over. The ultimate target of the capitalist state’s spying and repression is the working class. From the beginning, we have demanded: Hands off Snowden! It is in the interests of the proletariat, in the U.S. and internationally, to rally to Snowden’s defense and oppose those forces that want to curtail dissent and future exposures of the sinister activities of U.S. intelligence by locking him up in one of the country’s many torture-ridden dungeons. Drop the charges now! Reinstate Snowden’s passport!
Timed to coincide with the opening of the movie, in mid September the American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International launched a campaign urging President Barack Obama to pardon Snowden. The plea for clemency predictably sparked an immediate backlash, with the House Intelligence Committee issuing a report that claimed Snowden “was, and remains, a serial exaggerator and fabricator” and had “caused tremendous damage to national security.” White House press secretary Josh Earnest dismissed calls for a pardon and demanded that Snowden return to the U.S. to face prosecution.
Outrageously, the Washington Post, which was one of the newspapers that profited from the publication of Snowden’s revelations in 2013 (and won a Pulitzer Prize for its reporting), joined the chorus baying for his head on a pike. Glenn Greenwald excoriated the Post in an article on The Intercept (18 September) for having “achieved an ignominious feat in U.S. media history: the first-ever paper to explicitly editorialize for the criminal prosecution of its own source.” The dispute over whether to prosecute or pardon Snowden has particularly divided the capitalist Democratic Party and its supporters. One side, as expressed in the official petition to Obama, considers Snowden an “American patriot,” the other reviles him as a traitor. Either way, their starting point is how to best advance the interests of U.S. imperialism.
The prevailing view among libertarians and liberals (as well as their reformist hangers-on) is that Snowden the patriot did something great for his country by exposing what they consider the excesses of state surveillance, i.e., spying on everyone rather than just “terrorists.” Stone himself falls into this camp. In a recent interview with Democracy Now!, the filmmaker lamented that the NSA spymasters “failed to do their job” in the case of the September 11 attacks and “haven’t really utilized those tools [of cyberwarfare] for defense.” In other words, if the government just properly deployed its repressive arsenal, Americans could have their civil liberties without sacrificing national security. In this vein, it is no accident that a few prominent capitalists have signed on to the Pardon Snowden appeal, as their own communications are susceptible to getting vacuumed up by indiscriminate domestic spying.
The purpose of the NSA and other imperialist spy agencies is to secretly carry out dirty deeds on behalf of the tiny capitalist minority that rules over the vast majority. The trappings of “democracy” under capitalism are a mask to obscure these inner systematic workings that will not fundamentally change, no matter how many whistles are blown by insiders or cosmetic reforms adopted by Congress. Only victorious socialist revolution can abolish the capitalist state’s secret agents and their intrusions into our lives.
The new film deserves high marks for humanizing Snowden and portraying his political evolution from an unquestioning partisan of the reactionary “war on terror” to a critic of mass surveillance who was willing to risk his own life to expose the truth amid a sea of lies. This biopic, which comes two years after Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning documentary CitizenFour, makes clear Snowden’s deep disappointment with the Obama presidency because of its expansion of Bush-era spying and prosecution of whistle-blowers. However, the movie’s ending vastly overstates the extent of the policy changes that resulted from Snowden’s revelations. Similarly, the pardon campaign trumpets supposed “historic strides in our fight for surveillance reform.”
A much more accurate picture is provided by the New York Times (1 May 2015) headline: “Why the N.S.A. Isn’t Howling over Restrictions.” The reference is to the USA Freedom Act, touted as having ended the NSA’s bulk collection of domestic phone metadata. In reality, the bipartisan legislation merely transferred the responsibility for storing this data to the phone companies, which are required to provide the NSA access upon court-approved request. The idea was suggested to Obama in 2013 by then NSA director Keith Alexander as a ploy to appear responsive to privacy concerns while offloading costs to the telecoms and preserving programs deemed more vital to his collect-it-all regime.
One senior intelligence official later admitted to the Daily Beast (14 May 2015): “What no one wants to say out loud is that this is a big win for the NSA, and a huge nothing burger for the privacy community.” To all but the willfully blind, the situation is clear: The NSA still amasses metadata from most communications, the government can still acquire such records from private companies and the bulk collection of actual content is growing. The Freedom Act, an Orwellian misnomer, extended the draconian Patriot Act and codified in law the very surveillance dragnet that Snowden lifted the veil on.
In any case, legal niceties, which exist on paper for public consumption, are hardly barriers to government snoops. A decade ago, revelations of the widespread violation of the constitutional prohibition on warrantless search of American citizens’ communications caused the Feds considerable embarrassment. Important details of such internet data mining, done in cahoots with the telecom giants, were provided at the time by retired AT&T worker Mark Klein (see “Phone Worker Exposes Government Spying Network,” WV No. 953, 26 February 2010). To get around the inconvenience of the Fourth Amendment, among other things Washington pays its British junior partners to tap and hand over a huge proportion of all internet traffic.
Whatever the arguments of Snowden’s liberal proponents, Obama is not about to grant a pardon. The official response to a June 2013 White House website pardon petition with over 150,000 signatures proclaimed: “Mr. Snowden’s dangerous decision to steal and disclose classified information had severe consequences for the security of our country.” The Obama administration is notorious for having thrown the book at whistle-blowers. It has charged eight of them under the 1917 Espionage Act—more than double the number under all previous presidents combined. One of the victims of this vendetta is Chelsea Manning, who was sentenced in 2013 for disclosing military and state secrets to Wikileaks. In the most recent affront, Manning, who is transgender, was sentenced to two weeks in solitary as punishment for having attempted suicide in July. Manning’s case has received less prominence than that of Snowden because the victims of the crimes she exposed were Iraqis, not U.S. citizens. Free Manning now! Hands off Wikileaks’ Julian Assange!
Early in his first White House bid, Obama famously declared “no more secrecy” only to outdo all his predecessors in creating the world’s most outsized spying machine. As intelligence expert James Bamford described in a Foreign Policy article (7 September):
“Although other leaders may have created more oppressive spying regimes, none has come close to constructing one of equivalent size, breadth, cost, and intrusiveness. From 22,300 miles in space, where seven Advanced Orion crafts now orbit; to a 1-million-square-foot building in the Utah desert that stores data intercepted from personal phones, emails, and social media accounts; to taps along the millions of miles of undersea cables that encircle the Earth like yarn, U.S. surveillance has expanded exponentially since Obama’s inauguration.”
Both the main bourgeois candidates in the upcoming presidential election are dedicated to building on this legacy. In June, Hillary Clinton proposed “an intelligence surge to bolster our capabilities across the board with appropriate safeguards,” while Donald Trump celebrates NSA surveillance as a commonplace of modern life in America, whose population should just shut up and accept it. Snowden will get no relief from the next Commander-in-Chief: Clinton wants to put him on trial, and Trump has called for his execution.
A favorite liberal canard is that greater oversight and transparency will rein in the NSA and its ilk, hence calls for a more robust Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, court. This body—the pinnacle of the reforms coming out of the 1970s Church Committee review of domestic spying on black militants and Reds—was rightly referred to as “a rubber stamp” in the movie. Irrespective of any checks and balances, the U.S. imperialist behemoth will seek to spy on who it wants, when it wants. But it is not omnipotent.
The multiracial working class, with its hands on the levers of production, has the potential power to bring the capitalist exploiters to their knees. Unlocking this power requires a complete break from the Democratic Party and illusions in bourgeois democracy. Our aim as Marxists is to build a revolutionary workers party—a tribune of the people—that can lead the working class in sweeping away capitalist class rule and replacing it with a workers government. Then and only then will U.S. imperialism’s spying, lying and violence at home and abroad come to an end and the full extent of its bloody crimes and secrets be laid bare to the world.