Two years ago, Edward Snowden had as much as anyone could ask out of life: a high-paying job in tropical Hawaii, a loving girlfriend, his health, and his freedom. Whatever the future held, it looked bright—until he threw it all away. In May 2013, Snowden walked away from his office and into history by leaking a treasure trove of classified documents that revealed the staggering extent of the surveillance carried out by the US National Security Agency and its counterparts across the world. Knowing what would happen to him were he to stay within the reach of the US legal system, Snowden fled to Hong Kong and eventually was allowed to reside in Moscow.
The specifics of the programs exposed by Snowden are far too extensive to detail in a single article, but they went way beyond anything that any reasonable person could view as necessary, appropriate or useful to combating terrorism. Nor could it be sensibly argued that the extent of the surveillance was compatible with respect for individual rights. The sheer quantity of data gathered by the NSA alone forced it to build new facilities capable of storing exabytes—billions of gigabytes—of information. The Canadian government was a full partner in the covert operations; among other things, it used its citizens as test subjects for a new system for tracking airline passengers through the Wi-Fi connection at an unnamed major airport, tracing them even after they had exited the terminal.
In truth, Snowden’s revelations were no surprise to anyone who had been paying attention since 9/11. Confidential documents exposed by WikiLeaks and reporting on the NSA’s warrantless wiretaps had given us a foretaste of what Snowden would bring to light. Snowden did not shock us as much as confirm our worst fears: Our governments had established an intelligence-gathering apparatus capable of knowing almost anything about anyone. They did so without public debate, external safeguards, or any real idea of how to process all of that data in a useful way. Better to “collect it all” and then worry about what to do with it. Even for those of us totally devoid of any faith in politicians, this was an exceptionally appalling betrayal.
What has been interesting is the reaction to Snowden’s leaks from various quarters. There appears to be a solid base among the American public that backs him, with some opinion polls showing a plurality in favour of his actions. While broader support would be more encouraging, even this modest amount is impressive in the face of a relentless government propaganda war. Former Vice President Dick Cheney speculated, without any basis, that Snowden was a Chinese spy. Former National Security Agency director Michael Hayden accused Snowden of having caused “unquestionable, irreparable, irreversible harm” to America’s national security, while House Intelligence Committee chair Mike Rogers called Snowden a “traitor” whom he would charge with murder since Snowden’s actions were “likely to have lethal consequences for our troops in the field.” And Director of National Intelligence James Clapper called the leak “literally gut-wrenching […] because of the huge, grave damage it does to our intelligence capabilities”
Their hysterical claims notwithstanding, the government has been unable to point to a single, concrete example of the alleged harm done, and needless to say, terrorist attacks are no more prevalent today than they were before the revelations. Incidentally, Snowden’s documents revealed that Clapper had committed perjury when he told Congress, under oath, that the NSA does not engage in any mass collection of “any type of data at all” in the United States. He has yet to be indicted.
Most interesting of all has been the response from the media. For as long as there have been journalists, they have depended on sources able and willing to share confidential information. Informants enable investigative reporting and allow journalists to uncover wrongdoing that would otherwise go undetected. As such, one would expect them to be the first in line to express their gratitude toward Snowden for exposing one of the biggest news stories in modern history. But instead, certain journalists have been among Snowden’s most virulent critics: mocking him for his flight to Russia, describing him as “a grandiose narcissist who deserves to be in prison,” calling for him to be given “a long prison sentence” and even demanding his execution.
It’s no secret that many in the fourth estate have long since abdicated any pretense of acting as a public watchdog, preferring instead to ingratiate themselves to those in power so as to gain access and prestige. As noted by Glenn Greenwald, one of the journalists to whom Snowden leaked his documents, the same “reporters” who call for Snowden to be thrown in a dungeon gleefully publish material leaked by government officials who want to remind the public of how scared they should be of terrorists, or of the importance of launching yet another war. Their respect for state secrets is dependent on the identity of the leaker: someone powerful who wishes to increase the state’s power, or a simple member of the public who thinks that the government has gone too far. Incredibly, some have even suggested that Greenwald himself should be prosecuted for the non-existent crime of reporting secret information, which, as Greenwald points out, is an act of which any journalist worthy of the name is guilty.
It’s also worth noting what Snowden’s plight tells us about how much the United States has changed over the past few decades. In 1971, RAND Corporation analyst Daniel Ellsberg leaked top secret documents to the New York Times that related to the Vietnam War and would become known as the Pentagon Papers. Ellsberg, in an act of conscience, showed that the government had lied about the war’s aims, its history in Vietnam, its role in escalating hostilities, and other fundamental matters. Though accused of serious crimes, Ellsberg was released on bail and the charges were ultimately dropped when it emerged that the government had, among other things, burgled his lawyer’s office (part of what became the Watergate scandal). Fast-forward to 2010, when Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning provided WikiLeaks with documents—none classified above secret—that also revealed extensive government mendacity and wrongdoing. Before even having been tried, Manning was subject to inhuman treatment that included sleep deprivation, confinement in isolation, and forced nudity. After pleading guilty, Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison. Is it any wonder that Snowden fled, rather than follow Ellsberg’s lead and turn himself in? As Ellsberg himself wrote in defence of Snowden, “The country I stayed in was a different America, a long time ago.”
The word “hero” has lost much of its meaning in our public discourse, and is often used reflexively to describe police officers and soldiers killed in uniform. Given its appropriation by those who laud the armed service of the state as the noblest of callings, it is a word that some libertarians may not be fully comfortable with. But if a hero is simply one who sacrifices much to help others, then there are few more worthy of that description than Edward Snowden. He willingly, and knowingly, traded a life that would have been the envy of almost everyone else on Earth for one of banishment and fear, simply because he believed that a wrong had to be righted. But for his courage, we would still likely be without tangible proof of our suspicion that government surveillance is omnipresent. And we almost certainly never would have seen even the modest opposition witnessed recently over the impending expiration of certain provisions of the Patriot Act—opposition that led, for the first time, to genuine push-back from Congress rather than a simple rubber stamp.
For all of these reasons—for everything he gave up and for everything we gained as a result—we all owe Snowden a debt of gratitude. His story is proof that however difficult it is to imagine that a single person can make a difference, it is indeed possible. Many of us agree that liberty is the highest political end, but Snowden decided that it was not enough to simply believe those words: He had to live them. As a result, all those who believe in individual freedom can honestly say: Thank you, Edward Snowden.
* Adam Allouba is a business lawyer based in Montreal and a graduate of the McGill University Faculty of Law. He also holds a B.A. and an M.A. in political science from McGill.