When the American computer specialist Edward Snowden first leaked details about Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and National Security Agency (NSA) mass surveillance activities to the Guardian back in May of this year, he became the latest in a line of secret service insiders to blow the whistle on the extent of the US state’s spying – both on ordinary civilians and on sovereign governments all over world, and all in the name of the ‘defence of freedom’ and the ‘war on terror’.
Snowden hardly started out as what you would call a radical. At the time of his disclosures to the press he had been working for NSA contractors Booz Allen Hamilton, having previously worked as an NSA security guard and for the CIA on internet security. Before that, back in 2004, he had enlisted in the United States Army Reserve, in order, in his own words, “to help free people from oppression”.
In other words, like many millions of others, until his disillusionment he had bought into the tirelessly and relentlessly repeated official line that the United States was on the side of freedom and liberation, fearlessly confronting tyranny and oppression around the world.
Working with the Guardian, Snowden gave information for a series of articles that revealed details about the extent of US and British mass surveillance of their own and other countries’ citizens. As well as intercepting phone data, it has come to light that the two governments are collaborating over a number of internet surveillance programmes.
One of these is Prism, which collects data by monitoring sites such as Google. Another is Tempora, through which Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) monitors British citizens’ internet and telephone activity by intercepting fibre-optic traffic.
Moreover, Snowden furnished indisputable proofs of the US’s extensive programme of spying against governments and corporations all over the world. Indeed, the revelations of spying against the presidents of Brazil and Mexico led the former to cancel her planned state visit to Washington.
Snowden’s initial whistleblowing was done anonymously, but in June he approved the Guardian’s disclosure of his identity. “I have no intention of hiding who I am because I know I have done nothing wrong,” he stated. Commenting on the motives for his disclosures, he said: “I do not want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded,” adding elsewhere that he hoped his own actions would serve “to embolden others to step forward”.
There are clear parallels between the Snowden case and that of Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning, sentenced in July to 35 years imprisonment and a dishonourable discharge from the US military for his role in passing information about US war crimes to the WikiLeaks website in 2010.
Particularly memorable among the materials leaked by Manning was the video of a Baghdad air strike from 2007 in which a US helicopter repeatedly fired on a group of men, including a journalist and two Reuters cameramen, and then fired on a van that stopped to help the injured. Two children who were in the van were wounded and around a dozen adult men, including their father, were killed. The video gained notoriety for the insight it gave into the gung-ho bloodlust of the American soldiers, who congratulated each other on their shooting and were apparently unconcerned to find that two of those they had been firing at had been children.
In the case of both Manning and Snowden, security and military insiders felt impelled to make public the details of the brutal and repressive reality of US and British imperialist crimes after their exposure to, and direct involvement in, the dirty world of imperialist intelligence. Their exposure revealed the stark contradiction between the stated aims of imperialist policy and the methods employed.
Rage and solidarity
The reaction from both US and British imperialists has been immediate, violent and ruthless. Their aim has been to silence, to isolate, to vilify and to crush. They have sought to bring to bear the full power of the state, first on Manning and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, and then on Snowden.
They have also hounded anyone whom they think might have assisted the whistleblowers, like Brazilian citizen David Miranda, the partner of the journalist who has collaborated with Snowden. Whilst in transit at Heathrow airport, Miranda was detained under so-called ‘anti-terror’ legislation, interrogated for many hours, repeatedly threatened, had his property stolen, and is still facing possible and unspecified further legal proceedings.
This violent and ruthless reaction has, however, hit some resistance. Assange has been granted refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, whose government is prepared to offer him asylum. The governments of China (Snowden originally released his revelations from the Chinese city of Hong Kong) and Russia refused to act on US demands to detain Snowden or impede his travel, and he has now been granted temporary asylum in Russia, further enraging US and British imperialism.
The extent of this rage may be gauged from the actions of several European countries, acting under heavy US pressure, threats and orders, in refusing at short notice overflight rights to the personal plane of Bolivian President Evo Morales, thereby placing the lives of the president, his entourage and crew, in grave danger, when he was returning home from an energy summit in Moscow and amidst reports that Snowden might be aboard the flight.
Morales’ plane was finally allowed to refuel in the Austrian capital Vienna, although it was reportedly detained and searched. Such actions against a serving head of state are an unprecedented breach of international law. Bolivia, Venezuela and Nicaragua have all subsequently made offers of permanent asylum to Snowden.
Russian president Vladimir Putin has also incurred imperialist wrath, with Obama cancelling a bilateral summit meeting and condemning what he described as Russia’s “slip back into cold-war thinking and a cold-war mentality”.
In a further interesting knock-on, the Financial Times has revealed growing concern in German industrial circles over US industrial espionage following Snowden’s revelations. A survey by consultants Ernst and Young showed that 26 percent of German managers, IT and security professionals cited the US as ‘high risk’ for data theft and industrial espionage. The corresponding figure for Russia was just 12 percent.
The days when US imperialism stood confidently at the head of an apparently united imperialist bloc, able to impose its policies and agenda at will, would appear to be coming to an end. Moreover, US imperialism is increasingly having to take into account the views of countries powerful enough consistently to resist its diktat, most notably Russia and China, and in this context it is no surprise to hear Obama wheel out the usual rhetoric about Russia’s supposed ‘lack of democracy’, ‘erosion of gay rights’ and support for ‘repressive regimes’.
It is a timely reminder that behind the wars waged against such countries as Iraq, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Libya, Ivory Coast and Syria, behind the threats to and provocations against Iran and Korea, behind the saturating spying activities of the US and Britain, and the fascistic response to its exposure, lies a relentless march to war by US-led imperialism against those able to frustrate its hegemonic ambitions (principally China and Russia) – a war drive that is inevitably fuelled by today’s worst-ever crisis of overproduction.
The smokescreen of moral outrage is an old game, one which our ‘own’ British imperialism has always liked to play. Imperialism never officially goes to war for oil, profits or territorial conquest; it always claims that it is acting in the ‘defence of freedom’, ‘standing up for small nations’, or ‘protecting citizens from the actions of their own governments’.
Whether we are talking about the run up to the 1914-18 war, the cold-war rhetoric used to justify the wars against Korea and Vietnam, the ideological justifications for the subversion and violent overthrow of democratic regimes from Guatemala to Chile, or today’s warmongering over Syria, Iran and Korea, the message is the same. And we should be having none of it.
A step on the road to revolution
There has been a proud tradition of men and women working within the imperialist state being prepared to stand up and oppose the actions of their own imperialism – a tradition that in a sense Snowden, Manning and Assange belong to, despite operating in very different times and with different motivations.
In Britain, class-conscious communists like Kim Philby and Donald MacLean worked within British intelligence, actively undermining imperialism by passing key information to the Soviet Union, thus sabotaging attempts by Churchill to overthrow the socialist government in Albania in the 1940s, to cite just one example.
Similarly, communists and communist sympathisers played an important role in passing nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union, thus contributing to the ending of US imperialism’s nuclear monopoly in the aftermath of World War II.
But there are differences, too, and they are critical here. Philby and his comrades were convinced communists, ideologically motivated and committed to the overthrow of the imperialist system through working-class revolution.
With Snowden, Manning and Assange, however, none of this applies. And it is important to note, not least because of the kind of charges that a vengeful US seeks to bring against them (and in the case of Manning has actually prosecuted), that they did not act at the behest or in the service of a foreign country. Nor did they use the information they secured in the course of their work covertly, but rather broke ranks to place the evidence of imperialist malfeasance before the court of public opinion.
Their political understanding may be limited, or even flawed, in part, but it is hardly their fault that they grew up at a time when the conscious revolutionary movement of the working class was at a low ebb. Through their individual courage, they have made a greater contribution to the struggle than all the opportunists in the working-class movement put together – not least in opening the eyes of a new generation to the true face of imperialism and the enormity of its crimes.
Their actions are helping to educate the next generation of revolutionary fighters who are bound to emerge as imperialism continues its descent into crisis, fascism and war.