Whistleblowers and Traitors
The United States has long been divided by a fundamental difference of opinion. This is a conflict between those who evaluate ‘American’ or ‘anti-American’ acts based on how they affect American interests, and those who evaluate them on how they reflect American values, as set out in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
For decades now, the ‘interests’ interpretation has ruled. This is why Senator Joseph McCarthy was allowed to pursue thousands of innocent Americans for exercising their rights to free speech, assembly and expression. This is how President George W. Bush managed to paint all dissent against his draconian anti-terrorism measures as unpatriotic and harmful to the nation. This is why Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden are cast as traitors, and accused of ‘aiding the enemy’.
Though Manning was cleared of that charge, he was convicted of twenty others brought against him and almost certainly will live the rest of his life in prison. Snowden, meanwhile, will look upon permanent exile as the most positive possible result of his whistleblowing, having just been granted asylum in Russia. They have been called un-American for informing the people of the abuses being committed in their name.
The latest revelations from Edward Snowden, published in the Guardian, show how NSA analysts are able to search through databases of private emails, online chats and internet histories with no need for prior authorisation. As Snowden put it, sitting at his desk he could ‘wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant to a federal judge or even the President, if I had a personal email’. While the NSA claims they have acted legally, the programme is in direct violation of the Fourth Amendment, and thus a clear contravening of American values. Despite this, it is Snowden who has been condemned for speaking up against it. With politicians from John Boehner and Dick Cheney to Dianne Feinstein and John Kerry lining up to label him a traitor, the message is clear: it is more acceptable to trample on the Constitution than to draw attention to it.
Even if we leave aside the inherent unconstitutionality of the NSA’s actions, there is the not inconsiderable matter that several high-ranking officials have now been shown to have been lying for years about the programme. In perhaps the most egregious example, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told the Senate in March that the NSA does not ‘collect any type of data at all’ on Americans. The question was not a surprise, as he had been informed the day before that it would be asked, and he clearly did not regret his answer as he was given a chance to amend afterwards. Instead this was calm, measured deception – perjury before Congress – and a felony punishable by five years in prison. Not only has Clapper not been arrested, he is still in his job. American interests before American values; American interests above American law.
As with Snowden’s revelations, Bradley Manning’s publicising of callous murder, detainee abuse and massacres committed by US armed forces has served only to incriminate him rather than any of the perpetrators. The American government’s pursuit of Manning has further shown the administration’s willingness to ignore stated national values to protect their interests. The decision of the prosecution to bring the charge of ‘aiding the enemy’ against Manning was particularly worrying, for it signals an attempt to erase the legal distinction between leaking information to the press and selling intelligence to a hostile foreign nation. The argument put forward in court was that since al-Qaeda members had access to the internet, any information placed online (be it on Wikileaks, the New York Times or the Guardian) could be seen to have been handed to them. While Manning was acquitted of this charge, the very fact that it was levied (and the judge refused to throw it out) has worrying implications for journalism, accountability, and the sanctity of the First Amendment.
While the Obama administration’s belligerent response to Manning and Snowden has signalled their willingness to ignore American values in the name of American interests, the revelations seem finally to have pushed the rest of the nation in the other direction. A comprehensive new poll by Pew Research has revealed that Americans now value their civil liberties higher than safety from terrorism for the first time since 9/11. The chart below shows how until this point, even at the height of opposition to the Patriot Act, Americans still wanted tighter anti-terror controls at the cost of reduced civil liberties. The revelations of the whistleblowers have been the turning point.
Even Congress is now beginning to follow suit. Last week, the House of Representatives came within 12 votes of defunding (and essentially blocking) the NSA’s phone records collection programme, despite both the Republican and Democratic leadership agitating strongly against it. Even though the vote was lost, the fact that 45% of Republicans and 55% of Democrats would go against their party leadership on a matter of national security is a landmark of major significance. As Glenn Greenwald writes, ‘in the post-9/11 world, amendments like this, which directly challenge the Surveillance and National Security States, almost never get votes at all‘.
It takes a lot to unite liberal Democrats, Tea Party Republicans and moderates of both parties behind a common cause, and even more when that cause runs contrary to American interests. However, when even Jim Sensenbrenner, the arch-Republican ‘architect of the Patriot Act’ pledges to introduce legislation against NSA surveillance, it should become clear that this is no ordinary situation.
The atmosphere is changing, and this is bad news for the American government, which desperately needs its people to accept the supremacy of interests and the characterisation of Manning and Snowden as traitors. If the public reject this and fully accept the values interpretation as the true barometer of ‘American’ acts, they will have to ask themselves who the real traitors actually are. It is unlikely that the government will like the answer.