Never before has a man’s whistleblowing and its potential repercussions been so complex, that it is difficult to judge him easily as a traitor or a hero, not just by Americans, but by the whole world. As former NSA contractor Edward Snowden who is believed to be holed up currently in the posh Novotel Moscow Sheremetyevo hotel, tries his luck with Iceland, after nearly 20 countries turned down his asylum request, the issue has been most embarrassing for President Obama and America who, as Snowden revealed, spied extensively on not just enemy countries, but even on allies, and even on its own citizens. Obama insists that the shameful spy work was essential to keep America and the world safe from terrorists, but the extent to which such an extensive spying capability can be misused, and would have been already misused, is within anybody’s imagination. But the image of the only countries that have backed Snowden so far - China & Russia - that refused to arrest or extradite Snowden, is not helping his image, at least in USA. Nor is the trivial fact that Snowden attracted a marriage proposal from Anna Chapman, ex-Russian spy who was expelled from USA.
An American just destroyed America’s sacrosanct image regarding international fair dealing with other countries. The world watched in horror as Edward Snowden who just turned 30, disclosed to major US & British newspapers, the immense depth of the worldwide surveillance program by the formidable National Security Agency (NSA). Land calls, mobile, Google, Facebook, Email, nothing has been spared by NSA, in its pursuit to ostensibly build a safer America.
NSA’s prowess has been long known, dating back to 1983 when the mystery of the downed Korean Airlines Flight 007 was solved by the agency when it disclosed ground-to-air talk of Soviet air force that had secretly and mercilessly shot down the passenger aircraft killing all 269 on board.
But post 9/11 by Laden & Co., then President George W Bush gave sweeping powers to NSA to do surveillance on much more than Soviet or Chinese fighter jets. The result is that nothing, absolutely nothing, that you do on your phone or computer or tab is a secret any more. If NSA wishes for it, it is within their reach.
But the bigger shock for liberals around the world was that Obama had continued to endorse and back this Bush era program, despite publicly being all gung-ho about government whistleblowers! The current US President has tried to downplay the Snowden episode claiming that not voice data or message data, but call records were accessed by NSA. But he will be fooling only himself if he thinks the world would buy that.
Each country is fiercely protective of its intelligence agencies, for obvious reasons. For example, Indian Government recently sided with Rajendra Kumar, a senior officer of its Intelligence Bureau (IB) who has been accused of a principal role in the shocking Ishrat Jahan fake encounter case of 2004, for which the investigating agency CBI has recently filed a charge sheet. In India, protecting IB assumes added significance as it is often alleged that the agency has been used by the governments for gathering political intelligence.
Anyway, Obama further explains that what NSA does is like monitor who all called Laden, and that many terrorist attacks across the world were thwarted by the NSA program that Snowden just exposed. While sworn enemies of America like Iran were the most keenly spied on, neutral countries like India, and even allies like Arab and European Union countries figure among the most spied by NSA, according to Snowden’s revelations.
The world is today enraged. But no nation including India is willing to grant asylum to the man who proved that America is spying on us all, for fear of US wrath. The Americans themselves are a divided group on Snowden as recent public polls show, with approximately equal number of people believing that he is a hero or that he is a traitor. So, who really is Edward Snowden?
It’s almost like watching a hair-raising Hollywood flick in which the protagonist is on the run, escaping from the clutches of his national government who were also his former employers, after having landed them in a spot of bother. Edward Snowden, the 29 year old American national formerly employed with the NSA, who leaked top-secret US surveillance documents to the world, has lambasted the government for having snooped on the cyber activities of millions of Internet users, including American citizens. He claims that the NSA’s espionage activities have eavesdropped into the personal details of the social media populace as well as entire target countries, on the pretext that they pose grave threats to America’s national security.
But this time movies follow reality. Already, four Hong Kong filmmakers Edwin Lee, Jeff Floro, Shawn Tse, and Marcus Tsui, have already turned the Snowden-NSA saga into a 5-minute thriller film currently uploaded on YouTube dramatizing the events that unfolded in the international news during the last few weeks. There is little doubt that the Snowden heroics will now find itself marshalled into non-fiction novels and professionally shot full-length movies, after having dominated much of the Internet discourse and daily print media.
To decide on the intention of the globe-trotting Snowden’s marvellous disclosures are a subjective issue thereby promising interested spectators a high-voltage stand-off between the government and the fink. Until such a verdict forms, Snowden hopes to flee from destiny just so that the script prolongs and concludes in a jubilant ending. Currently, his whereabouts are unknown amidst reports that he is in the Moscow airport seeking political asylum in several countries including India, by staying in a country that isn’t regarded as any kind of ally of the USA.
Less than 3 months ago, Snowden had been working for Booz Allen Hamilton, a private consulting firm owned by The Carlyle Group, which basically provides security services to the US watchdog agencies. The company, based in Hawaii, conducted massive electronic spying programmes for the security interests of the US government.
Snowden’s primary work involved mining or hacking data from Internet servers and tele-communication systems all over the world. By uncovering and releasing classified documents regarding surveillance methods of the NSA into the public domain, Snowden has exposed the US Government’s paltry regard for the sovereignty of nations and basic democratic rights of people around the world.
Now, how did Snowden make these revelations public? Under the codename Verax (in Latin which means ‘truth-teller’), the young systems operator sent encrypted e-mails containing US security files to two leading journalists - Barton Gellman of The Washington Post and Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian, both of whom published their exclusive news-pieces about the spy-work on the 6th of June. If not leaked, these documents would have remained classified till 2038 after which it is discarded.
PRISM a.k.a. the officially code-named US-984XN is an extensive US governmental security tracker which spies on the Internet usage and phone call records of its civilians. Snowden alleges that the mass surveillance not only radars the US Internet users but also of the cyber activities undertaken by the embassies of foreign nations in their own country.
Verizon, the leading US broadband and telecommunication agency, has been providing detailed data on every single call that went through its system to the intelligence agency including phone-tapping services, acquiring call-record of duration, and place of communication between two parties. The disclosures didn’t stop there.
Snowden then revealed that the NSA routinely captured material from the Internet that went through the servers of 9 leading US Internet portals or resources viz. Apple, AOL, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, PalTalk, Skype, Yahoo, and YouTube. However, all of these widely used websites have denied giving authorization for data-mining.
Another big-data analysis and data visualization system used by the NSA to collect World Wide Web information is the ‘Boundless Informant’ which maintains a top secret global heat map displaying the extent of surveillance made on countries using colour-ranges - with green colour representing least coverage while red colour indicates intensive snooping . A snapshot of the ‘Boundless Informant’ data, contained in a top secret NSA global heat map seen by the Guardian, shows that in March 2013 the agency collected 97 billion pieces of intelligence from computer networks worldwide.
Iran was the country where the largest amount of intelligence was gathered, with more than 14 billion reports in that period, followed by 13.5 billion from Pakistan. Jordan, one of America's closest Arab allies, came third with 12.7 billion, Egypt was fourth with 7.6 billion, and India fifth with 6.3 billion.
“I do not want to live in a society that does these sorts of things”, says Snowden while commenting on the purpose of the PRISM programme. “I do not want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded,” added the whistleblower on a televised interview from Hong-Kong, where he immediately flew to just before the revelations were published.
Actually, the NSA whistleblower, accompanied by documentary-maker Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald, initially sought protection from the authorities of the Special Administrative Region of China in Hong Kong, which raised quite a few eyebrows. From there he took the flight to Moscow, along with WikiLeaks legal advisor Sarah Harrison and since then has avoided any kind of public appearance.
The Russian President, Vladmir Putin has so far dismissed US demands for extraditing the fugitive-on-the-run saying that Snowden is a “free person on Russian soil” and that “there is no rendition treaty with the USA“. In later developments, WikiLeaks’ legal advisor in the Edward Snowden matter, Sarah Harrison, submitted by hand a number of requests for asylum and asylum assistance to many countries on behalf of Edward J. Snowden.
The requests were delivered to an official at the Russian consulate at Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow. The countries that have been approached for political immunity include the People’s Republic of China, the Republic of India, and the Russian Federation, all three of which share a history of ideological differences with the US.
The Ecuadorian embassy in London, which shields Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, has backtracked from its earlier stand that it would render diplomatic protection to Snowden. The President of Ecuador, Rafael Correa has stated that the government isn’t considering Snowden’s asylum application and that it never intended to facilitate his flight to South America. He also said that Snowden was currently Russia’s responsibility and that he would have to reach Ecuador before his request is assessed. The whistleblower nevertheless has sent a personal plea to Quito requesting assistance.
The country had received widespread flak from major NATO powers for helping Assange seek asylum in their London embassy. Thus, Ecuador remains sceptical about lending any form of assistance lest they could harm their trade prospects with the powerhouses. Their President has successfully transferred the burden onto the shoulders of the Kremlin, thereby washing their hands off this issue.
Russia, on the other hand, does not want to severe their improving ties with the United States by granting him political asylum and at the same time avoid giving in to Washington’s demand for Snowden’s extradition. Putin has said that Snowden was welcome to stay in Russia as long as he stopped publishing classified documents that could compromise the security of America.
Snowden had arrived on an Aeroflot flight from Hong Kong to Moscow, apparently intending to board a connecting flight headed for Latin America. However, soon the United States announced that his American passport had been revoked, leaving him in a geopolitical limbo, stripped of any valid identification and unable to leave Sheremetyevo’s transit zone. As things stand now, both Russia and Ecuador have taken a neutral position refusing to openly come out in favour of granting asylum to the whistleblower.
Putin is wary of the increasing pressure from anti-American forces wanting the Soviet power to rub cold shoulders with the USA by granting asylum to the whistleblower. Sergei A Markov, a pro-Kremlin analyst, said that if Snowden received asylum, he could acquire a Russian transit document and leave the country, or else remain in the country as a public figure, which he said would be “very good for public relations, as he will be like Gérard Depardieu.” Depardieu, the French actor, sought Russian citizenship to avoid taxes in his home country.
But with the Cold war diplomatic boundaries having disappeared more or less, Russia will look to avoid brewing up a storm by aiding Snowden. Vladmir Putin is seemingly aware about the consequences his country may face if it shelters Snowden, which is evident from his press statement that “he didn’t want to hamper relations with their US business partners“. Recent reports reveal that Snowden has withdrawn his asylum request to Russia after Putin made it clear that he can stay only if he stopped harming US interests.
Speaking to Reuters in Moscow recently during a two-day visit, Nicolas Maduro, the Venezuelan President, said Snowden "deserves the world's protection". He said that Venezuela has not yet received any asylum request from Snowden. Asked whether he would take Snowden back to Venezuela with him, Maduro answered wryly, "What we're taking with us are multiple agreements that we're signing with Russia, including oil and gas." But he added his support for the US whistleblower, "Edward Snowden is a 29-year-old, young, brave man who didn't kill anyone, didn't give any reason for the start of war." Maduro said Venezuela would examine the asylum request once it was received.
"We think this young person has done something very important for humanity, has done a favour to humanity, has spoken great truths to deconstruct a world that is controlled by an imperialist American elite," he added. Thus Snowden can hope for realistic support from a socialist country that chastises US dominance. All his hopes for a secured future will be pinned on the Communist giant once their executive think-tank begins weighing their options and measuring domestic public opinion.
India, a long-time US partner has quickly snubbed Snowden’s asylum request concluding that it has no reason to accede to the whistleblower’s plea. MEA spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin rubbished reports of India seriously processing his asylum request after Snowden revealed that the Indian Embassy in the US is among the list of 38 diplomatic missions which were being spied upon by American intelligence agencies. Though India’s stand was hardly unexpected, critics believe that the Indian legislators should have reviewed the leaked US intelligence reports more earnestly, if not provide aid to Snowden.
Each country is fiercely protective of its intelligence agencies, for obvious reasons. For example, Indian Government recently sided with Rajendra Kumar, a senior officer of its Intelligence Bureau (IB) who has been accused of a principal role in the shocking Ishrat Jahan fake encounter case of 2004, for which the investigating agency CBI has recently filed a charge sheet. In India, protecting IB assumes added significance as it is often alleged that the agency has been used by the governments for gathering political intelligence. Despite Delhi Police clarifying that the attempt to access the Call Data Record (CDR) of BJP leader Arun Jaitley was done by four persons including a policeman for personal gains, doubts are bound to linger.
Meanwhile, 8 European states including Germany and Spain have downplayed Snowden’s request saying that asylum applicants had to be on their soil. They include Austria, Finland, Ireland, Norway, Poland and Switzerland. "Delivering an application for asylum from abroad is in principle not allowed," Norwegian deputy justice secretary Paal Loenseth told the country's state TV. Polish Foreign Minister Radoslav Sikorski said it would have been rejected even if it was valid.
As Snowden’ refuge option narrows down, there has not been any visible mass support for Snowden’s actions since the Hong Kong demonstrations. He has been charged with criminal acts including espionage and theft of government property by the US Justice Department. Each of the charges carries a maximum 10-year prison sentence. Even with the extradition request to Russia having been dismissed, USA is vehemently engaging in diplomatic dialogue with countries to which Snowden has sought legal protection.
Julian Assange has blasted the US administration for “spying on each and every one of us” and “then charging Snowden with espionage for tipping us off“. A letter identified as being from the NSA leaker is slamming President Barack Obama for “using citizenship as a weapon.” The letter however could not be independently authenticated as being from Snowden himself as it is the anti-secrecy group, Wikileaks that has adopted his cause. The statement with Snowden’s name at the bottom said the Obama administration “has unilaterally revoked my passport, leaving me a stateless person.”
He also said that Obama had declared before the world that he would not permit any diplomatic “wheeling and dealing” over his case but has gone against his own word by ordering his Vice President Joe Biden to pressure the leaders of nations from which he has sought cover. “This kind of deception from a world leader is not justice, and neither is the extralegal penalty of exile. These are the old, bad tools of political aggression. Their purpose is to frighten, not me, but those who would come after me,” said the NSA whistleblower who feels defeated and demoralized by the recent turn of events.
While many doubt the authenticity of the statement, which uses odd syntax and grammar, it is almost certain that the current script is going against the liking of the young tipster. It remains to be seen how his only real chance for asylum - Venezuela- would deal with the issue. Time is running out for Snowden. Can the former NSA systems operator negotiate a mutually gratifying understanding with his country or will he remain adamant on seeking political refuge, which at present has not yielded any results. Either way, deep down in his mind, Snowden may recount and contemplate on his action which eventually has landed him in a soup. Irrespective of the outcome of his actions, surely the movie scripts may romanticize and sympathize with the international hero.