So the latest from the US National Security Agency is that (a) terror plots in more than 20 countries (names of those vulnerable countries, other than the US, unspecified) were foiled thanks to two of the agency’s data mining programs; (b) one of those programs isn’t nearly as intrusive as the former NSA contractor Edward Snowden says; and (c) anyway, gathered data are regularly destroyed every five years.
(And if you believe that last, I have a large intact compound in Abbottabad I’d like to sell you…)
Now I think we have to be honest here: many of us around the world, media people included, suspected the NSA was checking out lots of phone numbers, lots of e-mails, lots of computers long, long before Snowden moved to Hong Kong and began talking. In many ways, the attacks of September 11th were to the United States what the 1918 Treaty of Versailles ultimately was to Germany: a source of deep and substantial humiliation; the start of a sense of perpetual vulnerability; and an excuse to abrogate rights for decades thereafter.
Moreover, it is probably incontrovertible that the more citizens are quietly spied on, both in frequency and numbers, the less likely it is (cf: Cuba and China) they’ll get the opportunity to give a government much trouble.
So the notion that the NSA, or the security apparatus of any nation, was going to cut back on snooping after the dead had been counted in New York—and Spain—and London—was from the start absurd. Citizens of western nations, the ones where they elect officials of whose aims they think they approve, knew in their hearts that those vaunted aims would change at some point after the Twin Towers fell, that there would be a quid pro quo: a decreased expectation of privacy, maybe really no privacy at all, in the hope of procuring increased safety. They just didn’t want the pro quo hitting them in the face.
That’s what Snowden did, when he spoke to the Washington Post and the Guardian: he hit Western democracies in the face. Not because he told two newspapers about PRISM, the system which allows the NSA direct access to Google, Facebook, and Apple: Anyone with half a brain, including Iran, including Syria, including Russia and China (maybe especially those last two), could have figured that much out long before the code name for the project became public. But because Westerners didn’t want to know what their rivals and enemies already knew. They wanted what they had for more than a decade after 9/11. Silence. Illusions. Delusions.
The decision to smear Snowden on absurdist grounds was also predictable. Hate the message? Tar the messenger or try to. Snowden didn’t get a high school diploma. Or Snowden, as the Wall Street Journal suggests, somehow needs to be seen as “a martyr.” Personally, I’m not too sure what any of this has to do with the substance of what Snowden did, or what it means to the rest of the world.
But I do know this. The conversation about what democracies are willing to relinquish in the same of safety, or supposed safety, will not end on the day, whenever that may be, Snowden is captured and brought to trial.
The conversation has just begun. And it has begun very late.