The hubris of empire and the courage of whistle-blowers

In The Six Pathways of Destiny, I wrote about critics, spies and whistle-blowers exemplifying a blending of the path of the warrior-reformer and the path of the signaling-communicator (pp. 117-119).  “In social organizations and communities it is the role of the critic and reformer to identify weaknesses of corruption and degeneration and thereby seek to bring about reforms to correct them.” Laws to protect whistle-blowers of corruption and theft in business corporations have been passed in recent times – but the potential for them to lose their livelihood or their liberty is still high in most countries. The stakes – and the risks – are astronomically higher in cases where the whistle-blower exposes corruption and malfeasance in the government of the military-industrial complex itself. In the 1960s, the country and the world were riveted by Daniel Ellsberg’s exposure of the Pentagon Papers for which he faced and survived the risk of spending the rest of his life in prison.

Currently, the revelations of Julian Assange, Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden have been casting a startling and bracing bright light on the globally pervasive nakedness of information imperialism. All three of these reformer-warriors were highly trained and skilled initiates in the secret world of digital information management – and all three came to the point of being appalled at the endemic violations of human rights and privacy that they witnessed.

Julian Assange has managed to find personal refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he has been living for a year, while the network of digital allies he developed continues with its periodic exposures. Bradley Manning was arrested, held under torturous conditions in a military prison for over a year and is now facing a possible life-sentence for his revelations. He has not yet been sentenced. A campaign to award him the Nobel Peace Prize has generated several hundred thousand signatures, while mainstream American politicians and commentators denounce him as a “traitor.”

Edward Snowden, after entrusting his story and encrypted information download to two courageous independent journalists – Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras – ended up in the Moscow airport, stripped of his US passport, was unable to fly to any of the three Central American countries that offered him refuge because of fear of being arrested in mid-flight  – a fear that turned out to be justified when a plane flying from Moscow carrying the Bolivian head of state was intercepted by anonymous authorities in Vienna who searched the plane for no apparent reason. After living in the Moscow international airport lounge for two weeks, Snowden was granted provisional asylum in Russia, despite strenuous pleading and attempted pressure for extradition by US authorities from the President on down. Reminding his American counterparts that the US and Russia do not have an extradition treaty, Russian president Vladimir Putin, clearly relishing the opportunity to score diplomatic points, remarked with sardonic humor  “Ask yourself a question: should people like that (human rights activists like Assange and Snowden) be extradited so that they can can put them in prison? I prefer not to deal with such issues. It’s like shearing a piglet: a lot squealing and little wool.”

The NY Times Sunday Magazine,  August 18, 2013 published a story by Peter Maas, entitled How Laura Poitras helped expose what the American government does in the name of security. In the course of reporting his profile of Laura Poitras, Peter Maas conducted an encrypted question-and-answer session, for which Poitras served as intermediary, with Edward J.  Snowden. now living somewhere in Russia. The interview was accompanied in the magazine by a photo of a crowd of people in Brazil holding masks of Edward Snowden at hearing on the NSA surveillance programs, which have sparked outrage around the world.

Below are selections from that conversation, providing fascinating insight into the enormous courage and fierce intelligence which these whistle-blowers are demonstrating. Both Greenwald and Poitras now have chosen to live outside the US (Greenwald in Brazil, Poitras in Berlin) to protect their person and their journalistic writings from seizure.

Edward Snowden Speaks to Peter Maass of the New York Times

 Peter Maas: Why did you seek out Laura and Glenn, rather than journalists from major American news outlets (N.Y.T., W.P., W.S.J. etc.)? In particular, why Laura, a documentary filmmaker?

Edward Snowden: After 9/11, many of the most important news outlets in America abdicated their role as a check to power — the journalistic responsibility to challenge the excesses of government — for fear of being seen as unpatriotic and punished in the market during a period of heightened nationalism. From a business perspective, this was the obvious strategy, but what benefited the institutions ended up costing the public dearly. The major outlets are still only beginning to recover from this cold period.

Laura and Glenn are among the few who reported fearlessly on controversial topics throughout this period, even in the face of withering personal criticism, and resulted in Laura specifically becoming targeted by the very programs involved in the recent disclosures. She had demonstrated the courage, personal experience and skill needed to handle what is probably the most dangerous assignment any journalist can be given — reporting on the secret misdeeds of the most powerful government in the world — making her an obvious choice.

P.M.: Was there a moment during your contact with Laura when you realized you could trust her? What was that moment, what caused it?

E.S.: We came to a point in the verification and vetting process where I discovered Laura was more suspicious of me than I was of her, and I’m famously paranoid. The combination of her experience and her exacting focus on detail and process gave her a natural talent for security, and that’s a refreshing trait to discover in someone who is likely to come under intense scrutiny in the future, as normally one would have to work very hard to get them to take the risks seriously. With that putting me at ease, it became easier to open up without fearing the invested trust would be mishandled.

P.M.: Were you surprised that Glenn did not respond to your requests and instructions for encrypted communication?

E.S.: Yes and no. I know journalists are busy and had assumed being taken seriously would be a challenge, especially given the paucity of detail I could initially offer. At the same time, this is 2013, and he’s a journalist who regularly reported on the concentration and excess of state power. I was surprised to realize that there were people in news organizations who didn’t recognize any unencrypted message sent over the Internet is being delivered to every intelligence service in the world. In the wake of this year’s disclosures, it should be clear that unencrypted journalist-source communication is unforgivably reckless.

P.M.: When you first met Laura and Glenn in Hong Kong, what was your initial reaction? Were you surprised by anything in the way they worked and interacted with you?

E.S.: I think they were annoyed that I was younger than they expected, and I was annoyed they had arrived too early, which complicated the initial verification. As soon as we were behind closed doors, however, I think everyone was reassured by the obsessive attention to precaution and bona fides. I was particularly impressed by Glenn’s ability to operate without sleep for days at a time.

P.M.: Laura started filming you from nearly the start. Were you surprised by that? Why or why not?

E.S.: Definitely surprised. As one might imagine, normally spies allergically avoid contact with reporters or media, so I was a virgin source — everything was a surprise. Had I intended to skulk away anonymously, I think it would have been far harder to work with Laura, but we all knew what was at stake. The weight of the situation actually made it easier to focus on what was in the public interest rather than our own. I think we all knew there was no going back once she turned that camera on, and the ultimate outcome would be decided by the world.

2 Responses

  1. Ralph, would love to see you speak again at Readers Books, Sonoma.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: