The Snowden affair is fresh evidence of how much the world changed in a historically-short period. In the not-too-distant past, spies were the main target in the never-ending war between intelligence agencies. Zero sum games and intrigue were part of the trade. Whilst this is still true to some extent, increasingly, such activities have become routine procedure between rival nations. A different kind of confrontation is brewing in the world. In the past, Edward Snowden would’ve brought his revelations to Moscow and offered his services to the Soviet intelligence service. There were many like him who grew disenchanted with the West and the promise of communism drew them. Of course, there were also Soviet intelligence officers who chose life in the West. However, today, the main enemy of a major intelligence agency… a closed institution by definition… isn’t other intelligence agencies, but an open society.
US Army Private Bradley Manning and National Security Agency contractor Snowden offered up information they considered important, not to an enemy state, but to the public, turning the old order upside down. Sharing secret information with an ideological or strategic enemy is treason in any country, whatever the motivation. However, to many, exposing government agencies’ interference in the private lives of citizens and violations of constitutionally-protected freedoms is an act of patriotism. Snowden’s supporters in the USA include leftwing and ultra-liberal politicians as well as ultra-conservatives and libertarians such as US Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), who believe the government should stay out of people’s lives. President Putin’s reaction added an interesting twist to the story. He said that Russia wouldn’t extradite Snowden to the USA, which was to be expected, but his words didn’t betray any sympathy for the fugitive American. As a former intelligence officer, one could hardly expect Putin to feel sympathy for someone who violated his oath and revealed state secrets.
A new kind of confrontation is taking shape in a world where nothing’s secret any more. On one side are the intelligence agencies of the world, which believe it’s their duty to know as much as possible about people and to keep them in the dark about their own activities… in the name of universal security. Standing on the other side are those who believe that people have the right to use any means available to lift the veil of secrecy from intelligence agencies and to keep them out of their personal lives. This was a relatively minor confrontation, but the modern global information community acts as a huge magnifying glass and a powerful catalyst.
However, whistleblowers are of little interest to rival intelligence agencies. Usually, the facts that whistleblowers reveal to the world are already well-known by the agencies. Moreover, an agent’s value lies in being part of the system for a long time, even as a small cog. Those who go public and sever their ties with an institution aren’t worth a dime. Manning, who passed sensitive US government materials to WikiLeaks three years ago, and Snowden, who went public with information about the internet scouring programme code-named PRISM, might just be underachievers in search of notoriety. Nevertheless, really, it doesn’t matter why they did it. The upshot is that society is trying to protect itself from the growing technical capabilities of intelligence agencies. Snowden simply confirmed what everyone already suspected… that intelligence agencies are using social media and other communication systems for their own purposes. All the same, such weapons can cut both ways, and there’ll always be people willing to use these new technological capabilities against the agencies. Likely, there’ll be more such whistleblowers, and not only in America.
Overall, the Snowden affair provided a fitting end to the 2012-13 global political season… a combination of pathos and cynicism, farce and drama, with hopeless ambiguity as its main symbol. Opinions of Snowden vary greatly, and they’ll likely continue to divide people. The trend toward disunity in the world is much stronger than the trend toward unity. The overwhelming feeling is one of exasperation. Nothing is going as expected and different social groups and countries can’t agree on anything. No one’s satisfied with the outcome, although for different reasons, and no one knows what to do to make things right.
28 June 2013