President Barack Obama might as well have had on his Nobel laureate coat and tails back in August. That’s when he weighed in on the revelations from fugitive intelligence analyst Edward Snowden that had ignited a worldwide furor over the vast reach of previously undisclosed U.S. electronic snooping.
The moment was reminiscent of Obama’s 2009 Nobel Peace Prize. That, too, invited him to muster a wisdom and statesmanship he seemed to possess but had never demonstrated.
Opinions differ as to how much peace Obama has made since then, but his comments about Snowden on Aug. 9 were auspicious. Acknowledging public outrage, he said he was stepping up oversight of the National Security Agency and noted it was Snowden’s “repeated leaks of classified information” that “initiated the debate,” albeit “in a passionate but not always fully informed way.”
Obama added that “there’s no doubt that Mr. Snowden’s leaks triggered a much more rapid and passionate response than would have been the case.”
Unfortunately, that pretty much ended Obama’s statesmanship when it came to the conversation he credits Snowden with starting. Since then, Obama has been focused on trying to jail the guy who started it.
The Justice Department has charged Snowden with espionage; he has taken refuge in that haven of expressive freedom and governmental restraint, Russia. This fact is itself no small embarrassment to those of us who thought the United States was the place you came to escape governmental wrath and overreach.
Abroad, Snowden has emerged as a hero in some quarters – ironically, as an archetypal American hero, the lone individualist who follows his conscience and defies officialdom in dogged pursuit of a larger good. Opinion leaders in Germany – where people are miffed that the NSA tapped the cellphone of their current chancellor, Angela Merkel, for more than a decade – have demanded he be given asylum there.
Over here, the possibility that Snowden might be anything but a traitor is barely breathed. The question of clemency was raised, briefly, the other day during the Sunday talk shows, and was swatted away instantly by the two congressional leaders on hand, backed up soon after by a White House spokesman.
The U.S. media, for their part, remain hunkered in the crouch they’ve assumed since the flood of Internet-era leaks began in 2010 – a posture neck-deep in hypocrisy, with editorialists declaiming the great public value of the leaks, while keeping silent when their government imprisons the leakers.
Meanwhile, the riveting stories derived from Snowden’s NSA files continue to flow. The realities he has exposed are immense – incomparably more significant, in my view, than the WikilLeaks disclosures, for which Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning has been sentenced to 35 years and WikiLeaks’ founder, Julian Assange, remains besieged in the Ecuadorean embassy in London.
Unlike the WikiLeaks files, the Snowden material does not, by and large, consist of sensitive information the spymasters have scraped up, but instead illuminates a much more serious matter – their breathtaking capacity to scrape. That capacity, it seems, is unimaginably broad and deep, and encompasses practically all public communication systems – phones, emails, corporate intranets, social media, the world’s mightiest search engines, “the cloud,” most anything digital.
The picture that emerges is of a stupendously vast surveillance system, and in the weeks and months to come, I think we’ll hear more about the most momentous potential consequence of all this: That U.S. spymasters have been so successful that their capability has been woven into the infrastructure of the Internet itself.
That’s the big one. And that’s the fear that is already driving Germany, India, Russia, China and the European Union to push for the United Nations to take a greater role in Internet governance, and of greater concern, is encouraging countries such as Brazil and Germany to take steps toward regionalized Internets and developing secure national email services.
Oxford Internet analyst Ian Brown warns of a “balkanization” of the hitherto global system as national and regional subsystems arise, offering their people cover from the ubiquitous U.S. digital eye, and creating networks that don’t traverse U.S. territory, where monitoring is so much easier – logistically and legally.
Perhaps Snowden is an emissary of a coming digital era whose logic is to defy centralized control and oversight, and the unitary system we’ve had until now was a short-lived product of an Internet imperialism that’s destined to yield to fragmentation.
But I can’t help but think something will be lost if the Internet collapses in this way, and the promise of globalized informational freedom falls victim to a fearful government’s quest for fail-proof security and total control.
Edward Wasserman is dean of the University of California, Berkeley, Graduate School of Journalism.