Hero or traitor?This year’s Time Magazine “Person of the Year” is pretty much decided, even only halfway through. The first choice will undoubtedly be whistle-blower Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who has been trapped inside a transit zone in the Moscow airport for a month while trying to flee U.S. authorities for releasing U.S. government classified information on global clandestine surveillance work. Coming up with the cover-line isn’t very hard either. It will go something like “Hero or traitor?” or “Criminal or rat fink?” The editors of Time Magazine may have to secretly thank the fugitive for making one of their toughest jobs of the year so easy.
The U.S. Justice Department slapped Snowden with a number of federal criminal charges, including espionage, unauthorized release of national defense information and theft of government property, which all carry a maximum 10-year prison penalty. Washington has already annulled Snowden’s passport and he is a fugitive denied entry by most countries. His bid for asylum was turned down by 26. A few anti-U.S. Latin American countries like Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua have offered to accept him. But he hasn’t figured out a way to get to any of them.
He has been tossed around like a hot potato. Snowden left Hong Kong for Cuba but stopped in Russia because he didn’t feel he would safely reach there with Washington pressuring countries along his route to hand him over. He resubmitted an application for asylum in Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin at first seemed to welcome him like a surprise Christmas present but is now weighing the usefulness of the fugitive against the downside of harm to his relationship with the U.S. Few countries would dare to stand up to Washington’s vehemence that Snowden should be brought to justice no matter what.
Through Snowden, a former systems administrator for the NSA, the entire world came to know that the U.S. has been running for years unimaginably massive data-mining programs tapping into telephone lines as well as central servers of major Internet companies, extracting audio, video, photographs, e-mails, documents and connection logs. From this database, analysts were able to track a person’s movements, contacts and even thoughts.
The fact that the NSA was listening to Americans’ phone calls was not the only problem. The so-called Prism program gave the NSA access to digital records from major online providers like Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Twitter on people outside America. Big Brother has been listening and watching the world and piling up a wealth of data on the global population.
The NSA argues that the surveillance was strictly for antiterrorism and counterintelligence investigations to protect national security and American lives. It reiterates that it will never abuse its authority and infringe on privacy. But its surveillance has been too massive and extensive to overlook. Most of all, instead of compiling selective information using a set of guidelines, the agency basically took all digital communication files and stocked them in a vast database to sort through at will. If it ever develops such a will, all the information can be used for purposes other than antiterrorism.
Washington has not activated the principle of checks and balances on the secret surveillance program. The NSA should have reported its job to the Senate Intelligence Committee as other federal agencies do. But Congress had not been fully informed of the intelligence activities because they were cited as classified information. A U.S. court also gave a free pass to the agency’s request to amass telephone records and other customer information from private companies. It turned down only two of 8,591 NSA requests for subpoenas for wiretaps from 2008 to 2012.
Snowden worked for a government contractor, Booz Allen Hamilton, and earned a fat paycheck from the private company for doing classified work for the NSA. The company is just one of 1,931 technology consultancies and private companies that work for 16 U.S. federal intelligence agencies. Of the NSA’s annual budget of $80 billion, 70 percent, or $56 billion, is paid to such private companies for their services.
The military and intelligence industry move as one massive organization. Revolving-door practices are rampant. John Michael McConnell, a former head of the NSA and director of national intelligence, is currently the vice chairman of Booz Allen. More than 500,000 civilians hold top-secret clearances in the U.S. military and the shadow world of intelligence.
In his farewell address as president in 1961, President Dwight Eisenhower warned against the growing influence of the military-industrial complex, which could, he said, “endanger our liberties and democratic process.” But the arms industry has gotten only bigger in the wake of the Cold War. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the establishment has expanded from conventional weapons to the information industry. The NSA has become the symbol of “unwarranted influence” of the military-industrial complex. All the secrets of the NSA have been bared or are being threatened to be exposed. That is why we fear for Snowden’s life.
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Bae Myung-bok