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26 Jun, 2013

What Does an Empire Look Like After Its Been Poked in the Eye?

The Executive Committee, International Movement for a Just World (JUST)

Kuala Lumpur, June 26, 2013 – The unfolding situation around whistleblower Edward Snowden is perhaps the Obama administration’s most notable embarrassment, but how far will Washington go to get even with the countries offering safe haven to the man they view as a fugitive?

The Snowden saga has it all: a stealthy CIA employee turned principled whistleblower, passionate journalists bringing disclosures to light, and all the diplomatic twists and turns of a big government that hates losing face pressuring other countries to turnover their man. So, what does an Empire look like after its been poked in the eye? It would resemble that of Washington today, which is privately fuming and gritting teeth in-between White House press conferences, where the US is meting out strong statements slamming Beijing, and pressuring Russia to detain Snowden and send him back to the US for trial. White House spokesmen Jay Carney held steadfast to antagonistic rhetoric, supposing that if Snowden were really an advocate for transparency, freedom of the press and protection of individual rights and democracy, he would not run into the embrace of countries like China, Russia, and Ecuador. The executive branch has made its opinion clear, but what other rich and substantive views dominate the US media landscape in the coverage of the unfolding Snowden drama?

Fox News analyst Ralph Peters called for subjecting Snowden and other treasonous figures to the death penalty, while prominent media figures have called for The Guardian’s journalist Glenn Greenwald to be charged with “aiding and abetting” the fugitive Snowden. It’s not easy keeping a straight face when watching Dick Cheney being interviewed on television railing against the “crimes” of Edward Snowden, and its practically impossible to fight the urgent need to facepalm when hearing US Secretary of State John Kerry play on scare tactics that the US would be “attacked because terrorists may now know how to protect themselves” from the sweeping NSA surveillance apparatus brought to light by the now infamous whistleblower on the lam.

PRISM is about fighting terrorism, but little stands in the way of the White House putting ‘activists’ or dissidents’ into the same basket as ‘terrorists’; in other words, the purpose of this mass surveillance is primarily for gathering intelligence on individuals that are troublesome to the establishment. The CIA, being as hyperactive as it is, wants a file on everybody – and with zero public accountability, nothing stops them from monitoring Occupiers or Libertarians just as they would actual terrorists. As the situation develops and the US postures itself as a freer nation than those which Snowden has made his stopovers in, the hypocrisy of that narrative has become all the more glaring.

Is the US waging war on whistleblowers & journalists?

When the US isn’t waging a war on drugs, or waging cyber war, or waging drone wars, or waging actual war, it’s recently taken to waging war on leakers and hard-hitting reporters. Let’s be clear – even during the early days of the Patriot Act, which drastically lowered the bar on the legal requirements for suspicious individuals to be spied on, nobody thought that the NSA and the authorities concerned could ever enact such a sweeping program like PRISM, which gives the government unprecedented and intimate access into private email exchanges, phone calls, video chats, and numerous other areas. Regardless of whether or not this program has been abused by authorities isn’t the question – the very existence of such a program represents the administration’s grave misinterpretation of its own mandate, and an enormous betrayal of public trust. Whether dealing with revelations of mass surveillance, the leaking of US diplomatic cables, or bringing video evidence of US war crimes to the forefront, there is a growing tendency in the US establishment to portray sources of controversial information as being treasonous and anti-patriotic in nature.

Political personalities and pundits often fan the flames of these reactionary opinions when journalists publish information that may blur the line between activism and journalism. Obama has charged more whistleblowers than any other previous presidential administration, invoking the WWI-era Espionage Act to criminalize figures like Snowden and others with aiding the enemy. If Snowden really intended to do harm to the United States, he could have compromised the safety of intelligence officials by revealing the identities of undercover CIA agents embedded in various parts of the world, and other things that could harm more than just Washington’s diplomatic standing in the world. Snowden claims to have released only the information that would benefit the public good, and if he comes forward to release more information that suggests that Washington has acted outside of national and international law in its cyber security programs or foreign adventures, many countries would sympathize with Snowden and view his actions as morally justifiable.

The China Equation

Behind the handshakes and smiles of Obama’s meet up with Chinese President Xi Jinping in California, the Snowden saga had broken and began making international headlines. Snowden’s revelations lent strong credibility to Chinese assertions that they are victims of hacking, not the main perpetrators of it, as Washington maintains. Recent leaks detail how the US government has been hacking Chinese mobile operator networks to intercept millions of text messages, hacking the operator of region’s fibre optic cable network, as well as hacking the servers at Tsinghua University, one of country’s biggest research institutions. If the US was on the receiving end of such far-reaching hacks, it would certainly not be quiet – nor would it honor requests by the aggressor nation to ‘extradite the messenger,’ as it were. Beijing has no illusions, and commentary in China’s official news agencies suggest that.

China’s Xinhua news agency says that US government owes the world an explanation, and called Washington “the biggest villain” of cyber attacks, while claiming to be innocent. In the Globaltimes, a Chinese daily that reflects the views of the establishment in Beijing, an op-ed was published that suggested that the Chinese government attempt to extract useful information from Snowden, noting that “Snowden is a political offender against the US, but what he is doing benefits the world” and that “public opinion will turn against China’s central government and the Hong Kong SAR government if they choose to send him back.” White House spokesman Jay Carney called Snowden’s escape from Hong Kong a “deliberate choice by the [Beijing] government to release a fugitive, despite a valid arrest warrant,” prior to claiming that the move would hurt US-China relations. The forecast here is pretty clear, expect a great deal of chill and enhanced mutual distrust. (And probably a lot more hacking.)

Let the Putin-bashing begin…

These days, when Kerry isn’t preoccupied trying to arm militants and non-state actors in Syria (a strong case can be made that these figures fit the definition of ‘terrorists’), he’s warning Americans of the dangers posed by terrorists, who now have the upper hand to attack America thanks to the criminality of pesky whistleblowers – or so the US mythology goes. At the time of this article being written, nobody is exactly sure where Snowden is, but its assumed that he’s somewhere in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, arranging his political asylum and onward travel to Quito with Ecuadorian diplomats. If Snowden remains in Russia for an extended period, Kerry will be coming at the Kremlin with huge diplomatic pressure to hand Ed over. If the Russian administration chooses not to honor the extradition request, as the US has done in numerous cases, then expect the White House and their cheerleaders in the US media to come down hard on the Putin administration.

The same can be expected if he is allowed to leave Russia, or if Moscow does anything but return Snowden to the US. The recent photograph of Obama and Putin awkwardly sitting side-by-side with hands folded and eyes to the ground perfectly captures the mood of US-Russian relations, and it looks as if that kind of chill is the new normal. It is also unwise of the White House to contentiously downplay Russia’s commitment to transparency, democracy, and freedom of the press while asking the Kremlin to hand Snowden over. There is little that the US can do if Russia or Ecuador chooses to protect Snowden, though it may make it harder for citizens of those countries to get US visas, or it could even drag the diplomatic tussle into the economic sphere by delaying investment deals or making it difficult to import goods to US markets. Two things are for certain at this point: the Snowden saga won’t end quietly, and BigBama’s gonna keep watching you… for your own safety from evil terrorists, of course.