Neil Macdonald: Washington's obsession with leakers
Julian Assange, Edward Snowden just the most prominent targets
Once again, the powerful organs of U.S. state security have gone to war.
And once again, they seem to have the backing of a complacent American public, a sympathetic Congress and some national media outlets that were tamed long ago.
The justification for the offensive is, once again, protecting Americans from terrorists.
It's a reliable trope, the same one used for the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
This time, though, the government's legal and propaganda weaponry — both overt and covert — is trained on a different enemy: the activists, computer geeks, libertarians and, yes, certain journalists who've undermined the official secrecy behind which America's ever-expanding security-industrial complex operates.
The latest target is Edward Snowden, the former security contractor who leaked documents proving the U.S. National Security Agency collects records of just about every phone call, email, upload and download in America.
Snowden is now on the run.
Already, he's widely denounced here as a traitor and possibly even an enemy agent, despite the financial sacrifice of his act and his stated wish to inform the American people about the extent to which their own government spies on them.
Snowden, though, is by no means the only enemy in this new war.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange remains holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. He sought refuge there exactly a year ago today.
Nominally, the British government wants to turn him over to Sweden, where he faces what are widely described in news reports as "rape charges," even though the sex began as consensual and rape can have a different definition in Sweden than elsewhere.
In any event, the Swedish charges don't explain the massive British police presence and surveillance teams outside the embassy.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges, in a new article titled "The Death of Truth," writes that the British have spent $4.5 million to bottle up Assange this past year, and seem intent on seeing him turned over to U.S. authorities, who have already prepared, according to a leaked document quoted by Hedges, a sealed indictment for espionage.
No real surprise there. Assange has been labeled a "terrorist" (note the recurring justification) by American lawmakers.
His supporters and fellow activists in hacking groups and other "information liberation" organizations are routinely pulled off flights and interrogated. (The U.S. government, evidently, doesn't appreciate competition in the field of computer hacking.)
One can only imagine the surveillance that's been mounted against WikiLeaks' donors.
Winning the headlines
All this demonization seems to have worked. Assange is generally portrayed in the mainstream U.S. media as some sort of criminal crank.
But it's also reasonable to regard him as a publisher. You might not like his mission statement, or his indiscriminate choice of material to put out there, but that's what he is.
And if he's guilty of treason and abetting terrorism, then logic would dictate the government might take the same view towards the news organizations that collaborated with him: The New York Times, the Guardian, Der Spiegel, El Pais, Le Monde, and, yes, CBC News, which published a trove of embarrassing WikiLeaks documents from U.S. diplomatic cables pertaining to Canada.
I was the CBC's reporter on those stories, so I suppose I'm some sort of unindicted co-conspirator and surveillance target, too.
Exaggeration? Paranoid? Maybe. But consider this: Most of the above-referenced news organizations are not American, and therefore not entitled to any legal protection whatever from the NSA's near-total powers of intrusion.
Even being American no longer carries the protection it once did. NSA spying aside, the U.S. justice department has not only prosecuted a record number of leakers, it's begun targeting U.S. journalists who receive and publish government secrets.
The justification: by doing so, news organizations aid terrorists. See a pattern here?
Electronic Big Brother
So far, the U.S. government has not been able to stop Assange, who continues to operate WikiLeaks from inside the Ecuadorian embassy.
Nor has it been able to stifle leakers, such as Snowden, who seem motivated by genuine civic concern that the secret world of data snooping has turned into an uncontrollable monster.
President Barack Obama has also chosen to confirm and defend the existence and scale of covert data collection, even though, paradoxically, his administration says such confirmation only empowers terrorists.
But to win this struggle, the information activists and leakers must win public opinion, and that they have not done.
Just about any government intrusion, it appears, is tolerated here as long as it's held up as fighting terrorism somewhere.
If polls are right, Americans accept the government's rather dubious contention that massive electronic spying has thwarted "dozens" of terrorist plots (though no one protected the crowd at the Boston Marathon).
When a delegation of security mandarins appeared before Congress Tuesday, their bland assurances that the content of Americans' emails and phone communications remain protected were deferentially accepted by politicians of both parties —and conveyed live on cable networks.
Meanwhile, Edward Snowden's warnings are largely unheeded; reporters seem at least as interested in his pole-dancing former girlfriend as they are in the substance of his allegations.
This week, in an online discussion on the Guardian's website, Snowden said U.S. authorities are still lying (just as America's most senior intelligence official lied to Congress a few months ago, when he denied any data is collected at all).
Analysts for multiple agencies, said Snowden, can basically access and examine any data they want, using all sorts of end runs around privacy laws.
"Bathtub falls and police officers kill more Americans than terrorism," he told one online interviewer, "yet we've been asked to sacrifice our most sacred rights for fear of falling victim to it."
In his article, Chris Hedges took a more frightening view. He called the war on secrecy's opponents "The rise of a bitter world where criminals in Brooks Brothers suits and gangsters in beribboned military uniforms — propped up by a vast internal and external security apparatus, a compliant press and a morally bankrupt political elite — monitor and crush those who dissent."
Whether you buy that or not, there is no doubt that we now have a government Big Brother looking electronically over our shoulders. The only question is whether you trust him.