Forget Snowden and Greenwald's motives – state spying is the issue

Forget Snowden and Greenwald's motives – state spying is the issue

by Mr Eugenides
article from Saturday 13, July, 2013

I ONCE had to spend five hours in transit at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport. It wasn’t a a lot of fun. The café I fetched up in sold two kinds of sandwich: a square of brown bread with sausage, and a square of brown bread with fish. I chose the sausage; it tasted vaguely of fish. The coffee, in fairness, was not bad, but then again it was costing me an arm and a leg, so I can’t say that I was particularly grateful. Later on I found out that there was a Burger King and a Subway on the other side of the terminal and I almost wept with fury.

Later still, urinating under the watchful gaze of a cleaning babooshka who looked like she would report me to the FSB if I didn't piss straight, I resolved that next time I would pay the extra £100 to transit through Dubai, or Doha, or fucking Kabul, wherever. It wasn’t quite the worst airport experience of my life – I once waited eighteen hours in O’Hare during a snowstorm, and there was a night spent kipping in the old Dublin airport which still gives me the heebie-jeebies to think about, fifteen years on – but if I never have to stop over in Sheremetyevo again, it will be too soon.

At the time of this writing, Edward Snowden has been sitting in the selfsame transit area for over two weeks, waiting patiently for a flight that never comes and perhaps never will. He has accepted an offer of political asylum from Venezuela, praising them for “being the first to stand against human rights violations carried out by the powerful rather than the powerless” – which rated a mordant chuckle in the Eugenides household this morning, I can tell you – and has also declared his gratitude to those other bastions of free speech and democratic transparency Nicaragua, Bolivia and, of course, Russia itself, a nation where crusaders for transparency in government are generally about as welcome as Charles Saatchi at a battered womens’ shelter.

In summary, then, it would take a heart of stone not to laugh at the predicament of the unfortunate Ed - what is it about people called Ed? – at least if his experience in that transit area is anything like mine was. But of course his experience there is nothing like mine was, because I was not allowed to hold a press conference in the airport, as Snowden did yesterday, for a gaggle of specially invited NGOs and human rights activists, as if human rights activists in Russia don’t have enough in their diaries, what with the appalling human rights situation and all. (The last time there were so many NGO workers gathered at Sheremetyevo, Putin was having them all deported.)

For politicians, writers and commentators on the right, Snowden is already a punchline. His choice of asylum destinations shows his double standards, we sniff knowingly. In bed with Wikileaks? We told you so. Glenn Greenwald? Hmmm. We instinctively curl the lip when we read about him; most of us think he should go to jail. Yet the temptation to dismiss the messenger has led many people to ignore the message, and I think that is a mistake.

There’s certainly a lot for Righties instinctively to dislike in the Snowden saga. Most obviously, as we’ve already seen, the hapless whistleblower finds himself seeking refuge in states which, to put it politely, do not necessarily share his touching faith in the power of letting sunlight in on the murky workings of government. It’s easy to mock someone who poses as a freedom fighter while trying to secure safe passage to Havana. (I know, because I’ve been doing it on Twitter for much of the past fortnight.)

Just as troubling, for those of us familiar with his work, is his choice of Glenn Greenwald as conduit for his revelations. There are a number of unresolved questions about the association between the two, not least the fact that it seems to have begun before Snowden went to work for the defence contractor Booz Allen, thus suggesting that he was not so much blowing a whistle as planted with the express intention of stealing and publishing state secrets. But more generally, Greenwald himself presents all sorts of issues; lionised by many on the [far] left, he embodies the worst traits of a particular type of leftist critic of America, in common with the likes of John Pilger and the appalling Noam Chomsky.

Inconvenient facts that jar with Greenwald’s worldview are simply left out or elided; enemies of freedom more or less given a free pass, so long as they are ranged in opposition to the United States; problems throughout the world, from Darfur to Caracas, seen only through the prism of American “imperialism”. His professional body of work is essentially one long stream of venom spat into the eye of American power, and I think he and his ilk are bad for journalism – not that I care – and bad for you and me, because they explicitly seek to position our flawed and often illiberal, but ultimately democratically elected, governments as the firestarters in the troublespots of the world, instead of the ones who are desperately trying to put the fires out.

Greenwald’s reporting on Syria is a case in point. He had almost literally nothing to say of the slaughter of tens of thousands of innocent Muslims for a year and a half, until a bomber hit a government meeting and killed several top regime officials, at which point Glenn wrote an angry piece for Salon using it to attack the West for being as bad as the Assad regime. Then, six months later, the Israelis got in the act by hitting a Hezbollah arms convoy, when he suddenly realised that the real issue in the war was Netanyahu’s belligerence towards his Arab neighbours. Given this sort of stuff, it is hardly surprising that Edward Snowden is, in the eyes of many, tainted by the association.

I’ll be honest; I hate the idea that Greenwald’s agenda is furthered by these revelations, his monochrome, borderline dishonest “reporting” validated by the scoop he’s served up for us this past month. But be in no doubt that a scoop is what it is. Our governments are engaged in an unimaginably massive conspiracy to spy on each and every one of us, in collusion with the internet companies that serve as our gatekeepers to the online lives that, for so many, increasingly define us. They spy on us when we are online, they spy on us when we phone our parents, they spy on us when we walk down the fucking streets. This is not tinfoil-hatted paranoia but incontestable fact, and it’s in part thanks to the curious Mr Snowden and the unpalatable Mr Greenwald that we can say so definitively and without fear of contradiction.

Now, it may be that you are relaxed about this. It may be that you consider security to be more important than privacy, and the harvesting of metadata to be a harmless quotidian policing tool in the fight against terrorism. Fine. I’ll disagree with you, but let’s at least be in possession of the facts and have the conversation.

You tell me that our governments can’t publicise all the methods by which they keep tabs on the bad guys. Fine. But let’s at least not be lied to when the unholy awkward squad of radical leftists and small-state libertarians start asking awkward questions of those in power. Let’s not forget who works for whom in this relationship, let alone in whose name all this is being done in the first place.

I couldn’t particularly care less what happens to Snowden; I don’t wish ill on my fellow human beings, but if he has to eat stale sandwiches for the rest of his life, then whatever. But I won’t let my distaste or even contempt for his enforced choice of bedfellows cloud my judgment of what he’s revealed. In the unlikely event that I ever pass through Sheremetyevo again, I think that’s worth a £7 cup of coffee. I suspect he’ll still be there.


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