Let's not forget about the spying NSA

2013-06-25 11:04

Chicago - Understanding of the Edward Snowden situation in the USA has shifted mightily from government spying to the motives of the man who is now running around the world.
A few weeks ago, when The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald reported, via a leak, that the US government was collecting data on every single phone call made by users of a US cellular phone network, mass conversations in the media began about whether the government's actions – which turned out to be far more widespread than initially reported – were constitutional or not. In the days since then, the focus has narrowed to the motives and the future of the leaker who flew to Hong Kong before revealing his identity to the media.
One must commend the US government's PR department, because for the last few days it has seemed that everyone forgot the National Security Agency (the department that is filing information on every person in America, and a bucket load of foreigners), aided by some all-too-generous legislation from Congress, decided it didn't really need to respect anyone's constitutional right to privacy. No matter what Edward Snowden's motives, or how he has tried to deal with what he did, this is fact. American citizens' constitutional rights are being quashed at the will of government, whether Snowden was a computer angel or yet another Obama-accused spy (incidentally, Obama has lashed more leakers with espionage charges than every other president combined since the World War 1-era Espionage Act was signed into law).
Don't get me wrong. There are some serious questions to be asked of Snowden – although possibly without the zeal US politicians have been spitting at cameras for the last week or two – most notably the fact that he told the South China Morning Post he took a job at a government-contracted company specifically to obtain evidence of government spying.
There is also the hysterical bleating about Snowden asking for help of countries – Ecuador, Russia and, China (although technically Hong Kong was doing the dealings), and possibly Venezuela – which are as media-friendly as Floyd Shivambu is to white female journalists. It is patently obvious that Snowden is seeking out self-preservation, as is one's wont when the US government is on one's trail. With Snowden's offences – espionage or otherwise – relating to his use of computers, there is cause for concern when it comes to facing the US justice system which has proven itself utterly inept at policing cyber crimes fairly or justly. 

Worst case scenario

That the guy is trying to save his butt doesn't make illegitimate what he discovered and brought to the media's attention: That the fourth amendment to the US constitution (the one preventing unreasonable searches of citizens) has been disregarded by this and the previous administration, while Congress voted itself out of a proper oversight role.

While US politicians who voted for the foul pieces of legislation – the Patriot Act, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, and renewals and additions – can't get in front of cameras fast enough to say "I didn't mean to vote for that to happen", they perhaps forget that reading, understanding and passing legislation is kind of the point of their jobs.

As South Africans, we should have learnt during the national debate over the Protection of State Information Bill that laws should be judged as if the government is going to use them in the worst way possible. US legislators failed miserably in this regard. And they represent a country that is supposed to be sceptical of the power given to government. What a massive failure.
No matter what Snowden did, where he goes, or why he did it, this remains true. The Patriot Act and accompanying legislation have been found to be flawed. The government is recording details of private citizens, and oversight thereof is being conducted by a secret court, and a small number of members of Congress who are unable to divulge the details.
The big secret machinery of a very powerful government is at work, whether Edward Snowden flies Aeroflot to Cuba with Wikileaks' lawyers, or not. Both are newsworthy, but should not be conflated.

- Simon Williamson is a freelance writer. Follow @simonwillo on Twitter.

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