ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
-A A +A

Whistle-blowing in the Wind

Srinivasan Ramani (srini@epw.in) is Senior Assistant Editor with the Economic and Political Weekly. 

Stanly Johny (stanly.mambilly@gmail.com) is a journalist based in New Delhi.

Only the small nations of Latin America, committed to “Socialism of the 21st century”, stand up to the might of the United States, by offering to provide asylum to whistleblower Edward Snowden. The rest of the world’s state establishments show their inability to defy the US despite great sympathy for Snowden among their citizens (including within the US). 

In an ideal world, a whistleblower like Edward Snowden – an insider who threw light on the dystopian mass surveillance conducted by the US’ secretive security agencies – would have been regarded as the truth-teller he wanted to be known as. He would have been provided sanctuary by any government that would have been outraged at the US’ intrusive surveillance apparatus. The world’s other nations would have offered sympathy and demanded that the US rollback the programme and Snowden would have been hailed for his catalytic efforts.

In the real world that is clearly dominated by a lone superpower to which every other nation regardless of standing or power has some entwined interest related relationship, Snowden is a headache for the state establishments. With the US cancelling his passport, pressing criminal charges and seeking to imprison Snowden, the state establishments elsewhere - irrespective of being the US’ formal allies (and are invariably targets of the NSA’s surveillance) – have been coy with regards the question of his asylum. This is despite public opinion that is clearly favourable to Snowden across such countries, from those in Europe to even in Russia and China and within the US. If ever there was an example of the disconnection between the state and society the world over – it is this.

Reactions to revelations of the presence of massive mass surveillance programmes run by the US’ National Security Agency (NSA) can be broadly classified into four kinds – indignant reaction from state representatives of the US allies apart from other nations; condemnation and outrage from citizens cutting across national boundaries; nonchalant acceptance of the programme by some nation-states; and lastly genuine sympathy and willingness to resist the US’ diktats by some countries offering asylum to Snowden.

Indian External Affairs minister Salman Khurshid's[1] appraisal of the US' NSA's vast eavesdropping apparatus is a close encounter with the third kind. His remark about the PRISM programme (and the massive fiber optic cable snatch of internet data, among others) as mere "computer analysis, computer study of pattern of calls" is either just a supine acceptance of the programme or a naive dismissal of the potency of the NSA effort. The PRISM programme involves the access by the NSA of servers and databases of the behemoth internet companies and is apparently done to give structure and clarity to the NSA’s other effort to “vacuum” internet data from fiber optic cables originating from the USA. These programmes are a clear example of what people call the existence of a powerful “military-industrial complex” in the US.

Khurshid should actually do a better job of his duties as the "external affairs" minister of the country and see how these revelations – mostly published in the Guardian newspaper among others—have been received both by the US allies and other international actors as well as the domestic political and civil society representatives within the US itself. He could do better than blithely accepting the official US claims about the project, which have either been mendacious or plainly misleading to the public.

Domestic Reaction in the US

The defence of the programme by US officials has been that it is directed at the external world and that spying on US citizens is circumscribed by restrictions posed by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). Domestically, the US administration has sought to play down the obvious problematic nature of the NSA's operations to suggest that these are "externally oriented" programmes and that there is enough oversight to protect the US Constitution's Fourth Amendment guarantee of privacy for American citizens. And that the programme is robust enough for national security. This defence has been called into question by several who have suggested that the checks and balances offered by the FISA Act are rather flimsy in practice - as is apparent in the Verizon revelations. Commentators have found that "suspicion-free"/dragnet wiretapping for metadata is not as innocuous as made out to be. The amendments brought about to the FISA Act during the Obama regime only provided a veneer of legitimacy to the predecessor George W. Bush’s programme of warrantless wiretapping of US citizens and the NSA’s actions went even beyond the atrocious Patriot Act passed during Bush’s tenure.

No serious and diligent expert on national security has bought the argument that it requires such a method of suspicion-free (dragnet) wiretapping and internet surveillance to prevent and interdict acts of terrorism in the USA. As for those who are concerned about privacy and the retention of a free environment for dissent and freedom of expression in the US, the limitless tracking of phone calls, allowing for profiling using metadata information is a clear violation of constitutional rights. 

On the US’ external front, representatives of the EU, unlike the Indian government, have been indignant in response to revelations of intrusive surveillance by the NSA (through other programmes, one of which is codenamed “Dropmire”) of their diplomats and government personnel[2]. EU representatives have been equally upset about mass internet surveillance of their citizens, whose privacy agreements with internet companies while signing up for their services, have basically been rendered useless with the revelations of indiscriminate retrieval and analysis of their internet data - voice chats, text messages, emails etc. Reports in the Der Spiegel suggest that half a billion records of internet conversations and phone calls were being monitored every month by the NSA.

Documents provided by Snowden have revealed that the NSA has worked with Britain jointly in a programme called “Tempora” to spy on EU allies. Interestingly, Snowden also suggests that EU countries also cooperate with the NSA in a “no questions asked basis”. In other words, the EU members’ strongly worded reaction to the revelations was perhaps only for public consumption.

Why is the Indian government being so coy in its criticism of the US government's efforts or even being so dismissive of it despite the intensity of surveillance that the NSA has focused on India[3]?

Bandwagoning with the big power 

The response by ex-diplomats and some “strategic analysts” has been that spying is a common international practice – every nation-state does it for its purposes and this is nothing to be alarmed or surprised about. That response does not consider the fact that the spying done by the NSA – on billions of records of phone calls and pieces of internet communication per day – dwarfs any dedicated and targeted espionage operation carried by anyone else. Some commentators have even weirdly argued for India to emulate the PRISM programme for its own national security imperatives.

The Indian government’s non-response to the NSA revelations perhaps flows from other considerations. For one, the Indian government has reportedly been pursuing a similar programme for online surveillance in India. Termed the Centralised Monitoring System, decks have been cleared by the Indian government to utilise legislation allowing for electronic surveillance to be directly conducted by a centralised government agency without having to rely upon telecommunication companies for the purpose. The Indian IT minister’s glib response to a query about this programme was  that it actually enhanced privacy – by taking away responsibility from the telecom companies and bestowing it on the agency. But a cursory look at the operations, which purportedly provide an ability to track metadata of any individual using internet and communication services in India, without adequate checks and balances, suggests that this programme just as PRISM is ripe for misuse.

Secondly and more substantively, the Indian government under the UPA (and its predecessor, the NDA) has been avid in its aims to bandwagon with the US by slowly dismantling its strategic independence vis-a-vis the lone major superpower over the years. The process of becoming an outright ally to the US has been slowed down due to domestic opposition and resentment among sections of the diplomatic corps which has traditionally been trained to emphasise strategic autonomy and self-reliance as motifs for India's foreign policy. But the UPA under PM Manmohan Singh has only tried to continue policies of over-turning both motifs couching them under "pragmatism" and adjustments necessitated due to the changes in the world power structure following the collapse of the Soviet Union. 

Outwardly, the Indian establishment has rejected claims of loss of strategic independence by arguing that it is still committed to various efforts. These include promoting multipolarity via alternate international groupings for economic and political cooperation and coordination such as the BRICS, and expanding its external involvement in other regions of the world by utilising its soft power due to rise in its prestige as a knowledge power. 

Yet, India's inability to avoid becoming subservient to the US' power has hamstrung its stated goals. The pursuit of a strategic alliance with the US has brought it difficulty with its neighbour China, who perceives the growing US-India strategic tie-up as the former's attempts at undercutting rising China by "offshore balancing". This was evident during the run-up to the Nuclear Deal and the Defence Framework Agreement with the US. This has seen a slowing down of the normalisation of Indian ties with China despite rising economic cooperation and trade between the countries[4]

The fear of rubbing the lone superpower the wrong way and the need to prolong a strategic partnership with the US – at any cost – seems to have curtailed the official response by the minister to the NSA revelations. It also explains the peremptory dismissal of the extradition request made by Edward Snowden who first brought light to the surveillance programme by passing on documents to The Guardian, The Washington Post, South China Morning Post and Der Spiegel. External Affairs minister Khurshid’s July 2 remarks that India is not an “open house” for asylum seekers because the country has a “very careful and restrictive policy” on the issue do not go down well with the its own past decisions. India’s decision to provide asylum to the Dalai Lama and his followers in 1950s, who represented a regressive feudal order in the then Tibet, is still a major thorn in India-China relations. The issue is not, as Khurshid claimed, the matter of “careful and restrictive policy” on providing asylum. The issue is that the asylum seeker is an American fugitive, who singlehandedly shook the powerful military industrial complex, not just in the US, but across the world.   

Disowned by the world 

The fact that whistleblowers such as Snowden, ex-armyman Bradley Manning who leaked diplomatic cables and documents highlighting the US’ war crimes to the WikiLeaks organisation, and others have been subjected to vindictive harassment at the behest of the US government suggests that there is basis to Snowden’s requests for political asylum fearing harassment. The Obama justice department, led by attorney general Eric Holder, has in the last four years prosecuted six ‘whistleblowers’ under the Espionage Act, 1917—twice the number prosecuted by all previous administrations combined. The fact that the US has revoked his passport and has covertly intimidated potential asylum providers – seen in the manner the Ecuadorian president was spoken to by the US government officials or the way Bolivian president Evo Morales was harassed on suspicion of harbouring Snowden on the flight that was carrying him back home from Moscow after a diplomatic visit – indicates that Snowden bears huge risk to his life and liberties if returned to the US.  

Still, responses from most countries where Snowden had applied for asylum, exposed their unwillingness, or inability, not just to respect the rights concerns of a whistleblower but also to take a strong position against the illegal spying programmes of the world’s “pre-eminent superpower”. Besides India, Poland and Germany rejected Snowden’s asylum request because “it didn’t meet the requirements for political refuge”. Ireland and Austria said asylum applications are only considered when made by people inside their territory. Snowden is now stuck in the Moscow airport transit zone without a new travel document.

Snowden was prepared to meet the immediate consequences of his truth-telling. Having seen what the Obama administration was doing to whistleblowers, he resolved to take a different path from that of Manning for telling the truth. He fled Hawaii for Hong Kong (yes, he had information about the US spying on Hong Kong and the mainland China) and from there, he got the story out in his own way. The decision to choose Hong Kong as a transit country was a tactical one, which initially proved helpful for Snowden. He had been at a safe house since 10 June after revealing himself as the source behind the leak of top secret US documents. He had previously said he would stay in Hong Kong and fight for his freedom through the courts.

But after the US announced it had charged him with “espionage and theft” on 21 June, and turned up heat on Hong Kong to issue a provisional warrant for Snowden's arrest, both Beijing and Hong Kong changed their strategy. The Chinese government didn’t want Hong Kong to send Snowden back to the US as such a move would hurt its image both inside and outside the country. At the same time, it didn’t want to give asylum to the US fugitive as it would remain a permanent irritant in bilateral ties—an irritant with a high cost given the economic cooperation between the world’s largest and second largest economies. Moreover, pro-market China has historically been reluctant to upset the core interests of the US when it comes to foreign policy. Though there are late signals of China abandoning this “strategic reluctance”, the country is far from charting an anti-imperialist course in its foreign policy.  

As regards the Snowden issue, it preferred to upset the Americans for a short time in order to save its long term interests. Hours after Washington warned Hong Kong of complicating “our [their] bilateral relations” and revoked Snowden’s passport, the whistleblower was on an Aeroflot flight to Moscow in early June 23 (local time). Five hours into the flight, the Hong Kong government issued a statement about his departure. Later reports suggested that the final decision to let Snowden fly out of Hong Kong came from Beijing. The next day, the People's Daily lambasted the US, calling it a “mad invader of other countries' networks". The Chinese government apparently stopped there.

Snowden is now stuck at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport. Ecuador was his best hope. He apparently travelled from Hong Kong to Moscow on temporary travel documents issued by the Ecuador government. Its foreign minister Ricardo Patino Arocam, speaking to reporters in Hanoi, Vietnam, rebuffed America’s charges of treason against Snowden by asking “who betrayed whom?” There were speculations that Snowden would take a flight any time to Ecuador. But the Ecuadorean government of Rafael Correa, who many say would take the lead of the South American Left after the recent death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, took a u-turn in the issue. President Correa told the Guardian in an interview published on 2 July that his country was not considering Snowden’s request and that it was a “mistake” to have granted the fugitive a safe-conduct pass that allowed him to depart Hong Kong for Moscow.

Ecuador was under enormous pressure, which is understandable. The country’s duty-free access to US markets under the Generalized System of Preferences programme is due to expire on 31 July. The Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act, under which the US grants duty-free access to a wide range of exports from four countries including Ecuador, would also expire this month. US Senators had already threatened to block the renewal of these schemes if Ecuador provided asylum to Snowden. Even if it provides asylum by defying the American pressure and issues travel documents for Snowden, it would not be easy to get him flown safely to Quito. The Morales incident shows that the American power and its satellites in Europe would stoop to any level to get this 30-year-old man. It is also ironic that EU countries such as France have at one level, expressed outrage at the NSA revelations but at the same time tried to interdict Snowden, even going to the extent of denying airspace to Bolivian president Evo Morales (alongwith Spain and Portugal) on baseless suspicions of harbouring Snowden in his return journey via EU airspace.

Russia was another option for Snowden. But like the Chinese, the Russians are also cautious. This explains the Russian government’s condition for Snowden’s asylum. “Theoretically, Snowden could stay in the Russian Federation, but with one condition—that he give up his intention to carry out anti-American actions,” President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters on 2 July. “As far as we know, he refuses to do so.” So far, Russia has been consistent in its position that it would not extradite Snowden to the US. President Putin himself said this. But given the twists and u-turns that already happened, and the unwillingness of world’s leading nations to stand up to the US, nothing can be ruled out at this juncture. WikiLeaks has said the “the US is plotting to render Snowden via Eastern Europe to the US.” Associated Press had reported early July that the Obama administration was trying to convince Russia to expel Snowden to the US or to a third country, possibly in Eastern Europe that would then hand him over to US authorities.  

The ALBA rises to the occasion

Finally, Snowden seems to have got some relief after the heads of state of Venezuela and Nicaragua acceded to his request for asylum. For President Nicholas Maduro of Venezuela in particular, filling in the ample shoes of recently deceased leader and predecessor Hugo Chavez, it was a major show of intent of standing up to the US.  Bolivian President Evo Morales, following his return back to his country after his travails in Europe, also defiantly spoke of asylum for Snowden, who still faces a challenge in trying to secure a flight path from Russia to Latin America without being subject to US interdiction during that course.

This is the plight of a man who told the world truth. Fugitives from the third world dictatorships usually get asylum in other countries without much ruckus. Suppose Snowden was a Chinese or an Iranian, having gone to the US and made some revelations which are unpleasant to these governments. The US or its Atlantic satellites would waste no time to offer him asylum. What if the fugitive is from the US? Edward Snowden is the answer. “The question is not which country will grant Mr. Snowden asylum,” WikiLeaks said on 2 July on its Twitter account. “The question is which countries still have an independent executive.”

As things stand, only the countries that are part of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) have shown any gumption in resisting the US’ unrelenting pressure on Snowden. It is no surprise. The ALBA is the only professed anti-imperialist and socialist bloc of countries in the world today that is committed and working towards an alternative world. Howsoever small or powerless they might seem to be, they have shown the most independent will of all in an US dominated world.

 


[1] To be fair to the Indian ministry of external affairs, its initial reaction to the revelations did border upon the indignant when it called the NSA’s surveillance as “unacceptable.

[2] France’s reaction in particular has been rather weak. Reports suggesting that it has a similar PRISM programme operated by its own internal intelligence agencies, perhaps answers the question as to why that is so.

[3] India ranks fifth in the colour coded intensity levels in the “Boundless Informant” wiretapping programme undertaken by the NSA.

[4] Of course Sino-India, Indo-US and Sino-US relationships are not part of a zero sum game. There is ample space for each bilateral relationship to grow independent of the other, but such a calibration is evaded when India shows little inclination to steer clear of US’ hegemonic diplomatic maneuvers in the continent.

 

Comments

(-) Hide

EPW looks forward to your comments. Please note that comments are moderated as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear. A comment, if suitable, may be selected for publication in the Letters pages of EPW.

Back to Top