Tag: Edward Snowden

June’s Cato Unbound: The Snowden Files, One Year Later

This month at Cato Unbound, we’re discussing Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations.

We mostly know the story, but it bears repeating: One year ago this week, Glenn Greenwald wrote a news story that would change the world forever. In it, we learned that the National Security Agency had been secretly collecting enormous amounts of telephone metadata on what were presumably ordinary American citizens. The agency had done so without a warrant and without suspicion of any indiviudal person. The revelation changed forever how Americans think about national security, privacy, and civil liberties in the digital age.

More revelations soon followed. Among many others, these included NSA surveillance of web activitymobile phone location data, and the content of email and text messages. The NSA also conducted many highly embarrassing acts of surveillance against allied or benign world leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the conclave that recently elected Pope FrancisIt had subverted commonly used encryption systems. It had co-opted numerous tech companies in its plans. Its leaders had repeatedly lied to, or at the very least misled, the U.S. Congress

How far should surveillance go? What has been the value of the information gained? What have we given up in the process? What are the risks, should malign actors ever get their hands on the controls of the system?

We are able to ask these questions today because of one individual: Edward Snowden, a systems administrator for the NSA who chose to make public the information to which he had access. We have no choice now but to debate it. That’s simply what democracies do whenever such momentous information becomes public.

Joining us at Cato Unbound this month are four individuals with extensive knowledge in the fields of national security and civil liberties: Cato Senior Fellow Julian Sanchez, Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Benjamin Wittes, Georgetown University Professor Carrie F. Cordero, and independent journalist Marcy Wheeler. Each brings a somewhat different perspective on the matters at hand, and we welcome them all to what is sure to be a vigorous debate.

The FBI versus the Citizens

This Thursday at Cato, we’re hosting an event for a remarkable new book: Betty Medsger’s The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI (RSVP here). As I explain in the Washington Examiner today, it’s a story as riveting as any heist film, and far more significant:  

Forty-three years ago last Saturday, an unlikely band of antiwar activists calling themselves “The Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI” broke into a Bureau branch office in Media, Pennsylvania, making off with reams of classified documents. Despite a manhunt involving 200 agents at its peak, the burglars were never caught, but the files they mailed to selected journalists proved that the agency was waging a secret, unconstitutional war against American citizens.  

As a young Washington Post reporter, Medsger was the first to receive and publish selections from the files—over the protests of then-attorney general (and later Watergate felon) John Mitchell, who called the Post three times falsely claiming that publication would jeopardize national security and threaten agents’ lives. 

Four decades later, those claims echo in former NSA head Michael Hayden’s assertion that the US is “infinitely weaker” because of Snowden’s leaks. Like the apocryphal old saw suggests, if history doesn’t repeat itself, at least it rhymes.

“As if arranged by the gods of irony,” Medsger writes, the very morning Hoover learned of the break-in, then-assistant attorney general William H. Rehnquist (later Chief Justice), in testimony the FBI had helped prepare, told a Senate subcommittee that what little surveillance the government engaged in did not have a “chilling effect” on constitutional rights. Among the first documents Medsger reported weeks later, was a memo urging agents to “enhance the paranoia… get the point across there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox.”

Ironies abound. The burglars timed the heist for March 8, 1971, when the country would be distracted by the “Fight of the Century” between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. Medsger notes the “poetic justice” that the much-spied upon Ali would unwittingly help provide cover for exposure of FBI spying. Oddly, it’s acting attorney general Robert Bork–survivor of the “Saturday Night Massacre” and nobody’s idea of a civil libertarian)–who orders the release of key documents on the COINTELPRO program and urged the incoming attorney general to investigate the program. There’s another vignette where President Nixon speaks to an FBI Academy graduating class about “reestablishing respect for the law”–and the next evening orders Haldeman to have someone break into the Brookings Institution and steal a purloined copy of the Pentagon Papers (a zealous Chuck Colson suggested firebombing the think tank to create a distraction).  

The Ecuadorian Pot Calls the American Kettle Black on Media Freedom

For a time it looked like Edward Snowden, famed NSA leaker, was headed for Ecuador, whose London embassy still hosts asylum-seeker Julian Assange of WikiLeaks. But the leftist government curiously has cooled on Snowden.

President Rafael Correa originally praised Snowden for his leaks, but then back-tracked. More recently Correa indicated that an asylum request would be considered only after Snowden reached Ecuadorian territory or an embassy, and after consultation with the Obama administration. The Hugo Chavez confidante added: “I believe that someone who breaks the law must assume his responsibilities.” 

The suspicion is that Correa decided principle wasn’t as important as his people’s access to the U.S. market. Nothing personal, just business!

Thankfully, President Correa is primarily a problem for his own people, a dangerous demagogue like Chavez who uses nominally democratic means to amass ever more power. The group Freedom House cited Correa’s use of “questionable maneuvers to remove opposition legislators and members of the Constitutional Court.” Human Rights Watch reported that “prosecutors have repeatedly applied a ‘terrorism and sabotage’ provision of the criminal code against participants engaged in public protests against environmental and other issues.” 

Correa also uses his control of the government and the courts to discourage media criticism. Last month the National Assembly approved a new “gag law” which creates a Communication Regulation and Development Council, Office of Superintendent of Information and Communication, and Citizen Participation, and Social Control Council to enforce its provisions.

The government closed a score of independent radio and television stations last year. President Correa also has used lawsuits to punish his critics. One case imposed a $40 million judgment and jail terms. Observed Freedom House: “International human rights and press freedom organizations, the Organization of American States (OAS), and the United Nations denounced the court decision as a clear effort to intimidate the press.”

His attacks on the press dramatically contradict his policy toward foreign leakers. Indeed, observed my Cato Institute colleagues Juan Carlos Hidalgo and Gabriela Calderon de Burgos:

Another, less reported story is Correa’s war against leakers in his own government. Since he came to power in 2007 there have been four well-documented case where the Ecuadorean government either prosecuted or arrested people who leaked information to the media, revealing instances of corruption in Correa’s government. 

Freedom House only rates Ecuador as “partly free.”  As I wrote in my latest Forbes online column:

While [recently] in Ecuador I talked with people who are more classically liberal, favoring limited government, competitive markets, and free expression.  Although they oppose the crony right as much as the populist left, there was a shared feeling of intimidation.  Years ago, when a free market university let Correa go after he chose politics over the classroom, he sent government regulators to the school.  Many who write about the president today say they temper their criticism, lest they face a ruinous lawsuit.

For Ecuadorian President Correa, sanctimony is high art. To him press freedom and government transparency are for other governments, not his own.