Note: This article originally appeared at OneEurope.
Felt, Ellsberg, Assange, Manning and now Snowden, are just names. What they have done for society is provide us with honesty.
When Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were assigned to report on the burglary of the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate building in Washington DC, they had no way to know what they would uncover and show the world. By the time they were finished, the President of the United States had resigned and Woodward and Bernstein were household names. As was their informant, a man who was known for over thirty years by the name Deep Throat.
Mark Felt was an Associate Director at the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He had given Woodward stories at the Washington Post before. When Woodward called him after the Watergate break in, Mark Felt gave him the information he needed. He became the most notorious whistleblower in history.
He was both revered and derided in the national media when he was finally confirmed as Deep Throat in 2005. Some called him a hero, and some said he did the wrong thing. Why didn’t he go to a grand jury? It was suggested that he did it out of spite, that he wanted the Directorship of the FBI, and that he didn’t care about the morals. Ostensibly, this version of the story is the correct one.
Charles Colson, President Nixon’s chief counsel, said that Felt had violated his oath to keep the nation’s secrets. Colson was wrong. There is a huge difference between minding launch codes and telling a country that leaders have them in the first place.
Times haven’t changed too much. Felt isn’t widely known today, but his nickname is. He has been replaced by other notorious and divisive characters. Julian Assange, wanted for sexual assault or rape (depending on what government you ask), but more widely spoken of as the founder of Wikileaks. Bradley Manning, Private in the United States Army, five time medal winner, more widely spoken of as the man who leaked documents to Wikileaks from a tent in the desert. And finally, Edward Snowden, a systems administrator with Booz Allen Hamilton, now widely known for instigating the largest leak in NSA history. He is currently at large and seeking political asylum, fully aware that he has probably left the United States for the last time.
Media attention on Snowden has been, at the very least, interesting. The Guardian, where Glenn Greenwald published the details of Snowden’s leaks, is supportive of Snowden and his actions. In the United Kingdom, details are emerging of even worse infractions by the UK government. The details of the US PRISM program are still coming to light, but the point is clear; the United States, in gathering data from countless countries as well as its own citizens, broke no laws.
That is the most phenomenal part. No laws had to be broken to allow the United States to do this. Each day, we get closer and closer to 1984-like conditions, and still, the media are writing about the stickers on Snowden’s laptop and how he didn’t get his high school diploma first time around.
In Europe, there is rage. The European Union has started acting quickly, perhaps because they know the sins of the past too well. In 2011, the European Commission intended to push for the protection of EU citizens’ data by way of authorized transfer requests and adjudications. The Commission backed down after fierce lobbying by the United States.
The European Parliament is now pushing that same agenda. The Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT) would require a judge or an equivalent authority to approve any transfer of data outside the EU. All non-EU countries would have to go through that adjudication.
The fact remains though, that this may not be enough. Felt, Ellsberg, Assange, Manning and now Snowden, are just names. What they have done for society is providing us with honesty. They have elected to give us truths we would otherwise not know. They have shown us, over and over again, the capacity of our governments to overreact, to go beyond the limits of the power we want them to have.
The main goal of terrorism has always been to inspire real fear. Terrorism, in the case of the United States, has been entirely successful. A country built on personal freedom, which has guaranteed personal rights and liberties, is tearing itself to pieces, corrupting its own basis as a state and alienating some of its largest allies, including those in Europe.
The United States government broke no laws- and that is possibly the most terrifying truth of all. Europe needs to be cautious and aware of the dangers. We do not want these outcomes for our states or for our international alliance in the European Union.