Curtain Raiser

Snowden May Come to Brazil, Colltalers

Amnesty International joined this past week a global push to convince the Brazilian government to seriously consider granting asylum to NSA contractor turned whistleblower Edward Snowden, or at least to provide an official reply to his December passionate letter seeking shelter there.
The organization is now part of an eclectic mix of privacy advocates, grassroots movements for government transparency, community activists and a wide array of political leaders the world over that sees merit in Snowden’s request, and possible benefits for Brazil, despite the likely downsides.
If President Dilma Rousseff may wonder, why Brazil?, the fact is that, among all world leaders affected by Snowden’s revelations of NSA widespread spying on their personal and national affairs, she may be the one whose biography most closely tracks his current woes.
For she’s now that rare elected president whose past as a political operative put her at odds with a dictatorship; the one that ruled Brazil in the 1960s, kept tabs and reportedly tortured her, deeming her a ‘subversive.’ So she would be in a unique position to understand Snowden. Or not.
A lot has happened since the end of the military rule in Brazil, in the middle of the 1980s, and as the country enjoys an unprecedented high global profile, it’s possible that many a hawk on her corner would be advising her against welcoming a man the U.S. is so invested in throwing into jail.
When Snowden, who’s been granted temporary asylum till August in, of all places, Russia, released to the public documents showing how the NSA has enjoyed for years unrestricted power to gather intelligence in any way it sees fit, including spying on law-abiding citizens, he single-handedly ignited an overdue debate over the limits between a state’s security interests and the constitutional right of individuals to their own privacy.
The discussion gained momentum throughout the world and weakened the agency as the documents also clearly showed that much of such intel gathering hasn’t provided meaningful breakthroughs in the so-called war on terrorism, and instead, has been spent on industrial espionage.
That a U.S. agency has been so focused on uncovering foreign government and corporate secrets, something definitely not in its job description, was the one reason invoked by President Rousseff to cancel a U.S. visit in October: Brazil’s Petrobras, as it turned out, was also a NSA’s target.
That, and the disclosure that German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s personal cellphone, among others, had also been tapped, caused a ruckus and an outcry against the U.S., at a critical moment when Germany starts to slowly regain a domineering role in Europe, and the U.S., on the other hand, finds itself politically and economically vulnerable. The Obama administration’s simply couldn’t ignore the serious implications that it all represents.
But let’s make a distinction here, before going any further. Absolutely no one is or should be startled by the realization that nations, allies or not, do spy on each other, and dedicate an enormous amount of resources to know exactly what every other one stands on any issue at any given point.
Thus, personal presidential phone calls, or state-run corporations’ business strategies, are and have always been fair game, at least since Sirs William Cecil and Francis Walsingham helped Elizabeth I consolidate her power through spy mastery, setting the fundaments of modern intel.
Chiefs of state, however, will do what they possibly can to prevent such basic principle of power exercising from becoming currency, feigning indignation in ‘I’m shock, shock’ statements, lest not the veneer of good governance be scratched by an unhinged onslaught of public disconcert.
But the public already knows it better. What’s truly startling and worth all concerns is the flip side of NSA’s two-pronged approach to surveillance: the widespread, massive gathering of information culled from pretty much anyone, without judicial cause or, let’s face it, any cause whatsoever.
Fueled by enormous, and still increasing, funding made possible by the paranoid post-9/11 climate, where an once preposterous, and now not too-far-out idea, that everyone’s out to hit us, has become an obvious easy sell, the American intel community has grown into an Orwellian monster that even old George would find disturbing, and worst, all sanctioned by a secret, shadowy judicial system few knew it even existed.
But it took Snowden to provide the crucial, undeniable proof of such unrestrained power. The deeply ethical way that he went about making that information available to the world, has also made him an exemple of patriotism of the highest kind, not the robber of proprietary secrets the U.S. government is trying to make him out to be. There’s little doubt that, at least for now, amnesty from his home country won’t be forthcoming.
Facing a similar quagmire to the one Moscow faced when Snowden got stranded there last year, Brasilia now have both a headache and a singular moment to reaffirm its sovereignty in its hands. Whether to sway in favor of granting him asylum, as many segments of the Brazilian society seem to favor, and further isolate U.S. and the U.K., for that matter,, is one of Rousseff’s greatest challenges to decide in this reelection year.
She’ll have to weight the possible fallout, and likely implications to foreign and trade policy, even though the U.S. has never been so far apart from Brazil in both counts, with the advantages of earning a leadership role in redefining the relationship between two crucial tenets of democracy and the role of government: to guarantee freedom rights to every individual and to provide security and protection for the state where they live in.
One thing is for sure: hadn’t been for Snowden and his daft maneuvering, passing the documents to an experienced world-class journalist such as Glenn Greenwald, the discussion about surveillance would still be in the Facebook and Google realm, which tend to turn any issue of privacy into a supposedly personal choice. It isn’t, of course, but it took a massive trove of documents to convincingly demonstrate how it can’t possibly be.
While commercial enterprises such as FB and others will continue to profit from people voluntarily giving away their secrets, since it’s done for a price, it can’t be tolerated that a taxpayer-funded government will have similar free access, specially when it hasn’t received our consent to do so.
Thus, Snowden may have inadvertently put himself in the position of serving as this era’s litmus test for the state of our ideals of democracy, circa 2014: if he’s offered asylum, so will the always relevant idea that an act of conscience does have precedence over mindlessly following the rules.
If, however, the jurisprudence established by the Nuremberg Trials is overruled by a new set of ordinances, privileging form over content, and as former Pvt. Chelsea Manning, he’s kept under lock and key to be heard again possibly never, then part of everyone else’s investment in the right of citizens to speak truth to power will also be locked with him. We’ll have certainly another reason to be afraid, very afraid.
By the way, if you care one way or another about this issue, several organizations around the world will mark tomorrow as an Online Protest Against Surveillance. And unlike Snowden or Manning, you won’t have to leave your computer to take part in it. Have a good one. WC

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