Big Brother Is Here

Book reviews

Snowden

Snowden (2015)

If you are looking for a brief and easy-to-read intro to the controversies surrounding whistleblower Edward Snowden, Ted Rall’s “Snowden” is an excellent choice. Sort of a Cliff’s Notes version with cartoon illustrations.

Rall is a widely published political cartoonist who has several other books to his credit. The only other one I’ve read is last year’s “After We Kill You, We Will Welcome Your As Honored Guests,” about Rall’s adventures as an unembedded journalist in the endless U.S. war in Afghanistan. It was funny, enlightening and provocative all at the same time.

But don’t expect much humor in “Snowden.” Rall treats the topic more seriously, perhaps because our role in Afghanistan is more tragically absurd than our government’s wholesale violation of constitutional rights.

Snowden, in case you don’t follow the news much, is a young guy in his early thirties who perpetrated the most massive leak of secret government documents in the entire history of the world. He is currently stuck in Russia, where he landed en route to hoped-for asylum in Ecuador, and is reportedly trying to negotiate a return to the U.S. that doesn’t involve life in prison.

Getting stuck in Russia wasn’t his only mistake. Snowden and his collaborators in the media, Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, calculated that dribbling out the secrets a little at a time would be the best way to keep the story alive and thus the public’s attention. Instead the effect has been, ho hum, that’s old news now.

Which is unfortunate, because many people have the impression that the leaks only involved the government’s indiscriminate collection of telephone metadata and user information from social media. And think that somehow the government and social media companies have reformed their ways as a result of the leaks.

The situation is worse than that.

According to Rall’s account of Snowden’s leaks, we now have programs that intercept and store the audio content of vast numbers of phone calls as well as the majority of text messages, emails, video calls, online banking transactions, web browsing histories, and app activity that take place.

These are programs of the National Security Agency (NSA), a secretive U.S. intelligence agency into whose operations hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars are funneled. The NSA can also track your movements and listen to your conversations on your cell phone (even when it’s off), take pictures of you using the camera on your laptop computer, and watch and record you through the next generation of “smart TVs,” if you get one.

All this without the need to show “probable cause” of a crime to a court, as the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution requires. Rall starts his story with George Orwell’s famous depiction of a dictatorial surveillance society in his novel “1984,” and demonstrates how it is worrisomely close to what we are now living with in the U.S.

The book goes into Snowden’s biography, scouring his background for clues as to why he was one of few insiders to leak this information about the NSA’s patently illegal activities. Snowden came from a conservative and patriotic background, with both parents working in the intelligence community, so he seems like an unlikely prospect for the role he undertook.

His turning point seems to have come when the Obama administration, instead of reversing the questionable war on terror tactics of the Bush administration as promised, left many of them in place and expanded some of them. Snowden’s political views are conservative/libertarian, with a basic distrust of the ability of the government to reform itself without outside pressure. Obama’s decisions confirmed this distrust.

Even while examining Snowden’s motives, Rall makes the point that focusing on Snowden distracts us from the real issue, which is what our government’s intelligence operations have become: a Big Brother that attempts to monitor all of our actions whether we are guilty of anything or not. Information is the first step to control, as Orwell taught us.

Or tried to, anyway. I think it’s time to break open “1984” for a close re-reading.

–Alan F. Zundel

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