In early June, British journalist Glenn Greenwald, writing for The Guardian, published an interview with Edward Snowden, the employee for Booz Allen hired to work on PRISM, a mass electronic surveillance data mining program operated by the National Security Agency. In it, Snowden alleges that the NSA intercepts and stores private emails and phone conservations and does so without a warrant. Snowden contends that the NSA does this “as a matter of course” and has amassed an enormous database.
These allegations are not new. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has been making this claim since 2005, and the New York Times ran a story on NSA eavesdropping in December of that year. New or not, the Snowden story has touched off an international controversy. There has been outrage in some quarters, but in Congress the House of Representatives recently narrowly defeated by a vote of 205 to 217, the Amash amendment to HR 2397 that would have curtailed the NSA’s ability to spy on American citizens. West Virginia Rep. Nick Rahall voted for the amendment, while representatives David McKinley and Shelley Moore Capito voted against it. Go figure.
Snowden initially fled to Hong Kong, where he was interviewed by Greenwald. He then moved on to Russia where he has been stranded in the Moscow airport for over a month. He has applied to the Russian authorities for political asylum. I find this aspect of the story to be troubling.
It is also ironic, as this Saturday marks the fifth anniversary of the death of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the famous Russian dissident. He was a 20th-century figure; a novelist and historian who was a fierce critic of totalitarianism, which put him at odds with the Communist government of the former Soviet Union.
In 1945, Solzhenitsyn was arrested for writing comments critical of Stalin in a private letter to a friend. He was tried and convicted for “anti-Soviet propaganda” and “founding a hostile organization” and was sentenced in absentia to eight years in a labor camp by the “Special Council of the NKVD,” a tribunal endowed with special rights to apply punishments “through administrative means” – in other words, without trial. His famous work, The Gulag Archipelago, came from his experiences in the forced labor camp.
After his release from the gulag, he remained in constant trouble with Soviet authorities. However, at this point, having achieved international fame, rather than being imprisoned, he was deported in 1974 and arrived in the U.S. the following year. The Senate voted to confer honorary citizenship to him, the implementation of which was blocked by the State Department. He was granted political asylum status, however, and spent most of the next couple of decades living in Vermont.
Originally a darling of the American media, its ardor cooled when it discovered that his experiences in the gulag had caused him to return to his Christian roots. He harshly criticized American pop culture, especially television, as being decadent. Can’t say as I blame him, but the networks were not amused. And while he admired our tradition of individual freedom, he was disappointed by what we chose to do with it. After the fall of the Soviet Union he returned to his beloved Mother Russia.
Are there similarities between Solzhenitsyn and Snowden? Let’s say there are a couple of eerie parallels. Solzhenitsyn was imprisoned in the gulag for comments contained in a private letter intercepted by the Soviet authorities. He wrote an expose about it and was forced to flee Russia. He came to the U.S. where he was granted political asylum. Today, Edward Snowden has fled the U.S. after blowing the whistle on the NSA for intercepting our emails and is in Russia awaiting a response to his request for political asylum. How times have changed.
Congress recently enacted legislation that gives our government the power to label anyone, including you and me, an “enemy combatant.” The National Defense Authorization Act of 2012 gives the government the power to indefinitely imprison anyone so labeled, without trial. There’s even an administrative process with which to do this, a secret court similar to the “Special Council of the NKVD” that convicted Solzhenitsyn. At what point does the NSA start going through all of those emails and electronic correspondence in that massive database to determine who is an “enemy combatant” — and isn’t the Bill of Rights still the law of the land?
A recent Quinnipiac University national poll asked whether Snowden is a whistleblower or a traitor. Fifty-five percent responded that he is a whistleblower, while 34 percent think he is a traitor. The rest couldn’t decide. Time will tell, but as the government continues to prosecute the war on terror, we might ponder one of Solzhenitsyn’s most famous quotes: “A state of war serves as an excuse for domestic tyranny.”
— Elliot Simon writes from