The commentariat has spent a lot of pixels over the last couple of months discussing what information originating from NSA leaker Edward Snowden does and does not constitute “whistleblowing,” and therefore should or should not be published.
Is NSA revelation x “whistleblowing”? Then it’s okay and Snowden is a patriot.
Does x not constitute whistleblowing (in the author’s judgment)? Then either everybody knew this was going on and there’s no point in publishing it, or publishing the information is treason, Snowden is a traitor, and Glenn Greenwald and David Miranda are terrorists.
Here’s a random example of these sentiments:
@ggreenwald 's latest "bombshell": USA spies on foreign leaders, incl the Mexican and Brazilian presidents. #notwhistleblowing #dogbitesman
— Bill Bishop (@niubi) September 2, 2013
There’s a lot of this stuff on Twitter, but bloggers are not immune to it.
As a non-American, I am a little bewildered by some of the assumptions underlying these arguments, which I will try to state as I understand them. Americans (and lawful permanent residents in the US) have been reassured that the NSA only spies on foreigners. Notwithstanding the fact that GCHQ may spy on Americans’ communications and cooperates closely with the NSA, this doesn’t reassure me much because as a nonimmigrant in the United States, I am not exempt from the NSA’s net. And after the latest revelations it looks like US citizens and LPRs aren’t very well protected either.
I’ll try to address some of the arguments I have seen.
It’s not whistleblowing when it’s about abuses by non-US agencies such as GCHQ. Why should I care about that? Why should The Guardian, which is a Manchester based internet cafe, care? Should Americans ignore Russians who blow the whistle on abuses by the Russian intelligence services?
Everyone knows this is going on. I agree that it’s not exactly shocking that US spy agencies spy on governments, organizations, and individuals. On the other hand, the exact details—who is spied on? how often? for what purpose—are certainly unknown to the public, and they are newsworthy. Those details may also be surprising or even shocking depending on what they are.
You might think that it’s acceptable for the US to spy on its enemies, including heads of state. And that it’s acceptable to spy on allies and other friendly governments. I think that it is certainly newsworthy that the NSA is doing so. Don’t forget that the NSA also spies on foreign individuals and private companies, people we might be more sympathetic too. We can all run the risk of protesting too much, but I’d like to know about all threats to my privacy, whether they are from the “good” or “bad” guys.
It’s their job to spy. Sure. But in many cases it’s also illegal. The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations protects diplomatic communications. The Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations bans spying on the UN. It would be silly to be extremely surprised that the US violates these obligations. On the other hand, it is also possible to earnestly condemn the spying or at least to want to know more about it. It may be legitimate to violate international treaties because spies gonna spy, but then it should also be legitimate to try to expose it.
American whistleblowing should only benefit Americans. Perhaps governments and terrorists don’t have a right to privacy, but shouldn’t innocent individuals expect at least a little? Or even if you don’t believe in a right to privacy, I stand by the weaker claim that I have a right to know exactly how my privacy is being violated. It may be true that Snowden revealed information about the NSA’s activities in China to curry favor with his erstwhile hosts in Hong Kong, but I’m sure hundreds of millions of ordinary Chinese people would be interested to know that the American government (in addition to the Chinese one; is it wrong to reveal that?) is spying on their text messages.