Blog post

Three years after Edward Snowden's surveillance disclosures: Why we need to protect whistleblowers

Wolfgang Kaleck
Blog post

You might have seen the Oscar-winning documentary Citizenfour, which gives a behind the scenes look at events that unfolded in a Hong Kong hotel in early June 2013 as Edward Snowden passed on NSA data to journalist Glenn Greenwald and filmmaker Laura Poitras. Three years later, many are justifiably asking: what has happened since then?
Some are put off by the admittedly complex facts on mass surveillance by intelligence agencies and global corporations. Feeling powerless, they take refuge in cynicism and political apathy. You can see this in the way people describe the situation facing Snowden, saying he is being left to languish in Russia. Contrary to some rumors, he is not sitting in some detention center in Siberia, nor is he constantly harangued by Putin’s secret services to reveal what he knows. In fact, Snowden lives undisturbed in Moscow and takes part in various ways in the discussion that he sparked three years ago.
In Germany, the attention on Snowden has faded somewhat. This is partly due to the fact that he previously dealt a lot with the media and his supporters here and is now doing more in Spain, India and New Zealand, which gets overlooked in Germany. But let’s stay with Germany for a moment. The Snowden debate here was less about the prospect of asylum as such and more about whether he would be allowed travel safely here and back to give evidence before a parliamentary committee investigating the NSA. But these plans came to nothing; the German government – relying on dubious legal arguments – swiftly made it clear that it would not agree to such a plan. There was no sign of a majority in the committee gathering up the courage to contradict the government. Committee chairman Patrick Sensburg – a man unburdened by any real knowledge of the topic –  told the German newspaper FAZ that “Snowden can only do what the Russian leadership tells him”. And this Thursday during a hearing at the German parliamentary commission inquiry into NSA surveillance, the head of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, Hans-Georg Maaßen, said he thought it was "highly plausible" that Snowden is a "Russian spy".
Not even the US goes this far with its claims. In recent days former US Attorney General Eric Holder acknowledged that Snowden performed a public service with his revelations. A former senior NSA staffer stated publicly that Russia or China were not Snowden’s first choices when it came to seeking refuge. By hinting otherwise, Sensburg and others close to intelligence circles are merely seeking to distract from their own moral and political obligations.
It is time for the EU member states to finally implement the EU Parliament’s resolution of 29 October 2015 – to grant Snowden the legal protection he is entitled to as a whistleblower acting on grounds of conscience and to protect him from extradition.
Two recent cases underline the importance of whistleblower protection on all levels. John Crane, who was responsible for handling internal complaints and wrongdoing within the US Department of Defense – the kind of channel many officials say Snowden should have turned to – had to become a whistleblower himself in order to reveal serious transgressions in his own department. Meanwhile, a courageous UN official who exposed the widespread sexualized violence by French UN troops in the Central African Republic was force to resign from his post.
Over the past three years there has been some progress on the other main issues at stake here, namely privacy and the control of intelligence agencies. This is clear from the European Court of Justice’s Safe Harbor decision and the judgments handed down by US courts limiting the surveillance of telecommunications by US agencies.
The importance of limiting the scope of intelligence agencies here in Germany is underlined by revelations on surveillance by the NSA, GCHQ and the German secret services, as well as the ongoing scandal around the NSU, a violent right wing group in which – as is becoming increasingly evident – German domestic agents were also caught up. It seems that even the partial reform of German intelligence agency powers announced in 2015 cannot yet be implemented. In light of all this there is a great need for serious discussion on the future of the global internet society and political pressure to finally place limits on those who seek to watch us.