Before Christmas Snowden was in the news again, this time it was because the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence declassified its report on Snowden and his leaks. The report claimed he was tough to work with and disgruntled and had been taking documents for awhile. But the report only seems like it was meant to bolster the government’s position that Snowden should be considered a traitor. But it doesn’t really matter whether someone views him as a traitor or hero, the reality is that neither of those positions are tenable. Is someone who is disgruntled and possibly hates their superiors and steals thousands of classified documents really a hero? But the other side in viewing him a traitor is equally problematic. Is he a traitor for exposing, among other things, surveillance that was recently declared illegal by U.S. courts?
To my mind the Snowden Affair and the recent House report underscores how there is no legal outlet for whistleblowers in the world of intelligence – Snowden aside (because some wouldn’t consider him a whistleblower). Where does one go when faced with a situation where people are doing things illegally in intelligence services? Do you report to the supervisor in charge of the activity that will likely be involved in it and lead to your being blackballed in the profession? Sure there’s an official way to report what you’re concerned with and there’s likely also an unofficial response you’ll get from others. Most simply vote with their feet I imagine and leave and take their secrets with them to the grave. But all this raises questions again about oversight. How can actions be judged illegal if things are hidden from the courts? How can oversight be effective if it’s done inside an organization or inside a government that orders such activities to begin with? Further, Snowden revealed the modern-day system of surveillance, and the public reacted with shock and surprise, but it was often portrayed in the media that mass surveillance started in 2001.
But the PICNIC docs (scroll down to view some on this site) reveal how surveillance was going on as far back as the 1950s and without the courts knowing about it. Wiretapping on the federal level started back then (we think, could be earlier) and wiretapping in general is far more intrusive than “metadata,” an unknown term in those days. What’s more, Canada’s Official Secrets Act, which criminalized whistleblowing, was the same legislation Canada used to secretly permit wiretapping for decades. It still remains to be seen how much surveillance really bothers the public because even the Snowden Affair seems to have affected academics, journalists, activists, the intelligence world and government more profoundly than the general public. It felt like it disappeared from the news cycle quite quickly. Academics know the importance of privacy and free speech (as do privacy activists and journalists) and the intel world and government know the value of secrets and what they can or could be used for. North Americans have (so far) been fortunate enough not to elect leaders that would abuse the network on a larger scale. But that could change and what about discussions of oversight then? Should we be waiting for that time to craft a system that deals with whistleblowing and oversight? It may be too late if a time comes when seeking reform or asking questions of your government could get you accused of being a traitor.