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Edward Snowden as the electronic age Santa Claus

Empires, states and tribes have been running information- seeking intelligence operations since time immemorial

Abdallah Schleifer

Published: Updated:

Yes children, there is a Santa Claus. He doesn’t live in the North Pole and instead of coming down your chimney he will be on the UK’s Channel 4 later today, delivering the “Alternative Christmas Message.” Alternative to whom? If Only TIME had known in time it could have put Snowden up as “The Alternative Pope.”

But like Santa he does have good cheer to spread about. His mission has been accomplished, he told the Washington Post. He is actually working to improve the NSA; he is, in his mind, “still working for the NSA right now.”

Snowden is hailed by many as a whistle blower in the cause of personal freedom and as such he first took refuge in one of the three countries left in the world that are still ruled by a Communist Party.

Now whistle blowers can claim the moral duty to call a public’s attention to the misdeeds of their employers. When their employer is a national security agency, that agency has a professional duty, not to hopelessly seek extradition from countries with whom the United States has little leverage, but to track the whistle blowers down and do them in.

The blurred line

From any reasonable perspective that is murder, but from another perspective which seems to be widely ignored, to violate one’s oath to serve an agency devoted to one’s country’s national security, however misguided its mode of operation may be – and that is debatable, is treason.

I have been harboring this aversion to Snowden and before that, to Bradley Manning yet I must admit I have been adverse to swim against such a strong currents of sympathy for both. But I have taken courage now that Israeli Prime Minister Prime Minister has denounced the NSA. If even Netanyahu attacks the NSA, America’s national security agency can’t be all that bad.

Netanyahu attacked the NSA for targeting the email of former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. According to Agence France-Presse, Netanyahu only complained about the monitoring of fellow Likudist Olmert’s email and not the NSA’s monitoring email traffic of then Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and his chief of staff , neither of whom are members of the Likud. But that reflects Netanyahu’s overall sense of always operating upon higher ground. The same day Netanyahu complained about the NSA spying on Israel, he met with the wife of former U.S. Navy analyst Jonathan Pollard, who is serving a life sentence for turning over to Israel thousands of secret documents about American intelligence operations in the Arab world and assured her Israel would continue to press for Pollard’s release .

A line of whistleblowers

Pollard was arrested in 1985 and one of the reasons for the extraordinarily vigorous prosecution of Pollard, and the repeated refusal of every American president since then to pardon Pollard despite efforts by Israel on his behalf, was the Cold War concern that the Russians had penetrated Israeli intelligence.

If the public now has “the right to know” whatever, which is a guiding principle for investigative journalism - why not the state?

Abdallah Schleifer

One difference between Pollard who got life, or the Rosenbergs who got the death penalty, and Snowden is that Pollard betrayed the U.S. Navy for Israel, and the Rosenbergs spied for the Russians. Snowden, for his part, betrayed the NSA for global media. Of course I am being unfair to Snowden, who now says he has done this all for the good of the NSA.

Indeed earlier this month, a reporter for the New York Times wrote with great sympathy for newspapers like his own as well as for the three papers first in line for Snowden’s leaks –The Guardian, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal – that have been compelled to set up counter-espionage technologies to protect their computers holding what are –quite frankly – stolen documents, and teaching their reporters how to evade detection when meeting with potential whistle blowers, because, according to the NY Times, they must be able to deter their own governments “from aggressively investigating leaks of sensitive material.”

The upsetting aspect

The most upsetting aspect of the Snowden affair in America appears to be the news that the NSA has been electronically cycling all American telephone communications and conceivably all email traffic for key words that might, with human follow-up, lead the NSA to potential terrorists or actual spies. But Americans might also be concerned about people blowing up buildings like the World Trade Center or blowing off the legs of some fans watching the Boston Marathon. In that case one just might criticize the program for not being sufficiently capable of spotting the email traffic between the Boston Marathon bombers and a jihadist leader via email, or the jihadist website that provided them with the design of their kitchen pressure cooker bombs.

Empires, states and tribes have been running information- seeking intelligence operations of one sort or another, including on their own allies, since time immemorial. If the public now has “the right to know” whatever, which is a guiding principle for investigative journalism - why not the state?

Why is it that no one seems to seriously complain that Google runs the same sort of electronic sorting out on all of us using Gmail. When I put this column up as an attachment and send it by email to Al Arabiya News, I will be rewarded for mentioning “Boston” in this piece with a guide to some great budget hotels in that city .

Have we reached that point where we accept whatever is done for private profit and get livid when it is done, at least in principle, for public safety? That is quite possible when one considers that there is so little concern that Snowden, like tens of thousands of other people working in the vast American security apparatus are private contractors, not public servants. In fact, the security of American diplomats in Iraq was not provided by the American armed forces, but outsourced to a private corporation whose mercenaries, not subject to either military discipline or the Geneva conventions, gunned down, if I recall correctly, about a dozen Iraqi civilians because they were impeding traffic.

It may just be that the promiscuous practice of outsourcing, which for the sake of profit in the private sector has led to the loss of a couple million jobs in America over the past decade or so, and the outsourcing of public service to private contractors is the path increasingly taken. In addition, the failure of the federal government to indict the bankers and hedge fund managers who brought down the global economy in 2008, might just be far more dangerous to humanity than all the electronic espionage that every country, if they had the resources or capacity, would be doing. Indeed, several other countries, besides America and the United Kingdom, are already involved in such electronic espionage.

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Abdallah Schleifer is Professor Emeritus of Journalism at the American University in Cairo, where he founded and served as first director of the Kamal Adham Center for Television Journalism. He also founded and served as Senior Editor of the journal Transnational Broadcasting Studies, now known as Arab Media & Society. Before joining the AUC faculty Schleifer served for nine years as NBC News Cairo bureau chief and Middle East producer- reporter; as Middle East corrrespondent for Jeune Afrique based in Beirut and as a special correspndent for the New York Times based in Amman. After retiring from teaching at AUC Schleifer served for little more than a year as Al Arabiya's Washington D.C. bureau chief. He is associated with the Middle East Institute in Washington D.C. as an Adjunct Scholar. He was executive producer of the award winning documentary "Control Room" and the 100 episode Reality- TV documentary “Sleepless in Gaza...and Jerusalem.”

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.