Tricky leaks: Snowden vs NSA
Edward Snowden blew the lid on US spying in Europe, but the real enemy may be public apathy
Keys to the kingdom: a protester holds a placard calling for Germany to give political asylum to the fugitive former US spy agency contractor Edward Snowden, outside the seat of the Bundestag in Berlin. Photograph: Thomas Peter/Reuters
Hearing the word “Snowden” a year ago, you would most likely have thought of the highest mountain in Wales or even the British royal photographer Lord Snowdon. What a difference a year – and a vowel – makes.
A year ago Edward Snowden was a 29-year-old nobody, working as a data analysis contractor inside a National Security Agency base in Hawaii.
What we now know: the NSA was so busy watching the rest of the world that it didn’t notice the rogue contractor departing its Hawaii station with what one agency official admits were “the keys to the kingdom”.
Under the guise of computer-network maintenance, Snowden asked 25 NSA employees in Hawaii for their passwords and then began downloading an estimated 1.7 million classified NSA documents.
Snowden left the US in May; in June the Guardian revealed that the NSA had collected customer data of the US telecom company Verizon. Then the Washington Post revealed the “Prism” programme, which granted the NSA access to data held by Apple, Facebook, Google and others.
From a Hong Kong hotel room Snowden revealed himself to the world as the whistleblower behind the NSA leaks. In exposing what he viewed as blanket government abuses of the constitutional right to privacy, Snowden triggered an unprecedented game of international cat and mouse.
Fearing extradition to the US, Snowden left Hong Kong for Moscow and spent two months in limbo in the transit area of the Russian capital’s airport before, in August, he was granted a year’s asylum. By then the lid had blown off the tapping scandal. The NSA had spied on EU representatives in Brussels and Washington and tapped Google and Yahoo mail services. Britain’s GCHQ intelligence agency, meanwhile, had intercepted data cables in and out of the UK, and listened in on world leaders at the G20 meeting in 2009.
US intelligence chiefs insist that their activities have thwarted terrorist attacks – although the number is disputed – and that their eavesdropping was not directed at US citizens; cold comfort for the rest of the world.
The Snowden revelations followed President Obama to Berlin in June, when he insisted that the US is “not rifling through Germans’ emails”. But what of German phone calls? On October 24th Berlin summoned the US ambassador to explain why the NSA had been tapping Chancellor Angela Merkel’s mobile phone for 11 years from the US embassy in Berlin. For Merkel, who governs Germany by text message, the revelations put transatlantic relations “to the test”.
Damaging political blowback
But she knows that the louder she protests, the greater the danger of damaging political blowback. For all the German outrage at NSA spying, Snowden’s leaks have already revealed regular pilgrimages to the US by German intelligence officials anxious to learn NSA surveillance methods. Publicly, Berlin demands answers. Privately, it hopes to use the revelations as leverage for a no-spy agreement with Washington or, even better, access to its “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing ring.
Though Washington is cool on these ambitions, Merkel still rejected calls to suspend EU free-trade talks with the US until NSA surveillance is explained. She dismissed, too, an offer by Edward Snowden to testify at a Bundestag inquiry.