With the recent release of CitizenFour, Laura Poitras’ documentary on whistleblower Edward Snowden, it is worth questioning the relevance of his revelations to the Middle East.
The media in the region, much like everywhere else, has reported Snowden’s ongoing story from the time it first broke in June 2013. But it is curious that there has not been a significant public discussion about it here in the same way there has in the US and Europe – and that it has not attracted as much attention as Wikileaks in general.
Snowden, a former systems administrator for the CIA and contractor for the National Security Agency (NSA), stole a large yet unknown number of documents from the NSA. In July 2013, he contacted Poitras and Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald anonymously and through encrypted messages.
Eventually, he met them in a Hong Kong hotel and gave them the information.
Poitras filmed the interviews with Snowden that took place in the hotel over the course of a few days. Her movie rises from ordinary documentary to gripping thriller as these encounters unfold. During the film, we see Greenwald breaking the story in The Guardian and Washington Post.
We see Snowden allowing Greenwald to identify him publicly, avoiding a “hunt” by US government agencies, and his departure from the hotel to seek asylum.
The film emphasises Snowden’s main claim, which is the magnitude of the NSA’s global surveillance system. The NSA automatically collects digital, phone and computer communications – audio and video – often in cooperation with its British, Australian and Canadian partners.
It has the means to search anyone’s communications history retroactively, allowing for the construction of detailed profiles, and it can spy on people in real time. The partners even spy on each others’ citizens and share the information to circumvent domestic legal restrictions.
It is not only the scale of the NSA’s activities that is startling. It is also the fact that important figures, such as NSA director Keith Alexander, and James Clapper, director of national intelligence, lied about them – in Clapper’s case under oath at a congressional hearing.
There are obvious reasons why some of Snowden’s documents would interest people in the Middle East. In August, Greenwald revealed in The Intercept the full extent to which the NSA provides surveillance assistance to Israel’s signals intelligence unit (ISNU), which facilitates Israeli military operations – including those on Gaza in 2008, 2009, 2012 and 2014.
The NSA and ISNU often work with Britain’s GCHQ and Canada’s CSEC, as well as with US-supported Arab governments, such as Jordan and even the Palestinian Authority security forces, in order to provide surveillance of Palestinian targets.
The Independent revealed that the UK has a vast surveillance base in the Middle East, part of a £1 billion global project to intercept and monitor internet activity, emails, telephone calls and text messages.
Greenwald denied that Snowden was the source of this particular revelation, as The Independent had claimed, and accused the British government of leaking it to the newspaper instead.
In the US and Europe, many have hailed Snowden as a hero, while others have condemned him as a criminal or traitor, or at the very least accuse him of being irresponsible.
Yishai Schwartz, writing in the New Republic, noted that Snowden may be a dissenter who has shown that the US security state is too powerful, but he is also a criminal who broke the law.
“Surveillance is essential to countering threats from both terrorists and state espionage in the world today,” he wrote.
Jeffrey Toobin in the New Yorker denies Snowden was a hero, though acknowledged that “what makes leak cases difficult is that some leaking – some interaction between reporters and sources who have access to classified information – is normal, even indispensable, in a society with a free press”.
His main objection to Snowden is his “reckless” use of classified information.
In Slate, Fred Kaplan expressed similar bafflement that Snowden gave his library of stolen documents to Poitras and Greenwald, telling them to decide what to publish while admitting that some of these documents were legitimately classified and their release could harm intelligence sources and methods.
But Kaplan conceded that Snowden’s main point remains valid: The existence of the NSA’s advanced surveillance programmes creates the potential for abuse. Snowden makes this essential point in the film, noting that it would only take a change in policy and it could become impossible for anyone to oppose state power.
The Arab press has not entered the fray on these complex and urgent issues. Commentator Asad Abu Khalil has a theory why this may be the case. Hailing Snowden as a hero, he blames the lack of interest in the story on Arab regimes that, he says, do not want to upset the US – which controls the gas and oil industries in their countries and protects the regimes from their own people.
The truth may be more simple.
People in the Middle East are just not that surprised by the idea of being spied on by governments – their own or those of foreign powers. Wikileaks publishing the US diplomatic cables elicited more public interest because many of the documents revealed fascinating and shocking decisions, relationships and communications concerning the Middle East, its leaders and Western policy towards the region.
Snowden’s documents, on the other hand, are about surveillance. With frequently intrusive local intelligence services – the “mukhabarat” as such agencies are widely known across the region – the sad fact is that people are jaded about privacy issues. They never really doubt that their own governments watch them. They doubt even less that neighbouring countries and distant superpowers have the means to do so.
Repressive countries such as Tunisia and Syria had effective intelligence services before 2011. In the early months of the Syrian uprising – and before the regime got busy fighting what turned into a civil war – Syrian exiles were spied on and harassed by their government as far away as Britain, France and the US.
Palestinians have had little privacy since the creation of Israel in 1948, and Palestinian citizens of Israel are also spied on by their own government.
Snowden’s revelations bring up urgent questions about civil liberties in contemporary democracies and the balance between protecting the public from real threats and preserving its rights and civil liberties. These are luxurious debates in the Middle East, where people are pushing for more modest freedoms and rights. In some countries the threshold for being a “dissenter” is far lower and the punishment much greater.
But whether Snowden is a hero or traitor, or something in between, he has shown that people in the Middle East ought to be concerned. In CitizenFour, activist Jacob Appelbaum points out that in today’s world of internet communications, what we used to call “freedom” is now called “privacy”.
In the post-Arab Spring period of reassessment, questions of privacy should be an essential part of the general discussion about democracy, freedom and civil rights.
Read the full article in Al-Araby here