Edward Snowden: The NSA whistleblower unmasks

The whistleblower who leaked Top Secret documents to the <em>Guardian</em> about NSA domestic spying practices has revealed himself to be 29-year-old Edward Snowden, a former CIA employee.

In an absolutely stunning Guardian profile, Edward Snowden describes how he leaked the documents to the Guardian's Glenn Greenwald from a Hong Kong hotel room, padding the door and keeping a hood over his head, and covering his computer's webcam, to protect himself while he made the first leak of a "Top Secret" classified document since the Pentagon Papers in 1971, in what represents one of the most serious leaks in US history and what may come to be one of the defining moments of Obama's Presidency. 

"I'm willing to sacrifice all of that because I can't in good conscience allow the US government to destroy privacy, internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they're secretly building," he told the Guardian.

Snowden says that he chose Hong Kong, a semi-autonomously governed region of China, because “they have a spirited commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent”, but also, the Guardian reports, because he believed it both could and would resist the dictates of the US government.

This story comes just hours after the former director of the NSA under George W. Bush told the Guardian that surveillance has “expanded” under Obama's administration.

Obama, is en route – ironically – back to Washington from meeting the new Chinese President Xi Jinping in California, where he was scheduled to complain about Chinese cyber-hacking of American secrets. It is not known whether they mentioned the NSA surveillance scandal in their conversation – nor even whether the White House or the US security forces had any idea where the Guardian's leaks were coming from.

At time of press, the President has not yet responded to the identification of Snowden, though he did say yesterday that he “welcomes a debate” on national security – a statement it can only be imagined was given through gritted teeth, especially as Rand Paul, the libertarian Senator, said yesterday that he was considering leading a class action law suit against the government. This, it is fair to say, is not going to be a debate that the President relishes.

Before Snowden revealed his identity, the Department of Justice had said that it will seek to prosecute the perpetrators of leaks of American secrets, though Attorney General Eric Holder also said that no journalist would be prosecuted “for doing his or her job”.

Update: this piece was corrected at 9:39 PM to read "it is not known whether they mentioned the NSA surveillance" instead of the earlier, incorrect spelling of "NRA".

Edward Snowden. Photograph: The Guardian via Getty Images

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.