Will Edward Snowden be given a fair hearing?

Far from committing an act of treason, as several top US lawmakers have suggested, by all appearances the NSA whistleblower has done a public service.

We owe a lot to Edward Snowden, the former Central Intelligence Agency computer technician who exposed large-scale surveillance efforts within the United States and worldwide. 



He’s accomplished what the US Congress could not do and the federal courts have so far refused to do. Far from committing an act of treason, as several top US lawmakers have suggested, by all appearances he’s done a public service.



Thanks to him, we now know about the secret court order compelling the telecommunications company Verizon to disclose to the National Security Agency (NSA), on an “ongoing daily basis”, information on all telephone calls it handles.  We also now know about the secret NSA programme Prism, which allows direct access to information in the servers of Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, YouTube, Skype and Apple, among other companies. And we know more about the ways the NSA is able, through its “Boundless Informant” initiative, to collate the information it mines from these efforts. 



These disclosures reveal two trends in the United States’ approach to intelligence - starting with the Bush Administration and, we now know, continued and augmented on President Obama’s watch. 



First, when given the option of broad surveillance powers at home and abroad, US intelligence agencies have taken that option and pushed it as far as possible.  

Why be constrained by the quaint concepts of following individual leads and demonstrating probable cause when they can instead sift through millions of telephone logs and plug directly into the servers of the email and social networking platforms that almost everybody uses? 



This approach is hardly surprising, for any number of reasons. Surely one significant incentive to adopt it is that the courts have held that disclosure of call logs, even in their entirety, need not meet the usual requirements for a warrant.



It is true that obtaining “telephony metadata” - records of calls placed from one phone to another, when and for how long, and, in the case of mobile telephones, through which cell towers - isn’t quite the same as eavesdropping on individual communications. But the courts appear not to appreciate just how much can be gleaned from such data. Especially if cross-referenced with other sources of data, an analysis of call logs can produce a scarily accurate picture of who associates with whom (and at what level of intimacy), how they spend their free time, what health conditions they may have, what their political views are likely to be, and other details of their private lives.



Second, obvious for some time, is the trend of state secrecy gone mad.



The sweeping collection of phone “metadata” was made possible by amendments in 2008 to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) which exempt such surveillance from any meaningful oversight. Under the amendments, the government has no obligation to reveal whose communications it intends to monitor, and the FISA court has no role in reviewing how the government is actually using the information it gathers.  Most remarkably, even if the court finds the government’s procedures deficient, the government can disregard those findings and continue surveillance while it appeals the court’s decision.



The American Civil Liberties Union challenged the law’s constitutionality on behalf of Amnesty International, human rights lawyers, and other organizations. Dismissing the case last year, the US Supreme Court said that Amnesty International and the other groups couldn’t show that we were likely to be subject to surveillance. And how could we? Surveillance and the court orders that authorise it are secret.



President Obama said last week that Congressional oversight is the best guarantee that Americans aren’t being spied on. As for the rest of the world, well, we’ve been on notice for some time that we’re fair game
.

And even with the best will in the world, Congress can’t oversee what it isn’t told about. As two US senators observed in a letter last October, “the intelligence community has stated repeatedly that it is not possible to provide even a rough estimate of how many American communications have been collected under the FISA Amendments Act, and has even declined to estimate the scale of this collection”.



In fact, in March, one month before the Verizon disclosure order took effect, James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, denied collecting “any type of data” on large numbers of US citizens. He’s since characterised his answer as “the most truthful, or least untruthful,” response. 



Even before the US justice department filed criminal charges against Snowden, the United Kingdom had told airlines to deny him boarding on any flight to any country, lest he seek to travel to or through London in an effort to seek asylum outside Hong Kong.



The charges filed again Snowden include theft of government property and espionage. It has also been reported that US authorities have asked Hong Kong to detain him on a provisional arrest warrant. It is also said that an attempt to seek his extradition to the US is being prepared. 



It would be a miscarriage of justice if Snowden isn’t allowed to put forward a public interest defence to the charges. His stated motive was to inform the public of what the US is doing in their name. He’s said that he reviewed the documents prior to disclosure in order to ensure that he didn’t put anybody at risk. And there’s no question that the programmes he exposed are actually matters of public interest. 


If Hong Kong receives a request for Snowden’s extradition, it should insist not only that the charges presented have equivalents in domestic law but also that the public interest defence be available upon extradition. If it’s not, the extradition request should be refused. And if Snowden does seek asylum, whether in Hong Kong or anywhere else, he should be given a fair hearing. 


Michael Bochenek is Amnesty International's Director of Law and Policy

A poster showing Edward Snowden. Photograph: Getty Images
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Donald Trump ushers in a new era of kakistocracy: government by the worst people

Trump will lead the whitest, most male cabinet in memory – a bizarre melange of the unqualified and the unhinged.

“What fills me with doubt and dismay is the degradation of the moral tone,” wrote the American poet James Russell Lowell in 1876, in a letter to his fellow poet Joel Benton. “Is it or is it not a result of democracy? Is ours a ‘government of the people by the people for the people’, or a kakistocracy rather, for the benefit of knaves at the cost of fools?”

Is there a better, more apt description of the incoming Trump administration than “kakistocracy”, which translates from the Greek literally as government by the worst people? The new US president, as Barack Obama remarked on the campaign trail, is “uniquely unqualified” to be commander-in-chief. There is no historical analogy for a President Trump. He combines in a single person some of the worst qualities of some of the worst US presidents: the Donald makes Nixon look honest, Clinton look chaste, Bush look smart.

Trump began his tenure as president-elect in November by agreeing to pay out $25m to settle fraud claims brought against the now defunct Trump University by dozens of former students; he began the new year being deposed as part of his lawsuit against a celebrity chef. On 10 January, the Federal Election Commission sent the Trump campaign a 250-page letter outlining a series of potentially illegal campaign contributions. A day later, the head of the non-partisan US Office of Government Ethics slammed Trump’s plan to step back from running his businesses as “meaningless from a conflict-of-interest perspective”.

It cannot be repeated often enough: none of this is normal. There is no precedent for such behaviour, and while kakistocracy may be a term unfamiliar to most of us, this is what it looks like. Forget 1876: be prepared for four years of epic misgovernance and brazen corruption. Despite claiming in his convention speech, “I alone can fix it,” the former reality TV star won’t be governing on his own. He will be in charge of the richest, whitest, most male cabinet in living memory; a bizarre melange of the unqualified and the unhinged.

There has been much discussion about the lack of experience of many of Trump’s appointees (think of the incoming secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, who has no background in diplomacy or foreign affairs) and their alleged bigotry (the Alabama senator Jeff Sessions, denied a role as a federal judge in the 1980s following claims of racial discrimination, is on course to be confirmed as attorney general). Yet what should equally worry the average American is that Trump has picked people who, in the words of the historian Meg Jacobs, “are downright hostile to the mission of the agency they are appointed to run”. With their new Republican president’s blessing, they want to roll back support for the poorest, most vulnerable members of society and don’t give a damn how much damage they do in the process.

Take Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoma attorney general selected to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Pruitt describes himself on his LinkedIn page as “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda” and has claimed that the debate over climate change is “far from settled”.

The former neurosurgeon Ben Carson is Trump’s pick for housing and urban development, a department with a $49bn budget that helps low-income families own homes and pay the rent. Carson has no background in housing policy, is an anti-welfare ideologue and ruled himself out of a cabinet job shortly after the election. “Dr Carson feels he has no government experience,” his spokesman said at the time. “He’s never run a federal agency. The last thing he would want to do was take a position that could cripple the presidency.”

The fast-food mogul Andrew Puzder, who was tapped to run the department of labour, doesn’t like . . . well . . . labour. He prefers robots, telling Business Insider in March 2016: “They’re always polite . . . They never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex or race discrimination case.”

The billionaire Republican donor Betsy DeVos, nominated to run the department of education, did not attend state school and neither did any of her four children. She has never been a teacher, has no background in education and is a champion of school vouchers and privatisation. To quote the education historian Diane Ravitch: “If confirmed, DeVos will be the first education secretary who is actively hostile to public education.”

The former Texas governor Rick Perry, nominated for the role of energy secretary by Trump, promised to abolish the department that he has been asked to run while trying to secure his party’s presidential nomination in 2011. Compare and contrast Perry, who has an undergraduate degree in animal science but failed a chemistry course in college, with his two predecessors under President Obama: Dr Ernest Moniz, the former head of MIT’s physics department, and Dr Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist from Berkeley. In many ways, Perry, who spent the latter half of 2016 as a contestant on Dancing with the Stars, is the ultimate kakistocratic appointment.

“Do Trump’s cabinet picks want to run the government – or dismantle it?” asked a headline in the Chicago Tribune in December. That’s one rather polite way of putting it. Another would be to note, as the Online Etymology Dictionary does, that kakistocracy comes from kakistos, the Greek word for “worst”, which is a superlative of kakos, or “bad”, which “is related to the general Indo-European word for ‘defecate’”.

Mehdi Hasan has rejoined the New Statesman as a contributing editor and will write a fortnightly column on US politics

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era