Edward Snowden, a former contractor to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, has been trapped in the transit lounge of Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow for two weeks, while the U.S. government strives mightily to get him back in its clutches. It even arranged for the plane flying Bolivian President Eve Morales home from Moscow this month to be diverted to Vienna and searched, mistakenly believing that Snowden was aboard.
Former U.S. army intelligence analyst Bradley Manning is already in the U.S. governments clutches. Having endured 1,100 days of solitary confinement, he is now on trial for aiding the enemy by passing a quarter-million U.S. embassy messages, Afghanistan and Iraq war logs, detainee assessments from Guantanamo and videos of U.S. attacks in Afghanistan and Iraq to the WikiLeaks website.
These two American whistleblowers have a lot in common. They are both young idealists who had access to the inner workings of the U.S. security community and were appalled by what they learned. Their intentions were good, but their fate may be harsh. (Manning faces life in prison without parole.) And there is one big difference between them.
Manning, the more naive of the two, was shocked by facts that more experienced observers take for granted: that governments, including the U.S. government, routinely lie to their citizens, their allies and the world and that armies at war, including the U.S. army, sometimes commit terrible crimes.
So he published a mountain of evidence that substantiated those lamentable truths. That greatly angered the U.S. government, and he will probably pay a heavy price for it. The U.S. government wants its secrets, especially the most shameful ones, to stay secret, and its extraordinary vindictiveness towards Manning is intended to deter others from blowing the whistle.
Edward Snowden, on the other hand, has exposed something that even experienced observers did not take for granted: that the U.S. government has created a massive apparatus for discovering everybody elses secrets. Under the cover of the war on terror, it has been secretly trawling the telecommunications networks of the whole world for information not just on terrorism, but on any other subject that affects its interests.
Never mind the hypocrisy of this. (American secrets are sacred, but the United States has the right to know everybody elses.) Its the sheer scale and brazen arrogance of the operation that are so stunning. Exhibit A is the PRISM program, whose very existence was a secret until Snowden spilled the beans early last month.
This program, run by the National Security Agency, began in 2007. It collects data from all nine major American internet giants Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, Google, Skype, Yahoo, etc. and they are not allowed to reveal the fact that they are passing the data to the U.S. government.
In the first instance, its mostly traffic analysis: Who is talking to whom? But if the traffic pattern sparks the NSAs interest (or if the U.S. government wants to know the content of the messages for other reasons), then the spies can read the actual messages. And, as you would expect, PRISM didnt stay focused just on terrorism for very long.
The NSA started using its new tools, and some older ones, to spy on foreign governments and companies, including those of Americas allies. We hack network backbones like huge Internet routers, basically that give us access to the communications of hundreds of thousands of computers without having to hack every single one, Snowden told the South China Morning Post in late June.
U.S. citizens living in the United States are allegedly exempt from having their messages read without a court order (but the court is secret, too). Unless, of course, American citizens communicate with people living outside the U.S., in which case they are fair game.
Americans, on the whole, are remarkably untroubled by the NSAs actions. Almost a million people work in the U.S. security industry, and most of those jobs would disappear if Americans did not believe that terrorism is the greatest threat facing their country. So the industry works very hard to sell them this fiction, and most of them accept it.
Foreign governments, by contrast, are very angry. The countries targeted by the NSA included not just obvious candidates like China and Russia, but U.S. allies like France, Italy, Greece, Japan and South Korea.
French President Francois Hollande responded to Snowdens revelations by demanding that the spying stops at the earliest possible date that is to say immediately. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff said that the NSAs actions, if proven, would represent violations of sovereignty and human rights.
But foreign protests will not force a shut-down of the PRISM program. At most, it will be renamed and re-hidden. The U.S. government gains major advantages by knowing everybody elses secrets, and the million people in the security community are a huge domestic lobby.
Manning and Snowden have done the world a service by exposing the U.S. governments illicit actions past and present, but Mannings future is probably life imprisonment, Snowdens a life in exile (if hes lucky). No good deed goes unpunished.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist based in London.