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link to published version: IEEE Computer, April, 2014
Letter to the Editor and Response: IEEE Computer, June, 2014

accesses since February 20, 2014


Hal Berghel

Edward Snowden's recent NSA disclosures seem to have the same effect on neoconservative and big-government politicians that a full moon has on werewolves – they just drives them crazy! What did he do to incur all of this acrimony?


Many were introduced to South African President Jacob Zuma by watching Nelson Mandela’s memorial service. He was the head-of-state singled out for jeers by the audience. Zuma is no foreigner to scandal. This past year his hands were found in the till. His expenditure of $21 million of the taxpayer’s money on “security improvements” for his home was leaked to the media. This included a visitor’s lounge, twenty guest houses, a clinic, two helipads, an amphitheater, a cattle enclosure, a swimming pool and a mini-mart for one of his wives ( These days, the misuse of public funds by an elected official is not terribly newsworthy, and the story would have likely died quickly were it not for Zuma’s reaction. The leaked exposures triggered a misinformation campaign that included preposterous justifications - like labeling the swimming pool a water reservoir in case of fire. Perhaps the minimart was to provide snacks for the fire fighters while they were using the pool for the fire. Such is the stuff or modern demagoguery.

The Zuma administration then outdid itself with the judicious application of intimidation by threatening prosecution of any journalist or media outlet that published photographs of his renovated property ( ), It justified its threats by appealing to an apartheid-era security law called the National Key Points Act ( ) used by the white apartheid governments to suppress black dissent. Apparently, the Minister of Police may designate anything as a National Key Point that deserves special protection and insolation from public scrutiny. What is more, the list is a tightly-held government secret. No one knows whether they've violated it until after they've been arrested and prosecuted. At this point there are apparently a few hundred such Key Points, one of the most recent of which is Zuma's house.

So in some ways the Key Point Act does for physical space in South Africa what the U.S. National Security Letter does for digital space in the U.S. - it seeks to intimidate dissenters into silence. One has to wonder how a black president of South Africa could justify invocation of the same laws to protect his power and authority that the apartheid governments had also used to suppress his own people. Tyranny is apparently color blind in South Africa. Zuma must have been delusional if he thought that the invocation of apartheid-era laws to cover up his chicanery would escape media scrutiny and public blowback.


The Zuma story is a reminder to U.S. citizens that governments lie to cover-up misdeeds. Occasionallya government official lapses into a spell of honesty. It doesn't happen often, but when it does it can be a thing of beauty. To illustrate, in response to a reporter's complaint about the U.S. government's misinformation campaign concerning the war in Vietnam, Arthur Sylvester, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs under Robert McNamara told a group of reporters: “Look, if you think any American official is going to tell you the truth, then you're stupid. Did you hear that? – stupid?” (July, 1965, quoted in William Blum, Killing Hope, pp. 132). Or consider former CIA Director, James Woolsey's comment about the NSA's use of Echelon to intercept European telephone communications: “Yes, my continental friends, we have spied on you….your governments largely still dominate your economies….Get serious, Europeans. Stop blaming us and reform your own statist economic policies….Then we won't need to spy on you.” (Wall Street Journal, 3/17/2000)

Though rare, such forthrightness is refreshing. These quotes suggest that whenever the hint of illegality or potential embarrassment is close at hand, deception and disinformation follow close behind.


As I said in my July, 2013 column, no one who has invested significant time studying the machinations of modern governments could be shocked by Edward Snowden's NSA leaks. Investigative reporter James Bamford made a thirty-year career out of NSA reporting at that level of granularity. In fact, his first expose, the Puzzle Palace, dates all the way back to 1983! Ten years before that, Senator Frank Church warned Americans not to underestimate the threat of NSA surveillance threat during the Church Committee Hearings. A clip of his August 17, 1975 Meet the Press interview is instructive in this regard . While some details have changed, the NSA's compass heading has been steady for fifty years.

Edward Snowden gave away no nuclear secrets, nor did he engage in betrayal for profit or deliver top secret information to agents of foreign governments, nor expose covert government operatives in clandestine services. So what did Snowden do that brings out so much political prejudice and rancor?

Let's start with the common accusations against him.

The truth of the matter is that the only way an involved citizen could have been caught by surprise by Snowden's revelations was to make a concerted effort to stay in the dark (see sidebar).


I am herewith placing a new word in our political lexicon, suspiciology =df the study of suspicion. It may not be important philosophically, but it's so critical to the understanding of politics that I'm surprised Plato didn't at least include a footnote in his dialogues.

Suspicion is different that belief in terms of grounding. Beliefs arise in a realm of human understanding where the primary shared components, perception and reason, are both in the main reliable and fairly predictable (i.e., that occasions when they aren't are minimal, random and/or offsetting). With suspicion, unlike belief, there must be an additional assumption that perception is likely un reliable and/or in complete and thus un reasonable. Where belief implies order and regularity, suspicion implies inconsistency and deceit – what Winston Churchill called the “bodyguard of lies.” On this account the admission by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to Senator Diane Feinstein that he misled Congress- the so-called “least untruthful answer” memo ( ) should not be understood as an apology, but rather as the reconciliation of detected-untruths with not-as-yet-undetected-untruths. Clapper was just balancing the rhetorical ledger. In the world of real politics, getting caught in a lie is tantamount to a failed tactic, nothing more. In this world, truth, honesty, and integrity are considered quaint notions of a bygone era and destined for the dustbins of history. See for yourself whether this is a more plausible explanation of Clapper's remarks ( ).


So if the accusations are found to be groundless, what can account for the vitriolic attack of Edward Snowden. Let's try this explanation on for size: what Snowden really did was take away the most cherished asset of hypocritical and autocratic governments: plausible deniability. Where before the public had suspicion, Snowden contributed a justification for it and provided tangible evidence. He gave us justified true suspicion - aka knowledge. Where the informed electorate had informed suspicion before Snowden, they had knowledge after Snowden. He added substance to claims of constitutional abuses by a government run by a Nobel prize-winning President with a background in constitutional law. And what is more intolerable, Snowden sparked a public debate! There is no greater threat to politicians who circumvent the law of the land than a public debate. That was Jacob Zuma's life-lesson.

But the vitriol and persecution isn't limited to Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, whistleblowers and the journalists who rely on them. On February 18, 2014 conservative US district judge Amul Thapar sentenced Sister Megan Rice to three years in federal prison relating to her participation in a non-violent break-in and defacement of a nuclear storage bunker at a Y-12 nuclear weapons plant at Oak Ridge, Tennessee . Further, this George W. Bush appointee to the federal bench denied the 84 year old nun and her 58 and 64 year old co-defendants bail while they awaited sentencing and delivered them to the court for sentencing in leg irons, waist chains and handcuffs. Judge Thapar thereby sent a strong signal to senior citizens everywhere that he is no softy when it comes to non-violent dissent. ( ). Martin Luther King, the Dalai Lama, Mahatma Gandhi, and Mother Teresa have a proven track record demonstrating the global menace that religiously-motivated elderly pacifists enjoy Thapar sought to make an example of acts of symbolic civil disobedience. Failure to do so would send out exactly the wrong message to the geriatric peace movement.

As responsible citizens we need to continuously remind ourselves that whenever truth stands up to autocratic power and/or tyranny reprisals will follow. Thomas Jefferson anticipated our present situation in 1792 when he said “…most codes extend their definition of treason to acts not really against one's country. They do not distinguish between acts against the government and acts against the oppressions of the government ; the latter are virtues; yet they have furnished more victims to the executioner than the former; because real treasons are rare; oppressions frequent. The unsuccessful strugglers against tyranny, have been the chief martyrs of treason laws in all countries.” ( ). The same position was embraced by George Orwell and Aldous Huxley in more recent times. With the passage of time, Snowden's harshest critics will be shown to not only be on the wrong side of history, but the wrong side of evolution.


Insufficient public attention to the activities of our intelligence and security agencies guarantees that we will be endure crisis after crisis, each spawned by untimely leaks of classified information. This is not good government. What we need is thoughtful, proactive consideration of the issues by elected officials that is driven by public awareness. COINTELPRO, Watergate, the Church Commission, the Iran-Contra, and the NSA Warrantless surveillance scandal have established that the Congressional default is deference to the Executive Branch until a scandal arises followed by hasty remediation.

The following books are a good starting point for those who wish to engage in a thoughtful public debate on the surveillance state and its effects on personal privacy. All are written by respected, award-winning journalists affiliated with internationally recognized newspapers. By James Bamford: The Puzzle Palace, Penguin; 1983, Body of Secrets, Anchor Books, 2002; the Shadow Factory: The NSA from 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America, Anchor, 2009. Tim Shorrock, Spies for Hire, Simon and Schuster, 2009. Dana Priest and William Arkin, Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State, Back Bay Books, 2012. Priest and Arkin have also produced a DVD of the same title. James Risen, State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration, Free Press, 2006. In addition, regular features on these topics may be found in major newspapers like the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Guardian to name but a few. In addition, Ebay founder Pierre Omidyar has just launched a new online digital magazine The Intercept, that features NSA coverage by Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Jeremy Scahill. A quotation attributed to Thomas Jefferson is appropriate here: “A well-informed electorate is a prerequisite to democracy.”