Ed Snowden, the whistleblower who revealed the US National Security Agency’s efforts to track virtually all of America’s phone calls as well as secretly penetrate the Internet servers of major companies, says that Switzerland’s banks were also a target.  While under diplomatic cover for the CIA in Geneva, Snowden told The Guardian newspaper that his clandestine colleagues had intentionally encouraged a Swiss bank officer to get drunk and then urged him to drive home.  When the unsuspecting  banker was arrested, the CIA stepped in and offered to help as part of a successful recruiting process. William Dowell comments:

Snowden says that he had been tempted to blow the whistle, while in Geneva but decided not to do so because people’s lives were at risk. When he finally decided to talk to The Guardian, he says, it was to reveal the extent to which the US security establishment was putting machinery in place that would enable a select group in the US government to keep tabs on nearly everyone.  George Orwell’s dystopic novel of the future, “1984,” or a digital rendition of the East German Stasi’s attempt to know and ultimately control everything, seemed on the point of becoming a reality. Only this time it was the US that was calling the shots.  One of the systems highlighted by Snowden, would in effect keep a list of all the phone calls coming through the US.   It would not reveal  the content of the calls, but would show who was talking to whom, and where the calls were going.   The records would enable the US government to go back in time and trace connections that might have been overlooked in the past.   An alternate system, codenamed Prism, empowered the NSA to dip secretly into the servers of major Internet service providers, such as Google, Apple and Microsoft and data mine the information for suspicious behavior.

If the behavior is innocent, there should be, in principle, nothing to worry about, except that there is always a question about who gets to determine innocence.  Snowden says he was concerned that the system was concentrating unprecedented power in the hands of a small, anonymous group in Washington that was operating under total secrecy.  The counter argument was that the system had been approved by Congress, and therefore ought to be legal.

The problem is that there is little confidence in Congress these days, and in the wake of mushrooming government-ordered assassinations, drone attacks and a seeming readiness to accept torture as long as it is presented under another name,  there is waning public confidence in the US government’s commitment to the law itself.  The National Security Agency seems to escaping any efforts to reign it in.

While the US has been concerned about China’s attempts to penetrate US companies for industrial espionage, the NSA, whose mandate is – quite bluntly – to engage in electronic spying, has been expanding exponentially with little general public awareness of what it is doing in the public’s name. It has now been fairly well established that the US and possibly Israel were behind the Stuxnet virus, which destroyed Iran’s centrifuges and temporarily delayed its nuclear efforts.  Stuxnet was very likely a better option than yielding to the growing pressure in the US and Israel to bomb Iran’s nuclear installations.

Yet, Stuxnet was relatively innocent compared to the Flame virus, which subsequently spread throughout the Middle East, and enabled its handlers to record keystrokes and screen shots on infected computers.  Newer systems reportedly enable intelligence services to remotely activate computers and in some cases to use a laptop’s camera and microphone to bug suspicious conversations.

Snowden says that one reason he didn’t talk about all this during his time in Geneva is that he expected President Obama to correct the egregious misconduct of the Bush-Cheney era.  It didn’t happen. In his recent book, The Way of the Knife,  New York Times security correspondent Mark Mazzetti, points out that Bush, urged on by Cheney, began diverting the CIA to assassinating terrorist suspects, to the point whereby the CIA was no longer collecting the intelligence that the government needed to make informed decisions.

In effect, Mazzetti suggests, the CIA became a private army at the beck and call of the president and more or less independent of traditional oversight.  The development of hellfire missile-equipped Predator drones, made the process even easier, although it dramatically increased the so-called collateral damage.  When the CIA couldn’t, or wouldn’t handle the job, the Executive Branch hired mercenaries, such as the private security firm, Blackwater, to do the work.

Washington, in short,  seems far from immune to the old dictum that  power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  In his book, Mazzetti describes how the former dean of the Yale Law School, Harold Koh, went through a transformation of sorts in join in the Obama administration.  In 2011, Koh recounted to a standing committee of the American Bar Association on Law and National Security in 2011, that while he had previously poured over the files of students applying for admission to Yale’s prestigious law school,  he was now spending his time studying the files of men, roughly the same age, who were accused of being  terrorists.  His judgment was likely to decide whether they lived, or were marked for assassination.

Edward Snowden says he decided to speak out in order to launch a public debate over what is, after all, being done in its name.   There are substantial differences between Snowden’s case and that of the emotionally disturbed US Army enlisted man, Bradley Manning, who dumped hundreds of thousands of classified documents on Wikileaks.   There is one aspect, though, that the two men have in common.   Both see themselves as  trying to keep a country they love from going badly astray.

In their own eyes they are patriots.  They also point to a fundamental flaw inherent in most  intelligence services.  As anyone who has read any number of spy novels soon realizes, clandestine intelligence operates outside the normal legal and ethical codes of society.  It is the “007″ authorization to operate completely outside the law and to do things that would get anyone else arrested.

The problem for these institutions is how to maintain control, how to guarantee that the operative will operate outside the law only when the government wants him to, and not when he decides to do it on his own.   The agencies may recruit sources like the Swiss banker,  on the basis of vulnerability, but when it comes to their staff working on the inside,  they want people who are extremely moral and excessively ethical.  They then use these people to do things that may be immoral and highly unethical–but only on demand.

The classic case, as Snowden encountered in Geneva is the  manipulation and ultimate betrayal of someone you have pretended to befriend.  Ultimately, the process takes a person, who is recognized to have a heightened sense of ethics and morality, and it gradually turns him  into a sociopath–albeit for a good cause.

Regardless of the justice of the cause, the effect on the individual is likely to be traumatic.  Integrity and a sense of one’s own identity are ultimately sacrificed for  a lie, and everything within one’s conscience argues that that lie is ultimately evil.   Snowden asked himself why he was willing to give up a life in paradise, with a good salary and everything one could wish for, if all he had to do was to sacrifice everything he believed in.  For him, apparently, the choice was obvious. Recognition appears to have begun here in Geneva.

postscript: Within hours of Snowden confirming his identity, a petition appeared on the White House  website and quickly raised 49,470 of 100,000 signatures needed to petition the president for a pardon.  The petition is accessible here.


The Guardian reports on Snowden (with 12-minute video interview

Mark Mazzetti interviewed on NPR about “The Way of the Knife.”

Shane Harris interviewed on “The Watchers” (on line video at Fora.tv)

White House petition concerning Snowden