And so, thanks to the unhealthily leaky Edward Snowden, currently holed up somewhere in Russia, the relentless dripping of US National Security Agency (NSA) documents and data into the public sphere continues. Indeed, Snowden, who was an NSA contractor when he absconded with thousands of files earlier this year, is probably best thought of now as a tap, rather than a leak, to be turned on by the Guardian or Der Spiegel or Le Monde, or whatever liberal broadsheet he has deigned to contact, as and when editors feel the need.
The sheer volume of once-confidential NSA info now washing around news outlets would be impressive if its impact wasn’t so deadening. We now know of ‘Prism’, the name given to the data-requesting relationship the NSA has with nine internet companies, including Facebook and Google; we now know that the UK’s very own spies-r-us down at the UK Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ) have been busy infiltrating the fibre-optic pipes of the internet itself, and sharing their meta-data findings with the NSA; we now know that the NSA has been spying on EU offices in the US and Europe; we now know that the NSA has been monitoring the calls of millions of citizens from countries outside the US; and, of course, thanks to reports over the past week, we now know that the NSA has been bugging German chancellor Angela Merkel’s mobile phone.
And yet is all this that revelatory? Is the knowledge that the US’s chief spy agency is spending its multi-billion-dollar budget spying on people that jaw-to-the-floor surprising? What on earth did the Guardian or Der Spiegel think spies did with their time? Fornicate and knock back unstirred martinis?
But while Chancellor Merkel has made a point of publicly acting the wronged victim and has talked about the need to ‘build trust anew’, and pundits have waxed disingenuously about American iniquity, there have been others willing to be a little more sober about the US’s spy games. As former French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner put it: ‘Let’s be honest, we eavesdrop too. Everyone is listening to everyone else. But we don’t have the same means as the United States, which makes us jealous.’ That’s not a condemnation, that’s a melancholy ‘if only’. In the words of the BBC’s Jonathan Marcus: ‘Almost all governments conduct surveillance or espionage operations against other countries whose activities matter to them. Some are friends; some are enemies; some may just be in interesting locations or have ties to other countries that are of interest.’
Which raises a question: if it’s not Snowden’s increasingly tedious leaks themselves which are generating the media attention and hype, then what is? And here we approach the nub of the matter. The appeal of the leaks in certain quarters, the appeal of a story involving the US spying on Merkel for instance, lies less in what it ‘reveals’ than in the prejudices it confirms. That is, for those of a leftish-liberal hue, for those inclined to believe that America, conceived as a nest of capitalist and corporate power, is at the root of the world’s problems, is the power behind myriad thrones, the Snowden Files are further proof of what they already know – that the American state is malevolent, that it really is out to, if not get us, then watch us.