In My Opinion

Andres Oppenheimer: The good and the bad of the Snowden case

Former national security contractor Edward Snowden and his WikiLeaks allies deserve credit for triggering a much-needed campaign to make U.S. government surveillance programs more transparent. But they would be much more credible if they aimed their criticism at all sides of the political spectrum, including countries like China, Cuba, and — yes — Ecuador.

That’s the conclusion I drew earlier this week after interviewing WikiLeaks spokesman Kristinn Hrafnsson, who has emerged as one of the most public faces defending Snowden in the media.

At the time of this writing, Snowden, a U.S. citizen who disclosed secret U.S. National Security Agency surveillance programs, is reportedly at the Moscow airport, trying to fly to Cuba, and then on to Ecuador.

WikiLeaks spokesman Hrafnsson, a former television journalist from Iceland, told me that Snowden’s disclosures about the NSA’s surveillance of telephone calls and emails show that the U.S. government is acting “totally contrary to the ideas in this country about privacy.”

Asked about President Barack Obama’s statement that the U.S. government is not listening to private telephone conversations, and that it only targets calls from suspected terrorists after getting clearance from congressional oversight committees and a judge’s order, Hrafnsson responded that these surveillance programs are “clouded in secrecy, and that is not healthy in any democracy.”

Asked about U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s statement that lives may be lost because of Snowden’s leaks, and other U.S. officials assertions that terrorist groups have already changed their communications methods because of Snowden’s leaks, Hrafnsson dismissed such claims as “propaganda.”

These are the same arguments the U.S. government used when WikiLeaks released hundreds of thousands of U.S. State Department cables three years ago, and there has been no evidence that anybody has been hurt because of these leaks, he said.

What do you say to critics who point out that WikiLeaks always points its finger at the United States or European democracies, but never comes even close to criticizing police states, such as China, Cuba or North Korea, I asked.

“We are not active recipients of information; we are passive recipients of information,” he replied, adding that WikiLeaks would publish secret information from any country.

And what do you say to critics who accuse WikiLeaks of political hypocrisy by presenting itself as a champion of free expression while defending Ecuador, the country at whose embassy in Britain WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has sought asylum in, I asked.

Just this week, the Inter American Press Association (IAPA) stated that Ecuador’s new press law that President Rafael Correa signed on Saturday “officializes the muzzling of the press.”

The new law creates new “press crimes” such as “media lynching,” which in effect allows the government to punish any critical media, and gives officials “absolute power to do away with freedom of expression and of the press,” the IAPA said.

Hrafnsson responded that “I am not an expert on the new media law in Ecuador.” But he added that after having traveled to various countries in Latin America, it’s clear to him that “the situation there is not as simple as it often seems on the surface, and it’s hard to judge by Western standards.”

“Let’s not forget that in 2002 a democratically elected president in Venezuela was almost ousted in a coup attempt, in which the mainstream media took an active role,” he said. “I am more worried about the state of the media in the United States than in Ecuador,” he added.

My opinion: I welcome the debate over U.S. government surveillance methods that has been triggered by Snowden’s revelations. While it is true that there are bipartisan congressional committees and judges overseeing U.S. surveillance programs — which does not happen in many other countries — these agencies have had too much of a free hand to do what they want. That, as Hrafnsson rightly says, is not good for any democracy.

But it’s hard to fully support Snowden or WikiLeaks when they are aiming their entire anger at free societies, and avoid criticizing countries that are much more serious violators of individual freedoms. Both would be much more credible if they said, “Yes, China, Cuba and Ecuador are much worse, but we can’t criticize them because they grant us asylum.”

WikiLeaks has been trying to establish itself as a respectable international advocacy group for universal rights, much like Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International. But while the latter two groups denounce abuses across the political spectrum — whether they are committed by the U.S., Russian, Chinese and Cuban governments — WikiLeaks does not.

The good thing about Snowden, and WikiLeaks, is that they are pushing the U.S. government to be more transparent. The bad thing is that they are not doing the same with other governments.

Read more Andres Oppenheimer stories from the Miami Herald

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