Enemies of the State?
A CultureMap®
by Stephen Brewer
Published on 10/11/13

Under Barack Obama’s presidency, the Department of Justice has prosecuted seven cases against those who’ve leaked sensitive information—more than all previous administrations combined. Computer specialist Edward J. Snowden exposed various clandestine operations of the National Security Agency to show us just how insecure our online lives are. Meanwhile, Julian Assange has become an international celebrity for leaking government cables and videos of military mismanagement. Are they enemies of the state or conscientious informers?

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Edward J. Snowden  (b. 1983 | American computer specialist, whistle-blower)
to  National Security Agency  (American intelligence organization | est. 1952)

Every day the National Security Agency intercepts and stores an estimated 1.7 billion emails, phone calls and other types of communications. According to Edward J. Snowden, a former infrastructure analyst working on contract for the 40,000-strong agency, this massive surveillance machine allows the U.S. government “to destroy privacy, internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world.”

Snowden had access to a breadth of NSA systems and volumes of sensitive material. In 2013 he traveled from Hawaii to Hong Kong on his way to Russia, carrying several hard drives full of classified NSA information. Among the files was a mandate to Verizon Business Services to hand over call records for millions of customers on a daily basis. Snowden also leaked details of the NSA’s top-secret Prism program, which allows backdoor access to the databases of Google, Facebook and other websites in order to extract emails, file transfers and live chats belonging to citizens of foreign governments. It’s unknown how much of this secret cache Snowden turned over to officials in the countries where he took refuge. What’s undeniable is that, for better or worse, he has brought some of the U.S. government’s most covert oversight activities into public view.

Edward J. Snowden  (b. 1983 | American computer specialist, whistle-blower)
to  Enemy of the State  (Tony Scott (dir.) | film | 1998)

In Enemy of the State, a former operative, played with spooky panache by Gene Hackman, speaks of the National Security Agency’s insidious methods: “They get into your bank statements, computer files, email, listen to your phone calls. Every wire, every airwave.” NSA contract worker Edward J. Snowden turned this cinematic paranoia into reality when he leaked top-secret documents that detailed government surveillance programs. The full implications of Snowden’s disclosures remain undetermined, but the facts that initially emerged show the agency’s staggering reach as it collects vast amounts of information on the internet. To ensure operatives can interpret the information they collect, the NSA has invested in superfast computers and sophisticated software to circumvent the encryption protecting sensitive information—everything from nuclear codes to trade secrets, financial transactions and election results. In a video released at the time of his leaks, Snowden seems to echo Hackman’s lines from Enemy of the State: “The NSA has built an infrastructure that allows it to intercept almost everything.… If I wanted to see your emails or your wife’s phone, all I have to do is use intercepts. I can get your emails, passwords, phone records, credit cards.”

Enemy of the State  (Tony Scott (dir.) | film | 1998)
to  WikiLeaks  (international whistleblowing organization | est. 2006)

In Tony Scott’s Enemy of the State, a wildlife naturalist unwittingly videotapes National Security Agency operatives murdering a congressman who opposes a bill that would broaden the government’s wiretapping capabilities. Attempts to procure the video set off a series of energetic chases that culminates in a gangland-style shootout at a Mafia-owned restaurant. The real villain, of course, is the U.S. government, which is armed with enough surveillance technology to make any citizen’s life a nightmare.

A video or other evidence of government perfidy that could bring down the NSA would be a gold mine for WikiLeaks, the internet-based whistleblowing organization that specializes in outing sensitive information—the more highly classified, the better. Its scoops include thousands of U.S. diplomatic cables, files on prisoners at Guantánamo Bay and a video of a U.S. helicopter attack in Baghdad that killed a number of Iraqi civilians and two Reuters journalists. The cinema-worthy exploits of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange are the subject of a biopic, The Fifth Estate (2013), starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Assange. Enemy of the State’s hero, Robert Dean (Will Smith), performs all sorts of derring-do and escapes the Feds; Assange is confined to the Ecuadoran embassy in London.

WikiLeaks  (international whistleblowing organization | est. 2006)
to  Edward J. Snowden  (b. 1983 | American computer specialist, whistle-blower)

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been one of Edward J. Snowden’s staunchest defenders as the two men contend with the vagaries of international asylum, confront the finer points of extradition law and try to avoid active prosecution. WikiLeaks provided Snowden with a plane ticket and Ecuadoran refugee papers that allowed him to fly from Hong Kong to Moscow and has also raised funds for Snowden’s defense. The WikiLeaks website even sells pro-Snowden gear, such as T-shirts emblazoned with an image of Snowden, whistle in mouth, alongside the words “I want you to blow the whistle in defense of our liberty.”

Both men are outlaws: Snowden stands charged with espionage, Assange faces questioning in Sweden in connection with a sexual molestation case. They live in limbo, temporarily protected by foreign governments, and maintain an international presence through the internet. Almost as riveting as the secret information they leak is what may become of them. How long will Assange be permitted to remain in the Ecuadoran embassy in London and avoid extradition? Will Snowden fade into Russian obscurity? Whatever happens, Assange and Snowden are the two most famous whistleblowers in recent history.

WikiLeaks  (international whistleblowing organization | est. 2006)
to  Pentagon Papers  (U.S. Department of Defense | report | 1969)

Beginning in October 1969, military analyst Daniel Ellsberg photocopied the Pentagon Papers, a 47-volume, 7,000-page top-secret Department of Defense study, with the intention of disclosing it. It took him nearly two years to find a way. The New York Times, amid great controversy, published the first excerpts on June 13, 1971. The study included White House memos, military reports and State Department cables chronicling U.S. involvement in the Vietnam war.

WikiLeaks posted and distributed the so-called Afghan War Diary to the world press in 2010. This compilation of more than 91,000 documents, written by soldiers and intelligence officers, reveals the inadequacy of U.S. resources, the Afghan government’s corruption, atrocities against civilians and suspicions about the involvement of Pakistan and Iran in the insurgency.

Ellsberg chose not to include four volumes of documents detailing U.S. diplomatic efforts. “I didn’t want to get in the way of diplomacy,” he said. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange takes a less politic approach, describing WikiLeaks as an “uncensorable system for untraceable document leaking and analysis.” One similarity, though, is striking. As Ellsberg has said, the Afghan documents describe a “war that is as thoroughly stalemated as was the case 40 years ago and more in Vietnam.”

Pentagon Papers  (U.S. Department of Defense | report | 1969)
to  Edward J. Snowden  (b. 1983 | American computer specialist, whistle-blower)

Soon after Daniel Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers and the Supreme Court ruled The New York Times could continue publishing the documents, the executive branch of the U.S. government pressed espionage charges against Ellsberg that carried up to 115 years in prison. He remained in the U.S., lecturing against the Vietnam war, and eventually all charges were dropped. Ellsberg’s revelations helped end the war and contributed to the demise of Richard Nixon’s presidency. Because further involvement in Vietnam would have cost thousands of additional American lives (the Pentagon Papers revealed that even U.S. leaders assumed it could not be won), for many Ellsberg is a commendable figure who spoke truth to power at great personal risk.

Edward J. Snowden has been called a modern-day Daniel Ellsberg, though the similarities between the men’s actions and the nature of what they revealed are open to debate. For Ellsberg, human life was at stake: for Snowden, concepts of privacy and governmental overreach. Ellsberg remained in the U.S. to face charges; Snowden fled. But Ellsberg has defended Snowden, saying, “There has not been a more significant or helpful leak or unauthorized disclosure in American history ever…and that definitely includes the Pentagon Papers.”

National Security Agency  (American intelligence organization | est. 1952)
to  Boston Marathon Bombings  (2013)

The National Security Agency says its mission is to “provide valuable intelligence on issues of concern to all Americans—such as international terrorism, cybercrime, narcotics trafficking and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction,” with a focus on “saving lives, defending vital networks and exploiting the foreign communications of adversaries.”

The effectiveness of the agency, under public scrutiny for the scope and depth of its surveillance operations, came into question in the aftermath of the April 15, 2013, Boston Marathon bombings. In that attack, suspects Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev allegedly placed two bombs that killed three and wounded 264. Dzhokhar later revealed his brother had built the bombs from pressure cookers, using instructions published in al Qaeda’s online magazine Inspire. (The 2010 Times Square bomber, Faisal Shahzad, used the same recipe for the car bomb he failed to detonate.) Authorities were lauded for the massive manhunt that followed the Boston bombings and the rapidity with which the FBI accumulated information on the attacks. But a question arises: Why wasn’t the NSA, with its broad powers to mine the internet activity of non–U.S. citizens, following Tsarnaev and other visitors to such a well-known terrorist website?