Daily Maverick’s International Person of the Year 2013: Edward Snowden

It’s almost the end of 2013 and it’s time to declare the year’s person of the year. Of course, Time magazine has sneaked in ahead of us - we were a little busy with watching the comings and goings of about a hundred presidents and prime ministers here to bear witness to the passing of Nelson Mandela. In any case, we had already decided we would come out with our choice today so Time’s butting ahead in the queue really doesn’t matter. Moreover, we’re going to take issue with Time’s choice so readers will now get to choose who’s right (Hint: we are). BY J BROOKS SPECTOR.

Even before we get to the point where we make our case over who won this year and why, we need to set out the terms of engagement for this annual competition. First, obviously, the winner can be either male or female. A while back we once called this choice “man of the year” – and boy did we catch hell for that – even though we had considered everyone for the selection. Second, the winner was to be picked for the magnitude of his or her impact on the globe – for good or ill – for that year. Third, the eventual winner can not have nominated him or herself.

Given the past several days events in South Africa, we seriously considered naming Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela as our person of the year. This would not have been as a nostalgic sympathy vote for the national icon who has finally gone to his final rest.

Even though Nelson Mandela hasn’t spoken or done anything in public for years, the impact of all our memories of his extraordinary legacy – and the nagging ache now that he is gone actually helped make tangible the continuing importance of core principles in politics and statesmanship – just as in life. We could have done an order of magnitude much worse than have one last picture of Madiba published beneath a headline: “Daily Maverick’s 2013 Person of the Year.”

Well, in any case, Time magazine has just announced that it has picked Pope Francis as their person of the year. In Time’s explanation of its choice, they wrote of him, “He took the name of a humble saint and then called for a church of healing. The first non-European pope in 1,200 years is poised to transform a place that measures change by the century…. But what makes this Pope so important is the speed with which he has captured the imaginations of millions who had given up on hoping for the church at all. People weary of the endless parsing of sexual ethics, the buck-passing infighting over lines of authority when all the while (to borrow from Milton), ‘the hungry Sheep look up, and are not fed.’ In a matter of months, Francis has elevated the healing mission of the church – the church as servant and comforter of hurting people in an often harsh world – above the doctrinal police work so important to his recent predecessors.”

Nobody can deny this dramatic energy he has brought to the Roman Catholic Church in just his first few months as pontiff – the kind of engagement that may well bring about the changes the church has been waiting for, well, for centuries. But, exactly as Time has said, “The first non-European pope in 1,200 years is poised to transform a place”, rather than having succeeded in already doing so. In that way, Pope Francis’ selection would seem to echo President Barck Obama’s surprise receipt of his Nobel Peace Prize less than a year after he had become president – Time’s selection is also an award on spec, as it were.

So who else might be in the running for such an honour? Well for one, there is the case to be made for Bashar al-Assad. Here is a man who has – pretty much from his own twisted imaginings – managed to produce millions of pitiful internal and international refugees who are now living in squalid camps and fetid urban slums across the region – as well as a whole generation of Syria’s children who have now become educational casualties. The war he is pursuing has destroyed some of the world’s most important archaeological heritage sites, and led to the deployment of poison gas against civilians. By the time the Syrian civil war is over, regardless of who wins, Syrians will join a long, sad list of peoples where it will be said that those who survived would envy the dead. In fact, if things keep to their current trajectory, Assad may well provoke an ever more disastrous, larger regional war as an added bonus. Certainly he is a contender for this year’s person of the year by virtue of all this mayhem.

Then there is Xi Jinping, the new Chinese president. Presiding over a nation of more than a billion souls, Xi is now laying out the foundations for an ambitious economic reform package that could make the Chinese economy even more competitive (or predatory, if one prefers) internationally, as Xi’s reforms unleash even more individual entrepreneurial energy across the country and around the world.

Concurrently, continuing the ideas of his predecessor, Xi is drawing upon his nation’s energies to pursue greater geopolitical advantage in the wider East Asian region, now staking out claims to island groups and maritime zones far from the mainland or its traditional frontier claims. Moreover, Xi’s government is carrying out a significant military modernisation drive – complete with an aircraft carrier or two – as well as an increasingly ambitious space program. But much of this is only going to become tangible over the next couple of years and so Xi is going to have to be deferred as a real contender for person of the year for next year or, perhaps, 2015.

Then there is Vladimir Putin. Yes, he pulled Barack Obama’s chestnuts out of the fire on the Syrian chemical weapons imbroglio this year to generate a real agreement to destroy these weapons. Similarly, he has been of real help in nailing down the first agreement with Iran over nuclear materials (Hmmm, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is an interesting contender as well). In both cases this represents a significant change from previous Russian foreign policy behaviour. Of course Putin’s growing security state-style behaviour domestically is increasingly affecting western perceptions of Putin’s presidency negatively – and that will eventually lead to growing tensions with the West. But the key word here is “eventually.” Next contestant.

Inevitably Barack Obama merits consideration. His country is the globe’s most important nation, military and economy. If for no other reason, a nomination could be based on Obama’s increasingly ambitious foreign policy, increasingly reoriented towards East Asia so as to counter an ambitious China, even as his government completes the planning for the final military drawdown from Afghanistan. With an economy that is now, finally, in a growth mode, that might mean Obama could also be a strong contender – but for 2014.

So whom does that leave us with? Edward Snowden of course. A few years back, we selected Julian Assange for the enormous impact he had caused because of that mega-data dump of classified US Government files – mainly on military and diplomatic efforts. The released files showed activities that cast a major shadow over US military activities in South Asia and provoked international condemnation of American official and military behaviour – and some severe embarrassment in Washington. Assange’s website, Wikileaks, led to a growing international realisation that the combination of ideologically tinged whistleblowing – together with the Internet had effectively spelled the death of secrecy.

This year, by providing massive amounts of purloined information to Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald, Snowden has provoked a veritable tsunami of revelations in the Guardian (and thereafter in the Washington Post) about a massive American electronic surveillance effort that has produced major international protests over such electronic intrusions. The National Security Agency’s Director, Keith Alexander has said that Snowden was in the process of leaking anywhere from 50,000-200,000 documents and a significant number of these apparently focus on the NSA’s mass surveillance program within the US as well. (The NSA is the highly secret body charged with electronic interception and analysis headquartered in Ft Meade, Maryland)

Also included in Snowden’s cache appears to be information about the surveillance programs of related governments such as Great Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters, Israel’s Urim SIGINT Base, the Communications Security Establishment of Canada, the Australian Secret Intelligence Service and the Norwegian Intelligence Service. The Guardian’s editor-in-chief has said recently that, so far, only about one percent of the documents Snowden released have been published by the paper. US officials have been saying “the worst is yet to come”, a view being echoed by Greenwald as well.

In the process of his sureptitious release of information, Snowden, who had been an intelligence contractor for the US, fled the country via Hong Kong and then ultimately lived in the international transit lounge of a Moscow airport for weeks – until he received a year’s temporary asylum in Russia. As incidental collateral damage, Snowden’s residence in that airport also managed to cause the cancellation of the planned Putin-Obama summit that had been scheduled for just before the G-8 meeting in St Petersburg – thereby putting US-Russian relations in an increasingly downward spiral as well.

Snowden’s information made it clear the NSA had been collecting astonishing amounts of information about foreign electronic communications – including who was sending what to whom and whether key words in their communications could predict and then identify potential terrorist networks or other equally unpleasant folks.

However, the revelations also showed the NSA had been working closely with a whole array of American IT companies to help them trawl through all the emails and other electronic files. Moreover, some of the peeking (and maybe rather a lot of it) had been done on American citizens at home and abroad as well – without the figleaf of a normal civilian court order authorising such a search or seizure. Not surprisingly, this has thoroughly alarmed both liberal and conservative civil rights and civil liberties groups, as well as a number of congressional committees.

The problem grew worse as it became clear the NSA was also tapping into the phone logs and conversations of the German chancellor and Brazilian president, apparently among a long list of other VIP targets – from presumably friendly, allied nations. Such individual leaders have not been amused.

Daniel Ellsberg, of Pentagon Papers fame, labeled Snowden’s release of this NSA material the most significant leak in US history. The releases began to be published in June in The Guardian – and then The Washington Post. The resulting disclosures from Snowden’s activities have, as a result, generated a growing public debate inside the US over the limits to mass surveillance and government secrecy, as well as the muzzy ground between legitimate national security concerns and the constitutionally protected privacy of a citizen’s own information and communications. Along the way, Snowden’s efforts have also provoked a growing discussion about the mushrooming growth in the number of people holding security clearances and how such a system is managed, secured and directed.

At this point, despite Snowden’s insistence he was a legitimate whistleblower, the US Government has charged him with espionage and theft of government property, and he continues to live in Russia. The ripples from Snowden’s exposure of this massive government effort will almost certainly continue to spread outward – affecting US relations with its allies – and with its own citizens. In spite of his anomalous circumstances – is Snowden a traitor or a patriot – are the programs he revealed crucial to national security or inimical to individual liberty – or perhaps because of these very divisions, Snowden has clearly earned the right to be called person of the year. And so he is. DM

Read more:

  • Read Ranjeni Munusamy’s assessment of Pope Francis here
  • Pope Francis, The People’s Pope in Time

Photo: A demonstrator holds a sign with a photograph of former US spy agency NSA contractor Edward Snowden and the word “HERO” during Fourth of July Independence Day celebrations in Boston, Massachusetts July 4, 2013. (REUTERS/Brian Snyder)


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