United States whistleblower Edward Snowden had placed the lives of Australians at risk, according to Australian Attorney-General George Brandis, who made the sensational claim in Senate question time yesterday. Brandis’ statement marked a dramatic escalation in the government’s rhetoric against the whistleblower, and the first time the specific accusation of endangering Australians has been levelled at him.
However, Brandis failed to produce evidence to support the allegation, with the Attorney-General’s office failing to answer Crikey‘s repeated requests for further detail.
As activists, civil rights groups, NGOs and some of the world’s biggest internet sites joined together to mark February 11 as “the day we fight back against mass surveillance“, Brandis angrily lashed out at Greens senator Scott Ludlam:
“You celebrate and make a hero of this man who, through his criminal dishonesty and his treachery to his country, has put lives, including Australian lives, at risk. I wonder how you can sit in this Parliament and hold your head up high when you celebrate a man who, through criminal conduct and treachery, has put Australian lives at risk.”
Snowden has yet to be charged with treason even by the United States Department of Justice.
Both the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop have repeatedly made the accusation of treason, though the Prime Minister’s office has refused to provide any supporting evidence for the claim, while Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has lamented the “profound damage” he says Snowden has inflicted on the US tech sector (rather than the National Security Agency, which broke into companies’ back ends, or the companies themselves, which often co-operated with the NSA). Bishop tied herself into knots in January, insisting Snowden was a traitor but praising the review of mass surveillance into which Snowden’s revelations forced the Obama administration.
Brandis’ allegation that Australian lives have been placed at risk by Snowden represents an escalation of the government’s rhetoric against a figure who even US Republicans believe is a whistleblower who has exposed substantial wrongdoing.
It also echoes claims made against Snowden in the US and the United Kingdom, usually by intelligence agency figures but also by some politicians. However, in no instance has any agency or government produced evidence of any harm done by Snowden. Further, the review panel commissioned by US President Barack Obama found that there was no evidence that the NSA’s vast, and vastly expensive, surveillance apparatus had thwarted any terrorist attacks in the entire time it has been operating.
It’s also instructive to place Brandis’ claims in perspective. In November 2010, then-attorney-general Robert McClelland claimed that the WikiLeaks diplomatic cables release could “prejudice the safety of people” mentioned in the cables. Then-prime minister Gillard claimed the cable leak was “grossly irresponsible and illegal”. The White House claimed the leaks would put lives at risk, as did then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton; the UK Foreign Office said they might put lives at risk, as did any number of commentators.
But when Chelsea Manning, who provided the cables and other material to WikiLeaks, was sentenced last year after being convicted of espionage and theft, the military court was told that despite a “24/7”, 125-strong multimillion-dollar taskforce established by the US government to identify what damage the leaks had caused, not a single example of individual harm could be found. The head of the taskforce tried to claim he knew of one example, an Afghan national who had been killed by the Taliban, but had to concede that individual was not mentioned in the cables, and the trial judge rejected the evidence.
And as we’ve repeatedly discussed, governments are only too happy to leak national security information themselves, even information that can cause damage, if it’s in their political interests.
In their efforts to avoid transparency and accountability, politicians, security agencies and national security propagandists in the media instinctively smear whistleblowers and claim that any unofficial national security leaks place lives at risk. But they never produce a scintilla of evidence to back up their claims. Brandis’ smear of Snowden is only the latest example.