I was all ready and poised to write a post heralding the beginning of a new era for Afghanistan when the Taliban set up a political office in Doha (make of that what you will, I’m still a little incredulous) and agreed to peace talks with NATO (read: the Americans). But by the time I was sitting in front of my laptop the next morning, the Afghan government itself had pulled out. The era of peace went out the window, as did my blog post.
So I found myself mentally grappling with the other main news story: Prism. Every time I watch the news or open a paper (The New York Times being my current broadsheet of choice, probably thanks to an unhealthy obsession with The West Wing – I digress) someone has thought up a new angle on the story. I covered the value of whistleblowing in this article for Prospect magazine’s website. But now Snowden is leading the American judicial system on a worldwide goose chase and exposing his country’s darker side. The US, it seems, supports freedom of speech so long as this speech does not affect its security services, its own deep state. This discrepancy will not go unnoticed by regimes which do not pay much head to human or civil rights, especially China.
In fact, the Chinese are rather enjoying the debacle. When the Prism story appeared on the front page of The Washington Post, President Obama was holding a summit with the new Premier, Xi Jinping, in California. The most important point on Obama’s agenda was securing a deal to stop Chinese computer hackers – some linked to the army – stealing Americans’ intellectual property. This is actually a legitimate problem, not least because it damages rates of return and so discourages investment, but the point became harder to argue when it emerged that the US can read everyone’s emails and listen to their phone calls – and store the data, presumably forever. Intellectual property violations no longer look like such a big deal, and the fuss around them more than a little hypocritical on the side of Obama.
Such hypocrisy will not do anyone any favours – neither Americans themselves nor the citizens of the world’s more oppressive countries, which will now be able to easily ignore any moralising. Obama needs to engage in some damage control by taking responsibility; if not for Prism itself than for keeping it secret and shady. If he doesn’t, he will have to endure more snubbing of the kind seen when the Russian authorities allowed Snowden to disappear. For all America’s spying power, it no longer knows where its most famous security agent is. Now how’s that for irony?