Edward Snowden became the news story of the summer when he leaked documents about the surveillance techniques used by the National Security Agency (NSA).

Thomas Cullen examines the leaks and looks at how the media and the governments involved dealt with the revelations.

On August 1st of this year, Edward Snowden was granted temporary asylum in Russia, allowing him to leave the confines of Moscow airport and put an end to the bizarre cat and mouse chase between the former NSA contractor and the United States government. Every major media organisation around the globe had followed his story closely, with discussion revolving around which countries would offer Snowden asylum and whether the man was a traitor or a whistleblower.

Sadly, as was also the case with US military whistleblower Chelsea Manning, the whistleblowers themselves often become the story rather than the actual information they have released to the public. Instead of analysing the data that Snowden released, most of the mainstream media focused their efforts on analysing the man himself and watching his every move as he tried to remain outside of the United States far-reaching clutches.

So what exactly did Snowden reveal? He released an estimated 15,000-20,000 documents to the Guardian newspaper in order to expose how heavily the United States government was spying on its own citizens. The leaks showed that in April 2013, a top secret court order was issued to one of America’s largest telecoms providers, Verizon, asking them to hand over all call data from its customers to the NSA on an on-going basis. Obama’s government, like the Bush administration beforehand, was effectively collecting the communication records of millions of citizens regardless of whether or not they committed any crime or were suspected of any wrongdoing.

Amongst the documents released by Snowden were details of PRISM, a previously undisclosed program designed to tap directly into the servers of several major internet companies such as Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, Skype and YouTube, in order to collect information about its users. The NSA was able to use the program to collect private emails, chat messages and search histories of people that used the major websites. All of the internet companies involved claimed that they were unaware of PRISM and its capabilities.

Soon it was realised that the NSA surveillance spread further than the United States alone. It was exposed that the agency had a spying web that allowed it to examine the personal data of internet and phone users from around the world. The Obama administration targeted certain countries to spy on such as China, Russia, Iran and Afghanistan, whilst other countries such as the UK and Germany were assisted by the NSA in spying on their own civilians. Snowden spoke about how the NSA abused its power even further by targeting journalists who were critical of the US government after 9-11. The NSA also had programs that targeted foreign embassies by spying and eavesdropping on them. Many European embassies were bugged after being targeted by the agency.

Despite the revelations, President Obama told the world that “the main thing I want to emphasize is that I don’t have an interest and the people at the NSA don’t have an interest in doing anything other than making sure that we can prevent a terrorist attack.” He also criticised Snowden’s actions and asked him to return to face trial in America and make the case that “what he did was right.” Obama’s call for Snowden to return for a fair trial did not convince Snowden. This is unsurprising considering the treatment of his fellow whistleblower Chelsea Manning. Manning was held for almost three years under torturous conditions before a farcical trial took place where she was sentenced to 35 years in prison simply because she exposed war crimes committed by the US Government.

Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian blogger who broke the NSA surveillance story after Snowden sent him the documents, was also targeted by the UK authorities in a clear attempt to intimidate him into silence. This was done through the detention of his partner David Miranda at Heathrow Airport under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000. Miranda was released after nine hours which is the max amount of time the law allows before officers must either release or arrest the individual. However, 97% of such detentions last less than an hour according to official figures and only 1 in 2000 are kept for over 6 hours.

Greenwald described the detention as a “failed act of intimidation” and stated that “they obviously had zero suspicion that David was associated with a terrorist organization or involved in any terrorist plot. Instead, they spent their time interrogating him about the NSA reporting which Laura Poitras, the Guardian and I are doing, as well the content of the electronic products he was carrying. They completely abused their own terrorism law for reasons having nothing whatsoever to do with terrorism: a potent reminder of how often governments lie when they claim that they need powers to stop ‘the terrorists,’ and how dangerous it is to vest unchecked power with political officials in its name.”

Despite Snowden exposing the extent of US spying, some people have criticised the former NSA contractor for his actions. Some of the questionable criticisms include the assertion that he has put people at risk by letting them know they are being spied on and that he is a traitor to the American people by informing them of what their elected representatives are doing. Fox News analyst Ralph Peters bizarrely accused Snowden of committing treason simply to get attention and then later called for the death penalty to be brought back for both Snowden and Chelsea Manning.

However, Snowden has mainly received praise for sacrificing his job and comfortable lifestyle in order to inform the public about the illegal actions of their government. Daniel Ellsberg, who released the Pentagon Papers about the Vietnam war in 1971, commented on Snowden: “I have no doubt at all that he’s a patriotic American, as he’s said. And to call him a traitor reveals a real misunderstanding of our founding documents.”

Both Snowden and Manning were driven by a sense of duty to their country. When they witnessed how their government was abusing its power and committing crimes, they sacrificed all they had in order to expose powerful administrations. The very least that the public and the media can do is to use the information that was revealed to them to engage in informed debate about the actions of those in power and to pressurise political administrations into changing their policies for the better.