So long and enjoy the bananas

Hong Kong seems that little bit emptier now Edward Snowden has suddenly upped and left the city. The dashing, trendy, cyber-hero, whistleblower-traitor-fiend flew into the sunset yesterday on Aeroflot, apparently en route for Ecuador via either Cuba or Venezuela via Moscow. (Given Ed’s image problems back home as a Chinese red Commie turncoat, I would probably skip Cuba, still viewed by many Americans as a Soviet-backed menace to hemispheric freedom.) Plucky little Ecuador is, of course, the liberty-loving nation in whose London embassy sits Julian Assange, who released tons of stunningly uninteresting classified data passed on by US soldier Bradley Manning, the least glamorous and so far only captured member of the Three State-Secret-Spilling Musketeers of our era. WikiLeaks, now Ed’s advisor and guardian, is in danger of officially replacing Greenpeace as the world’s most insufferably self-righteous and self-important NGO.

The US government is miffed that Hong Kong dragged its feet over its request to have Ed arrested with a view to extradition, thus allowing him time to split. This implies that the US authorities submitted paperwork to Hong Kong that was no less adequate than in the many past successful cases of HK-US extradition. The alternative explanation, implied by the Hong Kong government, is that US officials goofed up with the legal documentation. Shouldn’t be hard to prove which. Either way, the Big Lychee and Beijing are now breathing a sigh of relief. In an uncharacteristic display of wit, the Hong Kong government also mentions in its statement that it is still waiting for Washington to respond to Ed’s charges that US security services hacked (presumably illegally) into our local Internet infrastructure.

It is unfair that the US ends up in the role of villain. Ed’s revelations simply confirm that the National Security Agency and its partners conduct wide-scale traffic analysis on the millions of bits and pieces flowing around the Internet in the hope of detecting patterns that could help identify planned terrorist attacks. China’s spy agencies, meanwhile, target individual corporate and public networks, probably in order to steal specific commercial and strategic information and maybe even to acquire the capacity to disrupt vital Western services and systems. The only similarity is that both powers rely on young geeks to do the work.

But it is hard to sympathize for an American leadership that seems determined to make the country look bad in the eyes of the world by refusing to admit that it might be infringing the principles it declares everyone else should follow.

Part of the problem is that the US has nurtured a bloated intelligence and security industry. Attempting to scoop up records of every email, every Facebook posting and every data transfer on the planet is ridiculous, as is making people take their shoes off every time they fly, along with dozens of other over-the-top measures in the ‘war on terror’. Maybe a few percent of this activity is worthwhile, but for the most part this whole thing has become a massive waste of taxpayers’ money. Needless to say, this yields huge profits for security contractors and fat pensions for public-sector labour – and no doubt contributions flow into lawmakers’ and parties’ election campaigns to keep it that way.

This is related to another American taxpayer-funded industry that has gone out of control, namely the penal system. One of the reasons people are cheering Ed on as the Feds chase him round the globe is that they know the harshness of the justice he will face if caught. The length of possible prison sentences and the severe conditions of incarceration that await Ed are in line with a whole array of excessive Federal and state penalties that go back to the ‘war on drugs’. Thanks to an absurd incarceration rate, billions of US taxpayers’ dollars are now poured down the drain while prison construction/supplies/services companies – and unionized prison guards – laugh all the way to the bank, stopping of course to donate to tough-on-crime politicians’ campaign funds.

In short, a country with a good-albeit-not-perfect claim to the moral high ground is inviting international ridicule (not least by taking everything way too seriously), while a kleptocratic dictatorship like China or a flea-size authoritarian banana-producer like Ecuador come out looking halfway cool. It’s a funny old world.

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25 Responses to So long and enjoy the bananas

  1. Bela Blunder at NTSCMP says:

    I wonder if a man who had been burgling for six years, then gave himself up would get hero status and a free plane ride to Ecuador. Snowden ought to have been put on trial in Hong Kong. Mitigation doesn’t defeat the offence of being a CIA and ancillary services spook.

    It’s all been a hideous mistake anyway, according to the New York Times:

    “Mr. Rogers said Mr. Greenwald had mischaracterized a still-secret ruling by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court as proving that the N.S.A. was violating the law. In fact, he said, the court found that the N.S.A. had “overcollected” information for technical reasons and that the agency had moved to fix the problem.”

    Pesky things, computers!

  2. Old China Trash says:

    ….in the hope of detecting patterns that could help identify planned terrorist attacks….

    Or anything else, for that matter.

  3. maugrim says:

    I couldn’t agree more, well expressed. Funnily enough, I have to give credit to HK’s Civil Service, who employed the usual means known to all of the SAR’s citizens, a message of ‘cannot’ owing to some form not being present or the wrong colour pen being used etc. They come out of all of this looking like they are striking a blow for democracy (the irony) when all they are just doing what they normally do. China will breath a huge sigh of relief and someone will get a ‘well done’.

  4. DontCallUSwewillcallU says:

    Win-win for Beijing. They get to out the US as a spying nation and they get rid of this guy who they never really wanted around, and the pan-democrats & “Hong Kong” managed to alienate one of the few countries in the world that actually complains when Beijing tries to impose Article 23 or press restrictions or anything like that. CY is smiling while the short-term thinking dems are happy in their little smug blankets unaware that they are now even more alone now than they were last week.

  5. Local Tax Payer says:

    As you brilliantly say, in your unique, on the surface relativist but immediately-contrarianly-hedging-your-bets manner, America, although mostly in the right, has lost face to HK, which, as is dinned in our ears every day, belongs to/is a colony of China.

    Curiously enough, HK’s bureaucracy, with its “it’s difficult” reply to all requests, has defeated the poor Americans, who can’t understand why the rest of the world is so different.

    But why didn’t Snowden fly direct to Russia/Ecuador/etc? And isn’t a tiny country in the Americas the last place to hide from US justice?

  6. Incredulous says:

    @maugrim According to the copy of the said writ as presented by yesterdays SCMP it was written in white ink on black paper – definitely a no-no in my book!

  7. Worm Flu Patient Zero says:

    I agree the HK civil service has done us proud. Probably a comma in the wrong place in the US’ application – or maybe even the use of Merriam Webster spelling.

  8. Sojourner says:

    Hemlock, dripping with cynicism though you are, you have done yourself proud with this one.

    My conspiracy theory mate is convinced Snowdon is either a patsy or a triple agent working for the New World Order, and we are witnessing a classic example of “limited hangout”, defined by Wikipedia as:

    “A limited hangout, or partial hangout, … takes the form of deception, misdirection, or coverup often associated with intelligence agencies involving a release or “mea culpa” type of confession of only part of a set of previously hidden sensitive information, that establishes credibility for the one releasing the information who by the very act of confession appears to be “coming clean” and acting with integrity; but in actuality, by withholding key facts, is protecting a deeper operation and those who could be exposed if the whole truth came out. In effect, if an array of offenses or misdeeds is suspected, this confession admits to a lesser offense while covering up the greater ones.”

    According to this scenario, nefarious reactionary rogue elements of the US and British intelligence services, working for their masters in “Global Finance” and whatever, are using Snowden to embarrass and undermine Obama since, in their view, he is increasingly “off message”.

    Crazy, but kind of fun.

  9. Foxtrotosca says:

    Ooooh, I like that Sojourner.
    I once avoided rustication by ”a limited hangout”; admitting to a charge of smoking my first cigarette (and getting caught) rather than the 10 a day habit the majority of 5th formers had.

  10. PCC says:

    In a March 22, 1973 meeting between Richard Nixon, John Dean, John Ehrlichman, John Mitchell, and H.R. Haldeman, Ehrlichman created the phrase “modified limited hangout” to describe their disclosure strategy regarding the Watergate scandal.

    NIXON: You think, you think we want to, want to go this route now? And the–let it all hang out, so to speak?
    DEAN: Well, it’s, it isn’t really that–
    HALDEMAN: It’s a limited hang out.
    DEAN: It’s a limited hang out.
    EHRLICHMAN: It’s a modified limited hang out.
    NIXON: Well, it’s only a question of the thing hanging out publicly or privately.

    That’s some priceless stuff!

  11. Your Little Brown Friend says:

    Sayonara, Snowden Ed
    No need to hide, anymore, under the bed
    Or in the attic of Vines, Steve
    A fond Aloha to you, as you leave

  12. Gin Soaked Boy says:

    Run, Forrest, run.

  13. master racer says:

    One can take this double/triple agent nonsense too far. The simplest explanation, that the child Eddy is just youthfully trying to make the world a better place, is probably the right one.

    Once his adrenaline wears off and his intel is old news and no longer of value to anyone, and what passes for a government in whatever banana republic he ends up in gets paid off to become more US-friendly, he’ll soon end up rotting in the earth or in a cell.

    I don’t share Hemlock’s view that this is the US protecting itself from “terror”. Their behavior these days reminds one more of witch-hunting than anything rational. If the objective is to protect their citizens from harm, it would be far more effective to do something about the absurd availability of guns, or to mandate better non-slip bathtubs, or to make it illegal to weigh more than 300lbs.

    Instead they’re spending billions, and squandering decades of international goodwill, chasing a few boogymen who apparently believe in a slightly different flavour of invisible sky god than they pretend do.

    Meanwhile, back at home, Americans slaughter each other with excellent guns they can buy just about anywhere at a rate of about 8,500 murders a year. So since (and including) 9-11, that’s maybe 3,500 Americans killed by “terrorists”, while over 100,000 Americans have been murdered by armed fellow Americans, while their elected officials prevent any form of gun control but spend billions of dollars building the world’s most comprehensive police state.

    I think The Exploited summed it up best. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3bZzM4s0Hgs

  14. Real Tax Payer says:

    The SCMP has been on its high horse all this past weekend, milking its exclusive coverage of Snowdengate ( or should we call it Snowfall? ).

    The on-line edition of the SCMP was issuing updates by the hour all weekend, even in the wee hours of Sunday night when the SCMP normally goes into hibernation.

    The comments section appended to each new up-date report (this is a new innovation at the SCMP ; for those those of you who don’t read the SCMP on-line : it works like Hemmer’s Responses section) has been a-buzzing like a hive of bees. Comments and counter-comments flying thick and fast.

    But the funniest comment of all was one posted early this morning (not by me, I hasten to add, but I wish I could claim authorship to such an original sense of humor) :

    According this commentator, the reason why Snowden was able to book an Aeroflot flight without the NSA picking up on the fact and blocking the booking was that (quote) :

    ” Aeroflot’s booking system has not been hacked by the NSA yet. The reason for this was explained by an Aeroflot spokesperson, an attractive blonde named Katerina Getovmyplanevitz: ‘All of our systems are still analogue and entirely paper-based.’ ‘Just like our in-flight meals,’ she added. ”

    PS : I always wondered why it’s called Aeroflot rather than Aeroflit. Maybe it’s because Russian-made aircraft are designed to float for when their engines pack up over the ocean.

  15. J M Hatch says:

    released tons of stunningly uninteresting classified data passed on by US soldier Bradley Manning.

    Wow, you are rather blase about the targeted killing of a journalist.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5rXPrfnU3G0

    of course, other than bitch and moan about the obvious, you don’t really take any risks do you.

  16. Failed Alchemist says:

    @ LTP. The reason why Snowden chose a “tiny” country in the Americas is because he couldn’t afford HK’s rent. He viewed the sub-divided flats.

    But what takes the cake is Chip Tsao’s interview on Nightline. He wants Big Brother to neutralize the other Big Brother, so the deeds of NSA and maybe rendition is OK in the cause of “neutering” the other Big Brother and to avoid a 9/11 at Lan Kwai Fong.

    He continues to say that Obama will not pick up the phone & ask government agencies to spy on his enemies (hmmm… Nixon?) since they are a paragon of democracy. But only the IRS does a “hit” of tea party leaders. Best still, the latest news is that the NSA has “over collected” data by mistake in comparison to what is outlined from their legal request.

    But last of all, we sure hate travelling overseas only to be told by our government that your passport is null & void, even when Chip’s most democtratic country says you are innocent until proven guilty. We can see Chip rushing to get a green card while the drones fly overhead even in the US of A.

  17. Incredulous says:

    It seems now that he has “disappeared” and not on a flight to Cuba.

  18. pcatbar says:

    Master racer really does not understand Americans, not that they do not have their faults and hypocrisy. No, Hemlock is spot on in his assessment of this interesting little episode and the relative internet espionage policies of the modern era’s two ‘great powers’.
    If Snowden was not a PRC spy (as I originally suspected but no longer do) then he has certainly served up a bonus for the mother country in all sorts of ways.

  19. Sojourner says:

    “Staying cooped up in the cramped Hong Kong home of a local supporter was not bothersome to Mr. Snowden, but the prospect of losing his computer scared him.

    “He didn’t go out, he spent all his time inside a tiny space, but he said it was O.K. because he had his computer,” Mr. Ho said. “If you were to deprive him of his computer, that would be totally intolerable.” ” — New York Times

    He also gorged on Pepsi and pizza and declined a glass of fine wine.

    In our postmodern world the likes of Smiley and Bond have been supplanted by … the ubergeek.

  20. Local Tax Payer says:

    We are all conditioned to a certain extent by the selective leaking of information and comment, but it’s the things left unsaid, like the dog barking in the night, that are often the most important.

    Why did Snowden leave such a gap between the issuing of his arrest warrant and leaving? Either he’s even more bumbling and parochial than most secret agents, and completely at sea when faced with the intricacies of life outside the safe havens of WASP America, ie is making it up as he goes along; or he reached some sort of secret understanding with the HK authorities; or of course both.

    How much toing and froing between HK and China went on? We know remarkably little about instructions and consultations and advice from up there. In this case, China would have been perfectly entitled to intervene along the usual channels. America of course thinks Peking was behind it all, but they have invariably shown unusual ignorance and misunderstanding about China’s international behaviour, so that might be a reason for suspecting the opposite is true.

  21. Incredulous says:

    “He didn’t go out, he spent all his time inside a tiny space, but he said it was O.K. because he had his computer,” Mr. Ho said.

    So NSA knew where he was holed then.

  22. Local Tax Payer says:

    Incredulous, Unless he unplugged the internet cable and relied on the printed SCUMP for his news.

  23. Worm Flu Patient Zero says:

    I reckon he’ll probably just defect to Russia – and I for one wouldn’t blame him. This was probably not his original plan but what are his options? a) Thirty years in jail or b) the rank of colonel in the FSB/KGB, hot Russian wife/wives and roistering with Gerard Depardieu.

  24. Worm Flu Patient Zero says:

    What a windfall for Putin and president Assad of Syria. Wouldn’t be surprised if Snowden had been whisked off to Tartus.

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