Here’s a good example of foreign Snowdenism, in all its infuriating messiness. The slippery ex-President of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, who was being investigated for possibly having taken money for his 2007 campaign from Moammar Gaddafi, is now wrapping himself in civil libertarian rectitude, thanks to a tip-in from changed public attitudes in the wake of the Snowden/NSA brouhaha.
It’s not as if Sarko doesn’t actually have a few points to make on his own behalf – just as it’s not as if Snowden doesn’t have a few here and there himself. It’s just that the ballooning and fatuous claims about imperial overrreach are, there as here, a bit too much to take.
This paragraph from the New Yorker article gives you a good impression of what’s really at stake: “The daily Le Monde published the news that French judges had begun wiretapping Sarkozy in the course of an investigation into whether, before winning the Presidency in 2007, he had received illegal campaign funding from the former Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi. Investigators had bugged Sarkozy and his criminal-defense lawyer, Thierry Herzog, for more than a year. Aware that their phones were being tapped, Sarkozy and Herzog purchased a special secret phone, using the name Paul Bismuth.”
In that short paragraph you can see that the judges broke the rules, and so did Sarkozy.
In France, it is not a standard procedure to wiretap communications between an individual and that individual’s lawyer. This is something only done if there is probable cause of being under suspicion for being a terrorist or an organised crime figure. Granted, if the Gaddafi-Sarkozy connection could have been proven, that’s what Sarko would properly have been considered. But there appears to be no evidence of that.
On the other hand, the secret phone purchase under an assumed name seems to indicate France’s president was willing to obstruct a legally-ordered investigation. Imagine if either François Hollande or Barack Obama communicated on a “secret” phone and this fact were revealed to the press, especially in the context of a legally-ordered investigation. They’d be turfed in minutes, not hours.
Why can Teflon-Sarko get away with it, then? Why, civil liberties, of course! An intrusive government had no right to tap his phone, so he had every right in evading the government’s gaze by pretending to be this “Paul Bismuth”.
And here comes the hyperbolic justification, complete with a comparison to East Germany: “I have been under surveillance since September of 2013 for supposed acts of corruption dating from 2007! Not because they have any evidence but because they hope to find some. Today anyone who speaks with me knows they are going to be wiretapped.…This is not a scene from that marvellous film ‘The Lives of Others,’ about East Germany and the activities of the Stasi. It is not the case of some dictator acting against his political opponents. This is France.”
That’s obviously a bit over the top, even if there are legitimate complaints one can make about the behaviour of France’s institutions in all of this. I’ve said this dozens of times, and I’ll repeat it here – the Stasi had 1% of the East German population spying on the other 99%. It is not to be mentioned in the same breath as a civil liberties dispute in an obviously democratic nation – to do so is to diminish the Stasi’s crimes. People should think that any comparison to the Stasi that doesn’t demonstrate crimes of similar magnitude is radioactive politically. Sarkozy makes it clear he is willing to cheapen the suffering of East Germans to take the heat off himself. He is able to do that, in part, because defenders of Edward Snowden – up to and including even Daniel Ellsberg – have made such cheap Stasi comparisons commonplace.
There are legitimate complaints about how this case against Sarkozy was handled, and I am willing to follow those complaints to a certain extent – as long as we are not imagining that Sarkozy has behaved properly by getting himself a “secret” phone, and as long as we are not now imagining François Hollande to be up there with Stalin or Hitler in his creation of a “surveillance state”.
That’s not far from where I am with the whole business in the US. There are many places where I actually do buy into the complaints of the Snowdenites. I can list of plenty of those complaints with which I have agreed from the outset. No one should have been spying on Angela Merkel, or any allied leader. No spying for economic, rather than national security motivations, is justified, particularly if one claims to support a “free market”. Thirty years jail time for Bradley Manning is cruel and unusual punishment, and any similarly draconian punishment for Snowden would be unjustified. Grounding Evo Morales’s plane because Snowden might have been on board was hamhanded and disrespectful to Bolivia’s president. People who use the intelligence machinery to spy on people they know for personal reasons should be fired. And so on.
But I am willing to follow those complaints only if it doesn’t take the heat off of the slick, self-interested behaviours of American politicians only too willing to wrap themselves in the civil-liberties-battle-flag – Rand Paul being the most obvious example – and only if it doesn’t casually fling Barack Obama up there with Stalin and Hitler as a totalitarian eminence grise.
The greater the hyperbolic claims about critical failures in democracy and civil liberties – beyond the facts of individual cases and imputing complete dysfunctionality of liberal democratic government – the more it principally helps preening reactionaries, rather than the mass of citizens. The current situation with Nicolas Sarkozy demonstrates this more than adequately.