Yesterday the students at the University of Glasgow voted for whistleblower Edward Snowden to become Rector. Snowden follows Charles Kennedy MP as representative of the student body on the University Court. Snowden, however, is currently exiled in Russia and therefore joins the ranks of previous ‘symbolic rectors’ Mordechai Vanunu and Winnie Mandela.
Snowden released a statement in which he said “the foundation al all learning is daring: the courage to investigate, to experiment, to inquire” and that the defence of privacy is “the challenge of our generation”.
The decision to leave students without a working rector is controversial. By selecting an exiled campaigner for democratic accountability, students have paradoxically ceded their own means of democratic accountability. This is likely to be detrimental to the day-to-day workings of both student representation and university forums. However, it also stands as a historic event in Glasgow and Scotland’s political heritage and highlights an important issue.
The Snowden leaks
Snowden’s release of documents concerning state survaillance to journalists has caused political and diplomatic outcry across the world. National Security Agency (NSA, U.S.A.) and Government Communication Head Quarters (GCHQ, UK) programs have so far been shown to be involved in mass surveillance operations, recording information on the phone calls, emails and internet records of millions of citizens both domestically and internationally. U.S. surveillance extended to monitoring the phone calls of 35 world leaders including Angela Merkel of Germany and Enrique Pena Nieto of Mexico. The Snowden releases also demonstrated that NSA officials had lied to the U.S. Congress.
Snowden claimed that he had the power to read the emails of anyone in the world with permission from NSA officials.
A lack of media scrutiny
The importance of the revelations has rarely received sensible media scrutiny. In the U.S. a debate of civil liberties has often been drowned out by personal attacks on the source of the material. Figures in the security services and the media have called for the assassination of Snowden or at least for him to face a lifetime in prison like fellow whistleblower Chelsea Manning. Similarly, the journalists who covered the story have also faced legal threats from Congressman Pete King. Daniel Ellsberg, who released the Pentagon Papers, said Snowden watched 4 other NSA employees previously report issues with NSA surveillance, only to be raided by the FBI and subsequently ignored.
The UK media with the exception of the Guardian has been largely silent. This is surprising given the centrality of the UK’s GCHQ to the spying story. Last August UK Government officials entered the offices of the Guardian and destroyed computer equipment they believed to contain material for reporting the story. David Miranda, the partner of Guardian journalist Glen Greenwald, was detained for 9 hours at Heathrow Airport under anti-terrorism legislation and faced interrogation on his partners reporting.
A fair assessment of the debate – how to balance security and secrets with freedom of conscience and privacy – was best explored in this intelligence squared debate. Prior to the debate an even number of people supported and opposed Snowden. After considering the evidence and arguments, a majority supported Snowden by 59% to 35%.
This information is the tip of the iceberg of what has been one of the most significant political and media stories of the past decade. Glen Greenwald, who has led much of the rip-roaring reporting into Snowden, says that reporting is only 50% completed. Alan Rusbridger, Editor of the Guardian, has given a strong accounts of the professionalism and morality of their reporting, which has involved both governments and the security services themselves.
Scotland and Snowden
Scotland’s symbolic solidarity within this story is an unappreciated gesture by many I know at Glasgow University. They see it as short-term gesture politics which has denied students a constructive voice within the institutions of management. They may well be right. Why is Snowden’s quest for political validation more significant than Alan Bissett’s rectorial platform for action on gender equality, support for refugees and working with Glasgow international community?
Each individual will come to their own conclusion. The Snowden story attracts attention as it sits comfortably among the glare of celebrity which dominates much of public life . Yet what does this symbolism achieve? Does the student vote successfully generate a discussion on surveillance? Are we anymore aware of the activities of GCHQ or the next steps forward? I’m skeptical.
However, there is room for those who dare to be different. The students who stood by whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, when President Nixon called him a “criminally traitorous”, were the radicals of their time. They appeared idealistic and driven by dissent in comparison to establishment condemnation. Yet history judged Ellsberg a hero, as I’m sure Snowden will be considered in time.
This does not quite vindicate the decision of students to choose symbolism and solidarity over an effective representative. Students will have to make the best of bad circumstance for 3 years. Will Snowden be free to contribute to the life of the university beyond a few days of headlines and a recorded speech by Noam Chomsky?
Grant Snowden asylum
What are the practical options? Perhaps he’ll chair meetings via Skype. Or better yet, an independent Scotland could show moral leadership and grant Snowden asylum. He now has a job here and should be granted the right to work. I’ve contacted Patrick Harvie, Jean Urquhart, Alison Johnston and John Finnie MSP to make this suggestion.
If the election of Snowden achieves anything tangible, let it lead to actions that challenge the current shortfalls in both government and democracy. That spirit is a platform from which to chart Scotland’s new place in the world.
— Michael Gray (@GrayInGlasgow) February 19, 2014
Further reading: The History of GCHQ