How Many Lives Has Edward Snowden Saved?

Can we be certain that no CIA agents have been killed because Edward Snowden leaked secrets to Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras?

That was the question Glenn Greenwald was asked on Bill Maher’s show recently.  “If they were in the CIA we wouldn’t know their names, there would just be a star on the wall” argued Maher, who also cautioned Greenwald that the USA has enemies who do horrible things like “play soccer with people’s heads”.  Does Maher not know that the CIA has close allies who do that? Has Maher ever tried to estimate how many murders, rapes and acts of torture have been facilitated by the CIA? If he did, for the Western Hemisphere alone, he’d be much more inclined to ask “How many people has Snowden saved by constraining, to an even tiny extent, the US government’s ability to orchestrate military coups and help murderers?” Maher might also ask “Thanks to Snowden, how many CIA officers and other US officials are just a wee bit closer to being jailed for their crimes?”

Most of the world recognizes the threat posed by the US government and its intelligence services are obviously a key part of that threat.  Last year, in a Win/Gallup International poll conducted in sixty five countries, respondents named the USA as “the greatest threat to world peace” by over a two to one margin over the next closest country. Global public opinion is on very solid ground on this question.

In Guatemala, a CIA backed military murdered about 200,000 people between from 1962 to 1996 according to the UN backed Commission for Historical Clarification. The commission explained that the military’s objective was not simply to kill any perceived enemies but to instill terror in the general population. During the recent genocide trial of Rios Montt in Guatemala, one survivor, Velasco Raymundo, testified about what he had been made to witness as a child: “Those officers played with the old woman’s head like it was a [foot]ball.”

Independent journalist Allan Nairn reminds us:

US bombs were dropped from US-supplied aircraft on fleeing Mayan villagers.  US personnel were present in Guatemala, training and giving advice to the Rios Montt army.  US personnel were inside the G-2, the notorious military intelligence and targeting unit.  The CIA carried many top Guatemalan army commanders on its payroll.

And Rios Montt, as he was committing the crimes, got political support from President Reagan, personally.

Imagine the intelligence services of a foreign country collaborating with atrocities of that nature and magnitude on US soil.  Would the safety of anyone who works for such outfits be of any concern to Maher? If Guatemala provided the only example of CIA (and US government) impunity for collaborating with heinous crimes on a massive scale, it would be enough expose the obscenity of Maher’s remarks to Greenwald. Of course it isn’t the only example, not even close.

In El Salvador, a survivor recalled what the US financed military did to people in his hometown: “…their heads were placed on a tree trunk and they were beheaded. That was their way to instill fear in the people.”

Roughly 75,000 Salvadorians were murdered between 1980 to 1992 by the US funded and trained Salvadorian military. As in Guatemala, high ranking officials in El Salvador are now finding their impunity under serious legal threat. Unfortunately, their US benefactors, like Elliot Abrams and many others, are still at large have yet to face appropriate legal consequences.  The CIA provided training, funding and advice to Salvadorian death squad leaders for decades.

In Nicaragua, the Contras murdered 30,000 people in addition to perpetrating other crimes such as rape and torture. Noam Chomsky noted that “contra lobbyists candidly describe in internal documents” that the Contras were “’proxy force,’ organized, trained, supplied and controlled by the CIA.”

In Colombia, US officials privately acknowledged that 257,089 have been murdered by right wing paramilitaries. This is known because of the work done by Wikileaks. There has, for decades, been absolutely no question that the Colombian military works closely with the paramilitaries. Even the US establishment friendly Human Rights Watch has reported as much. That hasn’t prevented Republican and Democrat administrations from throwing billions of dollars at the Colombian military and police. Some Indigenous groups have been brought to the brink of extinction (i.e genocide) and -Bill Maher take note – terrorized by paramilitaries who do things like play soccer with severed heads of their victims. Both the CIA and NSA have been directly assisting the Colombia military. In one of the Colombian military’s more recent scandals, thousands of civilians were murdered then passed off as leftist rebels in order to inflate combat performance numbers.

Emmanuel Constant, a Haitian death squad leader who had been on the CIA payroll, was shielded from deportation from the USA to Haiti by both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush despite the fact that the group Constant led was guilty of thousands of murders and gang rapes during the early 1990s.  Constant was finally jailed in the USA in 2006 for mortgage fraud and also lost a civil suit brought against him in US courts by two of his Haitian rape victims. One can see why Constant felt confident enough to commit petty crimes in the USA given how the US government collaborated with his grave crimes in Haiti and then gave him a safe haven for years. Thanks to a US perpetrated coup in 2004, Haiti was made safe for the triumphant return of Constant’s former number two, Jodel Chamblain and eventually the former dictator Jean Claude Duvalier. Gerard Latortue, the US installed dictator who ruled Haiti from 2004-2006 and presided over at least 4000 political murders, now works, by his own account, as an “international advisor on democracy and development” and has been given work by the United Nations Development Program.

This is a very incomplete review of recent history.  I haven’t mentioned Chile (just one omission of many), where a court just ruled that US spies helped Pinochet’s dictatorship murder two US citizens in Santiago. That could help eventually bring US officials, in particular the heads of its intelligence services, to justice for their deep complicity with thousands of murders and acts of torture in Chile.

US intelligence services are blood-soaked and extremely dangerous organizations. They operate with impunity party because, as Greenwald says, they “operate in the dark.” Snowden’s leaks will help remove one obstacle to the successful prosecution of US officials however unlikely that seems at the moment. Then again, the trial of Rios Montt once seemed unthinkable. If the hitman can be tried then it’s possible the Godfather will be held to account one day.

Snowden’s leaks – especially the ones having to do with spying in Brazil – will raise the political costs of Latin American governments collaborating with US intelligence services and other agencies – including those like the DEA that are ostensibly focused on non-political activity. To anyone familiar with the historical record of the USA in Latin America that is great news. It’s true that Ed Snowden has focused primarily on preventing abuses in the USA, but that has huge implications for the rest of the world. Anything that reduces the power of the USA to use surveillance as a weapon against political activism at home helps the victims of US foreign policy abroad. Those victims easily number in the hundreds of thousands in the Western Hemisphere alone. The emphasis some journalists place on very dubious claims that US spies are at risk of assassination because of Ed Snowden reveals very warped priorities and boundless ignorance.

I’m glad that Snowden and his media collaborators have been quite careful not to expose US spies to the risk of assassination or disrupt any legitimate police work.  I’m much happier that millions of innocent people threatened by US foreign policy are perhaps a tiny bit safer and closer to one day putting high level US officials behind bars. Even a very small contribution towards that goal will save countless lives.

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