Can a slap from Pulitzer tame 'Big Brother'?

opinion April 19, 2014 00:00

By The Nation

Coverage of Edward Snowden's revelations has earned two newspapers the highest accolade in journalism, but don't expect US spooks to take notice

The US authorities have once again been chided over human rights and privacy. Once again, it won’t matter much. The Pulitzer prizes awarded to the Washington Post and Britain’s Guardian newspaper this week stand as a rebuke Washington’s global surveillance activities carried out in the name of “national security”. But anyone who thinks that those responsible for the controversial spying will be chastened is badly mistaken.
The message delivered by the Pulitzer panel is a mere blip as far as no-holds-barred US intelligence is concerned. Virtually immune to international criticism since 9/11, American intelligence-gathering has been going on inside an “anti-terrorism” fortress that not even Edward Snowden can breach. The coverage of Snowden’s revelations by the Post and the Guardian has dramatically raised international awareness of Washington’s mass-surveillance operations, but “Big Brother” will carry on regardless – if more prudently.
So there is good news and bad for both supporters and critics of America. While the Pulitzers surely discomfort Washington, they are a mere slap on the wrist for “the world’s policeman”, who, though widely disliked, is often needed. With concern for rights and privacy once more on the front pages, Snowden earns further vindication after being branded a traitor. At the same time, US authorities must be happy seeing some of the public’s outrage safely vented. 
Time can heal. Nothing sticks in politics or international diplomacy. Washington is counting on this platitude. Predictions of dire consequences for the US government filled the air after it was caught spying on foreign allies and its own people. But the critics should look around now. Did anything change after the hue and cry?
The initial uproar has died down and many prominent voices around the world have declared support for Washington’s mass surveillance. The debate might go on forever – and the policy too. On-the-run Snowden will remain a thorn in the side of US conservatives, but they might also be somewhat thankful for his presence. The reaction would surely have been tempered if we had only found out that foreign leaders were the victims, and not American citizens.
Snowden’s disclosures put everyone in the same boat – ordinary Americans, overseas allies and “terrorists” of all descriptions. The revelations make it somewhat easier for the world to suffer such intrusions and for the intruders to defend themselves. America can say, “Not even our own people are spared.” And, to its own outraged citizens: “It’s not just you, don’t you see?”
Snowden has hailed the Pulitzer decision as a “vindication for everyone who believes that the public has a role in government”. He praised the Post and Guardian journalists who “kept working in the face of extraordinary intimidation, including the forced destruction of journalistic materials, the inappropriate use of terrorism laws and so many other means of pressure to get them to stop what the world now recognises was work of vital public importance”.
It might be just that – “vindication”. Nothing more, nothing less. If nothing else, the Pulitzer nod serves to affirm the significance of Snowden’s whistleblowing (or act of treason in conservative circles). Life will go on, and so will the gathering of intelligence at the highest level under the name of national security.