07/17/2013 01:32 pm ET Updated Sep 15, 2013

Scapegoat Snowden: Outrage Over US Surveillance Predates Recent Leaks

Amid the recent NSA surveillance scandal US officials have loudly condemned whistleblower Edward Snowden, accusing him of "threatening" America and putting vital programs "at risk" by the unspeakable crime of making the American public aware of what they're doing.

As with the surveillance schemes themselves, the effort to demonize Snowden is guilty of dramatic overreach, with the Associated Press accusing Snowden of jeopardizing the ECHELON program, part of an international surveillance operation stemming from the 1946 UKUSA agreement.

ECHELON got its start in the 1960s as a Cold War operation, intercepting communications from the Communist bloc. The technological limitations of the early 1960s and the geopolitical reality of the Cold War kept the program much better defined than it is these days.

With the end of the Cold War, the program's targets expanded to virtually the whole planet. The UKUSA agreement has five partner nations, the US, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Everyone else could theoretically be a target, and before long literally everyone else was.

Far from a national security-centric program anymore, by the 1990s ECHELON was a catchall for surveillance, with the US using it for industrial espionage, poaching technology from EU member nations and in 1994 even sabotaging a deal by French company Airbus with Saudi Arabia.

We know all of this not because Edward Snowden told us, but because investigations into the program have been going on for over a decade around the world. The largest investigations were from the European Union, and began long before anyone ever heard of Snowden.

What Snowden did do was bring renewed media attention to a backlash against America's heavy-handed surveillance state that has been going on for the better part of a generation.

The EU backlash against ECHELON and the UKUSA agreement's overreach is a major problem for its participants, but especially EU member nation Great Britain, as the scheme amounts to them directly subverting the privacy interests of every single other member of the union.

In that context the backlash is certainly warranted, and EU reports have been admonishing members to conduct important business using encrypted communication, since the ECHELON scheme means nothing is secure otherwise. Beyond that, pressure to rein in the interception program has of course continued.

But none of that is the Edward Snowden's fault. This backlash has been coming for a long time, and is the signature case against the global surveillance enterprise. ECHELON has been abused, repeatedly, and its victims have been making noise about it since it was uncovered.

If anything the untrustworthiness of the NSA during this whole ECHELON debacle show why whistleblowers like Snowden are so vital. Large surveillance programs are already being abused, and will continue to be abused, and we vitally need advanced warning about them.

Jason Ditz is news editor at, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the cause of non-interventionism. His work has appeared in Forbes, Toronto Star, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Providence Journal, Washington Times and Detroit Free Press.