Opinion | Columnists

Snooping is as much about power as it is about privacy

Western espionage agencies are instruments of control in the hands of the administration and their record is disastrous. They have to be held accountable

  • By Seumas Milne
  • Published: 20:00 June 14, 2013
  • Gulf News

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Nothing to worry the “law-abiding”, American and British politicians have assured us, in the wake of the revelations of mushrooming mass US surveillance of phone, email and internet traffic. The electronic harvesting is in fact “very narrowly circumscribed”, Barack Obama insisted. The behaviour of Britain’s intelligence services was, David Cameron declared, entirely “proper and fitting”.

In fact, courtesy of the whistle blower Edward Snowden, we now know the US National Security Agency is collecting 200 billion pieces of intelligence a month, hoovering up the mobile records of more than 200 million Americans and helping itself to a vast quantity of emails, web searches and live chats from the world’s largest internet companies via a program called Prism.

Naturally, the NSA has been sharing some of its spying catches about UK citizens with its friends at GCHQ, sparing the British authorities the tiresome need to arrange a warrant. But it was still authorised, the foreign secretary told parliament, apparently by himself. So nothing to fear there either.

Such rampant blanket surveillance of course makes a mockery of the right to privacy guaranteed by the US constitution’s fourth amendment and that has been the focus of debate since the Guardian began publishing the leaks. However law-abiding a citizen, the dangers of manipulated phone or web “metadata” wrongly branding someone are legion and well-documented. And while interception of letters is an ancient intelligence practice, Prism is the equivalent of all letters being opened, copied and stored in case they might be incriminating at a later date.

But this is as much about power as it is about privacy. Surveillance and intelligence are tools of control, at home and abroad. The history of their abuse by the US and British governments is voluminous, both in subverting and overthrowing foreign governments, from Iran to Chile, or in attacking civil rights at home, during the cold war and since 9/11.

The NSA and GCHQ, whose collaboration is at the heart of the US and British “special relationship”, have been central to that for decades. Their global eavesdropping role is the cornerstone oft he “five eyes” alliance of anglophone states (including Australia, Canada and New Zealand) which underpins US-dominated western global power. Both agencies were founded to spy on the rest of the world, but ended up also targeting their own people.

Two elements are new. The first is the sheer scale and scope of the NSA’s trawling, which dwarfs what was possible in the past. The second is the central role of private corporations in the emerging global surveillance state.

Corporations have long been hand in glove with the secret state, working with the security services to this day to blacklist trade unionists and funding covert labour movement organisations during the cold war. What’s changed is that communication is in the hands of the corporations. And the companies whose servers are vacuumed up by Prism are a roll call of US internet giants,from Google to YouTube.

The leaked NSA documents say the companies collaborate, which they deny. But any idea that these tax-dodging behemoths represent a new form of libertarian democratic cool has now been comprehensively exposed as yesterday’s marketing guff.

But as well as technology, it’s the war on terror that has driven the hyper-expansion of the new security-industrial complex. Along with the meaningless catch-all justification of “national security”, terrorism is invoked to justify all manner of anti-democratic innovations. And since nobody wants to be blown up on buses or trains, it gives a veneer of credibility to formerly discredited spying organisations.

In reality, both the NSA and GCHQ, along with their sister spying outfits, are fuelling as much as fighting terrorism. It is they who provide the intelligence for drone attacks that have killed thousands of civilians in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia. A Pakistani man is currently taking a case to the court of appeal against GCHQ for allegedly providing the “intelligence” for a CIA drone strike that killed his father.

And it’s the same US and British intelligence services that have been involved in widespread torture, kidnapping and other crimes in the past decade as well as scandalous intelligence manipulation over Iraqi weapons of mass destruction who now claim to be protecting us from some of the consequences.

At home, GCHQ and the NSA were mobilised to conduct spying and dirty tricks operations against the 1980s British miners’ strike, while in the 1970s the US Senate Church committee exposed systematic abuse of US eavesdropping powers against civil rights and anti-war activists (along with assassination abroad). Senator Frank Church himself warned then that the NSA’s capability “at any time could be turned around on the American people”.

That is what has now happened, first in the early years of the Bush administration and now under Obama. And judging by experience, serious abuses would multiply if either state were again faced with significant political or industrial challenge.

Claims that the intelligence agencies are now subject to genuine accountability, rather than ministerial rubber stamps, secret courts and committees of trusties, have been repeatedly shown to be nonsense. But the political elites have their own priorities. Instead of drawing back from mass surveillance, British ministers are chafing to introduce new legislation to extend it.

The US and allied intelligence services are instruments of both domestic and global power and dominance, far beyond issues of terrorism. Revealingly, the state shown by the leaks to be the NSA’s biggest intelligence target in Europe is the economic powerhouse of Germany to a flurry of cautious protests from German politicians.

Democratic institutions have spectacularly failed to hold US and other western states’ intelligence and military operations to account. So it’s been left to a string of whistle blowers from Cathy Massiter and Katharine Gun to Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden to fill the gap. It’s now up to the rest of us to make sure their courage isn’t wasted.

— Guardian News & Media Ltd

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