US and allied spying and control vs freedom

Big Brother is Watching You

By Graham Peebles

As millions take to the streets demanding political participation, social justice and freedom, opponents of change – governments and reactionary forces worldwide – centralize power, tighten control of civil society and the media, and trample on democratic ideals.

Respect and trust for political leaders and governments throughout the world is at an all-time low. In Britain, MORI tells us that only 18 per cent trust politicians to tell the truth”, and only “one in 12 believe MPs put the interests of their constituents first”. A survey by Transparency International found that “on a worldwide basis, political parties are considered to be the most corrupt institutions”, followed closely by the police. Political leaders, politicians and members of the civil service, “those responsible, for running countries and upholding the rule of law… are seen as the most corrupt” and “judged to be abusing their positions of power and acting in their own interests rather than for the citizens they are there to represent and serve”.

Edward Snowden and the NSA

Perceptions of government dishonesty and deceit have been compounded by the recent revelations from Edward Snowden, which exposed extensive government spying, by the United States’ National Security Agency (NSA).

Snowden, a former technical assistant for the Central Intelligence Agency, was contracted for the last four years to work for the NSA – “the biggest and most secretive surveillance organization in America”, the Guardian reports. During this time he discovered the extensive nature of secret surveillance operations being carried out by the NSA which, he says, is “intent on making every conversation and every form of behaviour in the world known to them”. It is Snowden’s firm belief that the people have the right to know of such paranoid, criminal intentions. “[M]y sole motive,” he has said, “is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them.”

The revelations of unconstitutional spying, on hundreds of millions of American citizens by the NSA, which appears to operate as a state within a state, shows, the journalist Glenn Greenwald says, how “the rule of law in America has been radically degraded”. The NSA’s operations reveal how dangerously close the country is to the authoritarian and controlling regime foretold by Senator Frank Church, who in 1975 said: “I know the capacity that is there to make tyranny total in America, and we must see to it that this agency [the NSA] and all agencies that possess this technology operate within the law and under proper supervision.” Far from there being “proper supervision” in place, Snowden told the Guardian that “the [US] government has granted itself power it is not entitled to. There is no public oversight. The result is people like myself have the latitude to go further than they are allowed to.”

Snowden’s act of conscience provides the opportunity to step back from a democratic precipice and, as former US military analyst and whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg says, “roll back a key part of what has amounted to an ‘executive coup’ against the US constitution”. Since the tragic events of 9/11, governments worldwide have appropriated greater and greater levels of control and, in the name of national security, centralized power. In the US, “a revocation of the bill of rights for which this country fought over 200 years ago” has taken place. In particular, the fourth and fifth amendments of the American constitution, which safeguard people’s privacy from government intrusion, “have been virtually suspended”.

Snowden’s courageous actions expose the shocking extent of US government spying on, and theft of personal data from, its own citizens and those of its allies. Ellsberg expresses the widespread view that “there has not been in American history a more important leak than Edward Snowden’s release of NSA material – and that definitely includes the Pentagon Papers 40 years ago”. While Snowden may well have technically committed a criminal act, justice and the law are often unrelated terms. As Martin Luther King says in “Letter from a Birmingham jail”, “an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law”.

Us versus them

The government has charged Snowden with “theft of government property, unauthorized communication of national defence information and wilful communication of classified communications intelligence information to an unauthorized person”. He is the most recent, and perhaps the most significant, of a troop of whistleblowers to be criminalized by the Obama administration, which has indicted more people under the 1917 Espionage Act than all previous presidents combined. This is quite a record for a president who, in his 2007 pre-election propaganda, attacked the Bush administration on the grounds that it acts as if “violating our civil liberties is the way to enhance our security”. Obama went on to say there would be no spying on American citizens who are not suspected of a crime.

By stating that Snowden has “actively aided America’s enemies” – a charge for which there is no evidence at all – the Obama administration, US legislators and the US media are content to paint him as a traitor. The mainstream media seem unconcerned by the NSA’s gross infringement of the human rights of millions of innocent civilians, or the wider threat to media freedom that this matter has shown. Acting on behalf of the government, the media are attempting to restrict the issues of privacy, national security and violations of civil liberties raised by Snowden’s revelations to a nationalistic discourse, of “Us versus them” – undemocratic disbelievers who are cast as un-American and branded as terrorists. Snowden, unsurprisingly, is being cast as one of “them”. “I know the media likes [sic] to personalize political debates, and I know the government will demonize me,” Snowden told the Guardian, adding: “I am not afraid”.

Global intrusions

The NSA does not confine its illegal operations to the shores of America, nor is it alone in assuming illegitimate, unconstitutional levels of power that violate people’s human rights and invade their privacy. As Greenwald says, the US “imposes standards [of legal conduct] on everybody else but exempts itself”.

In addition to national surveillance by the NSA, the Guardian revealed that  Britain’s equivalent of the NSA, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), had spied on foreign delegates to the G20 summit in London in 2009.

Soon after these revelations La Monde disclosed that France’s Directorate General for External Security (DGSE) had mass surveillance systems in place that are “illegal and outside any serious control”.

Meanwhile,Brazil’s O Globo newspaper reported that “in the last decade, people residing or in transit in Brazil, as well as companies operating in the country, have become targets of the NSA”, to the extent that “last January [2012] Brazil was just behind the United States, which had 2.3 billion phone calls and messages spied”.

Der Spiegel in Germany reported that documents provided by Snowden show that the NSA had not only been listening to millions of Americans but had also spied on diplomats from the European Union in Brussels, Washington DC and at the United Nations in New York.

Unjust imprisonment

Since 20 May, when he left his office in Hawaii for the Chinese territory of Hong Kong, Snowden has been in the international transit lounge at Moscow airport and has applied for temporary asylum in Russia. He is entitled to request political asylum from any country in the world (despite having his passport revoked by the US State Department), and WikiLeaks reports he has in fact requested asylum in 21 countries, one of which was Brazil, which (surprisingly, given the level of NSA intrusion) refused his application. Asked if he would trade access to his documents for asylum, he said he would not.

As with whistleblowers Bradley Manning and Daniel Ellsberg, Snowden is a man of conscience who sees clearly that national loyalty means allegiance to the people and not necessarily the government. Having “watched the Obama administration prosecute whistleblowers at a historically unprecedented rate, Snowden is aware that the government will use all its weight to punish him, as it has done with Manning and other courageous public servants.

Arrested in Baghdad in May 2010 and imprisoned ever since, Manning is currently facing a court martial. According to Amnesty International, the most serious of a range of charges against him, that of “aiding the enemy”, has “no basis [and] the government should withdraw that charge”. However, the government-appointed military judge, (who doubles as jury), Colonel Denise Lind, has refused to throw it out. The charge made against Manning, who has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize (to date with 65,000 nominations), is one of the most severe available to the military, and is a sign of the Obama administration’s continuing war on whistleblowers which, as the Guardian says, ”could have far-reaching consequences for investigative journalism.”

The suppression of information is a major attack on those whose conscience compels them to speak out as well as on freedom of the press. Chris Hedges, speaking on Democracy Now, states that without men like Snowden and Manning, “there will be no free press”.

Newspapers have been attacked by American politicians as guilty accomplices for publishing Snowden’s material. For example, Republican congressman Peter King told CNN “action should be taken… against reporters”. He is clearly unfamiliar with the First Amendment of the US Constitution, which protects the freedom of the press.

According to Amnesty International, Snowden, like Manning before him, is “being charged by the US government primarily for revealing its – and other governments’ – unlawful actions that violate human rights. He has disclosed issues of enormous public interest in the US and around the world.”

The villains of the piece are the politicians and the men inside the NSAs of the world, who spend their shadowy days sifting through the communications of millions of innocent men and women without their consent and, until Snowden’s revelations, without their knowledge.

Political leaders are sanctioning dangerous and unconstitutional activity by the intelligence agencies, which, instead of protecting the people, have themselves become a cause of national and international insecurity by creating an atmosphere of mistrust and fear. The wholesale “invasion of privacy” by the NSA and others “does not contribute to our security”, states Ellsberg, but “puts in danger the very liberties we’re trying to protect”.

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