Big Brother is listening

June 12, 2013

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CYBER-hacking was among the more contentious items on the agenda of last week’s “informal” summit between presidents Barack Obama and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping.

The informality was emphasised by the leaders of the two most powerful countries in the world, setting a sensible example by not bothering with the absurd, noose-like sartorial appendage known as a necktie. That gesture was plain to see, unlike the words that passed between them. It has been reported that on most issues they agreed, but on cyber-hacking they agreed to disagree.

That may well be because it was alleged Chinese cyber activities, including the violation of intellectual property rights, that were on the agenda, not variants of hacking authorised by the US government. It was revealed late last week, for instance, that back in October last year the US president issued a secret directive on “offensive cyber effects operations” that “can offer unique and unconventional capabilities to advance US national objectives around the world”.

That particular revelation may have come too late to affect the summit, but Obama may anyhow have been somewhat beleaguered by emerging reports on the overreach of the National Security Agency (NSA), which has for years assiduously been mining the phone and electronic communication records of US citizens as well as foreigners.

The NSA was set up during the inception of the security state under Harry Truman in 1952 — the heyday of paranoia over Communist subversion and the McCarthyism that accompanied it — and even its existence was a state secret for more than two decades (which explains its nickname, No Such Agency). It was initially intended to monitor foreign communications only, but in the mid-1970s it emerged that the agency was also keeping tabs on selected US citizens, notably those active in the movement against the war in Vietnam.

The scope of the selection has grown exponentially since Sept 11, 2001, explicitly in the wake of that year’s Patriot Act. The upshot of last week’s leaks, first reported in The Guardian newspaper, is that as far as telephone conversations, emails, SMS messages and social media communications are concerned, there is effectively no scope for privacy.

Chances are the Obama-Xi summit would have been attended by even more confusion had it become clear before or during the talks that the whistleblower in this context was holed up in Hong Kong, an autonomous Chinese territory that cannot completely stave off pressure from Beijing.

Edward Snowden, who revealed his identity last weekend and seems fully cognisant of the possible consequences, has been quoted as saying: “The NSA has built an infrastructure that allows it to intercept almost everything. With this capability, the vast majority of human communications are automatically ingested without targeting … I don’t want to live in a society that does these sorts of things.”

Daniel Ellsberg, who 40 years ago brought to light secret documents, dubbed the Pentagon Papers, that made clear the extent to which US officials were aware of the disaster in Vietnam, has designated what Snowden has revealed as the most important leak in US history, expressing the hope that it will make it possible “to roll back a key part of what has amounted to an executive coup against the US constitution”.

Is his optimism well-founded? Ellsberg also says that while the US is not a police state, “we do have the full electronic and legislative infrastructure of such a state”. What are the chances it will be rolled back? Obama has decried the leaks while welcoming the opportunity they offer for a debate on surveillance. But these are weasel words.

As a presidential candidate in 2008, he suggested he supported whistleblowing: “Acts of courage and patriotism, which can sometimes save lives and often save taxpayer dollars, should be encouraged rather than stifled, as they have been during the Bush administration.” Yet his government has gone far beyond Bush by seeking criminal proceedings under the Espionage Act against more whistleblowers than all previous administrations combined, which is quite an achievement.

What action may be taken against Snowden was unclear at the time of writing, but the trial of Bradley Manning, which got under way last week three years after the young soldier was taken into custody (and scandalously mistreated while in detention), does not bode well. Manning has pleaded guilty to revealing secrets — which helped to lay bare some of the worst aspects of the aggression against Iraq as well as Afghanistan — but one of the key charges against him is that of aiding the enemy. In terms of intent as well as repercussions, that is an utter travesty.

If enemies of the US can draw sustenance from evidence of American crimes against humanity, surely the ideal antidote would be to ensure such crimes are not committed in the first place, rather than seeking to indefinitely shroud them in secrecy.

A few US legislators have expressed degrees of consternation over the content of the NSA leaks, rather than joining the usual chorus of condemnation. It doesn’t necessarily follow, though, that meaningful steps to roll back the totalitarian impulses of the security state are likely to be initiated in the foreseeable future. Quite apart from the now stale ‘war against terror’ narrative, there are too many vested interests involved in maintaining the shadowy post-9/11 structures, perhaps not so much for ideological reasons as for the simple incentive of profiteering.

Snowden, in his latest job, was contracted to work for the NSA by Booz Allen Hamilton, a firm majority-owned by the Carlyle Group — which, intriguingly, was linked a dozen years ago to two prominent families, the Bushes and the bin Ladens. A tangled web, if ever there was one.

mahir.dawn@gmail.com