A study in Hubris: the shenanigans of one Keith Alexander (also starring James Clapper and the Senate Intelligence Committee)

A week in the life of…

So, Keith Alexander, huh? Did you hear what he got up to this week?

No? I’ll tell you. He’s been very busy. He and James Clapper, the chief of US national security appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday, urging lawmakers to not significantly curb NSA surveillance powers. At this hearing, Mr Alexander artfully clumsily “sidestepped questions […] from […] senator [Ron Wyden] about whether the NSA has ever used Americans cellphone signals to collect information on their whereabouts that would allow tracking of the movements of individual callers.

Fortunately (at least it is something) senator Wyden wasn’t fooled, no matter the pains Mr Alexander (and Mr Clapper) took to blame “the media for its publication of Snowden’s disclosures” which they find “misleading.” Interestingly, Mr Alexander, much like several senators who criticized the media as well, failed to give any concrete examples of the news organisations that had reported misleading information or the ways in which they did so. He also said – again – that it is “in the nation’s best interest” to collect the phone records of all Americans. So really no surprises there.

However, Mr Alexander is undoubtedly aware of “the wider tension that has grown between the public and the U.S. intelligence community, following disclosures by Edward Snowden” because what he also did – in response to a proposal made by a “bipartisan group of four senators, including Ron Wyden, [that called for] legislation to end […] bulk collections” of US telephone data – was turn to… wait for it… the public (!) to ask for their help. Who would have thought? Last time I looked, most of us were adversaries in some way or other or at least guilty until proven innocent. Ah, these fickle times.

Whatever his personal views on all of us may be, Mr Alexander implored us – the public – to “understand why [the NSA] need [their surveillance] tools,” and to make the picture perfect, he and and NSA deputy director John Inglis sent a letter to the families of their employees “in an effort to “reassure” relatives about the agency’s work.” Is that a snort I hear from you? Because that’s how I reacted. I didn’t laugh for long though. Read on, I dare you.

Letters to the family

“Some media outlets”, the letter states, “have sensationalized the leaks to the press in a way that has called into question our motives and wrongly cast doubt on the integrity and commitment of the extraordinary people who work here at NSA/CSS—your loved one(s).”

Errr…m? Surely, I cannot be the only one who finds this – and several other of Mr Alexander’s utterances – not just ridiculous but downright shameless. To deliberately invoke people’s concern for and appreciation of “their loved one(s)”, not to mention the family rhetoric (although, ironically, many people probably don’t trust their extended families as far as they can throw them, which actually fits the NSA), to highlight the alleged integrity of the NSA and put it outside the realm of criticism (these are your loved ones working here – are you questioning their motives and doubting their integrity and commitment?) is bad enough.

But get this: in his address to the public Mr Alexander then invoked the Westgate mall massacre in Nairobi, saying: “If you take those [surveillance powers] away, think about the last week and what will happen in the future. If you think it’s bad now, wait until you get some of those things that happened in Nairobi.” 

Wow. What?! Frankly, I am just about speechless at how wrong this is on how many levels.

I mean, how tasteless is it to use this terrible tragedy and, yes, act of unbelievable brutality and terrorism, to – once again – repeat the tedious litany of why the NSA needs its powers? I would suggest Mr Alexander use his agency’s formidable mobile phone tracking powers (which he says they aren’t using) to relocate his sense of propriety.

To try and capitalize on something so terrible to justify the blatant abuses committed by his agency – abuses about which both Mr Alexander and Mr Clapper have lied to the same Congress they are now asking to reaffirm the NSA’s powers – wow! If anyone needed any further proof that power has gone to Mr Alexander’s head, here it is. What was it Yochai Benkler wrote two weeks ago? Oh yes: “Serious people with grave expressions will argue that if we do not ruthlessly expand our intelligence capabilities, we will suffer terrorism and defeat. Whatever minor tweaks may be necessary, the argument goes, the core of the operation is absolutely necessary and people will die if we falter.”

And Mr Benkler’s “question [still] remains [and is more pressing than ever]: how much of what we have is really necessary and effective, and how much is bureaucratic bloat resulting in the all-to-familiar dynamics of organizational self-aggrandizement and expansionism?” Judging by Mr Alexander’s appropriation of someone else’s tragedy to underscore his own argument I’d say little effectiveness but a lot of bloat.


A case of Hubris?

Funnily enough, on the same Thursday that Messrs Alexander and Clapper appeared before the Committee, I read about some interesting research into something called Hubris personality disorder.

Here is what this is:

“Hubris is commonly associated with a loss of contact with reality and an overestimation of one’s own competence, accomplishments or capabilities. It is characterised by a pattern of exuberant self-confidence, recklessness and contempt for others, and is most particularly recognised in subjects holding positions of significant power.”

Intrigued? So was I. Note that “[f]ourteen clinical symptoms of Hubris syndrome have been described” and that “[s]ubjects demonstrating at least three of these could be diagnosed with the disorder.”

Let’s have a look at how many of these symptoms we can identify in the present case (spoiler: more than three). They include:

“A narcissistic propensity to see [the] world primarily as an arena in which to exercise power and seek glory”

Remember Alexander’s “collect it all” approach to surveillance?

“A messianic manner of talking about current activities and a tendency to exaltation.”

Mr Alexander’s derogatory suggestion that the “United States is fortunate to be able to have “esoteric” discussions because the NSA and other agencies are effective in stopping terrorists” speaks for itself, doesn’t it? Not only does he believe that the NSA is keeping everyone safe (in a messianic manner of speaking) – he also displays the kind of contempt that is another symptom of Hubris: thanks to his agency, the rest of us are still able to have our quaint little esoteric discussions about whether things like dragnet collection of telephone metadata are constitutional or not, when really we should all be relinquishing our civil liberties gratefully in the face of the terrible terrorist threat that haunts us everywhere we go. An unattended item of luggage! Run for your lives!

“Excessive confidence in the individual’s own judgement and contempt for the advice or criticism of others.”

Mr Alexander is exceedingly critical contemptuous of media reporting of the Snowden material but his own acceptance of criticism by the public or, in fact, members of Congress goes little further than to admit that “recent disclosures were likely to impact public perceptions of the NSA and “change how [the agency] operate[s]” – only to then stress again that “any diminution of the intelligence community’s capabilities risk[…] terrorist attacks on US territory.”

“Exaggerated self-belief, bordering on a sense of omnipotence, in what they personally can achieve.”

I don’t think I need to mention Mr Alexander’s desire to “collect it all” again but can I just remind everyone that the man is also quite smitten with the Star Trek-type war room at the heart of the so-called Information Dominance Centre? I can tell you now that it will take me a while longer to digest that particular piece of information. It does nothing to ease my mind either that the bridge of the Enterprise war room was commissioned before Alexander arrived; clearly, this indicates he is not the only one within the organisation with a disturbing/disturbed mind-set.

“A belief that, rather than being accountable to the mundane court of colleagues or public opinion, the court to which they answer is: History or God.”

Arguably, it’s not certain that Mr Alexander even believes himself to be accountable to God or History. Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger correctly reminds us that “[i]n history, all the precedents [that involved an “infrastructure for total surveillance”] are unhappy.” Considering this and how much difference it has made to Mr Alexander’s outlook so far (none whatsoever, it seems) it may be fair to assume that Mr Alexander does not consider himself or the NSA accountable to History. 

“A tendency to allow their ‘broad vision’ about the moral rectitude of a proposed course to obviate the need to consider practicality, cost or outcomes”.

There are several examples of this. Obviously, the way in which data is collected, stored and (ab)used raises questions of both practicality and outcomes, and recent revelations about the US government’s Black Budget have given us all a good idea about the cost of surveillance as well. And this is just the material cost. The cost to privacy and civil liberties, not to mention the impact on the lives of the people who expose these and similar practices are obviously not included.

“Hubristic incompetence, where things go wrong because too much self-confidence has led the leader not to worry about the nuts and bolts of policy.” 

Well, the nuts and bolts of policy seem to be something Mr Alexander only worries about when they threaten to restrict his agency’s powers. And we have all been witnesses to a fair bit of Hubristic incompetence for over three months now, haven’t we?

David Owen and Jonathan Davidson examined Hubris personality disorder in political leaders. In their paper on the subject, they express their belief “that extreme hubristic behaviour is a syndrome, constituting a cluster of features (‘symptoms’) evoked by a specific trigger (power) […]. ‘Hubris syndrome’ is seen as an acquired condition, and therefore different from most personality disorders which are traditionally seen as persistent throughout adulthood. The key concept is that hubris syndrome is a disorder of the possession of power, particularly power which has been associated with overwhelming success, held for a period of years and with minimal constraint on the leader.”

Now, considering the practically unrestrained power the NSA has held over the past years (they have undermined the internet, for goodness’ sake) and the success they claim to have in foiling terrorist attacks (which has been challenged), I am starting to find James Godale’s comments in the Guardian which call for a complete reform of NSA culture and for the resignation of Messrs Alexander and Clapper to be fired increasingly appealing. Especially when you consider that Alexander and Clapper both lied to Congress. Note also what Godale writes about the reforms proposed by president Obama in the wake of the Snowden revelations: “[Obama] would provide that the Fisa court have adversarial representation (sorely needed); the NSA would expose to the public what it was doing on its website (laughable); the NSA hire a civil rights advocate (inconsequential); and Congress should amend section 215 of the Patriot Act (good idea); and lastly, [Obama] would appoint experts to examine NSA practices.” Sadly, “[t]he latter idea [although] on its face […] be a reasonable one […] does not seem to be going anywhere thus far” because the appointed experts are all intelligence insiders and, mostly, advocates.


Someone get the NSA a lexicon!

To return to the statements given by Messrs Alexander and Clapper in which they reassure the public that while the spooks “collect U.S. bulk records, they do not listen in on individual Americans’ phone calls or read their emails without a court order” – who is still fooled by those?

As a reminder, this is nothing but semantics: Jameel Jaffer and Brett Max Kaufman have compiled a brilliant lexicon of NSA speech. In it, they make it clear that “[n]o one should be reassured by [assurances that] NSA’s surveillance activities are “targeted” not at Americans but at foreigners outside the United States. […] [E]ven if one is indifferent to the NSA’s invasion of foreigners’ privacy, the surveillance of those foreigners involves the acquisition of Americans’ communications with those foreigners. The spying may be “targeted” at foreigners, but it vacuums up thousands of Americans’ phone calls and emails.” I suggest you read Jaffer and Kaufmann’s lexicon in full – it is quite informative.

And of course another important fact that needs to be considered here. The spooks may be saying that they are not reading your emails (if you are an American citizen on American soil) but the metadata gathered through bulk record collection is even more interesting than the actual content – and its potential use is even more frightening. I myself have commented on that at length but by way of a quick recap: “metadata is extremely revealing; investigators mining it might be able to infer whether we have an illness or an addiction, what our religious affiliations and political activities are, and so on.

As for the meaning behind the NSA jargon, Jennifer Stisa Grannick and Christopher Jon Sprigman published an op-ed in the NY Times in June that deals with precisely this “torturing [of] the English language” (in that case by Mr Clapper) – it also explains in detail why the then revealed Verizon orders and the PRISM programme are anything but constitutional.

And while we’re on the subject of legality, there are more than serious doubts about the so-called oversight afforded by both Congress and the (still secret!) FISA court. Technically the NSA needs a FISA court order to snoop around the communication of American citizens but that really is little more than a technicality. This, too, has been discussed at length but as one example do consider what Jennifer Stisa Grannick writes about the specifics of data queries as approved by the FISA court:

“[A]n approved single query means the analyst can conduct up to a three-hop search through Americans’ phone records. Assuming each individual has only 40 unique contacts, this means 64,000 records accessed per query.  Once the query is conducted, the Primary Order allows the NSA to combine the results for future, unrestricted analysis in something called “the corporate store”.  If my numbers above are right, 19 million phone records went into the corporate store in 2012 alone.  Thus, whatever initial limitations on querying there may be, there are ultimately no controls on how this data is ultimately used.”

And don’t even get me started on how the 2008 FISA Amendment Act has as many loopholes as a slab of cheese (again, I have commented on this in earlier posts), how the “FISA court does not monitor compliance with its limitations on the collection program” or that the NSA has effectively misled the FISA court before!

By the way, I suggest you read Ms Grannick’s account of her dinner with Keith Alexander – it adds another facet to the kaleidoscope that is his personality disorder.


Excessive confidence, contempt and deception

Naturally, discussions of whether the NSA is or isn’t spying on Americans do nothing to reassure people anywhere else in the world, who are mostly not guilty of any wrongdoing.

The righteous outrage of other countries’ leaders about NSA spying aside – Brasilian president Dilma Rouseff being one example and I have to say I dig the woman for telling the US that “Brazil knows how to protect itself” – Messrs Clapper and Alexander, together with US deputy attorney general James Cole, continue to state their belief that “the manner in which the bulk telephony metadata collection program has been carried out is lawful, and existing oversight mechanisms protect both privacy and security” – remind me again what one of the symptom of Hubris syndrome was? Oh yeah: “Excessive confidence in the individual’s own judgement and contempt for the advice or criticism of others.”

Even more worryingly, the FISA court seems to agree as, apparently, do most of the members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, notably its chair Senator Diane Feinstein.

Again, I refer you to Jaffer and Kaufman’s lexicon for a translation of Feinstein’s comment: “Much of the press has called [collection of phone metadata] a surveillance program. It is not.” (Another spoiler: yes, it is.)

Glenn Greenwald is not wrong when he comments in the Guardian on the “farce” that is “the notion of Congressional oversight over the NSA”.

So. ““[S]erious people” are appealing to our faith that national security is critical, in order to demand that we accept the particular organization of the Intelligence Church.” (My italics and bold.) But not only is “[d]emand for blind faith adherence […] unacceptable.” It is also quite reckless given that the people who ask it of us seem to have been corrupted by the power afforded them and have built an intelligence collection system that repeatedly deceived the American people – mind you, this is Senator Ron Wyden who said this, no less, you can watch it on video.

Given all this, I am not so sure Mr Alexander even needed to go to all the trouble of addressing the public and the families of NSA employees to reassure them, especially if this did happen out of a fear that Congress might curb NSA powers. I am also not so sure that Mr Alexander is the only one suffering from a bit of Hubris. After all, if you read Owen and Davidson’s study, Hubris seems to occur quite frequently in political leaders and the grandiose suggestion by the US “that its interception of data also aims to protect other nations against terrorism” sounds a lot as if some or several of its leaders had “[e]xaggerated self-belief, bordering on a sense of omnipotence, in what they personally can achieve” – it wouldn’t be the first time either.

Wouldn’t it be great, then, if more non-US governments reacted like Brazil’s president – “Brazil, Mr. President,” she said, “knows how to protect itself” – rather than to feed US self-aggrandisement in the same way in which many members of Congress seem to feed the Hubris of Messrs Clapper and Alexander?

Sadly, once again, the Guardian reports that the UK, for one, seems to be opposing tougher data protection laws throughout the EU and I have commented previously on the disappointing reaction of all Western governments in the wake of the Snowden revelations.

“[D]ata protection law used to be a Rubik’s cube”, a British official is quoted as saying, and after Snowden it had [sic] become “a Rubik’s cube on steroids”.

All things considered, either Keith Alexander really isn’t the only one suffering from Hubris or the Rubik’s cube that is data protection law is not the only one on steroids.


Pussy Riot’s Nadezhda Tolokonnikova: Why I have gone on hunger strike

Pussy Riot’s Nadezhda Tolokonnikova: Why I have gone on hunger strike

I am a bit busy at the moment so I will take a couple of days longer than usual to post to this blog. Also, things have gone a bit quiet around the NSA and Edward Snowden at the moment. I have found new material to look at and discuss though and I am going to start working on it asap.

Meanwhile, I leave you with this link on a different (if not entirely unrelated) topic. After all, this is Russia whose president has recently been championing some people’s rights to liberty and free speech while the country continues its crackdown on the rights of others. This is one such case. We have all heard of Pussy Riot I presume. I you haven’t, I suggest you read it up. Personally, I admit to not being anywhere near as well informed as I should be on this one but I know enough to realize how outrageous it is, especially when viewed in the context of recent events.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, one of the Pussy Riot members convicted of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” for miming “a song calling on the Virgin Mary to “kick out Putin””, is now on hunger strike. This is her explaining her reasons why.

Common sense is not so common. The “Snowden saga” three months on. Part three: It really isn’t that common. Rounding up opinions.

Information Dominance: A dangerous enterprise

People like Edward Snowden, Thomas Drake or Chelsea Manning can be as reasonable as they like; there will always be those who say that surveillance of the kind and magnitude that has been revealed over the past months is a good and necessary thing. Because it protects us all from terrorists, the argument seems to go, people should not be allowed to question, let alone expose its practices. Hence, we need policies to restrict whistleblowing. Yochai Benkler, in a brilliant op-ed in the Guardian sums up the problem: “Serious people with grave expressions will argue that if we do not ruthlessly expand our intelligence capabilities, we will suffer terrorism and defeat. Whatever minor tweaks may be necessary, the argument goes, the core of the operation is absolutely necessary and people will die if we falter.”

Calls for tougher legislation are exemplary of this and government responses to whistleblowing in general, both in the UK and in the US; governments do not encourage whistleblowing. They do not like how it makes them look. (Seriously, who is fooled by their sudden, hasty readiness to take part in a debate that they cannot quench anyway?)

Consider Sir Ian Blair, the former Met Commissioner (this is in the UK), who has just asked for “laws to stop the ‘principled’ leaking of state secrets”.

Lord Blair said that “tougher laws are needed to prevent members of the public from revealing official secrets.” He claimed that the threat from international terrorism was “constantly changing” and that there was a need to “review the law”.

I don’t know about you but I find this disconcerting.

For one thing, isn’t it an extremely patronizing thing to say that “somebody, for all sorts of wonderfully principled reasons, [might wish] to disclose those secrets”?

My italics and is that to suggest that none of us have the right to know if the state is abusing its powers? Yes, we do. If not on some wonderful moral principle, then because accountability is a principle of democracy. I am wondering if Lord Blair would suggest that all those wonderful principles on which our states have been built are so quaint that they become insubstantial in the face of some obscure terrorist threat. I hope not because that would be nonsense; one of the reasons for people to form communities and states and to elect governments is so they can feel protected from the tyranny of others. So they can live free, independent and private lives. Make no mistake; the state, the government, has no right to violate your basic civil or human rights. And when it does, it needs to be held accountable. That is why, as Thomas Drake says, “[t]here’s no room in a democracy for [the] kind of secrecy” that the advocates of surveillance are telling us is necessary for our own protection.

Yet, the argument that has been advanced time and time again is that it is “extremely dangerous for individual citizens to [make state] secrets available to […] terrorists”, implying that this is primarily what this is about, that none of us can know what the state is up to because the terrorist might be listening! And it is also because of those terrorists who are hiding behind every corner these days, “[b]ecause of the crisis, because of the dangers we face in the world, some new and unpredicted threat, [governments] need more authority [and] more power”.

Edward Snowden realized that this argument is flawed. As Thomas Drake points out, Snowden “saw the surveillance state from within and saw how far it’s gone” to get that power. Like Thomas Drake, “he became discomforted by what he was exposed to and what he saw.”

Edward Snowden understood the implications and potential consequences of that kind of surveillance power and behaviour and he acted upon that understanding. In that sense he displayed exactly the kind of “sound judgement” that many understand common sense to mean (although the term obviously has multiple other meanings too). Except, he also had the specialist knowledge to make an informed judgement as well.

By contrast, not only did both the NSA and government commit legally questionable and morally inexcusable acts, they also at best left an appropriate response to the revelations far too late and – at worst – lied. And not just to the people but to the FISA court as well.

Barack Obama still insists that neither the US government nor the NSA “surveil the American people or persons within the United States. There are a lot of checks and balances in place designed to avoid a surveillance state.”

I find it –shall we say- interesting that the president should still insist on this, especially when recalling Al Gore’s comments on how a police state apparatus is effectively in place in the US (about which he is not wrong) or given that NSA chief Alexander not only lied to Congress but apparently had a war room built into his tellingly named Information Dominance Centre (that’s right Dominance) that intentionally resembles the bridge of the USS Enterprise. Apart from being a telling comment on the mind-set of the man (I wonder if he fancies himself Kirk or Picard and if the irony is really altogether lost on him), the Enterprise’s war room‘s “primary function is to enable 24-hour worldwide visualization, planning, and execution of coordinated information operations for the US Army and other federal agencies” boasting a “prominently positioned chair [which] provides the commanding officer an uninterrupted field of vision to a 22’-0″ wide projection screen.” Nuff said.

Or no, not enough said because it gets better than that. Former NSA and CIA director Michael Hayden not only claims the internet as basically the US’s own. He has also “conceded that” – wait for it – the US “could be fairly charged with the militarization of the World Wide Web.”

Errrr…yeah. In light of this, do you not agree that going on about the so-called checks and balances is getting outdated and unconvincing? More so because it has emerged that the NSA has repeatedly violated its own restrictions and that the information collected through NSA surveillance is shared with other countries. Violations are real and so disturbing that “[a] judge on the secret surveillance court […] questioned the viability of [the NSA’s] bulk collection of Americans’ phone records.”

Uncomplicated Lives: the cost of living freely?

Now. Given what we have learned, do we really think it is wrong to expose the scope of surveillance so that we can discuss it and make up our own minds about it?

Then again, perhaps we’d rather not complicate our lives by thinking about, let alone standing up against, these practices. After all, Edward Snowden himself has conceded that “living unfreely but comfortably is something [many of us are] willing to accept […] it’s the human nature.”

The danger of that of course is that we fail to notice when governments start working against us – and we are seeing increasingly how real that danger is.

“Eventually there will be a time where policies will change because the only thing that restricts the activities of the surveillance state are policies.” Edward Snowden, June 2013.

I think what Edward Snowden meant when he said this was that the state will adjust policy to its needs. And the moment that happens policy is meaningless. The moment that the state changes that which restricts it to give itself more power, meaningful restrictions cease to exist. This is a dark and dangerous road and history has shown more than once where it can lead. Again in his Guardian op-ed, Yochai Benkler brilliantly states that “[t]he American body politic is suffering a severe case of auto-immune disease: our defense system is attacking other critical systems of our body”.

Cue Lord Blair who in the UK warns against a “new threat which is not of somebody personally intending to aid terrorism, but of conduct which is likely to or capable of facilitating terrorism” and then calls for tougher legislation to prevent whistleblowing, citing “the examples of information leaks related to Bradley Manning and WikiLeaks”. Of course, if you take up Lord Blair’s argument, then anyone blowing the whistle – and anyone reporting on that whistleblowing – could be accused of facilitating – or condoning – terrorism.

Sound familiar?

Yap, UK Home Secretary Theresa May said something to that effect in response to criticism of the use of schedule 7 powers against David Miranda: “Those who oppose this sort of action need to think about what they are condoning.”

Similarly, Louise Mensch argues in her blog that “the Terrorism Act does not only apply to men with bombs and guns. Interrupting electronic systems to influence the govt of a foreign power for political purposes is EXPRESSLY COVERED.”

She goes on to cite the Terrorism Act, specifically the part where it says, “Terrorism is defined in the Terrorism Act 2000 (TACT 2000) and means the use or threat of action where –

  1. 1.     The action –

E. is designed seriously to interfere with or seriously to disrupt an electronic system AND

2. The use or threat is designed to influence the government or to intimidate the public or a section of the public, AND

3. The use or threat is made for the purpose of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause

Ms Mensch maintains that “1 E, 2, 3 are absolutely covered [in Miranda’s case].”

Errrr… no they aren’t.

Even if David Miranda was carrying classified information – how does that qualify under 1E?

As for 2: yes, perhaps Glenn Greenwald, Edward Snowden, David Miranda, Laura Poitras and other journalists are trying to influence government by making these things known. They should be. But are they trying to intimidate the public? I’d think not. Rather, their interest seems to be to inform the public, perhaps even to embolden the public to influence their government – which the public has every right to do; it’s called democracy.

And as far as 3 is concerned: where precisely is the threat here? Or the direct action to advance a cause? Besides, am I the only one who thinks that there is a problem here with the wording of the Act itself? Because couldn’t it be said of anyone that they are using action to advance a political cause who, for example, launched an election campaign?

Talk about common sense being not so common.

Ms May, Ms Mensch, Mr Blair, can I just ask: are you insane? Surely, you do not mean to suggest that everyone demanding freedom of speech, a free press, freedom from suspicion, innocence until proven guilty is condoning or aiding terrorism?

Now, where have I heard this before about how the charge of aiding the enemy “can be made against anyone who reveals information that points out mass surveillance systems”? Oh, that’s right. Edward Snowden, June 2013:

“They are going to say I have aided our enemies in making them aware of these systems. But this argument can be made against anyone who reveals information that points out mass surveillance systems.”

As to that, I have a question: has anyone actually seen conclusive evidence that anything Snowden made available has helped terrorists? Steve Chapman asked the same question – and it is telling that no official source was willing or able to provide a clear answer. Similarly, Nigel Inkster, former deputy chief of MI6 very recently repeated once again that “those most interested in the activities of the NSA and GCHQ have not been told very much they didn’t know already or could have inferred.” As such, “Al-Qaida leaders in the tribal areas of Pakistan [have] been “in the dark” for some time – in the sense that they [have] not used any form of electronic media that would “illuminate” their whereabouts”. Similarly, “[o]ther “serious actors” were […] aware of the risks to their own security from NSA and GCHQ eavesdroppers.”

So again, call me a Snowdenite but I for one yet have to see evidence that his disclosures did harm the US in any other way than to tarnish their international reputation – and that for very good reason.

Not only does what the US government said about “the people at the NSA [not having] an interest in doing anything other than making sure that (…) we can prevent a terrorist attack” has been proven a lie by revelations such as the UN spying operations. These revelations also raise important questions about what kind of advantage the US hopes to gain from these particular operations. Keith Alexander wants to take over the universe obviously – has has already built his spaceship. The rest of them might be satisfied with the world for now. To boldly go where no has gone before and all that. Seriously. Who else is shaking their heads in incredulity?

Definitely not so common.

Snowden: “I know the lengths that the government is going to grant themselves powers unilaterally to create greater control over American society and global society.”

Well, we have seen examples of that control over both American and global society, haven’t we? And still people like Rick Ungar take issue with Snowden alerting the world to the scope of foreign intelligence, advancing the argument that “there is no claim nor evidence that spying on foreign entities crosses any legal lines and, therefore, it is incredibly wrong for Snowden to reveal data involving our spying programs outside the country”. That claim is simply false because spying on the UN is illegal under international law and violates a number of international treaties such as the Vienna Convention.

More than that, what the US is doing is affecting everyone, so everyone has a right to know – at least as long as what’s affecting us is illegal and committed against people who clearly aren’t the US’ enemies (and for everyone else it is still debatable).

Edward Snowden understands that: “It is a grave violation of our universal human rights when a political system perpetuates automatic, pervasive, and unwarranted spying against innocent people. In accordance with this belief, I revealed this program to my country and the world.” Because it isn’t just innocent Americans that are being spied on; it is innocent people everywhere in the world.

Okay, you could say that other governments are doing the same thing but simply pointing a finger at someone else and saying that they’re doing it too does not excuse your own actions when they are wrong. It just makes you look childish.

I find position’s like Ungar’s worrying for other reasons as well. Just because secrecy is in the nature of spying does not make it right. Neither does the alleged necessity for covert operations by its very nature defy the right to know when covert activities are being abused.

Just as a side note, am I the only one puzzled by Ungar’s suggestion that “that the overwhelming majority of Americans would very much disagree with [Snowden’s] assessment [that all spying is wrong]” – an assessment for which Ungar does not actually give any evidence because once again, this is not what Edward Snowden said? What he actually said was: “I did not reveal any US operations against legitimate military targets. I pointed out where the NSA has hacked civilian infrastructure such as universities, hospitals, and private businesses because it is dangerous. These nakedly, aggressively criminal acts are wrong no matter the target.”

Even more puzzling is Ungar’s argument that “[the majority of Americans] might appreciate his [i.e. Snowden’s] not complicating our lives in furtherance of his own self-aggrandizement and the soothing of whatever crisis of conscience he may be experiencing.”

My italics and can I just say: well done? I, for one, am not sure that the majority of Americans would agree with that statement. And supposing they do, then it just proves once again that “living unfreely but comfortably is something [many of us are] willing to accept.”

In which case, yes, Snowden has probably “blown it” – for Mr Ungar and everyone else who prefers to continue living comfortable lives based on the naïve faith that the government knows best and that “we elect people to make decisions […] and then judge the effectiveness of those decisions by deciding who we will keep in office and who we will turn away.”

Well. The problem with that is of course that if people like Edward Snowden didn’t alert us to what the people we have elected do against us in our name, then we would be incapable of making informed decisions. Without that information, how are we supposed to “[either support or reject] opinions and practices […] when [we] show up to vote”? The simple answer is that we can’t – and I suspect we may not be supposed to either (type the words “managed democracy” into Google and you see what I mean – if you dare, that is).

Sadly, I think that Mr Ungar, just like many of Snowden’s other critics have fallen victim to exactly the mind-set that Snowden himself identified: “We were actually involved in misleading the public and misleading all the publics, not just the American public, in order to create certain mindset in the global consciousness.”

Mislead publics

I have come across that mindset many times in recent months and I was quite shocked by how pervasive it is.

Ironically, one person who seems to be arguing precisely from that mindset is none other than Benedict Cumberbatch. Yes, I know, him again, of all people, but he’s as good an example as any. (Besides, I like writing about him, I never know if I find him charming or just utterly unlikeable, and he’s just happened to prove my point point for me.) In a recent interview preceding the release of his latest film The Fifth Estate, Mr Cumberbatch advanced the argument that Chelsea Manning “broke a law. [Sh]e knew what [s]he was doing. [She] did what [s]he did out of a conviction that an alarm bell needed to be sounded. But [her] superiors might have been right to say to [her], it’s not your position to be worried about it within the hierarchy of the military organisation, which is why [s]he had to be sentenced. [She] took an oath, and [she] broke that oath.” (My italics).

I don’t even know where to begin counting the ways in which that argument is flawed. Perhaps by suggesting that Mr Cumberbatch should have said that Chelsea Manning had very good reason to believe that an alarm bell needed to be sounded. Perhaps Mr Cumberbatch should have left it at that. With regard to the rest of that statement, I should like to ask him: are you implying, Mr Cumberbatch, that the moment anyone swears an oath, there is nothing that justifies breaking that oath? Not even serious violations of morality, human rights and human life? Are you implying that anyone who swears an oath then turns into a mule of the organization they have sworn allegiance to and that they relinquish both their right and their obligation to be worried when something goes significantly wrong within that organization? Even when that organization or the people it is comprised of themselves act in violation of their oaths? Are you implying that an oath – or given organizational hierarchies for that matter – demand blind obedience of us? Surely not! In fact, if anyone still holds that view, it is deeply worrying, especially in a 21st century democratic society. Or, as Yochai Benkler puts it: “Demand for blind faith adherence is unacceptable.” And by the way, there is nothing honourable in observing an oath when it means condoning criminal acts.

Now, I am not saying that no one should be held to their promises anymore. Nor am I arguing that no one who breaks an oath should be held accountable. But surely, what we need to strive towards is an assessment of such cases on an individual basis. To simply say a person broke their oath and for that they need to be punished is making it too easy for ourselves.

As for Mr Cumberbatch’s other argument that “if they [i.e. the government and intelligence agencies] are saving lives [by spying on us], how can we say that’s less important than civil liberties? You don’t have any civil liberties if you’re dead. Isn’t it hypocritical to say, we should know everything about you as a government, but the government can’t know anything about us?”

The simple answer to the last question is: no, it isn’t. There’s nothing hypocritical about saying that we should know everything about our governments while the government can’t know anything about us. Mr Cumberbatch may have a point when he says that “if you are a private individual who’s packing semtex to kill people and destroy what we know as democracy for political purposes, then you’re more than just a private individual.” However, that argument also applies to the government. The government is not a person but an institution and the rights of an individual do not apply to it in the same way as they do to persons. More importantly, suggesting that citizens somehow do not have a right to know what their government is doing goes against accountability as a principle of democracy. If we do not know what our government is up to then how are we to hold it accountable if it puts in place practices that are themselves a threat to “what we know as democracy”?

As for the other argument about you not having any chance to enjoy your civil liberties when you’re dead. Well, yes of course that’s obvious but that argument is made from too limited a perspective. The theoretical threat of people dying is not necessarily justification for curtailing fundamental civil liberties. Especially when that threat has been overstated or when it cannot be proven that the curtailing of civil liberties actually serves to alleviate that threat. Writes Yochai Benkler: “Court documents released this week show that after its first three years of operation, the best the intelligence establishment could show the judge overseeing the program was that it had led to opening “three new preliminary investigations”. This showing, noted Judge Walton in his opinion, “does not seem very significant”.

The idea implicit in Mr Cumberbatch’s position – and that of many others who think like him – that civil rights abuses by governments and intelligence agencies are excusable in certain situations and, more worryingly still, that “oath”-breakers like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden deserve what they have coming to them is alarming. [Update: to be fair to Mr Cumberbatch, his comments come across as more as problematic in the edit than they do in the interview transcript. The Guardian acknowledges that his comments were originally misrepresented and I can see why Mr Cumberbatch would be trying to understand the opposite perspective – i.e. governments and intelligence agencies – in addition to his own. Clearly, he does not necessarily think that Chelsea Manning deserved her sentence and he is worried about the direction that mass surveillance and government policy is moving in. In fact, many of his comments quite match my own opinion, although I fundamentally disagree that the treatment of Chelsea Manning is right from any perspective. The reason I am not removing my above argument is that I am sure a lot of people do hold problematic views like the ones I have been trying to argue against. Apologies, though, to Mr Cumberbatch for reacting to a misrepresentation of what he said!].

What we are witnessing at the moment testifies to the fundamental need for the citizens of a democracy to be able hold state institutions accountable. The NSA needs to be held accountable for “misrepresent[ing] the extent of its activities in collecting Americans’ phone records and violat[ing] court-ordered restrictions on the ability of the government to access such data”.

Even the intelligence community is by now admitting that the debate sparked by the Snowden revelations is a necessary one. So why do people keep insisting that even though the message is important because it alerts us to wrongs that have been committed, it is still okay for the people who have committed these wrongs to hunt down, smear or incarcerate the messenger?

One of the reasons why we are now in a position to hold our governments accountable is that there are people – Manning, Snowden, Poitras, Greenwald – who have provided us with the information we need to do so. And who continue to do it, refusing to let the debate die down. So before we renounce the “week by week” reporting as a “sensationalized way of “maximiz[ing] attention,” I think we should take a couple of things into account.

Taking responsibility… or not. Crises of conscience.

Interestingly, “[a] review panel created by President Obama to guide reforms to US government surveillance did not discuss any changes to the National Security Agency’s controversial activities at its first meeting”. This is quite momentous because it does raise the question of whether the panel’s “function is to bleed off pressure, without getting to the meaningful reform.”

Given government reactions and behaviours so far, governments are increasingly obliged to follow their promises up with concrete action. Whether or not they do so will tell us more about how much they really welcome debate and reform and how willing they are to put restrictions on their surveillance activities and secrecy. Given that on the review panel apparently now one said that “the bulk surveillance is horrendous and bad for our democracy,” and that “[w]hen it appeared like the meeting would discuss a surveillance issue in a sophisticated way, participants and commissioners suggested it be done in a classified meeting”, I for one remain doubtful that this will happen. (Oh and by the way, that panel includes Cass Sunstein, whose questionable ideas about infiltrating Internet chat groups have previously sparked some concern). Rather, I would argue with Yochai Benkler that “[t]he so-called “outside independent experts” committee which the president has appointed, with insiders’ insiders like Michael Morell and Richard Clarke, will not come close to doing the trick.”

By contrast, the journalists who have access to Snowden’s materials “are not trying to keep it a secret, but piece the puzzle together. That’s a project that is going to take time” because their “intention is to release what’s in the public interest”.

I don’t know about you but to me this sounds like people taking some care with the responsibility that has been handed to them by someone who also has a sense of responsibility – more care than our governments seem to be taking with the responsibility we have given them by electing them.

Regarding responsible leaking and reporting, there has been a lot of discussion about who else had access to the Snowden documents. WikiLeaks have been mentioned, critics of Snowden have implicated the Russian and Chinese governments. Regarding WikiLeaks: “As far as I know he’s not given them to WikiLeaks,” Glenn Greenwald told BuzzFeed. “It was very very important to him that there not be an indiscriminate dumping of these documents so that there be a real public debate about surveillance policy and not just gratuitous disclosures for its own sake. The kind of publication that WikiLeaks has done in the past is not as I understand it what Snowden wants for the documents. He could have gone to WikiLeaks in the first place if he’d wanted that.”

As to the governments of Russia and China, we can only surmise. I agree that it seems unlikely that they would have the most wanted man in the world sitting in their hotels, embassies and airports with a stash of potentially highly valuable documents in his lap and not do anything about it. Yet, Snowden and Greenwald have repeatedly tried to reassure people that these files are too “are highly encrypted” to be easily accessed and that Snowden has put safeguards in place to make sure that information that is damaging to the US cannot be accessed. Given the difficulty the NSA are now having to follow Snowden’s digital trail perhaps he is much more capable than people give him credit for. In a recent Forbes article, Andy Greenberg states that at the beginning of what he calls “the Summer of Snowden” the things that Edward Snowden said and claimed to know may have “seemed like grandstanding”. They certainly did to some. However, three months on, they seem “prophetic”.

It is for each and every one of us to make up their minds about what to believe and who to believe. This is also what Snowden was trying to give us an opportunity for, I think – to make our own decisions. And for me, the evidence points at Snowden and others along with him as people who – after careful deliberation – took a massive risk to inform the world’s public of gross violations – these are once again summarized in Greenberg’s article if you need reminding.

And if a “crisis of conscience” is indeed at the bottom of Snowden’s revelations perhaps we could all do with a crisis of conscience?

After all, “[i]n the end the Obama administration [or any other government] is not afraid of whistleblowers like [Snowden], [Chelsea] Manning or Thomas Drake. [They] are stateless, imprisoned, or powerless. No, the Obama administration is afraid of [us]. It is afraid of an informed, angry public demanding the constitutional government it was promised.”

For now, I choose to believe that what looks like the most straightforward explanation is indeed the truth.

That “[w]hat Edward Snowden has done is an amazingly brave and courageous act of civil disobedience” and that for the embarrassment that this has caused the powers that be, he has been exiled.

Snowden and the people who work with him have chosen to give up their comfortable lives in the interest of something important. Perhaps if any definition of heroism that does not sound quaint or void still exists, it is this.

More importantly though, in this extremely heated and polarized affair, the people around Snowden simply have the better arguments. For that reason, and considering everything I have learned, all the pros and cons that I have read, I choose to continue to believe them. This, to me, is common sense (and if you take issue with my rather broad use of the term, bring it on ;)).

Common sense is not so common. The “Snowden saga” three months on. Part two: Who is lying? Recent revelations, claims and statements in perspective.

The world according to… who?

“I think they’re going to say I’ve committed grave crimes, I’ve violated the Espionage Act. They’re gonna say I’ve aided our enemies in making them aware of these systems.” Edward Snowden, June 2013.

People seem to prefer faces to abstract concepts. Faces are something we can look at. In them, we can look for signs of faithfulness, lies, honesty or betrayal. It may be because of this that, especially in an emotionally charged case like the surveillance situation, it is difficult, if not impossible to detach the story – or the substance of the leaks – from one of the faces, or persons, most intimately associated with it.

Snowden’s supporters have argued that he is turning into a revolutionary icon. They wear T-shirts with his face on them. Similarly, Snowden’s opponents have very much tried to use his person to deflect attention from his disclosures – or to try and make them less believable.

“Snowden is a liar, don’t believe a word he says,” “Snowden is a traitor, he has sold all his stuff to China and Russia, don’t believe a word he says,” “Snowden has been disloyal to his country, he cannot be trusted, do not believe a word he says.” We have heard people say things like these over and over again. The messenger cannot be trusted, they insist, so do not pay attention to the message either. And do not, by any means, believe it!

This kind of propaganda is important to note. It needs to be highlighted and debunked. People who do not trust Edward Snowden or Glenn Greenwald will find it hard to trust their disclosures and will not easily be persuaded to discuss them rationally. Yesterday (in the wake of the latest revelations about cryptography which I will address a bit further down) I heard a German government official say that there is no evidence that what Edward Snowden has made public is true.

False. Perhaps the man or his researchers haven’t done their homework but the general tenor amongst a lot of cryptography and other experts is that the situation is bad. Really bad. For government spokespeople to still play down the seriousness of Mr Snowden’s revelations in this way, is an irresponsible thing to do. And irresponsibility, that is feigning ignorance or playing the “innocent until proven guilty” card in defence of intelligence agencies, is not even the worst of it. Much worse are people who still defend these practices as right and necessary in the face of international terrorism (again, a claim that verges on falsehood because this is not what much of the spying is about), telling us that a complete and comprehensive breach of our privacy is justified.

Many of those people will repeat the mantra that Edward Snowden is not to be trusted, that the information he has made available is inaccurate, fabricated, a lie. If they run out of ideas they say that to make it public poses a threat to national security.

Edward Snowden was right that people would try and discredit him. In fact, with hindsight, it seems that there were a lot of things about which he was almost uncannily prescient. Then again, perhaps he was not. He did, after all, have access to a trove of information, some of which has been made available to the public, and which increasingly substantiates his claims. Yet, at a time when the Independent has published questionable information which they attribute to Snowden (who refutes the claim), I am sure that the situation is confusing enough that we need as many views on the subject as possible to help us find our way through – and form our own informed opinions of – what is becoming an increasingly complicated mesh-up of stories, reports, wild accusations, rebuttals and reassurances.

Snowden identified himself as the source of the material so he could vouch for its authenticity, so that the truthfulness of his revelations would not be so easily called into question: “I think that the public is owed an explanation of the motivations behind the people who make these disclosures that are outside of the democratic model.”

People have tried to turn this against him. They have said that he made himself the story, that he lied or that he was wrong. So why not try and see how wrong, or right, how truthful or deceitful he has so far turned out to be?

Which is precisely why, in my last post, I proposed that we look back at the story so far, that we take another look at both messenger(s) and message. Let us remind ourselves of what Snowden has to say for himself and, importantly, how the situation stands.

To do that, a quick overview of the most recent findings:


As you may have heard by now, the Washington Post two weeks ago reported a practice within the NSA labelled LOVEINT. According to NSA officials, this is an infrequent practice. However, it still seems “common enough to garner its own spycraft label.” Apparently, what happened (or happens) is that NSA “officers on several occasions have channelled their agency’s enormous eavesdropping power to spy on love interests.” It seems that such episodes of “wilful misconduct” (officials also call them “unintentional” compliance errors) “involved overseas communications, officials said, such as spying on a partner or spouse.”

NSA and government officials, including Senator Diane Feinstein, chair of the Senate intelligence committee and avid supporter of the government’s surveillance practices, seem confident “that NSA takes significant care to prevent any abuses and that there is a substantial oversight system in place. When errors are identified, they are reported and corrected.”

Sounds reassuring, does it? About as reassuring as claims that the FISA court can really keep the NSA in check? Hm, yeah. I have previously commented on the dubiousness of that. And that was even before it emerged that even the FISA court ruled that some of the NSA’s practices were illegal.

“I don’t want to live in a world where everything that I say, everything I do, everyone I talk to, every expression of creativity or love or friendship is recorded. And that’s not something I’m willing to support, it’s not something I’m willing to build and it’s not something I’m willing to live under.” – Edward Snowden, June 2013.

Who or what is “Apalachee”? NSA-EU eavesdropping

Okay, you may argue, the spooks are eavesdropping on their husbands, wives, girlfriends, boyfriends – I doubt I will ever date a spy, so who cares?

Well, I suppose Edward Snowden would tell you that just because you personally haven’t been the target of any surveillance that doesn’t make it right.

Apart from that, doesn’t the idea of someone stalking someone else’s communications because they have a romantic interest in them give you the heebie-jeebies? If it doesn’t upset you because you, like me, tend not to engage with spies (then again, would we really know if we did?), then perhaps a different question will go some way to explaining why I am still upset: any idea who or what “Apalachee” is?

I’ll tell you. It’s the codename by which the NSA refers to the European Mission near the East River in New York – a place which, as the German weekly Der Spiegel has revealed, seems to be quite heavily bugged.

Now, remind me again what president Obama “promised [about] NSA surveillance activities [being] aimed exclusively at preventing terrorist attacks”?

Oh right, I believe he said this:

“The main thing I want to emphasize is that I don’t have an interest and the people at the NSA don’t have an interest in doing anything other than making sure that (…) we can prevent a terrorist attack. […]We do not have an interest in doing anything other than that.Barack Obama, 9th August.

Those are my italics and, to quote the Spiegel, I suppose you could say that the President “made a commitment [here]. He gave assurances that the NSA is a clean agency that isn’t involved in any dirty work.” Now, I would like to ask the President exactly how many terrorists he thinks are at work inside the EU headquarters in New York. I am guessing zero. And the real problem is, of course, that “if internal NSA documents are to be believed, [what he said] isn’t true.” You could say he violated the commitment he made. Now, I am the first to reject the “the others did it first, so I can do it too”-defence as void. However, next time someone advances the argument that Edward Snowden violated his oath – you could say his commitment – to the NSA, they might want to take into consideration the commitments (plural) that Mr Obama possibly violated and consider also that Edward Snowden has recently been named recipient of this year’s Sam Adams Award for truth-telling.

This sends an important signal given that “[m]ost of the Sam Adams Associates are former senior national security officials who […] understand fully the need to keep legitimate secrets.” Each of these people “took a solemn oath “to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” Importantly, they believe that “[w]hen secrecy is misused to hide unconstitutional activities, fealty to that oath […] dictate[s] support for truth-tellers who summon the courage to blow the whistle,” and they state that “Edward Snowden’s disclosures fit the classic definition of whistle-blowing” – which is precisely what the US government will tell you isn’t true. The government keeps telling us that Edward Snowden isn’t a whistleblower. Just saying.

Certainly some of the NSA’s operations are aimed at preventing terrorist attacks – which is important for national security. Within reason. The problem is that many other programmes seem quite without the dictates of reason or national security. For instance such programmes that also target “foreign governments”, the EU and the UN. The interest here notably is in “economic stability”, “foreign trade and foreign policy as well as energy security, food products and technological innovations”. Yes, I believe those are grave terrorist threats being investigated there – threats coming from the EU and UN no less. Errrr…no.

Again, you might argue that every country spies on other countries – it is, you could say, in the very nature of spook-dom. Certainly, to believe that governments refrain from spying on their “enemies”, allies or even friends would be a little bit naïve. But for the US to attempt “information superiority”, i.e. “worldwide dominance”…? What for, I wonder? To advance their own causes, perhaps?

Consider this – and carefully because it is quite a jaw-dropper: “[a]fter leaving Prime Minister Tony Blair’s cabinet, former British Secretary of State for International Development Clare Short admitted that in the run-up to the Iraq War in 2003 she had seen transcripts of conversations by then-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.” So far, so outrageous. But der Spiegel revealing that the NSA also tapped into UN video conferences not only corroborates Ms Short’s claims.

“According to an internal document, the intelligence results had a key influence on “American negotiating tactics at the UN” in connection with the Iraq War. Thanks to the intercepted conversations, the NSA was allegedly able to inform the US State Department and the American Ambassador to the UN with a high degree of certainty that the required majority had been secured before the vote was held on the corresponding UN resolution.”

Quite handy, isn’t it, to be able to postpone or speed up a vote when you know that you have or haven’t convinced the people you need to vote in your favour? Given the current disagreements within the UN and at the G20 summit over military intervention in Syria that kind of spying seems particularly topical and precarious.

Consider also that “Short’s statement […] sparked a vehement reaction at the time it was made”. Now, let me see if I can think of someone else whose statements sparked a vehement reaction at the time they were made about three months ago…

The Cost of Surveillance Superiority: The Black Budget

If you need further convincing, perhaps take look at what the Washington Post has recently reported on the US government’s Black Budget, i.e. the money it spends on its 16 intelligence gathering agencies and the kind of intelligence they gather. Do you not love that designation? The Black Budget. The. Black. Budget. The Black Budget. Try saying it to yourself in a really sinister voice – it sounds about as cool as the UK’s Shadow Cabinet. However, the Shadow Cabinet has nothing to do with spookery at all. The Black Budget obviously is the very lifeline of spook-dom and it is quite an interesting and alarming piece of financial information.

Interestingly, and worryingly, some of that very dark and evil Black Budget also seems devoted to plucking internal leaks, i.e. heading off the Edward Snowdens of this world before they are able to make off with a lot of information. The Guardian reports that “part of the budget is dedicated to stopping whistleblowers.” In this context, can I just say that internal leaks and security liabilities do not need to be whistleblowers at all? Considering that Edward Snowden was able to walk away like he did and how much trouble the NSA and GHCQ seem to be having in finding out what he took, I think the Guardian’s James Ball recently made a very important point: “If someone in a similar position to Snowden decided to just take what they could and sell it to a foreign government, or criminal gang, would we ever know? It seems unlikely we’d be told. And given the NSA has repeatedly said they don’t know which documents Snowden accessed, maybe they wouldn’t know either.”

Considering this, can I just remind everybody (again quoting Ball) that “it’s worth remembering [Snowden] asked for responsible, measured publication, not mass-release” and that he “he chose to release to the press […] rather than simply sell [his information] to hackers or criminals”? While we have to take Snowden’s (and Greenwald’s and Laura Poitras’) word for it that this is true, I think we should all keep in mind – before we dismiss Edward Snowden as a self-serving attention-seeker with a grudge and bad judgement – that we have as yet no proof of the contrary. Obviously, we cannot know for certain that Edward Snowden did not also give his material to hackers, criminals or foreign administrations. However, if he had really wanted to just enrich himself or harm the US, surely he would have gone about it without telling everyone that he walked away from the NSA with a lot of their material in his pockets?

Compare President Obama’s recent reassurances that legislation regarding intelligence gathering needs to be reviewed. Do these not sound a little hollow, especially given their belatedness?

Defeating Encryption: let’s steal ourselves the internet.

And not just that. Cue the news that “US telecom and internet companies help the NSA in gathering data,” which seems almost outdated by now – we’ve known about some of that, and the alleged pressure exerted by the US government to ensure compliance, since the Prism and Verizon stories. However, the Black Budget also provides more details on “unique commercial partnerships” that “enable access and exploitation of international communications, and provide infrastructure to support operations”.

So if none of the above scares, bothers or convinces you, you might want to take into consideration the most recent revelations by the Guardian which show that “US and British intelligence agencies have successfully cracked much of the online encryption relied upon by hundreds of millions of people to protect the privacy of their personal data, online transactions and emails.”

Now, consider this carefully! Amongst other things this means that the NSA “works with technology companies to “covertly influence” their product designs.” That is the NSA has “covert partnerships” with tech companies through which the “agencies have inserted secret vulnerabilities – known as backdoors or trapdoors – into commercial encryption software.”

Let this sink in for a moment: the NSA has partnerships with the companies that write software that is supposed to keep you safe from surveillance. These companies then build in backdoors or trapdoors to allow the NSA to undermine these programmes and spy on you anyway. Consider that if this is true, “if the NSA have successfully undermined some universal encryption standards, then they may have indeed made some infrastructure more vulnerable to attacks by foreign governments.” No wonder the NSA and the US government are running around like headless chickens trying to apprehend Snowden, trying to find out what information he has, trying to find out what information Glenn Greenwald may have (with a little help from their friends at Scotland Yard who have recently taken to detaining innocent people at Heathrow Airport for nine hours).

Meanwhile in the UK, “[a] GCHQ team has been working to develop ways into encrypted traffic on the “big four” service providers, named as Hotmail, Google, Yahoo and Facebook.”

We already knew of course that GCHQ is quite probably tapping into the world’s fibre-optic cables which is bad enough. Yet, they are also able to “break its encryption, despite assurances from internet company executives that this data was beyond the reach of government.” And here was me thinking that my VPN encryption awarded me some kind of security! In light of this, are you sure you have nothing to hide? Are there no secrets that you don’t even tell your friends, that you don’t want anyone to know about? Do you not think you are entitled to having those little secrets? I’ll tell you what: the spooks disagree.

Obviously, the agencies justify this the same way in which they justify everything else, by insisting that “the ability to defeat encryption is vital to their core missions of counter-terrorism and foreign intelligence gathering.”

In reply to this consider both the response from security experts who criticize that “[b]y deliberately undermining online security in a short-sighted effort to eavesdrop, the NSA is undermining the very fabric of the internet,” as well as the ironic fact that “[c]lassified briefings between the agencies celebrate their success at “defeating network security and privacy””. Hurrah! We have conquered the internet! Let’s party. Not.

You do realize what the internet has become, don’t you? A “vast, multi-layered and robust surveillance platform,” according to experts who also say that “[b]y subverting the internet at every level […] the NSA has undermined a fundamental social contract. The companies that build and manage our internet infrastructure, the companies that create and sell us our hardware and software, or the companies that host our data: we can no longer trust them to be ethical internet stewards.”

Think about it: is that what the internet is for? Is that why it was built? Surely not! Ask yourselves, do you really want to “live in a world where everything that [you] say, everything [you] do, everyone [you] talk to, every expression of creativity or love or friendship is recorded”?

Neither do I. Neither does Edward Snowden.


Now, given how we’re being monitored and considering again the detention of Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald’s spouse at Heathrow airport, not to mention the destruction of computers in the Guardian’s basement, wouldn’t you say that we have enough evidence to support allegations that our governments are acting not only outside the law, but actually against us, the citizens whose interests they have been elected to protect?

Add to that the “collect all” policy advertised by NSA chief General Keith Alexander which Thomas Drake and now Edward Snowden have both observed: “NSA and intelligence community in general is focused on getting intelligence wherever it can by any means possible. Now increasingly we see that […] the NSA specifically, targets the communications of everyone.”

Do you not start asking yourself, then, how exactly our elected representatives see us? Are we all suspects?  According to Thomas Drake, yes, we are: “to an NSA with these unwarranted powers, we’re all potentially guilty; we’re all potential suspects until we prove otherwise.”

Even more alarming: “When the NSA came up with codenames for its projects to sabotage security products, it chose “BULLRUN” and “MANASSAS”, names for a notorious battle from the American civil war in which the public were declared enemies of the state. GCHQ’s parallel programme was called “EDGEHILL”, another civil war battle where citizens became enemies of their government.” Just so you know.

So. What happened to “innocent until proven guilty”? I have commented at length how that principle does not seem to apply anymore – just remind yourselves of Chelsea Manning who was held in solitary confinement for 11 months without having been found guilty of anything at the time.

Meaningful opposition: Edward Snowden, Thomas Drake and what not to do when you uncover abuse

Importantly, what seems to be becoming clear is that Edward Snowden was also right when he said that “[y]ou can’t come forward against the world’s most powerful intelligence agencies and be completely free from risk because they’re such powerful adversaries. No one can meaningfully oppose them.

My italics because I would surmise that these words in particular may have seemed over-the-top to people at the time. In any case, Edward Snowden has been criticized time and again for not going about this differently, for not taking “the official” route and reporting the wrongdoing he spotted to his superiors.

Recall his explanation for why he did not do that: “When you see everything you see [things] on a more frequent basis and you recognize that some of these things are actually abuses. And when you talk to people about them in a place like this, where this is the normal state of business, people tend not to take them very seriously and move on from them. But over time that awareness of wrongdoing sort of builds up and you feel compelled to talk about it. And the more you talk about it the more you’re ignored.”

He has been backed in these views by other whistleblowers, like Daniel Ellsberg or Thomas Drake who says: “I understand why Snowden has taken his course of action, because he’s been following this for years: he’s seen what’s happened to other whistleblowers like me.”

Drake also described how he himself did try the official route without success: “In closed testimony, I told them everything I knew […]. But as I found out later, none of the material evidence I disclosed went into the official record. It became a state secret […]”

I believe that Edward Snowden’s knowledge of Thomas Drake’s case impacted his decision not to take the official route. This is Drake recounting his own treatment at the hands of the government:

“I had no classified information in my possession, and I disclosed none to the [press]. But I got hammered: in November 2007, I was raided by a dozen armed FBI agents, when I was served with a search warrant. […] In April 2008, in a secret meeting with the FBI, the chief prosecutor from the Department of Justice assigned to lead the prosecution said, “How would you like to spend the rest of your life in jail, Mr Drake?” […] Two years later, they finally charged me with a ten felony count indictment, including five counts under the Espionage Act. I faced upwards of 35 years in prison.”

Fortunately for Drake, the case against him, “a rare, almost unprecedented, case of a government prosecution of a whistleblower [ended] in total defeat and failure.” However, Drake’s “life was shredded and he reminds us that “the stakes for whistleblowers are incredibly high” and that Snowden “can expect the worst.”

View this in light not only of the reactions to Snowden by the US government and the international community (about which I have written at length) but most importantly also of what has come to light over the past weeks. Consider, for example, the cases of Laura Poitras, repeatedly detained and questioned at airports, David Miranda, detained and questioned at Heathrow, Chelsea Manning, sentenced to 35 years in prison and ask yourselves, was Snowden really wrong to leave the US?

Does selling his secrets to another government really seem to be the only reason why he may have gone first to Hong Kong and then – more or less of his own free will – to Russia? Or was he simply trying to avoid becoming a victim of what Thomas Drake describes as “an unprecedented campaign against whistleblowers and truth-tellers”? A campaign that is even covered by the Black Budget?

Note that, “[u]nder this relentless assault by the Obama administration, [Drake is] the only person who has held them off and preserved his freedom. All […] other whistleblowers […] have served time in jail, are facing jail or are already incarcerated or in prison.”

All things considered, does it seem justified to call Edward Snowden a liar and a traitor rather than a whistleblower? Does it seem justified to dismiss so important a message because the messenger acted “outside the democratic model” when he disclosed vital information that is in the public interest? Even that is debatable, that he acted outside the democratic model. Yes, perhaps he broke his oath of secrecy but even that oath seems to include protecting those who expose abuse within the intelligence community. Also, do mass surveillance and spying of this kind not undermine and erode the very fabric of democracy? Do we not need to ask ourselves if the designation of “democracy” still applies? I have heard the internet hailed as a democratic medium. Now it seems that it has been turned into a mass-surveillance machine.

More than that, Edward Snowden said that “eventually there will be a time where policies will change because the only thing that restricts the activities of the surveillance state are policy.”

This is the one detail about which he was wrong. Sadly, there is no “eventually” about it. That time is now.

More on that in my next post.