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.