U-turns, defences and legislation proposals: the NSA/GSHQ week so far

“The NSA situation is one we need to look at. I support the complete review of all of these programs.” – US Senate majority leader Harry Reid

 

I am about to go away for a week so I am a bit short on time. However, given that this week has seen quite a bit of action already, I leave you with a round-up of NSA/GCHQ news so far.

 

Renfield vs Dracula: Diane Feinstein’s about-turn

Senator Diane Feinstein, chair of the Senate intelligence committee – one of the most fervent supporters of the NSA until now – has called for “a major review into all intelligence collection programs” following reports that the NSA spied on international leaders, allegedly without informing president Barack Obama.

Recent revelations have included news of NSA phone tapping in France, Spain, and Germany, where chancellor Angela Merkel’s mobile phone was allegedly monitored by the NSA for over ten years.

In Latin America, a human rights panel “expressed frustration and dissatisfaction with the National Security Agency’s mass surveillance of foreign nationals” calling oversight of the programmes “illusory”.

The Guardian reports thatBrazil is […] teaming up with Germany at the UN on a general assembly resolution demanding an end to the mass surveillance.”

It has also emerged that the NSA’s pilot programme to collect mobile phone location data apparently went ahead without prior submission to the FISA court.

So lest we get too excited about the US’s reformed view on the subject, let us bear in mind that given these recent revelations and mounting international tension (the US has been “fielding a week’s worth of European outrage”), they have obviously realized that it is about time they were seen to be critical of NSA practices.

My favourite tweet this week (from Julian Sanchez) summarizes the situation like this: “This is like the scene where Renfield finally tries to fight Dracula. A little late, and mostly just sad, but better than nothing…”

I enjoy the analogy. Feinstein never complained when it came to surveillance of American citizens (which is problematic under the Fourth Amendment) – it is only now that a major diplomatic fall-out threatens that she calls for a review and the White House distances itself from the intelligence community. More than that, Feinstein’s own legislation proposal, if approved, would keep the surveillance programmes largely intact.

 

Attack and Defence: Sensenbrenner, the USA Freedom act and the intelligence chiefs’ passionate defence

I am little more excited about James Sensenbrenner, famously the author of the Patriot Act, introducing the “USA Freedom Act” (The full bill is here). The legislation is intended to “ban warrantless bulk phone metadata collection and prevent the NSA from querying its foreign communications databases for identifying information on Americans”.

While this does little to protect non-Americans, at least it shows that some members of Congress are serious about curtailing the NSA’s powers.

Not so NSA chief General Keith Alexander and National Intelligence chief James Clapper, who testified in Congress on Tuesday, mounting what the Guardian calls a forceful and emotional defence of NSA surveillance.

The NSA preferred to “take the beatings” from the public and in the media rather “than to give up a program that would result in this nation being attacked,” Mr Alexander said.

Don’t be fooled either by his concession on Wednesday that the NSA “may need to scale back some of its surveillance operations on foreign leaders, in the wake of an international outcry,” and “that limiting the program may be necessary in order to maintain diplomatic relations.”

Note that he is still defending the programmes as such. No wonder the New Yorker satirically quotes Mr Alexander as promising that the NSA will never get caught spying again.

“At the same hearing,” the Guardian reports, “James Clapper warned the panel to be mindful of the “risks of overcorrection” in surveillance reform – suggesting that proposed restrictions on bulk surveillance would leave the country in danger of a terrorist attack.”

Invoking 9/11 still seems to be a favourite amongst surveillance defenders. However, if NSA programmes really are that successful at preventing terrorist attacks, then where is the concrete evidence to support this claim?

The answer is that it is lacking just as much as evidence of how NSA reporting has damaged national security or undermined the capabilities of NSA and GCHQ.

Interestingly, Mr Alexander continues to claim that the strongest evidence of anything we have seen over the past couple of months, namely that the NSA collects millions of Europeans’ phone calls is “completely false”.

This in the same week that it has also emerged that surveillance services the world over are “working hand in hand” with the NSA to spy on people on a massive scale.

Further on the subject of international spying, Mr Clapper “Danc[ed] around the central question of how much Obama knew about NSA spying on foreign leaders” saying that “the intelligence agencies “do only what the policymakers, writ large, have actually asked us to do.”

But he added that “the “level of detail” about how those requirements are implemented rarely rises to the attention of presidents.”

So what Mr Clapper seems to be saying is that while “the White House ha[s] long been aware in general terms of the National Security Agency’s overseas eavesdropping”, this “does not extend down to the level of detail. We’re talking about a huge enterprise here, with thousands and thousands of individual requirements.”

 

Yes, you absolutely do need to worry about this, even if you have nothing to hide

Be that as it may, I have massive problems with arguments like the one by Peter Galbraith that more spying is not necessarily better spying.

While obviously making a case against Mr Alexander’s ideal of “collect all”, Mr Galbraith also seems to suggest that because most of our conversations are of no use to the intelligence agencies, we need not worry.

Make no mistake, this isn’t only about the spooks listening in on those of our phone calls they are interested in (and thus, by inference, none of them because we’re all so boring). This is about them listening at all.

It is fair enough to argue, perhaps, that European leaders should not feign outrage about being monitored because they are obvious targets for surveillance.

Consider international diplomats and leaders fair game if you will (which they shouldn’t be). That doesn’t alter the fact that the rest of us aren’t.

We have a right to privacy. This right needs to be upheld. And the problem with NSA powers is not that the quality of the intelligence suffers from its sheer bulk – what kind of an argument is that? – or that everyone is spying on everyone anyway.

The problem is that once you start allowing for this kind of thing, then there is no telling where it will go or how it will be abused. I cannot be the only one with enough imagination to see how hazardous this is. And if you fail to imagine it, do look to the East German past and the Stasi for some clues.

Also, “[t]he Obama administration” specifically isn’t in “its current mess because Booz Allen Hamilton, a contractor doing billions of dollars of secret work for the government, gave a troubled 29-year-old high school graduate access to a vast array of secrets.”

Now, not only do I take issue with Mr Galbraith’s quip at Edward Snowden which – once again – tries to undermine his credibility as a whistleblower by making him out as some kid who doesn’t have his emotional state sorted out.

I also deeply object to the idea that “espionage is not just about collecting secrets but also keeping them.” (As, apparently, does the New Yorker – see above). Not if that means spying on perfectly innocent people and not giving them a chance to decide whether or not they want to surrender their right to privacy for the sake of security.

It is not Mr Snowden whose outlook is troubled, it is Mr Galbraith. Now, I do understand that working as a diplomat might leave you somewhat disillusioned. But that’s no excuse for forgetting that we ordinary mortals have basic civil rights and that we have elected people to protect these rights. And these people, by the looks of it, have failed us.

If it is really true, as the Snowden documents suggests, that the NSA “in partnership with its British counterpart GCHQ, is copying large amounts of data as it flows across fiber-optic cables that carry information between the worldwide data centers” of Yahoo and Google then these firms are right to be furious.

Especially because under PRISM, “the NSA gathers huge volumes of online communications records by legally compelling U.S. technology companies, including Yahoo and Google, to turn over any data that match court-approved search terms.”

Now it seems that in addition to this front-door access, the NSA and GCHQ have back-door access as well. According to the Washington Post, U.S. technology companies “had reason to think, insiders said, that their private, internal networks were safe from prying eyes,” which doesn’t seem to be the case at all.

This latest project to be revealed is called MUSCULAR and whether or not the firms knew about it, we, the users have a right to be furious.

Make no mistake: the scale of this surveillance is massive and the implications are frightening, so we all need to worry about it in a big way.

Why? Because “Yahoo’s internal network, for example, sometimes transmits entire e-mail archives — years of messages and attachments — from one data center to another” to avoid data loss. “Tapping […] Yahoo clouds allows the NSA to intercept communications in real time and to take “a retrospective look at target activity.”

This information about taking “a retrospective look” is vital; it means that even if someone isn’t a target now, the NSA will still be able to reconstruct their digital life retrospectively if they fall under suspicion in the future – something Edward Snowden warned against in his very first interview with the Guardian in June.

If you don’t quite believe that, I suggest you consider this article in the NY Times about the NSA’s retrospective interest in Angela Merkel’s phone conversations once she became the German chancellor (the NSA had been monitoring her communications way before that).

Also note that “[i]n an NSA presentation slide on “Google Cloud Exploitation,”[…] a sketch shows where the “Public Internet” meets the internal “Google Cloud” where their data reside. In hand-printed letters, the drawing notes that encryption is “added and removed here!” The artist adds a smiley face, a cheeky celebration of victory over Google security. Two engineers with close ties to Google exploded in profanity when they saw the drawing,” saying that they hoped the press would publish these slides. The Guardian also reports that these slides “caused particular fury”.

 

And in the UK: same old, same old

Despite all of this, developments in the US still seem more promising than in the UK where international outrage does nothing to stop prime minister David Cameron from making veiled threats against the Guardian while appealing to its sense of “social responsibility”. Ironic.

Demonstrating social responsibility is precisely what the Guardian and other newspapers involved in the Snowden reporting are doing.

Sadly, the same cannot be said about the Tories.

In light of recent developments and policy suggestions, I suppose it’s not surprising for a group of politicians so clearly ignorant of how the rest of us live to respond responsibly to concerns about our rights.

Considering that top US representatives like the above mentioned James Sensenbrenner have written op-eds opposing current US surveillance practices in the Guardian, am I the only one to whom calls for investigation/prosecution of the Guardian seem schizophrenic?

And yes, I am aware that Mr Sensenbrenner is an American but in the UK senior officials have spoken out against the practices of the NSA and GCHQ as well and asked for an end to the attacks on the Guardian.

One of these voice is London Mayor Boris Johnson – also a Tory – who calls the Guardian’s revelations “salient and interesting”.

Johnson, a former journalist, said that “it was important that governments and their spies were held to account by a “beady-eyed” media”.

“I don’t believe that the fact that Angela Merkel’s phone was bugged by the NSA does anything to jeopardise anybody’s security,” Mr Johnson said, “it’s merely colossally embarrassing and it should come out.”

Right he is. Also note specifically what he says about national security and bear in mind that the otherwise endless litany of how the Guardian has endangered it still has not been substantiated with any concrete evidence.

Politicians in the UK would do well to learn the Feinstein lesson and “take careful note of what is happening in Washington – and in a succession of European and other capitals too […] Responsible investigative journalism has unearthed a situation that the oversight system had no idea was taking place. The right response to that is the one that Senator Feinstein […] has now embraced. […] The problem is the surveillance programmes, not the journalism that has told the story.”

Yes, UK politicians would do well to take careful note of that. Perhaps the debate that Lib Dem Julian Huppert will lead in the Commons this Thursday will be a start.

At the same time, though, this is also the week that the press regulation royal charter was approved by the Queen.

We shall see then, shan’t we?

Dear elected leaders, it’s about time you did your jobs. I have some suggestions on where to start.

This isn’t about me or my issues, but for every German citizen we need to trust in our allies, and this trust needs to be rebuilt and this means thinking further about the kind of data privacy we need, about how transparent we are, the understanding between the authorities in America and Europe so we can meet the challenges together. But such a relationship can only be built on trust and that is why I repeat once again spying on friends is unacceptable. (Angela Merkel)

Schadenfreude: a feeling of enjoyment that comes from seeing or hearing about the troubles of other people

The US ambassadors to Germany and France are having a busy week, the EU summit in Brussels “was hijacked by the furore over the activities of the National Security Agency in the US and Britain’s GCHQ”, Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, is “livid”.

Why?

Because it has emerged that the NSA apparently not only tapped Ms Merkel’s mobile phone but has also monitored the calls of over 35 world leaders, not to mention “70.3 million phone calls in France between 10 December 2012 and 8 January 2013”.

I share the response of a lot of Germans to the news about Merkel in particular. Which is, mostly, schadenfreude.

In fact, for me, the first thing that came to mind upon reading about these disclosures was “welcome, Ms Merkel, to our world”. After all, many of us ordinary mortals or – as Merkel calls us – citizens have been furious for over four months now.

Not only at the extent of surveillance but also, importantly, at our governments’ reactions (or significant lack thereof) to the Snowden disclosures – not to mention their complete failure to support Mr Snowden, if not their outright complicity in the US’ manhunt for him.

It was the reason I started this blog and like Ms Merkel, I am livid.

Not so much “about me or my issues, but for every German [and every other] citizen”. And yes, that absolutely includes Mr Snowden – in a very prominent position on a long list of people on whose behalf I am outraged.

Given that, you could say that Ms Merkel’s words echoed my own sentiments when she said that her fury over the latest disclosures “isn’t about me or my issues, but for every German citizen.”

Except, they didn’t.

Because, you see, my excitement about the EU reaction to the news that our leaders’ phones were bugged is significantly tempered by the following questions which I cannot stop asking myself:

Where was this reaction four months ago when we found out about Prism and Boundless Informant or the tapping of intercontinental fibre optic cables?

Where was Merkel’s and other western leaders’ outrage when we found out that NSA and GCHQ had undermined encryption and built back doors into what were said to be secure systems each and every single one of us uses every day to safeguard our communications, online banking, purchases…?

The Guardian quotes one tweet from Germany that summarizes what many of us must be feeling: “Being German, I do not understand why gov says it’s okay when NSA spies on all Germans but not okay when NSA spies on chancellor Merkel #nsa

Similarly, in a Guardian op-ed Glenn Greenwald points out that “Chancellor Angela Merkel reacted with basic indifference when it was revealed months ago that the NSA was bulk-spying on all German citizens, but suddenly found her indignation only when it turned out that she personally was also targeted. That reaction gives potent insight into the true mindset of many western leaders.”

The same is true, of course, of Francois Hollande, the French president, and other western leaders who failed to be properly outraged when the civil liberties of their citizens were first revealed to be under threat.

So, why now? Why not when this first started? Why is it that celebrities like John Cusack, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Oliver Stone (the usual suspects, it would seem) beat our elected representatives to it when it comes to demanding an end to mass surveillance?

 

Nonsense: words or ideas that are foolish or untrue, behavior that is silly, annoying, or unkind

And do not even get me started on some of the reactions in the UK!

The UK has always had a very special and cosy relationship with the US and it seems that its recent refusal to back military intervention in Syria has done little to change that.

David Cameron is still the one European leader who isn’t particularly bothered, it seems, about what has been revealed – or rather, he is bothered – but in a different way. He is bothered in the opposite direction from everyone outside of the UK.

Together with other British MPs, Mr Cameron seems to think it might be a good idea to investigate and possibly prosecute the Guardian and whilst I am schadenfroh (the adjective that goes with schadenfreude) rather than outraged about the fact that Ms Merkel’s phone has been bugged, I am actually perfectly livid when it comes to this – yes – nonsense.

Take the most recent example.

Says former British terrorism watchdog, Lord Carlile:

“David Miranda, his partner Glenn Greenwald, Edward Snowden and the Guardian claim to be virtuous whistleblowers.

“Their virtue apparently includes travelling the world and publishing or seeking to publish secrets collected by the UK and other countries to protect their citizens. What kind of virtue is that?

“Mr Snowden has provided and the Guardian has published material that allegedly shows where and how the UK is functioning against terrorism.

“Is it anything other than criminal to seek to publish such secrets?

“In my view most right-thinking people would condemn Mr Snowden’s activities and question the actions of journalists whose newspapers may benefit from his wrongdoing.

“It is worth investigating whether there were any conspiracies to breach the Official Secrets Act. […] Its publication could have resulted in disastrous undermining of the legitimate efforts of secret investigations, perhaps putting back for years the struggle against worldwide political violence.”

And Mr Cameron himself, in a recent press conference, repeats the same mantra:

“what Snowden is doing, and to an extent what the newspapers are doing in helping him doing what he’s doing, is frankly signalling to people who mean to do us harm how to evade and avoid intelligence and surveillance and other techniques. That is not going to make our world safer. It is going to make our world more dangerous.”

Now, I cannot be the only one who takes issue with that.

Saying that “Mr Snowden has provided and the Guardian has published material that allegedly shows where and how the UK is functioning against terrorism,” (my italics) shows that one, there is little proof that such material was provided – why else would anyone need to allege anything, they could simply go and point a finger at it?

Two, even if Mr Snowden did provide this material to the Guardian, neither the Guardian, nor in fact any of the other media involved in making these disclosures, have published any material that can be shown to endanger national security.

Again, if they had, what need would there for allegation? Proof would be available in print.

And this little semantic exercise doesn’t even take into account the fact that it has been pointed out time and again that none of the disclosures so far have told terrorists anything that they didn’t already know.

Similarly, it has been repeated time and again, by Mr Snowden himself as well as by the journalists involved in these publications that they specifically do not seek to publish material that is anything other than in the public interest.

I don’t know about you, but I am thinking so far that this is what they have done.

What they have also done, is to uncover “a breach of trust by the US and UK Governments on the grandest scale.

More than that, they have revealed that a lot of this spying isn’t about national security or terrorism at all but about gaining political and economic advantage – last time I checked, neither Angela Merkel, nor Francois Hollande or any other leader of a democratic government and US ally were considered to be engaged in acts of terrorism.

And, can I just say, neither are most of the rest of us. Finally, European leaders seem to be catching on to that fact – however belatedly.

Not so much in the UK though.

Shockingly, Lord Carlile in the statement quoted above seems to be implying that anyone who does not condemn both Snowden and the reporting journalists is not a right-thinking individual. Now, what is that supposed to mean?

Are we all wrong to worry about our civil liberties? Are we wrong to demand some privacy? Have we all gone bonkers? Or are we all, as Theresa May has put it, guilty of condoning terrorism because we do indeed see Mr Snowden as a whistleblower and Mr Greenwald and the reporting journalists as doing a good job?

Also, has it completely escaped the attention of the UK government that it is not primarily the newspapers that are benefiting from the Snowden disclosures but us, the public, and – yes – government officials as well?

Are they not familiar with the idea of the press as a Fourth Estate, as a kind of watchdog, whose task it is to report on government wrongdoing and to allow us to hold our governments to account?

Perhaps not. More likely, they just don’t welcome it.

Lord Carlile being one of the “sympathetic people [the home office lined up] to help with “press handling“, it really doesn’t come as that much of a surprise that he would “criticise[…] the Guardian for its coverage of mass surveillance by GCHQ” and the NSA.

Similarly, Lord West of Spithead seems to deliberately turn things upside down.

“What [the latest news about phone bugging] has done,” he says, “is taken away attention from the real damage Snowden has done, which is actually listing names of good people who are now at risk and exposing techniques and ways of doing business by GCHQ and NSA that already people who wish to kill us are utilising to try and not get caught. He has, without doubt, made all of us less safe and that is a real worry.”

Er, no.

I am sorry, but this just more nonsense.

We still haven’t seen evidence of any actual names being out there or, in fact, of the opposite, namely “several terrorist plots being foiled, with countless lives saved” being true – no matter what Messrs Alexander, Clapper and Cameron claim to the contrary.

By contrast, conservative MP Julian Smith, who made a complaint to police about the Guardian for damaging national security, may have endangered it himself. Stones and glasshouses, Mr Smith!

Also, I should imagine that not a few people were interested to hear that “senior officials in [US government] “customer” departments – such the White House, State and the Pentagon – [are encouraged] to share their “Rolodexes” so the [NSA] can add the phone numbers of leading foreign politicians to their surveillance systems” and “that one unnamed US official handed over 200 numbers, including those of the 35 world leaders […which] were immediately “tasked” for monitoring by the NSA.”

Systematic spying on the heads of sovereign states which aren’t US enemies or terrorists. With the help of people who aren’t even spies.

That, Lord West, is the real worry.

 

Dear Mr Cameron

And I have something to say to Mr Cameron as well.

The question isn’t “do we maintain properly funded, properly governed intelligence and security services that can gather intelligence on these people” – he means the terrorists – “using all the modern techniques to make sure that we can try to get ahead of them and stop them? Or do we stop doing that?”

Sorry to rain on your parade, Mr Cameron, but this isn’t the only choice there is.

And to simply say that we can either trust you and your intelligence agencies and keep these services the way they are, or we can go get yourselves killed by terrorists, is making it too easy for yourself.

It means ignoring the actual problem.

Seumas Milne in a brilliant op-ed in the Guardian makes this very clear:

“If [national security] simply meant protecting citizens from bombs on buses and trains, of course, most people would sign up for that.

“But as the Snowden leaks have moved from capability to content, it’s been driven home that much of what NSA and GCHQ (virtually one organisation) are up to has nothing to do with terrorism or security at all, but, as might be expected, the exercise of naked state power to gain political and economic advantage.”

Do you see the nuances, Mr Cameron? I am sure you do. You are perfectly aware of these things, aren’t you? I’d be worried if you really didn’t realize that this isn’t a question of either/or any longer; it is far more than that.

And because it is far more than “just” terrorists and bombs on buses and trains”, because it is also “the exercise of naked state powers” – over your enemies, your allies and us – that we, the people, must be allowed to know and discuss at least some of that power.

More specifically, those of your intelligence gathering practices that are not limited to what you call saving our lives.

Because those are practices that potentially jeopardize our rights and our freedoms.

Practices, of which even MI5 people say that “[i]f this was used against us, we wouldn’t stand a chance.

And even if we were to take reassurances that this is all about terrorism at face value, GCHQ’s “long fight against making intercept evidence admissible as evidence in criminal trials” should still give us pause.

If this evidence is necessary to catch and convict terrorists, then why keep it out of court?

I know the answer would probably be because it is classified and its publication would endanger national security.

However, latest revelations suggest what the real reasons are.

Namely that “telecoms firms ha[ve] gone “well beyond” what they were legally required to do to help intelligence agencies’ mass interception of communications, both in the UK and overseas.”

And, perhaps more importantly, GCHQ’s “fear that even passing references to its wide-reaching surveillance powers could start a “damaging” public debate […] which might lead to legal challenges against the current regime.”

I’m just going to let that last sentence sink in, shall I? That thing about “legal challenges against the current regime? Which clearly absolutely hates being challenged.

And then I am going to tell you that there is ample reason for such a challenge, same as there is more than enough reason to question the legality of these surveillance practices.

In fact, they are already “the subject of a challenge in the European court of human rights, mounted by three privacy advocacy groups[:] The Open Rights Group, English PEN and Big Brother Watch.”

In light of this, Lord Carlile’s accusing the Guardian of “an inchoate crime of conspiracy” sounds even more ludicrous than it normally would as it raises the question of who is conspiring against whom and who has a right to be paranoid?

Not the government over disclosures by the Guardian that are in the public interest, surely.

If anyone gets to be paranoid and talk about crimes being committed, then it is the public, who are being spied on by the very people that are supposed to keep them safe, and who seem hell-bent on shutting down any reasonable reporting on the subject.

What we have seen over the past four months have been continuous attempts at diverting attention from the substance of the disclosures and towards a discussion of Snowden’s character or the alleged crimes committed by him and the reporting journalists.

That is why Lord West has it the wrong way around when he claims that the latest revelations have diverted attention away from “the real damage Snowden has done”.

Mr Carlile, Mr Snow, Mr Cameron, Mr Smith, I understand why you’re annoyed.

Edward Snowden, the Guardian and the other media who have reported on this have thrown the shutters on your secret society of Five Eyes wide open.

They have shone a light on your own little conspiracy there.

I understand that you find this annoying but you know what? These disclosures are not going to go away. Neither should they. That’s what any right-thinking individual should be aware of and should welcome.

 

A couple of ideas – and a lot of (rhetorical) questions

So here’s an idea: why don’t you stop trying to prosecute the Guardian as a proxy for Snowden – thankfully out of your reach for now – never mind the scaremongering, and start addressing the real issues?

Why not stop trying to set a dangerous precedent for investigative journalism by continuing what David Winnick has called “an orchestrated campaign against the Guardian”?

Why not enter a healthy debate, now that the rest of Europe seems to be doing so at last, and start thinking about how you can really keep us safe, rather than scream and stamp your feet and tear at your hair because a naughty 30-year-old American hacker nicked your favourite toy?

The US “has begun to review the way that [they] gather intelligence, so that [they] properly balance the legitimate security concerns of [their] citizens and allies with the privacy concerns that all people share.” (Although, unbelievably, NSA chief Alexander still calls for “the reporting being done by newspapers around the world on this secret surveillance system be halted”.)

Countries in the EU are finally starting to push for some explanations in this matter, not to mention tougher EU data protection laws (which UK representatives keep blocking).

“Spying on friends is not on at all,” says Angela Merkel. Neither is prosecuting journalists for doing their job or ignoring the interests of your citizens. Sadly, the UK administration still seems intent on doing that and on maintaining a damaging status quo.

“We need trust among allies and partners,” Angela Merkel goes on to say. “Such trust now has to be built anew … The United States of America and Europe face common challenges. We are allies. But such an alliance can only be built on trust.”

Let’s not forget that we need trust among governments and their electorate too.

That trust, too, has been shaken.

And I very much doubt that any of Mr Cameron’s reassurances about how he is “satisfied that [UK] intelligence agencies are properly governed, properly run, act under the law, and are subject to parliamentary scrutiny” and that “[e]very year for the last few years they have helped to obstruct, avoid and put off major terrorist attacks on our country,” can easily restore that trust.

I don’t see how Mr Cameron can believe that repeating rhetoric by other governments that has been proven wrong (the success at foiling terror plots overrated and the oversight systems in place not working) is going to make people more trustful towards the intelligence agencies or his administration.

Guy Verhofstadt in the Guardian correctly suggests that “[i]n light of all the evidence and new revelations, the US does not deserve the benefit of the doubt.”

Well, in light of all the evidence and new revelations, neither does the UK. Perhaps even less so.

More’s the worry, thus, that any sensible conversation about these revelations or the legality of these programmes “is in danger of being lost” not only “beneath self-serving spin and scaremongering, with journalists who dare to question the secret state accused of aiding the enemy” but also because of the worrying apathy of much of the British public.

So then, in this week that has seen European governments outraged, let me propose this:

Dear governments, dear elected representatives and yes, dear electorates, why don’t you stop “sticking fingers in your ears and going “la la la“”?

Why don’t you instead start listening to people like Daniel Ellsberg, Ron Wyden, Thomas Drake, John Cusack, Maggie Gyllenhaal, the Guardian, and, most importantly us, the people who have been trying to get your attention for the past four months and stop. spying. on. us?

Why not follow up monologues about “how newsworthy these revelations are, how profound are the violations they expose, how happy [you] are to learn of all this, how devoted [you] are to reform” with some genuine action?

In fact, along with Glenn Greenwald, I ask you: “If [the above is] true [if you are so happy to learn all of this], why are [you] allowing the person who enabled all these disclosures – Edward Snowden – to be targeted for persecution by the US government for the “crime” of blowing the whistle […]?”

Why are you condemning and not applauding “[t]he Guardian’s decision to expose the extent to which our privacy is being violated”?

Dear governments, who are now shouting about how mass surveillance is wrong, why don’t you stop acting in your own interest and start acting on our behalf?

How about you prove to us that you do not – as the Guardian’s “principled and selective revelations” (for that is what they are, not a danger to national security) would suggest – hold in “contempt [our] personal rights, freedoms and the rule of law”?

You have been elected to “protect the basic political rights of human beings from persecution”.

So stop “turning [your] back on the person who risked his liberty and even life to bring them to light” and – just as importantly – stop turning your back on us!

Turn to us and start doing your jobs!

It is, after all, what you are here for.

NSA news of the week: Snowden speaks while British PM calls for investigation of the Guardian

This is the week in which Edward Snowden emerged from hiding.

In the wake of his being awarded the Sam Adams Award for Integrity in Intelligence by a delegation of whistleblowers who visited him at an undisclosed location in Russia, a video emerged of Mr Snowden speaking at the awards reception, saying that NSA spying does not make the world a safer place.

More than that, in an interview conducted by the New York Times via encrypted email, Mr Snowden addressed several accusations that have been repeatedly levelled against him over the past four months.

Meanwhile, especially in the UK, questions continue to be asked about the ability of the media to make judgements about what is in the public interest, and both Mr Snowden and the media institutions that have published stories about mass surveillance continue to be under attack.

Why?

Are Mr Snowden’s claims incredible or preposterous? Is investigative journalism harming national security?

Or are governments, particularly in the UK, in fact trying to undermine the public oversight afforded by whistleblowers and the Fourth Estate – the free press?

Let’s take a look at who has said what this week and ask ourselves what it might mean.

 

Edward Snowden: “There’s a zero percent chance the Russians or Chinese have received any documents.”

So a zero-percent chance that the documents Mr Snowden took from the NSA have been seen by anyone except Mr Snowden and the journalists he gave them to – except for those published of course.

I can just about imagine the sort of comment this is going to be met with from government friendly media and bloggers. When Mr Snowden made similar reassurances in June, Joshua Foust, for one, called him “dangerously naïve or a liar.”

Is he?

Let’s see. There is still no evidence that either the Russians or the Chinese have been able to obtain any of the Snowden material.

Now, you could argue that if they did, they’d hardly tell us.

If looked from a different vantage point, however, taking into consideration the care Mr Snowden has taken to safeguard the information, perhaps his claims start to be more believable.

In the New York Times interview, Mr Snowden stated that he had not taken any classified material to Russia with him as, this “wouldn’t serve the public interest”.

This is something you can believe or not. Snowden’s adversaries critics will quite possibly tell you (gleefully so) that it might have been very much in his own (financial) interest to sell the information to the Russians.

But if Snowden was a Russian spy, I don’t see why we wouldn’t know this by now. Considering how happily Russia has been taking the opportunity of sticking two fingers up to the US, I’d suggest they would have identified Snowden as a Russian spy once he was safely on Russian soil, just to add insult to injury.

(Similarly, if he had just been in it for the money, why bother and give any material to the media at all, let alone expose himself as its source? Then again, perhaps he’s just an attention seeker. Yes, I am being sarcastic.)

Jesselyn Radack, one of the group that visited Mr Snowden in Russia writes that Mr Snowden “darkly jok[es] that if he were a spy, Russia treats its spies much better than leaving them trapped in the Sheremetyevo transit zone for over a month.”

Ms Radack is convinced after meeting him that “Edward Snowden is not being controlled by the Russians, or anyone for that matter. He is fiercely independent and makes his own decisions.”

I do suggest you read Ms Radack’s article: her comments on why Mr Snowden is an “asylee” not a “fugitive” who has “the right to be left alone, not hunted like an animal” are excellent and thought-provoking.

Also, she lists a number of quite plausible reasons why Mr Snowden isn’t a Russian spy which I am going to quote in full by way of a summary:

“[H]e didn’t destroy his life to become a Russian asset.

“[H]e’s in Russia only because of the United States, which revoked his passport while he was en route to Latin America.

“WikiLeaks journalist Sarah Harrison has been by his side the whole time, in part to bear witness to the fact that he is not engaged in spying activity.

“[I]t is obvious that he chose to give information about NSA’s secret dragnet surveillance to the US people, not foreign adversaries.

“[A]nd perhaps most significantly considering the contrary narrative promulgated in the United States, he has not had access to the information he revealed since he left Hong Kong.”

While these reasons were given by Mr Snowden himself and I am sure someone will come up with some way of contradicting them all, I don’t think I have to point out that I do not – for a moment – believe that Mr Snowden is a Russian spy.

Nor do I believe that he has defected to China.

In fact, speaking of the Chinese; in the NY Times interview, Mr Snowden also said that he was confident that Chinese intelligence agencies had not been able to get any of his material because “he was so familiar with Chinese spying operations, having himself targeted China when he was employed by the NSA, that he knew how to keep the trove secure from them.”

Can we believe him?

Well. I am by now means a computer whizz kid but even I understand that hackers and security specialists have multiple ways of safeguarding themselves and information they do not want to become known by others.

The more I have read about this in the past couple of months, the more convinced I have become that it is perfectly possible to safeguard information like that (the British government, by way of one example, is still struggling to get the access codes to David Miranda’s equipment).

Interestingly, Mr Snowden suspects that the NSA knows he did not share his material with the Russians or the Chinese because if they did, they would have reacted differently – namely by giving concrete examples of damage done to national security: 

“N.S.A. would have set the table on fire from slamming it so many times in denouncing the damage it had caused. Yet N.S.A. has not offered a single example of damage from the leaks.”

 

“The system does not work.”

Still, assuming that Edward Snowden is neither a Russian spy nor a defector to China, apparently leaves the question of why he didn’t voice his complaints in accordance with the NSA’s system rather than to walk out on them with several computers full of classified material.

Says Mr Snowden that the option of “tak[ing] up an official complaint within the NSA, rather than travelling to Hong Kong to share his concerns about the agency’s data dragnet with the Guardian and other news organisations” is implausible because “you have to report wrongdoing to those most responsible for it.”

As a result, Mr Snowden believes that “[i]f he had tried to sound the alarm internally, he would have “been discredited and ruined” and the substance of his warnings “would have been buried forever””.

I have commented previously on why I believe Mr Snowden’s concerns are valid, the best example of exactly something like this happening being Thomas Drake who leaked information about the NSA’s dysfunctional project Trailblazer in 2006 (after unsuccessfully trying to make internal complaints) and was prosecuted under the Espionage Act.

Drake himself was in Moscow last week to honour Snowden with the Sam Adams award.

Moreover, given the treatment of other whistleblowers under the current US administration, the response to Mr Snowden himself, and the fact that “workers such as Snowden are not protected by [an] executive order,” intended to protect “whistleblowers uncovering corruption and inefficiency,” it seems that Mr Snowden has every reason to be concerned about his welfare, his chances of a fair trial if he returns to the US, let alone his freedom.

 

Handing documents to journalists

Another one of Mr Snowden’s decisions that has come under fire is the decision to “hand over all the digital material to the journalists he had met in Hong Kong,” especially because “[h]e added that he did not control what the journalists who had the documents wrote about.”

Now, it seems that a lot of people – some journalists included – do not believe journalists capable of making sound judgements on which disclosures are in the public interest and which are damaging to national security.

Again: there is no evidence that any of these disclosures have harmed national security. It seems that we will have to keep repeating that ad nauseam because the national security claim is also being resurrected ad infinitum.

Two of the most recent examples include British Prime Minister David Cameron saying that “[t]he plain fact is that what has happened has damaged national security and in many ways the Guardian themselves admitted that when they agreed, when asked politely by my national security adviser and cabinet secretary to destroy the files they had, they went ahead and destroyed those files. So they know that what they’re dealing with is dangerous for national security.”

This, frankly, is nonsense. For one thing, the British government didn’t ask the Guardian politely, they threatened legal action.

For another, the Guardian destroyed the files rather than hand them back. Now, I suppose it should come as no surprise that Mr Cameron would make this out as a success on his administration’s part.

A second example for someone beating the national security drum (quite loudly) is former UK defence secretary Liam Fox who asks the question of “whether it was double standards to prosecute newspapers that hacked the phones of celebrities, but not those papers that released information that endangered national security.”

It should almost go without saying that the answer to that is no. Mr Fox’s equation of responsible investigative reporting on borderline illegal NSA spying with the hacking of celebrity phones is simply outrageous.

The revelation of mass surveillance is in the public interest, private celebrity phone conversations or access to the voicemail of an abducted teenager are not.

Laws were broken in the phone hacking scandal. As far as we know, no laws were broken reporting on mass surveillance.

Actually, a friend of mine made a very astute observation when he said that Mr Fox’s comment was absurd and that phone hacking is comparable to surveillance, not the reporting of it.

 

Threat to national security? Take it with a pinch of salt.

And I am absolutely going to say it again. There is no evidence as yet that the Snowden disclosures have damaged national security.

To the contrary, I suggest you read the excellent article in the Guardian by Ian Cobain and Richard Norton-Taylor (of Tricycle Theatre verbatim theatre fame no less) on why it may not be a good idea to take such claims at face value.

Or, for more concrete evidence, read Yochai Benkler’s op-ed on why NSA dragnet surveillance should be ended precisely because there is no evidence that it is necessary for national security.

Rather, Benkler  points out in another op-ed that “all publicly available evidence presented to Congress, the judiciary, or independent executive branch review suggests that the effect of bulk collection has been marginal.”

Mind you, the claim of a threat to national security was already around when the New York Times published the Pentagon papers in the 1970s and it has been repeated whenever journalists made embarrassing revelations about the government.

Yet it is the responsibility of the media “to keep [people] informed and educated about whatever their government is doing on their behalf – and first and foremost on security and intelligence organisations, which by their nature infringe on civil liberties”.

This is a quote by the way from Aluf Been, editor-in-chief of Haaretz who, along with multiple other senior editors from around the world, rallied to the Guardian’s defence last week, following the allegations made by the Times, the Daily Mail and the Telegraph.

 

Distressing developments: investigating the Guardian

It is all the more distressing therefore that the Guardian is now set to be investigated by a “select committee” over claims that the paper’s revelations have damaged national security.

It is distressing that the UK government, rather than to make inquiries into their own shambolic spying programmes, is heaping blame on investigative journalists for doing their jobs.

 

Governing in the dark

And here is why this is so distressing.

“The secret continuance of these programs represents a far greater danger than their disclosures. So long as there’s broad support amongst a people, it can be argued there’s a level of legitimacy even to the most invasive and morally wrong program, as it was an informed and willing decision. However, programs that are implemented in secret, out of public oversight, lack that legitimacy, and that’s a problem.”

This, again, is Edward Snowden, speaking to the New York Times and we and governments around the world would do well to give his words some thought.

It is true that one of the greatest problems with these programmes is that they have been implemented without public consent.

And it doesn’t do to argue that governments need to be allowed to have secrets, or that considerations of civil rights need to be weighed against national security.

Snowden himself offers a very sound argument when he says that these secret programmes and equally secret processes of oversight “represent[…] a dangerous normalization of ‘governing in the dark,’ where decisions with enormous public impact occur without any public input.”

One of the greatest dangers with any kind of secret governance (and one of the reasons why we need a free press to expose it) is that it crosses and pushes back boundaries to legitimize questionable practices (or engage in them without legitimization).

It is only through public oversight that this can be prevented: “state power is best contained by making the overwhelming majority of what goes on in society invisible to the state [because] an omniscient government is too powerful for mere rules to restrain” because it will simply “violate[…] any rules in place meant to constrain it.”

Another example of this has come to light only this week: “that the NSA is collecting millions of email address books around the world, producing even richer and more invasive portraits than telephony metadata likely offer.”

As violations clearly exist, “[w]hy,” asks Yochai Benkler, “would we expect the[ir] self-monitored procedures to work?”

The answer is, we shouldn’t.

And, as a matter of fact, international law experts not only do not believe they work, they actually aren’t so sure if mass surveillance by NSA and GCHQ does not violate international law.

Edward Snowden is right to say that “[i]f the highest officials in government can break the law without fearing punishment or even any repercussions at all, secret powers become tremendously dangerous.”

 

Launching inquiries, debating legislation: a way forward?

It is a good thing then that in the US a bipartisan coalition continues to push for significant alteration to policies governing NSA spying while in the UK “the extent and scale of mass surveillance undertaken by Britain’s spy agencies is to be scrutinized in a major inquiry” which was launched this week.

Meanwhile, both NSA director General Keith Alexander and his deputy Chris Inglis have announced their impending departure from the NSA.

Reuters suggests that this might be a “development that could give President Obama a chance to reshape the eavesdropping agency”.

However, I for one, am not exactly sure that the appointment of Richard Ledget, “[t]he man who heads a new taskforce at the National Security Agency to handle information leaks” as Inglis’ successor is a promising idea.

After all, his current position was created after the Snowden leaks and Mr Ledget’s “duties include overseeing improvements to internal systems and assessing what information has been taken in unauthorised disclosures.”

It is perhaps just as well then, that Edward Snowden is still tucked away safely – and apparently not too unhappily – in Russia.

As to Glenn Greenwald’s announcement that he is leaving the Guardian to “create an online space to support independent journalists” with his colleagues Jeremy Scahill and Laura Poitras (who Snowden first got in touch with) – I am sure that will draw more than enough criticism of its own.

Already, the ever-bash-ready Telegraph decries it as a “clone factory” with a potential for creepiness.

As for me, I will make up my mind about it when I know what it is.

Yet considering the threat to independent journalism that seems to manifest itself in UK in particular (and which many people, including UK prosecutor Keir Starmer have spoken out against), perhaps a new journalistic venture that allows for “more quick response journalism” that “put[s] things out in more detail” and “tr[ies] to democratise the process” of journalism itself is not such a bad way forward.

I cannot help thinking, though, that they better have good lawyers.

The Fifth Estate: stunning performances but it leaves a bad aftertaste

The Fifth Estate should come with a disclaimer. This is not a Julian Assange biopic. It not, as its title would suggest, a film about the so-called Fifth Estate either – even though the term is so ambiguous that you could perhaps argue it applies.

It isn’t even about the rise of WikiLeaks, although it tries to chart the journey of WikiLeaks’ core team (of mostly two: Assange and former WikiLeaks spokesman Daniel Domscheit-Berg) from their first meeting at a hacker conference in 2007 to their falling out in 2010, when Domscheit-Berg left the organisation over differences with Assange.

Actually, the idea of irreconcilable differences – the standard reason cited on many a celebrity divorce paper – does come to mind as the film is very much about a bromance gone bad.

The Fifth Estate is based, very loosely I would say, on two books that Julian Assange has called “the first [and] next most toxic.”

At first I thought it was the film’s one single stroke of genius to actually have Cumberbatch’s Assange voice that criticism towards the end but now I am not so sure; it seems more as if the authors, and Dreamworks, were trying to absolve themselves of what feels – throughout – like a lack of diligence, care and even respect, in favour of a rather typical Hollywood plot.

Events have been considerably sexed up, obviously to add suspense to what might otherwise have been a less fast-paced but perhaps more authentic depiction of what happened. Films usually allow for poetic license but The Fifth Estate is displays a frequently irritating lack of effort to do people and events justice.

As the end credits rolled, I walked out of the cinema, feeling that I badly needed to look more closely into Assange’s version of events – and I am very far from being an Assange supporter. Yet the film’s perspective – which is mostly “Daniel’s”– makes Assange’s portrayal feel biased.

It isn’t Benedict Cumberbatch’s fault. Whether or not he took pains to take into consideration Assange’s objections to the film (which Assange verbalized in a long letter to Cumberbatch), his performance is stunning.

Critics’ individual assessments of the film notwithstanding, pretty much everyone agrees that Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Assange as a mercurial and slightly obscure hacker with a serious lack of social skills is brilliant work. He not only nails Assange’s lispy Australian drawl but also carefully avoids bias in his depiction of a character that fluctuates constantly between freedom fighter, egomaniac, paranoid loner, and hero/villain.

Sadly, most reviewers seem to overlook that Daniel Brühl, one of Germany’s most talented actors, effortlessly holds his own next to Cumberbatch, which is no small feat either. Especially when you consider that his character, Daniel Berg, isn’t anywhere near as challenging as Assange or, in fact, Brühl’s other recent major part – that of Niki Lauda in Rush.

The rest of cast is equally impressive, boasting some well-known names from the US, UK and even Germany (Moritz Bleibtreu from Run Lola Run is in it, in case you were wondering where you’d seen his face before).

Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci make appearances as Deputy Undersecratary of State Sarah Shaw and James Boswell, Assistant Secretary of State for Security, respectively.

Peter Capaldi, Dan Stevens and David Thewlis have been cast as Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, deputy editor Ian Katz and investigative journalist Nick Davies.

Peter Capaldi in particular makes for an odd choice though, mostly because the make-up department can only do so much to make him look like Alan Rusbridger. Which he doesn’t.

He continues to look like Peter Capaldi and no amount of mad hair or horn-rimmed glasses can change that. Now, don’t get me wrong; I like the look. I quite fancy seeing that hair on the 12th doctor. It just didn’t quite work for Rusbridger and I think anyone who has ever seen photos or videos with Rusbridger in them will see my point.

Mind you, the same is true of the other journalists. Dan Stevens in particular is far too handsome. Not because Ian Katz is unattractive (which he isn’t) but because Stevens seems too groomed and well-rested for a deputy editor involved in the undoubtedly often nerve-wracking publication process of what has been named “the biggest leak of classified information in history”.

Then again, it is hardly the actors’ fault that they are given little opportunity to flesh out their characters. Both the journalists and the US representatives in the film seem mostly like extras on the side-lines of the unfolding drama between “Julian” and “Daniel”.

The one journalist allowed a few precious moments of serious involvement is Nick Davies – David Thewlis delivering an overlooked gem of a performance – who is seen to broker the deal between WikiLeaks, the Guardian and several other papers besides (i.e. Germany’s Der Spiegel and the New York Times, with the involvement of El Pais and Le Monde completely omitted).

The scene is telling in that it portrays Julian Assange as unwilling to cooperate (accounts of which vary), and in that it is pretty much the only scene that goes into a little bit of detail about the cooperation – and necessary negotiations – between the Fourth and Fifth Estates.

Other brief scenes in the different papers’ offices are more a means of pacing up the story and raising additional obstacles on the increasingly tricky path to publication.

For that, Leigh and Harding’s Wikileaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy provides the back story, little details like the information that Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning smuggled sensitive documents out of the US military compound in Iraq on a re-writable CD labelled “Lady Gaga”. The film is more heavily reliant on (and still not all that truthful to) Domscheit-Berg’s Inside Wikileaks.

Given that WikiLeaks, together with the Guardian, der Spiegel, the New York Times, Le Monde and El Pais pulled off a hitherto unprecedented journalistic feat, the film left much to be desired where the journalistic aspect or even the idea of protecting whistleblowers are concerned.

Sure, the start of the film has “Julian” speaking about how it takes one whistleblower to topple an oppressive system, and how WikiLeaks is about providing a platform for the safe and anonymous submission and publication of sensitive documents.0

There are even a few moments that outline the very real danger posed by un-redacted documents (a danger denied by WikiLeaks in their statement on the film) but it is telling that Chelsea Manning herself is mentioned only in passing.

The film’s take on the moral considerations of a project like WikiLeaks barely scratches the surface, and a lack of depth is, in fact, one of its greatest weaknesses throughout.

Perhaps this is why the film needs a sage Nick Davies to “declare Very Important Things” or to explain in so many words why WikiLeaks and the actions of the main characters represent “a new information revolution […] A…. fifth estate”.

Perhaps if the film hadn’t got so lost in its own, slightly post-modern looking, cleverness and symbolism when trying to depict processes like encryption or communication via TOR networks, then it could have paid a little more attention to the nuances of what is an ongoing and extremely complex affair.

As it was, it seemed as if the production team did not quite dare (or care?) to go there. There is little mention (except at the very end) of the pending sexual assault charges against Assange in Sweden.

Instead, Assange is made out as an almost mythical figure who the film does not seem to be able to make up its mind about: is he slightly autistic, traumatized by his childhood, a paranoid and at times extremely vulnerable loner, or is he just a sociopathic arse?

Given that Domscheit-Berg in his book suggests that Assange constantly likes to reinvent himself (something which is mentioned several times in passing in the film) perhaps the film really isn’t quite sure about how to approach him. Then again, it may simply be trying to give viewers the opportunity to make up their own minds, but it takes way too biased an approach in the selection and treatment of its source material for that to really work.

Sadly, The Fifth Estate doesn’t go to great lengths to challenge its audience either. My favourite example of this is that almost all dialogue is in English when actually a lot of the conversations are between German speakers with no English speaker present. It seems that the film doesn’t want to risk over-challenging its audience by making them read subtitles. Even Rush did that!

This is clearly an entertainment piece, aimed at audiences who perhaps are not normally so very interested in, or informed about, the events behind it.

Clearly, this is common practice in Hollywood. However, not even someone very critical of WikiLeaks could entirely discount their reproach that the film is not identified clearly enough as a work of fiction and that, in any case, it depicts only one side of the story.

More than that, it sits uneasily between several chairs; trying to depict the cooperation between WikiLeaks and several of the world’s biggest print media (as detailed in Leigh and Harding’s book), the history of WikiLeaks (which needs to be treated with extreme care), the reaction by the US, the bromance between its two main characters, and parts of Assange’s biography, the film does not quite succeed at any of these endeavours.

More than anything, the The Fifth Estate lacks conviction. Instead, it suffers an overdose of pretentiousness, especially in its imagery. “Daniel” symbolically trashing the WikiLeaks “office” (a space that doesn’t physically exist in the film) or “Julian” standing in a field of ashes after his collaborators have turned against him (the impact of which is overstated) are but two examples of its unimpressive and unoriginal symbolism.

The Fifth Estate may be worthwhile as a political thriller and perhaps even a character study of someone called “Julian Assange”. The problem is that it would have worked just as well if the production team had changed the names and made this into a story about a fictional hacker and his war on secrecy.

As a depiction of recent events, a history of WikiLeaks, or an Assange biopic Bill Coydon’s ambitious film rather disappoints. It may not be trying to be any of these things, but recent news that Hollywood is now looking into making a film about Edward Snowden rather make my skin crawl.

“What the Guardian is doing is important for democracy”

“What the Guardian is doing is important for democracy”

Debate underway

Further to my post on the emerging debate in the UK yesterday, here a couple of links to reactions across the world. Many of the world’s leading editors have defended the Guardian‘s reporting on the Snowden files, following an attack by the Daily Mail which accused the Guardian of aiding the UK’s enemies.
Importantly, UK business secretary Vince Cable has said that the Guardian was “entirely correct” to publish the Snowden disclosures.

Meanwhile, deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg “is to start conversations in government about how to update the legal oversight of the UK’s security services”.

Nick Hopkins in the Guardian gives an overview of opinions that have emerged over the past months and more on the ongoing debate can be found in a special Guardian live feed.

News from Edward Snowden

Meanwhile, the first verified photo of Edward Snowden has emerged following his meeting with a delegation of former US officials turned whistleblowers who presented him with “an award for “integrity in intelligence””. They later reported that Snowden was in good spirits and has no regrets.

Edward Snowden’s father also seems to have met his son at an undisclosed location in Russia.

The surveillance debate has reached the UK at last – or has it?

Andrew Parker’s speech and the media’s astonishing obvious reaction

So, this week the long-overdue debate on the surveillance capabilities of GCHQ finally kicked off in the UK.

On 8th October, MI5 Director General Andrew Parker addressed the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), defending GCHQ in his first speech since becoming head of MI5.

The reactions this has produced are quite alarming. Mostly because they seem to do little, as yet, to promote the kind of debate Britain should be having (and that Snowden and the Guardian have tried to encourage). That is, a debate about whether or not GSHQ spying should and can continue in the way it has, and about how legislation regarding the power of intelligence agencies may be in dire need of reform.

According to former Liberal Democrat MP Chris Huhne, neither the cabinet nor the National Security council were briefed on “GCHQ’s Tempora or the NSA’s Prism, or about their extraordinary capability to vacuum up and store personal emails, voice contact, social networking activity and even internet searches.”

Now, you can think of Huhne what you like, but he isn’t wrong when he says that “[t]his lack of information, and therefore accountability, is a warning that the supervision of our intelligence services needs […] updating […].”

In the US, the debate about the powers of the NSA is ongoing. Senator Ron Wyden, as one example, continues to ask the question of “whether NSA ever collected or made any plans to collect Americans’ cell site information in bulk” which as yet remains unanswered.

By contrast, in the UK, few such questions have been asked after four months of revelations and the debate that has erupted in the wake of Mr Parker’s speech was of a rather different nature.

Off went the Daily Mail, the Telegraph and the Times on what feels like a witch hunt of the Guardian and its editor, Alan Rusbridger.

Particularly, Mr Parker’s claim that “[i]t causes enormous damage to make public the reach and limits of GCHQ techniques. Such information hands the advantage to the terrorists. It is the gift they need to evade us and strike at will,” was read as a direct indictment of Edward Snowden and the Guardian for making sensitive information available to terrorists.

There are a couple of obvious problems both with Mr Parker’s claims (five of which are analysed by the Guardian here) and media reporting of his speech.

 

Problem #1: Unproven claims

The indictment that publication of information on the reach of surveillance gives an advantage to terrorists has been made time and again and it has been repeated ad nauseam by some of the media. Yet, much like others who have made similar claims, “Parker did not present any evidence to support this.” That’s because “[h]e can’t.”

Importantly though, Nick Hopkins reminds us that “those who doubt the claim cannot disprove it either.”

Yet, experts on intelligence “doubt the extent of the “gift” Parker describes.”

Take journalist and novelist John Lanchester who, in his excellent Guardian article, points to “the under-remarked fact that Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad didn’t even have a telephone line running into it. […] [T]he bad guys know very well that they have to be careful.”

Similarly, ex-MI6 chief Nigel Inkster last month played down the damage caused by the Snowden leaks.

“Al-Qaida leaders in the tribal areas of Pakistan had been “in the dark” for some time – in the sense that they had not used any form of electronic media that would “illuminate” their whereabouts, Inkster said.”

Security expert Bruce Schneier in the New York Times points out that “there’s nothing here that changes anything any potential terrorist would do or not do.”

Interestingly, Schneier also believes that “history will hail Snowden as a hero — his whistle-blowing exposed a surveillance state and a secrecy machine run amok” but he is “less optimistic” – and rightly so – “of how the present day will treat him, and hope[s] that the debate right now is less about the man and more about the government he exposed.”

I am not sure how justified the last hope is, especially in the UK. Not only has the debate kicked off with significant delay here (the first Snowden revelations were made four months ago in June).

It is also dismaying to watch that the debate prompted by Mr Parker’s statements seems to centre, once again, on Snowden, the Guardian and its reporting rather than the substance of the revelations.

 

Problem #2: Informed debate? Nonsense!

The Daily Mail in particular has taken the opportunity to – as Roy Greenslade has put it – launch a “multi-weapon assault on the Guardian”.

Reading the Daily Mail’s coverage of and commentary (more here) on the Guardian’s reporting, not to mention the attacks against its editor Alan Rusbridger, I find it very difficult not to agree with Mr Greenslade.

To quote from the Mail itself: “It is impossible to imagine a graver charge against a newspaper than that it has given succour to our country’s enemies and endangered all our lives by handing terrorists ‘the gift they need to evade us and strike at will’.

Now, if that (completely over-the-top) charge could be proven to hold any water, it would indeed be grave. Yet, I humbly refer the Mail and everyone else – again – to previous writing and commentary on other recent “aiding the enemy” charges, be it against Snowden, Chelsea Manning or the Guardian.

I should also like to point out that while the Mail and several others besides understand Mr Parker’s statements as an indictment of the Guardian’s “crimes” this is not actually what Mr Parker has said.

Note also the Mail’s repeated reference to its own distasteful and much criticised article on Ralph Miliband and how it then goes on to accuse the Guardian of much graver crimes: “[Ralph Miliband] fought for Britain in the war. And never once, as far as we are aware, did he give practical help to our enemies. Nor was he ever accused by the head of our security services of putting British lives at risk. Isn’t that a great deal more than can be said for the Guardian?”

Do you know what this is? Nonsense. And of the most alarming kind too because this is not about truth or falsehood or about the actual problem of indiscriminate surveillance.

It isn’t even about national security.

It is about the Mail taking the opportunity of lashing out at its “enemy”, the Guardian.

I find it alarming how readily the Mail has jumped at the opportunity of making Mr Parker’s remarks about itself (note the inflationary use of the pronoun “we” in the article) and its rivalry with the Guardian (turning it into a personal attack on Alan Rusbridger, no less).

Let us be clear here. We still have to see concrete examples of how exactly the revelations have damaged national security.

In direct response to Mr Parker’s claims, Clive Stafford Smith, the legal director of death row campaigners Reprieve said: “It must be said that there is nothing in the Guardian’s revelations that has been shown to help terrorists in the least, and Mr Parker did not give a single concrete example to demonstrate this.”

Similarly, the claim – repeated yet again – that Glenn Greenwald was threatening the UK when, following the detention of his partner at Heathrow, he said: “I will be far more aggressive in my reporting from now. I have many documents on England’s spy system. I think they will be sorry for what they did” has been corrected repeatedly.

To double check Glenn Greenwald’s more nuanced review of the incident (and several other important questions besides), allow me to refer you to a video of the Newsnight interview with him in which he eloquently and convincingly answers a number of important questions. (You will have heard many of them before but perhaps it is a good thing that these got addressed once again in a sensible way on UK national television).

The Mail conveniently ignores this. Why? Because their “journalism” is not about a reasonable discussion of the facts as we know them at all. Neither are insinuations that Edward Snowden “probably […] passed [his information] to Russia and China (he was earlier in Hong Kong), both of which powers are not very friendly to Britain.”

Rather than to start an informed debate, the Daily Mail, the Times and the Telegraph are repeating statements which are entirely “based on supposition”.

More than that, accusations like these also fail to take into account an important fact pointed out by Nick Hopkins: “Perhaps the Russians and the Chinese do now have the files. But if they have obtained them, they have managed a feat that has so far eluded the combined efforts of the British and American intelligence communities. Four months after this saga started, they still don’t know how many files Snowden took.”

 

Voices of reason?

John Kampfner, thankfully, represents one voice of reason.

He makes some excellent points about why Mr Parker is to be commended for “putting the spy agencies’ point of view” up for a long-needed discussion. Importantly, Kampfner also notes that “the actual words [Parker] made in his speech are more thoughtful and sober than the spin accompanying it that was regurgitated by several newspapers.”

What Kampfner also makes clear – and this is important and the Mail would do well to take note of it – is that “[i]t is one thing to reveal operational detail” (as the Guardian and Edward Snowden have been repeatedly accused of doing) but “it is quite another to put into the public domain the broad strategy – the remarkable revelation of the extent of the snooping that has taken place unbeknown not just to the public but to many of the politicians who are supposed to oversee the agencies” (which is what has actually happened).

“With so much at stake,” Kampfner writes, “one might reasonably (or naively) assume that, whatever their political hue, the media might work collaboratively in challenging the powerful.”

This weeks’ debate has shown once again that this isn’t the case. Many of the UK media have – yet again – “fail[ed] in [their] core function,” not even trying to demand a debate that is by now four months overdue.

Perhaps though, there is a glimmer of hope. As such, Dame Stella Rimington, a former MI5 chief, “acknowledged her old agency needed to be more transparent.”

David Cameron, the British Prime Minister “revealed he is open to suggestions about how the security services could be better governed”.

Mind you, Mr Cameron also said: “When you get newspapers who get hold of vast amounts of data and information that is effectively stolen information and they think it is OK to reveal this, I think they have to think about their responsibilities and are they helping to keep our country safe.”

Sadly, this is not exactly a progressive opinion and it reminds me a lot of the PM’s American counterpart, Barack Obama, belatedly welcoming a debate and greater oversight and then installing a review panel which consists mostly of intelligence insiders.

In the UK the debate is at the moment still dominated not so much by the substance of the leaks and the practices and oversight they call into question but by what seems to be the different factions of the press reaffirming their political alliances.

Perhaps once the Mail and miscellaneous have ceased their bashing of the Guardian, the real debate will follow.

Let us watch closely. The Guardian, for one, has a live feed here.

P.S.

In some good news: Edward Snowden has been visited by a delegation of whistleblowers – including Thomas Drake – and presented with the Sam Adams Award for Integrity and Ethics.

Also “In the coming weeks in Washington D.C., buses will be wrapped with large-size ads with a picture of Mr. Snowden accompanied by the words: Thank You Ed Snowden” – people can submit their own photos.