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”.
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 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.”
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.