Defending fundamental freedoms; the challenge of a generation?

Glasgow University’s new rector: I give you Edward Snowden

It has been a bit of a strange week, hasn’t it?

There was Edward Snowden’s election as rector of Glasgow University. Certainly a victory – and one that has left Mr Snowden “humbled” – it was not favourably received by everyone.

“I’m all for political statements,” one of the students witnessing the outcome of the election said, “but at a time when the university and students need the biggest say with all the cuts it’s just in­appropriate not to have a working rector.”

In some ways, perhaps, a valid concern, even though Daniel Ellsberg, of Pentagon Papers fame, suggested that “with encrypted communications, [Mr Snowden] can do a lot for [the students]. He was just taken onto the board for the Freedom of the Press Foundation. It may take a little technology but I’ll think you’ll find he has a lot to say on the issues of the day.

A lot to say, certainly. Yet it does remain to be seen how much Mr Snowden can actively contribute to his new post. However, the election was clearly intended as a political statement and as such, it will hopefully carry some weight, even though it has also prompted some reactions that are, frankly, more than a bit off the mark.

The daftest (there is no other word for it, I am afraid) response certainly came from Michael Scheuer, a professor of Security Studies at Georgetown University in the US, who said that Mr Snowden’s election as rector “goes to show the failure of the education system in teaching the importance of patriotism and loyalty […]. It strikes me as showing the naivety of students”.

I cannot even begin to count the ways in which this statement is upsetting. More than anything it goes to show the arrogance of Mr Scheuer, as well as a warped idea of patriotism and loyalty that has been worrying me for a long time.

For one thing, Mr Scheuer’s views are grounded in a view of reality that completely ignores the fact that there is still no evidence of any actual damage done to national security in the US or Britain by the Snowden revelations.

By contrast, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, an independent federal agency established on the recommendation of the Sept. 11 Commission to balance the right to liberty against the need to prevent terrorism, in a recent report concluded that it had

“not identified a single instance involving a threat to the United States in which the telephone records program made a concrete difference in the outcome of a counterterrorism investigation.” Members of the board also noted that they were “aware of no instance in which the program directly contributed to the discovery of a previously unknown terrorist plot or the disruption of a terrorist attack.”

For another, in repeating that if Mr Snowden’s motives had been honest, he would come home to face trial, Mr Scheuer chooses to remain ignorant of the many times it has been made clear that for Mr Snowden to return to the US would be a very bad idea indeed. And yes, that absolutely includes clemency or plea bargain scenarios. I, for one, stand by my assessment that, given the extremely vengeful sentiments expressed by some members of the IC, a return to the US would not be a safe bet for Mr Snowden.

That Mr Scheuer’s views are grounded in unproven hysterics and jingoism rather than realistic assumptions is evident in his idea that he “tend[s] to think [Edward Snowden] may way have been working for the Russians all along.”

Excuse me while I take a moment to go away and cry in despair.

Patriotism, loyalty, jingoism… intelligence?

Yet even if we ignore the fact that all Mr Scheuer does is repeat unfounded allegations and baseless suspicion, his arrogance in denouncing the Scottish education system as a failure is just as worrying and, frankly, downright infuriating.

It bespeaks the idea that necessarily all of Scotland should share Mr Scheuer’s views about “patriotism and loyalty” and that anyone who doesn’t is really a bit naïve.

Pardon me for disagreeing on every single count. I am reluctant to even venture into the patriotism and loyalty territory as for me these terms seem to be used more often than not as a final means of ending an argument by people that do not like to be argued with.

But if talk about it we must, then I would argue that neither patriotism, nor loyalty have anything to do with allowing people’s rights and liberties to be kicked in the dust.

On the contrary, I would argue – with Mr Snowden, I believe – that patriotism and loyalty have a lot to do with upholding and protecting the values that a country was founded on, and proclaims to stand for.

Thus, who is the greater and more loyal patriot: the person who closes their eyes to wrongdoing in the name of security, or the person who stands up – at great personal risk and cost – to speak out in favour of the values that a society cherishes? Yes, the question is rhetorical and the answer obvious. It has also been discussed and put forward frequently over the past months but then, it seems that even though we discuss it ad nauseam, proponents of the opposite view – that patriotism equals blind and unquestioning loyalty – are entirely reason-proof. Scott Ludlam certainly isn’t wrong when he argues that “[w]e urgently need to raise the IQ of the debate here.”

This in relation to Australia where Edward Snowden has been denounced as a traitor to his country (i.e. the US) by Australia’s foreign minister and others.

Perhaps the election of Edward Snowden as rector of one of the oldest universities in the world will finally help us raise the IQ of the debate.

Edward Snowden won the election by a wide margin. More than that, a much larger-than-previous number of students turned out to vote – hence, the issues raised with Mr Snowden’s help obviously mean something to the students of Glasgow University.

Mr Snowden’s supporters point out that his election is in line with a “tradition of making significant statements through [Glasgow University’s] rectors.”

“[T]oday,” students said, “we have once more championed this idea by proving to the world that we are not apathetic to important issues such as democratic rights. Our opposition to pervasive and immoral state intrusion has gone down in the records. What is more, we showed Edward Snowden and other brave whistleblowers that we stand in solidarity with them, regardless of where they are. In the following weeks we will continue to campaign for the NSA and GCHQ to cease their assault on our fundamental right to privacy and for Edward Snowden to be recognised as the courageous whistleblower he is, rather than a traitor.”

This, rather than the election of an acting rector, seems to have been the true motivation behind the campaign and the final vote, and in light of recent events the importance of such a statement cannot be highlighted enough.

Detention, detention, detention… lawyers, journalists, attorney-client privilege

After all, this has also been a week that has seen more worrying developments with regard to a free press and human rights.

As such, this week the UK High Court ruled that the detention of David Miranda at Heathrow airport last year was lawful and justified.

This only a few days after whistleblower and human rights lawyer Jesselyn Radack was also detained Heathrow airport.

More than that, it has emerged that a US lawfirm was caught up in the NSA dragnet – attorney-client privilege, I believe, being a decisive problem here, “lawyers in the United States with clients overseas have expressed growing concern that their confidential communications could be compromised by such surveillance.

Incidentally, this particular case also demonstrates once again that US mass surveillance is by no means limited to counter-terrorism.

And these are just the examples that have emerged most recently. The catalogue of violations that we have become aware of thanks to Edward Snowden is, as we all know, much larger.

They include undermining internet encryption, industrial espionage, targeting charities, PMs and the EU, and attacks on hacktivists to recall but a few.

And yet people continue to get caught up in debates about whether or not Mr Snowden’s character is questionable, whether or not he is a foreign asset, whether or not he is a traitor.

Actually, judgement of Mr Snowden’s character should have no bearing on the way the substance of his revelations is approached. The documents that have been disclosed reveal a series of abuses that need to be scrutinised and investigated. This is true whether Mr Snowden is of questionable character or not.

There is a reason why the NSA, GCHQ or other spy agencies should have unlimited powers, and why there need to be working systems of oversight in place.

Take Australia as an example. Scott Ludlam writes that

The first thing you discover when you dig into the laws of warranted telecommunications intercepts in Australia is how rigorous they are. Previous generations of legislators enacted a dense mesh of checks and balances, judicial oversight, and fine-grained annual reporting to keep these powers in check. For this reason among others, Australia is not a police state.

However, he continues:

“[I]n the last decade or so, this warranted interceptions regime has been utterly wormholed, circumvented to the point of obsolescence […] The legal protections that apply to agencies wanting to listen in on your phone call are completely void when it comes to mapping your social networks, financial habits, medical conditions, and precise location everywhere you take your phone. Intelligence agencies do not have to conform to even these restrictions, and deploy the “national security” trump card to justify remaining entirely outside freedom of information laws or the reporting obligations that other agencies have to deal with. Now “national security” is used to justify anything…”

This anything ranges from industrial espionage to the pointless detainment and interrogation of journalists and human rights lawyers – practices that have very little to do with counter-terrorism and a lot to do with “intimidat[ing] the journalists [and now also lawyers] working on [the Snowden] story and deter future disclosures” by equating things like journalism, activism and political dissent with terrorism and then, yes, playing the national security trump card.

If that in itself isn’t worrying enough, consider – as a side-note if you will – that Lord Justice Laws, who ruled against David Miranda this week, does not believe “that journalists “have a role in a democratic state to scrutinise action by government“.

Essentially, by ruling David Miranda’s detention as lawful, the UK High Court has legitimized what it itself recognized as an “indirect interference with press freedom”, arguing that – this is my favourite bit – there was “no perceptible foundation” for the suggestion that [Miranda and Greenwald] were not putting national security or lives at risk by possessing the material.

Well, the argument cuts both ways: there is no perceptible foundation, either, for the suggestion that they were putting national security at risk.

Justice Laws’ assessment seems to rely rather heavily on evidence “from Oliver Robbins, the deputy national security adviser at the Cabinet Office, that the material was likely to cause very great damage to security interests and possible loss of life,” i.e. on an individual’s assessment rather than proven fact. Note also that Robbins did not say that the material did cause damage – nor did he provide evidence of that – but that it was “likely to”.

And as if that wasn’t enough, I am not sure how much we can trust the ruling of a man who, in an unrelated but relevant case, admitted to being “quite unable to see that any … principle prohibits the Secretary of State from relying … on evidence … which has or may have been obtained by torture by agencies of other states over which he has no powers of direction“.

Excuse me, but just in how many ways is that latter statement wrong and how worrying is it that a British judge in the 21st century is unable to see any principle under which the use of information obtained by torture (no matter who did the torturing) is unacceptable?

I think it is fair to say that unless we do something about not only what Edward Snowden has revealed but also about what the response to it by some the most powerful people in our countries says about their attitudes to our values, rights and liberties (a clue: contempt is the word), we may sooner or later find ourselves in dire straits.

Or, as Edward Snowden said:

If we do not contest the violation of the fundamental right of free people to be left unmolested in their thoughts, associations, and communications – to be free from suspicion without cause – we will have lost the foundation of our thinking society.

This is but one of the reasons why the election of Edward Snowden as Glasgow University’s new rector makes a far more important statement than people like Mr Scheuer would like to dismiss it as.

In a country where press freedom is at risk and where the debate about surveillance has been far too subdued, it is but one way of showing solidarity with someone who has enabled a discussion that is badly needed to preserve our thinking society.

More fundamentally, the election itself shows that, thankfully, this society has not quite stopped thinking yet.

It is a way of “proving to the world that [people are not] apathetic to important issues such as democratic rights”.

In his statement in response to his election, Mr Snowden said:

The defence of this fundamental freedom [to be left unmolested in their thoughts, associations, and communications – to be free from suspicion without cause] is the challenge of our generation, a work that requires constructing new controls and protections to limit the extraordinary powers of states over the domain of human communication.

In a week that was once again seen both the serious threat to these freedoms and the lack of controls and limitations, the students Glasgow University have stated clearly that they, just like Edward Snowden, are ready to take up that challenge.

All that is lacking now is for more of us to join them.

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