United States

Aug 27, 2013

Ten things we’ve learnt about the surveillance state

While the flow of leaks about the National Security Agency continues, we can stand back and draw some important conclusions.

Bernard Keane — Politics editor

Bernard Keane

Politics editor


The sheer volume of revelations from whistleblower Edward Snowden (or from the UK government pretending to be Edward Snowden?) about the vast surveillance state established by the US government has made it hard to keep track of what we now know the US National Security Agency has been doing. However, there are a number of conclusions we’re able to draw from both the revelations themselves and the response to them by governments.
  1. Much of the internet-wide surveillance conducted by the NSA has been illegal even under the extraordinarily broad terms allowed by US Congress. The illegality has been confirmed by the NSA itself in leaked internal audits and even by the court that normally acts as a rubber stamp for surveillance, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which stopped the NSA from continuing to collect tens of thousands of purely domestic emails a year. .
  2. This vast power has, inevitably, been abused by individuals. The NSA has admitted, in a follow-up to revelations several years ago that its agents listened in to intimate discussions between US defence personnel purely for titillation, that its agents have used the vast surveillance apparatus to stalk "love interests" -- although the NSA only knows about the cases where stalkers within the NSA voluntarily reported themselves. .
  3. The NSA’s surveillance is not confined to terrorism or national security. The NSA has spied on US allies in the EU and on the United Nations. The NSA’s surveillance network was used to spy on Kim Dotcom, who has been called many things by the US government, the NZ government and the copyright cartel, but never "terrorist". The UK spied on delegates to a British G20 meeting. That is, once the apparatus has been established, the temptation to use it for purposes other than national security has proved too great. .
  4. Despite their denials, Silicon Valley's biggest companies, like Microsoft, Facebook, Apple and Google are totally complicit in this surveillance -- to the extent of being paid millions of dollars by the US government to offset their compliance costs. .  
  5. The most senior officials and politicians lie about NSA surveillance. The head of the NSA, General Keith Alexander, lied about holding data on US citizens. National Director of Intelligence James Clapper perjured himself before Congress in claiming there was no surveillance of Americans. US President Barack Obama’s carefully parsed claim that "no one is listening to your calls" (as distinct from collecting vast troves of data about the calls) was proven to be wrong by the NSA’s own audit, which revealed thousands of domestic calls a year are intercepted by the NSA. The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee claimed Edward Snowden was lying about the capacity of the NSA to place any American under surveillance without a warrant, until the capacity of the XKeyscore program to query internet content of any email address with a pro forma justification was revealed. .
  6. The NSA does not have effective control of its data. It does not know what information Snowden has. And if it can’t tell months later what Snowden took, it can’t know how many of its staff are using its surveillance apparatus illegally, or provide any assurance the data it is hoovering up from the internet isn’t being transferred to other countries or sold to companies or organised crime. .
  7. The response of governments to being caught out in secret, illegal surveillance is to use national security legislation to pursue journalists and whistleblowers. Snowden is being pursued by the US government and has been forced to seek asylum in Russia. Chelsea Manning has been sentenced to 35 years’ jail for revealing US war crimes. US journalists have been subpoenaed and spied upon to track down whistleblowers. The partner of journalist Glenn Greenwald, who was previously targeted by US firms in relation to WikiLeaks, was stopped by British authorities under UK anti-terrorism laws, detained and robbed of his possessions. Journalist Barrett Brown remains in prison facing charges totaling more than 100 years for sharing a link. The Guardian was forced to go through the ridiculous theatre of destroying devices at the request of the UK government. .
  8. But the rule of law is only for the media and whistleblowers, not for governments. Clapper has not been charged with perjury despite admitting he gave false testimony (indeed, he is running the "review" of mass surveillance requested by Obama). Perpetrators of war crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq exposed by Manning have never been prosecuted or even investigated. NSA officials have not been held to account for illegal surveillance, or for abuse of their own systems by NSA staff. Former UK Lord Chancellor Charles (Lord) Falconer, who helped introduce the UK legislation under which Greenwald's partner, David Miranda, was detained, has said bluntly that the laws could not have applied to Miranda. .
  9. The corporate media is at best an unreliable advocate of transparency. One of the media outlets that revealed Snowden’s disclosure, The Washington Post, has carried op-eds attacking its own reports and journalists. As a UK Telegraph columnist noted, conservative British media outlets have been mysteriously silent about the UK government’s attack on The Guardian. In Australia, national security apologists like former spy Cameron Stewart at The Australian have attacked Snowden and tried to dismiss his revelations as trivial. Senior US journalists have suggested Greenwald be arrested for his role in the Snowden revelations. A senior journalist with Time recently called for Julian Assange’s murder by drone. .
  10. The manufactured concept of "wanton publication" is taking hold. The idea was developed by WikiLeaks' critics over the Manning material, formalised by the US government when it prosecuted Manning, and is now a weapon for the state and corporate media against transparency. Under the "wanton publication" mentality, there is "good", corporate journalism provided by the mainstream media that works closely with the government apparatus (even if it opposes a government on ideological grounds, like Fox in the US or News Corp here), and there is "bad" journalism, the dissemination of information by non-journalists, or outlets like WikiLeaks, or "activist journalists" like Glenn Greenwald, who endanger society with their irresponsibility and who do not deserve the protections traditionally afford the media.
In the end, at considerable personal cost, Snowden has achieved exactly what he wanted to achieve -- to initiate a debate by exposing the US government’s vast, secret surveillance of Americans and the rest of the world. Most importantly, Snowden has revealed a vast catalogue of crimes by the NSA and the US government that would never have come to light except for his bravery. In this context, special mention should be made of the disgraceful attack by Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus on both Snowden and Chelsea Manning recently, when, channelling the "wanton publication" mentality, he claimed neither should be deemed a whistleblower. This is Dreyfus at a conference a fortnight ago:
"Where an activity has been authorised under law and overseen by appropriate government bodies, and where no wrongdoing has been identified, the disclosure of information is not 'whistleblowing'. This is a critical point that is often overlooked in much of the media coverage of the release of classified information by Mr Snowden in particular."
Perhaps "wrongdoing" doesn’t mean what Dreyfus thinks it means. Several thousand breaches of US law, a finding by even a rubber-stamp court of unconstitutionality, a cover-up of breaches, perjury -- if that’s not wrongdoing for Dreyfus, then he is manifestly unfit for the office of Attorney-General.

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18 thoughts on “Ten things we’ve learnt about the surveillance state

  1. jaseologist

    What I can’t understand is why the MSM hasn’t run with any of the above (besides a few of the smears as mentioned). Given that this/these are some of the biggest stories in living memory, why are only the indies pursuing them? Is it the fault of MSMs readers/viewers who appear to be apathetic, or are they apathetic because they are unaware?

    Thanks for sticking with this Bernard. A great summary that I will need to bring to the attention of others.

  2. FelineCyclist

    A chilling summary of one of the most significant issues of our time. Thanks for doing your job. Wish your colleagues in other media outlets would do the same.

  3. Michael Cohen

    An extremely imposing list.

    It is cause for concern that Dreyfus is Minister for “Emergency Management” and Special Minister of State, whatever that is, but in this lay some very futuristic frightening connotations.

    Based on the evidence his definition of right and wrong completely alludes me. But then again that would depend on which “interest groups” at the core he represents and that’s not too hard to figure out.

  4. paddy

    It’s profoundly worrying, that while Dreyfus has been such a lame failure as AG, the the prospect of Brandis filling the same role is even worse.

    Although I always felt a bit lukewarm towards Nicola Roxon during her time in the job, in hindsight, she’s looking pretty good.

  5. robinw

    An excellent summary of a state out of control.

    It’s ironic that the first Dreyfus I can recall was the cause of the formation of the Zionist movement due to his (Captain Dreyfus) treatment at the hands of a rampantly anti Semitic French Officer corps in the late 19th century. That one suffered enormously at the hands of the establishment, this one is the establishment and appears just as ready to persecute as his namesake was persecuted.

  6. Bob the builder

    The MSM’s reaction to Wikileaks’ and now Snowden’s revelations show the hollowness of their claims to be acting in the public interest.

  7. Microcirrius

    There is Julia Louis Dreyfus from the popular Seinfeld series and I think there was another Dreyfus, a male actor from the eighties…Jaws, anyone?

  8. Circus Taximus

    Another ‘excellent and thank you’ to add to the pile.

    I find the MSM response and the public apathy just about incomprehensible. Though it did occur to me after I’d read some pretty tawdry stuff on Miranda in the Daily Mail and Evening Standard last week that these are the sort of outlets that feed public fear – Reds – no – Turrists – under the beds – thus allowing them to be persuaded to give up freedom, not to mention tax dollars, in exchange for ‘safety’ (or ‘liberty’ if you’re American).

    The media, always had to be just a bit complicit with the military-industrial complex didn’t it? Or it wouldn’t have worked. So now they’re auto-McCarthyists. (oh, listen, I can hear Gore Vidal shouting ‘I told you so!’ from beyond the grave…)

    So, anyone know if the Murdoch-world-domination-complex owns any of the consulting firms who work the PRISM data for NSA/GCHQ?

  9. maxcelcat

    Fark. It’s really hard to not be paranoid.

    Nixon must be grinning wherever he is (if I wasn’t an atheist I’d say hell).

  10. Brian Williams

    Excellent summary Bernard. The double-speak surrounding this issue, by virtually the entire political leadership in the western world, is truly frightening. If there is an afterlife, then George Orwell is screaming “I told you so”

    When those who expose the truth are considered to be the enemy, and when the MSM takes the side of those calling them the enemy, then we’re all in a turgid pile of bat guano.

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