-It’s important that clandestine government power be kept in check.
-A climate of complacency has developed which stops the media and society from holding the government to account.
-The PRISM/SOCMINT/TEMPORA revelations are genuinely terrifying.
-This revelation deserves greater civil outcry.
[NB every effort has been made to use respected news or government sources]
A Dead Roman Poet
A chap called Juvenal is the poet in question. He was a Roman satirist. He suspected his lover of messing around town with another man, or other men. All of Juvenal’s friends advised him to confine her to his villa and to keep her under guard, which seems pretty fucking problematic in itself, pesky misogynist gits. Anyways, Juvenal didn’t do it.
Sadly he didn’t bolt her up on account of his being a prototype feminist hero.
He didn’t bolt her up because he thought it wouldn’t stop this anonymous belle from cheating on him:
“Who will guard the guardsmen themselves?” he wondered. His musing went so far as to consider the fact that, were he to employ guardsmen, they would be the first people his girlfriend might seduce, and they would have the temerity to tell him on his return that she’d been chaste and faithful.
It’s rather sad that the world received the line ‘quis custodiet ipsos custodes’ from this bout of antique sexual jealousy, rather than a loftier setting – Plato criticising tyrants or Xenophon meditating on the dangers of despotism. Still, the question is more pertinent now than ever.
I refer, of course, to the revelations Mr Edward Snowden has bequeathed us over the past month. These reveal manifold abuses perpetrated by the Tier One Guardians, that is, governments, intelligence services and police. So far we know the United States has been at it:
– Harvesting and storing phone records (via telecoms giant Verizon)
– Scouring the internet including private messages, emails and & browsing activity (PRISM, a National Security Agency programme with access to [amongst others] Twitter, Facebook and Google’s metadata)
– Origin and access details (via ‘Boundless Informant’, a complex analytics tool that allows the NSA to sift the otherwise-unmanageable amount of information)
– Reading and recording personal messaging and search history via XKeyscore without a warrant or justification.
– Physical private possessions as the government forces the US Postal Service to monitor all mail.
The NSA programme is aptly summed up by its director, General Keith Alexander: “Collect it all.”
The United Kingdom is clearly in on the act, both:
– Spying on non-Britons, with GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) tapping the communications of foreign governments during the 2009 G20 summit, and
– Spying on its own citizens’ unguarded activity using Socmint (Social Media Intelligence gathered by the National Domestic Extremism Unit of the Metropolitan Police) and
– Spying on its own citizens’ private activity using the Tempora programme to tap into internet flows and share data with the NSA.
– Using undercover officers, informants and interception to spy on 9,000 suspected domestic ‘extremists’, many of whom don’t even have criminal records.
France initially reacted to the revelations in shock, and tried to halt the EU’s trade negotiations with the USA until all allegations had been discussed. However, it quickly came to light that they too were on the act as Le Monde revealed the ‘French Big Brother’: their Directorate General for External Security collects domestic and external French phone and satellite comms and stores the lot for years. Merveilleux
Oh, and the intelligence is shared with the Germans (Wunderbar!), the Aussies (Good Call!), the Canadians and the Kiwis.
Who, in my tortured analogy, are the other dramatis personae?
Juvenal: Civil society, i.e. all society not directly involved in government or Tier One guardian;
Juvenal’s Strumpet: Society’s potential for terrorism, slave trafficking and wrongs towards Juvenal are the alleged parallels to said strumpet’s infidelities.;
The Watchers’ Temptation: The ability of the security/government forces to themselves wrong Juvenal for their own benefit and to perpetuate their ability to wrong Juvenal;
Juvenal’s Friends: Elements of the media/society/’commentariat’ who wholeheartedly endorse the necessity of the Watchers, and even defend their transgressions and slights towards Juvenal for the greater good. May or may not be aware that the Watchers are getting it on with the Strumpet. May or may not also be getting it on with the Strumpet.
This leaves only one role to be cast – the Guardians’ Guardians.
Who, if anyone, fulfills the role of the ‘Tier Two’ custodians?
The Guardian, of course.
That is to say, some journalists. Not all journalists – fuck knows, over the past month, plenty of them have been Juvenal’s Friends. But Glenn Greenwald, in the face of massive international pressure and personal attacks, embodies this Overseer. Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning have moved from Tier One to Tier Two roles; Julian Assange is another Tier Two hero, locked up though he is.
The papers that investigate this kind of shit (and Le Monde, Wired, BigBrotherWatch, Washington Post, The Independent, Slate, Salon, Mother Jones and Der Spiegel all qualify) are operating as Tier Two (hereafter ‘overseers’).
These are not the only papers. Large parts of the American media, and the majority of the British, did not properly cover the scandal. They focused on rabid congressmen accusing Snowden of treachery, on Snowden’s movements and motives, on the plight of Snowden’s girlfriend, on Snowden’s allegedly chequered character, on Greenwald’s allegedly chequered character, on Latin American states’ asylum policies, on the movements of fucking journalists who are nowhere near Snowden.
They did not focus on the revelations – they did not hold their executives or legislatures to account.
Part of the reason for this is simple – on 7th June in the UK, a panicking Cameron government issued major media outlets with a ‘D notice’. Properly a ‘Defence Advisory Notice’, this is an official request to news editors that they refrain from publishing/broadcasting on specific topics in the interests of national security.
In this case, the issue of ‘national security’ was really ‘not offending Hague, Gideon and Dave at the G8 Loche Erne summit’. They didn’t want the other world leaders to know quite how much (and how) the Labour government had listened in on the previous G20 summit in London (and how GCHQ were implicitly doing in Northern Ireland). The main topics at Loch Erne were tax loopholes and the Syrian civil clusterfuck. This was an embarrassment, a humiliation – not a matter of national security.
D-notices are requests; they have no legal force. Yet still most UK papers and the BBC danced to the government tune, only bending their observance of the rules to stick the knife into the Grauniad for breaking them. One might allude to the close personal links between the press and Westminster, but that would be crass. I’ll just leave these pictures of the Spectator summer party here…
But this only really explains the silence of the right wing and central-ground British press, not their active denial and criticism of Snowden/Greenwald or that of other international news bodies. The answer can be found in the comment section of any story relating to this issue (on reports from anywhere on the spectrum).
People literally don’t give a shit. They say they suspected it all along. They say we know Google and Facebook do similar things in order to sell you shit. They say you have to trade some of your liberties to be better protected, i.e. take the role of Juvenal’s friends. They say the whistleblower overseers are actively endangering the country (rather than the guardians). Most of all, they echo Foreign Secretary William Hague in reassuring that there is a very strong legal framework of protection*, and that if you haven’t done anything wrong, “there’s nothing to fear”.
Well thank God for that!
I’ll go into detail about why the spying is a genuine threat below, but first I’d like to address this widespread denialism, because it’s almost equally troubling. I wouldn’t call it ‘brainwashing’, because that calls up allusions to hypnotism, Clockwork Orange conditioning or Jedi mind tricks.
In fact I’d love to see Cameron in a dressing gown practising in front of his mirror, waving his hand and muttering “This isn’t the massive scandal you’re looking for.” Maybe he does.
No, this is more a combination of complacency and communication. We (UK and US) are assured so often and so forcefully that we are the pinnacles of democracy, safety, accountability and freedom that it’s really hard to think otherwise. In writing this, I found myself self-policing in my noggin. “Are you sure about this?” my mind said. “I know all the facts seem to suggest it, but really, this is Britain we’re talking about. It feels a bit far-fetched?”
But I got over my mind. The denial that publications like the Spectator currently shit out, like so much half-digested faeces, are the political equivalent of ‘gaslighting’. Gaslighting is a form of mental abuse, in which you keep changing little things in a person’s life when they aren’t looking, e.g. turning the lights on and off, then, when they look surprised, insinuating that they’re mad. In the Snowden case, the overwhelming majority of commentary, and the state patronisingly reassuring you that “It’s alright dear” have the same effect. You, a would-be overseer, find yourself ridiculed, embarrassed and in doubt. Even when we (and the media) achieve apoplectic levels of outrage for similar breaches of privacy such as the Milly Dowler phone-hacking scandal or the papparazzing of Princess Kate’s boobies, it seems that the realisation this is happening daily, to us, is no cause for concern.
Certainly, I’m writing this with a huge amount of care lest a reader thinks I am a ‘conspiracy theorist’. This is an effective insult to throw in debate, since it triggers the audience’s memories of other conspiracy theories that (probably) aren’t true – JFK, 9/11, the moon landings, Kurt Cobain’s murder. We get the whole image of a tin-hatted man (usually male) fuming and ranting about the government, often using far-fetched logic, extreme readings of evidence, and pseudo-science. And we laugh at them; ‘the twat who cried wolf.’
Philosophical whimsy – skip if you like
Plato was afraid of a similar effect thousands of years ago. In The Republic’s ‘Cave Allegory’ he describes a group of prisoners raised in a cave, seeing only shadows. There is some reward for the best understanding of these shadows. When one prisoner escapes and sees the sun and the reality of the world, he tries to tell his friends the truth. They ridicule him and fear him in equal measure.
A couple of other philosophers deserve brief mentions. Michel Foucault wrote extensively on the idea of ‘knowledge-power’, that the ability to define what was and wasn’t fact gave states authority. Antonio Gramsci took a similar idea and applied it to revolution. An Italian communist stuck in jail, he was afraid that a revolution or coup would never work in Europe because too many of the population disagreed with or misunderstood Marx’s ideas. He argued that a true revolution needs to come from the ‘intelligentsia’, and needs to be slow, a gradual alteration of the public consciousness until everyone is convinced that communism (or whatever system) is the only sensible thing to do.
This would appear to be the case now – not that I think any person or people set out intentionally to make it so. Even though most people moan about politicians and the state of the country, very few even begin to countenance anything different. Support for ‘tax and spend’ is at a record low, and that’s only the softest permutation of socialism. We criticise the Iraq War and Trident nukes, but few question the actual need for or structure of the state’s armed forces, police and defence infrastructure. We don’t question the general necessity for our governments to spy. No boys cry wolf.
FVTVANT CVSTODES PVELLAM- The Guardsmen are fucking Juvenal’s squeeze
The problem is, Britain and America have loads and loads of examples of politicians, the secret services or both acting outside their role. Normally this is to keep them in power, to avoid humiliation or scandal, and occasionally for profit.
In no particular order:
– The Iran-Contra Scandal
– British Intelligence, fearing Prime Minister Harold Wilson was a Soviet spy (or just a bad egg), helped to spread muck defaming him and were possibly involved in two abortive coup plots, along with the Army, Lord Mountbatten and the editors of then-Establishment newspapers. The plot got as far as a Times editorial calling for Wilson to resign in favour of a coalition government, and the Daily Mirror calling for paramilitary action against No.10. In 1975 the Army occupied Heathrow airport on the grounds that they were practising for an IRA attack – but No.10 wasn’t told about the show of strength in advance.
– The FBI’s COINTELPRO programme, which targeted, among others, Rev Dr Martin Luther King and tried to silence him with the revelation that he cheated on his wife. As a certain rock anthem suggests, COINTELPRO disseminated counterintelligence (sic: lies) about Vietnam-era anti-war protesters.
– The Iraq War Clusterfuck, including:
i) The ‘Dodgy Dossier’ containing that WMD claim,
ii) The ridiculously weak evidence used to justify the war exposed in the Chilcott Inquiry & Panorama; evidence that there were no WMDs far outweighed it. Apparently Sir Richard Dearlove, head of MI-5 at the time, is going to release further evidence explicitly stating that Alastair Campbell and Tony Blair lied to the British public. Good man. Bit late.
ii) Dr David Kelly’s death, just after he was outed as the source for the dodgy dossier, in circumstances that remain massively suspicious with ¾ of evidence kept secret. [NB Link is New Statesman, not a tin hatter forum]
– Suspicions that undercover German policemen allowed neo-Nazis to murder Turks to strengthen the prosecution case [HT my Hanover flatmate.]
– The way the police suppressed and tampered with evidence to absolve themselves of responsibility for the Hillsborough Disaster, then blamed the Liverpool fans.
– The way the police spied on and repeatedly smeared the family/friends of murdered black boy Stephen Lawrence, to avoid investigation into their own inept investigation and institutional racism. This included a race-relations campaigner Mohammed Amran, not immediately connected to the family.
– The way police illegally spied on Janet Adler and her lawyer, and attempted to defame them, while they campaigned for an inquest into the death of her brother, a decorated black ex-paratrooper and Falklands War veteran. Christopher Adler had died in custody, in handcuffs, and the death was preventable, as ruled by the European Court of Human Rights.
– From 1990 to 2011 there were 980 deaths in police custody. In that time only one officer was successfully prosecuted, and he received a six month suspended sentence.
– Plans the government has to limit freedom of protest, freedom of assembly, criminalise ‘annoyance’ and allow police, community support officers and even private firms to serve new, harsh anti-social behaviour orders. [My analysis here]
– Recently announced government policy to introduce opt-out filters on websites containing anorexia, self harm and pornography, whilst widening the definition of and punishment for downloading illegal pornography. Discussed in detail here.
– Obviously it’s best not to get hung up on the Americans, with their extraordinary rendition, torture, imprisonment without trial, continued imprisonment after completed sentences etc etc.
This is all beyond the week-to-week stuff you get in Private Eye, which has literally hundreds of stories of politicians, ex-military men, businessmen and media potentates massaging the truth or making coverups for their own ends. A lot of Private Eye stories take weeks to get to the mainstream press, or never do. God knows why…
It is hard to compare all this to Google Analytics or Facebook banners using your information to advertise to you. When you’re on these sites, most of the stuff you do is public anyway – I could see a lot of it with no ‘hacking’. Fuck, that’s what Twitter’s for. Google and Facebook never tried to kill you. You are a small wad of cash to them, not a potential protest voter/protester/rioter/Salafist/rebel commander.
Despite the claims of Obama, Hague et al., there is no strong legal framework to protect private citizens’ rights. There is neither sufficient judicial oversight, nor executive permission. Not in the US, oh no, and not in the UK. Waah. That’s almost beside the point, though. For it to be going on for so long without the electorate’s knowledge is beyond undemocratic – it’s terrifying. Certainly for someone like me, who has a tendency to criticise the government. Certainly when you read that all this surveillance isn’t very helpful for stopping terrorists, who are about the only people motivated enough to get around the snooping. Even Dame Stella Rimington, former head of MI5, says the government has gone too far.
Thought experiment: Assuming William Hague has nothing to hide, will he, once out of office, consent to have his house bugged, his clothing bugged, his family covertly watched and his person surveil-lanced a la Will Smith in Enemy of the State? [Cracking film]
I reckon that’s about as likely as Ian Duncan Smith living on £53/week (his alleged UK benefits limit).
Despite all this, people in the UK are doing virtually nothing. The Guardian’s editor Alan Rusbridger is derided for milking the Snowden story, and no action is taken. Americans at least had the sense to kick up a fuss. If there have been any UK protest marches or campaigns, I haven’t heard about them – and I work in the middle of Westminster. An online petition or two? I’ve seen bigger internet campaigns to get ‘Justice for BOD’ (O’Driscoll, a rugby legend dropped from a big team) than any organised protest action. No media coverage for civil liberties group Liberty in Shami Chakrabarti’s legal appeals against PRISM and TEMPORA. No-one has even started an ironic Twitter hashtag (#Edsnowdenishidinginmybasement ?)
The best movement I’ve seen so far is Prism Break, helpful advice to make your activities private once more. I haven’t done that, and I won’t. HTTPSEverywhere is a great start for the mildly paranoid, but a few savvy individuals eluding government surveillance – probably only partially, probably only for a little while – is nowhere near enough. The UK, and the world in general, desperately need more activists to hold the ‘Guardians’ to account. We cannot rely on the press or on a few brave whistleblowers. We, the people, are all Juvenal. We are vulnerable to the abuse and the lies of the guardsmen given power to protect us. We must guard the guardians.
If any of this made sense to you, please get angry.
If you want to start a riot, best avoid Twitter, eh?
Feel free to comment!
If you are bored, my essay Sand Castles was a similar internet whimsy, but before the NSA revelations. It’s now humourously wrong.