It is tempting to extend the pun by describing the close cooperation between
the United States’ NSA and the United Kingdom’s GCHQ in snooping on their own
people and the rest of the world, as the USSR – the United Spies Special
Relationship. In the past, Letter from
the UK has been very skeptical about the “special relationship” that is
claimed to exist between this country and the United States, arguing that it is,
on the British side, more a matter of aspiration and supplication than reality.
But in the case of universal spying it is clear that there is indeed a very
special relationship. Mind you, membership of the exclusive snoopers club is
not restricted to two; it extends to the elite white Anglophone nations –
Australia, Canada and New Zealand. The fruits of universal espionage are for
“Five Eyes” only. The United States is, of course, the ring master.
Since Edward Snowden blew the whistle on these murky operations things have got more interesting by the day. Each new revelation provides an object lesson for all who are interested in the nature of political power, its impunity and hypocrisy. The sanctimonious declarations of commitment to open government and democratic values emanating from Washington and Westminster are exposed as cant. And in their fumbling and vengeful determination to smear and criminalize the whistleblower rather than confront the enormity of the offence perpetrated against the privacy of millions of innocent people, representatives of the British government and their eager media echoes outdo their US paymasters in the volume and spite of their spleen. The right wing press, particularly the Murdoch and Rothermere titles, on all other issues self-proclaimed champions of freedom of the individual from state interference, on this issue defend the right of the state to spy on the whole population. All who oppose such universal surveillance are accused of giving succor to terrorists. Prime Minister David Cameron, employing the P.R. huckster’s verbal trickery at which he is accomplished, describes those who complain about being spied upon and applaud the exposure of the spies, as having “lah-di-da, airy-fairy views about what this all means.” It’s on the same level as his claim that Ed Miliband is “a Marxist” and “a con-Man”. (A propos his use of the term “con man” for someone he disdains, one is tempted to suggest that Cameron may be engaging in what psychoanalysts term projection).
Giving succor to terrorists: this is the mantra that has been repeated ad nauseam. It’s worth remembering that since 9/11 2001, this alarmist message, or variants of it associated with the “War on Terror”, has been used to manufacture public consent to two disastrous wars. Blair told Parliament and the nation that Iraq was a state that harbored terrorists and that Britain could be hit by Saddam’s WMDs within 45 minutes of their launch. We were told that British troops were fighting in Afghanistan to keep our streets safe from terrorist attacks. We were told that British security forces spared no effort to keep the nation safe by monitoring the movements and activities of terrorist suspects here and abroad. We were not told that this involved spying on everyone, hacking millions of communications in cyberspace and retaining access to anything and everything that this top secret activity by GCHQ revealed. We were not told that in this universal enterprise GCHQ was funded by and worked in subordinate cooperation with the U.S. National Security Agency to whom it passes whatever information the latter demands. We can be certain that had the universal NSA/GCHQ spying operation not been exposed by Snowden, we would never have heard about it. We would have been left with the mendacious and hypocritical claim that only totalitarian governments like those of China and Iran engaged in such illegal intrusion into the activities of law-abiding democratic states and their citizens. Whenever secrets designed to conceal criminal behavior by the agents of the state have been exposed by whistleblowers, the furious response from the ruling elites has been that such exposure, if not downright treasonable, has been dangerously damaging to “the national interest.” This was the response to Seymour Hersh’s reporting of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam and to Daniel Ellsberg’s leaking of the Pentagon Papers. This was Margaret Thatcher’s response to the “Spycatcher” revelations in 1988. Now, the government and its cheerleaders in the press are gunning for The Guardian. The right-wing newspapers, desperately attempting to resist any regulation of their perceived right to snoop into the private lives of whomever they choose in pursuit of whatever titillating or sensational gossip they deem to be of “public interest”, are now most vociferous in their denunciation of serious investigative journalists for exposing universal spying into the private communications of millions. These defenders of “the national interest” and warriors against “terror”, have come close to accusing The Guardian of treason. Tory MP, Julian Smith, has demanded that the paper be prosecuted for the “devastating impact on national security” its revelations are supposed to have inflicted. We should be in no doubt where all this could lead if Cameron and his corporate media cronies get their way. It will not be the tabloid hacks who deal in trivia, distortion and character assassination who will be restrained. It will be serious investigative journalism dedicated to telling truth to power and exposing the abuse of power, that they will try to silence.
The more that is revealed with the publication of the Snowden files, the clearer it becomes that the main concern of the spying agencies and their governments is not, as they would have us believe, the “gift” the revelations provides for terrorists. The real concern is that the lid has been lifted on the extent of NSA and GCHQ spying on their allies. This is the secret they were most anxious to protect. This is the most embarrassing. It is not simply, for example, that they spy upon the whole population of France; they also listen in to the mobile phone conversations and email communications of German chancellor Angela Merkel, Mexican president Pena Nieto and Brazilian president Dilma Rouseff. It is the exposure of these activities that the snoopers find so excruciatingly embarrassing and are unable to spin excuses for. These countries are supposed to be friends and allies of the U.S. for God’s sake! How can this sort of spying have anything to do with combatting terrorism? Well, of course, it doesn’t. It is first and foremost about retaining and extending U.S. dominance in its diplomatic and trading relations with its “friends” who it clearly regards as its subordinates in the global power stakes. But these revelations are also a source of embarrassment for the German, French and other European politicians who are routinely spied upon. They all thought they were co-partners of the U.S. in sharing the fruits of espionage. In this belief they now learn that they were deluded. They were lied to. Even though Merkel and Hollande might wish to sweep the whole unfortunate mess under the carpet as quickly as possible, they have their own people to contend with and those people are not amused and not prepared to be fobbed off with excuses about national security.
In early July of this year, while Snowden was still holed up at Moscow’s International airport, a plane carrying Bolivian president Evo Morales back home from Moscow was forced to land in Vienna after being refused permission to enter the airspace of France, Italy, Portugal and Spain. Morales was detained on the plane for several hours in the belief that Snowden may have been on board. There is no doubt that this diplomatic outrage in which the governments of five European countries were complicit, resulted from pressure by the U.S. government. It caused an explosion of anger throughout Latin America. From the United States there has been no admission of responsibility and no apology. Morales himself asked “How can these countries obey the will of the United States? I imagined these nations were defenders of democracy.” Now try to imagine this:
The government of Venezuela spent years requesting the extradition of a convicted terrorist guilty of bombing a Cuban civil aviation airliner in 1976, killing all 77 passengers. The terrorist, Luis Posada Carriles fled from a Venezuelan jail to the United States which refused to allow his extradition. Now suppose the government of Venezuela, claiming to believe that Carriles, or someone else they wanted to apprehend for aiding terrorism , may have been on a plane carrying the U.S. president back from a conference in Brazil, had forced the president’s plane to land in Caracas so that it might be searched, and detained it at the airport for several hours. It needs little imagination to guess what kind of reaction this would have provoked from the United States. But U.S. impunity is taken so much for granted by its European allies and supporters that they seem incapable of imagining how this hegemonic power strikes those on the receiving end of its contemptible arrogance and bullying. Almost every administration, including Obama’s, has subscribed to the John Wayne doctrine of international diplomacy, “Never Apologize – it’s a sign of weakness!”
And what of Britain’s part in this United Spies Special Relationship? Cameron was clearly discomfited at last week’s Brussels E.U. summit, where he could bring himself neither to openly oppose nor unequivocally approve of the statement which came out of the meeting, expressing serious criticism of the NSA’s spying activities. The truth is that Cameron is not remotely troubled by the scope of these activities, in pursuit of which GCHQ is an active and totally reliable partner. This is one area in which the special relationship really does work to great effect and he must be very proud of it. But, needless to say, he could not admit to this in Brussels, so, in the words of one reporter, he “silently acquiesced” in the publication of a statement with which he must have felt distinctly uncomfortable. That’s the kind of prime minister we have. We may anticipate from him and his colleagues more dissimulation, prevarication, self-righteousness and admonitions to “shoot the messenger”, as the Snowden files reveal more and more of the snoopers dirty tricks in the weeks and months ahead.