IMPUNITY AND HYPOCRISY: The United States and Edward Snowden.

Successive U.S. administrations have, since the earliest years of the cold war, acted in their relations with the rest of the world as though their judgments and actions were not subject to the same rules as those constraining other states. It is assumed to be self-evident that whatever is claimed to be in the national interest of the United States justifies taking any action that may be necessary, regardless of what the rest of the world may think. From the late 1940s to the early 1990s the Manichean ideology (succinctly expressed in Ronald Reagan’s anathematizing the Soviet Union as the “Evil Empire”) prevailed. The evil empire of “totalitarian communism” was prevented from dominating the “Free World” only because of the armed might of the United States, selflessly dedicated to the preservation of democratic freedom everywhere. Good versus Evil. Senator Barry Goldwater, the now largely forgotten Republican candidate in the 1964 presidential election, famously declared that “moderation in the face of tyranny is no virtue; extremism in defense of freedom, is no vice.” Although widely criticized as an extremist at the time, and although he lost the election to the Democratic incumbent, L.B. Johnson, Goldwater’s dictum might easily have been the inspiration for much of U.S. foreign policy before and since. Examples of the U.S. acting with impunity are legion. Many may be cited from every decade from the 1950s to the present - examples that have little or nothing to do with the proclaimed principle of resisting “communist aggression”, though that was often the excuse for military interventions, conspiracies, master-minding of coups, economic sabotage and violations of international law. Just a few examples will have to suffice.

In 1952 the radical nationalist government of Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran was overthrown by a CIA-planned and directed coup d’etat. In 1954 the same fate befell the radical nationalist government of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala. In 1961 the U.S. trained and armed Cuban counter-revolutionaries and master-minded the abortive Bay of Pigs invasion of the island. In 1963 the U.S. backed a successful rightist coup against the democratically elected reformist government of Juan Bosch in the Dominican Republic. The U.S. was involved in Pinochet’s military coup that toppled the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende in Chile on September 11 1973. In the 1980s the Reagan administration armed and trained the contra death squads that wreaked their reign of terror against popular nationalist movements in Nicaragua and El Salvador. This is to say nothing of the war waged against the national liberation movement in Vietnam in the 1960s and 70s and the fifty-year long economic embargo of Cuba or the illegal invasion of Iraq. For more than fifty years all this has been done in the name of freedom and democracy. In the past the U.S. maintained a permanent arms economy supposedly to protect the “free world” from communism. Since 1991 the justification for the retention of NATO and the globalized U.S. military presence has been the “war on terror.” This is also used to justify the enormous scope of the National Security Agency’s global spying operations on foreign nationals revealed in the latest sensational exposure by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

From Snowden’s revelations it has emerged that the hacking activities condemned by the U.S. as intolerable intrusions into the privacy of individuals when practiced by counties such as China, are practiced on an even greater scale by the United States itself. The hypocrisy is breathtaking. As Obama condemns the Chinese government for allegedly launching cyber attacks against western targets, a top secret presidential directive has been revealed exposing the president’s commitment to cyber-espionage on an unprecedented scale. Euphemism is dispensed with in a document that refers to “Offensive Cyber Effects Operations”. OCEO “can offer unique and unconventional capabilities to advance US national objectives around the world with little or no warning to the adversary or target and with potential effects ranging from subtle to severely damaging”. The document doesn’t simply express an intention. The United States is already engaged in widespread offensive operations.  “We hack everyone everywhere”, Snowden told the Guardian newspaper. “We like to make a distinction between us and the others. But we are in almost every country in the world.” So, there you have it. In the light of these revelations it is not easy to lay claim to the moral high ground when criticizing lesser recalcitrant regimes for doing the same. When all the cant is stripped away from specious attempts to justify such behavior, it comes down to this: as the world’s hegemonic superpower the United States has the right to do as it likes and this includes the right to pursue and severely punish anyone who dares to lift the veil of secrecy from its spying shenanigans. The target for the NSA’s vengeful wrath is Edward Snowden. Shoot the messenger.

Snowden leaked to the Guardian top-secret NSA documents and a PowerPoint presentation giving details of  a secret program, Prism, which utilized information supplied by companies such as Microsoft, Facebook, Apple and Google. Daniel Ellsberg, the former US military analyst responsible for leaking the Pentagon papers in 1971 considers that “there has not been in American history a more important leak than Edward Snowden’s release of National Security Agency material.” (Have we been saved from the United Stasi of America? The Guardian 11 June 2013). Snowden decided to leak the top secret documents because he believes that rights guaranteed by the constitution, such as the Fourth Amendment right to privacy, are being suppressed in the name of security. So far it remains unclear how the U.S. authorities plan to respond to Snowden, but in view of the predictable demand by the usual suspects that he be extradited and tried for treason and that Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald who interviewed Snowden and brought the story to the press, be arrested, it would be naïve to assume that no action will be taken against him. However, the Obama administration is experiencing acute embarrassment over the issue. The revelations have provoked outrage in Europe and angry questions are being asked about the unlawful surveillance of European civilians under the Prism program. These questions cannot be ignored and it is difficult to see how Obama will be able to reassure his allies that they have not been treated with contempt.

But here in Britain the government, supported by much of the media, is gearing up for a damage limitation exercise. Faced with the revelation that Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) is able to access communications data offered to it by the NSA under the Prism program, without requiring ministerial approval, foreign secretary William Hague, in his statement to the House of Commons, responded with circumlocutory and misleading platitudes. His purpose was to reassure MPs that everything in the intelligence-gathering garden was rosy and that no-one had anything to fear. “If you’ve done nothing wrong, then you’ve nothing to worry about” - this is the mantra designed to lull the anxious into a state of trusting acceptance that universal surveillance is for their own good. From the myriad online messages turned over to the NSA by network and service providers, only a tiny handful revealing terrorist plotting or activities will be subject to scrutiny. This is the message that everyone is expected to take to heart. It is worth considering the implications of this.

Essentially we are being told that in order to be protected from terrorist bombings and other outrages, some sacrifices have to be made. Everyone must be prepared to sacrifice his/her privacy to universal surveillance by a secret state intelligence service whose activities (by the very nature of the valuable work they do on our behalf) need to be kept secret from us. We just have to trust them - and the elected politicians who sanction their activities. If we do nothing wrong, we’ve nothing to worry about. But who decides today, and who may decide tomorrow, if we are “doing anything wrong”? For example, we may imagine an e-mail exchange in which two critics of a government’s foreign policy discuss whether or not there is a causal connection between, say, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the radicalization of some young Muslims who are inspired to become jihadists. Is it too fanciful to assume that simply raising this question online may lay one open to suspicion?

In March 1933, following the burning of the Reichstag building in Berlin, the German Reichstag passed an “Enabling Act” that “enabled” the new Reich Chancellor, Adolf Hitler, to act in the interests of state security against a perceived threat from “Bolshevist Terrorism”. For the next twelve years Germany lived under a state of permanent emergency. For most of that time, most Germans – the overwhelming majority – knew that “as long as they did nothing wrong” they had little to fear from the Gestapo. In terms of the behavior expected of good, loyal citizens, they learned very quickly what the state understood by “right” and “wrong” thoughts and actions. For the most part, between 1933 and 1939, those Germans who “did nothing wrong” went about their business without too much interference from the state. After that, for the next six years, it was a rather different story for Germany and the rest of the world.

While no-one would dream of suggesting that either the United States or the United Kingdom are in serious danger of becoming fascist states, it would nevertheless be rash to ignore warnings from history.