“These are the times that try men’s souls” wrote Thomas Paine in the first
of his Crisis papers, written in 1776 to help rally the American colonies against
British rule. And now, more than 130 years later, these are times that should
arouse the righteous anger of all who care about democracy and civil liberties.
During the past few weeks we have had irrefutable proof that the security
services of the United States and the United Kingdom have subjected their
citizens and much of the rest of the world to a spying operation without
precedent. We are living under a system of state surveillance that makes all
earlier attempts by other states to spy on their citizens look clumsy and
amateurish. And the US and UK governments have attempted to justify their
snooping into our lives by claiming that it is all done in our interests in
order to protect us from terrorist plots. “State security” trumps individual
liberty. If we want to be safe we will have to accept being spied upon. As
Britain’s ineffable foreign secretary, William Hague, puts it: “if you’ve done
nothing wrong, you’ve nothing to worry about.” We’ve got plenty to worry about.
Daniel Ellsberg and others have renamed the United States of America the “United Stasi of America.” It is interesting to note that the two twentieth century paradigms of tyrannical state surveillance apparatuses mentioned most frequently are both German: the Gestapo and the Stasi. It is also interesting, and not unrelated to this, that since the Snowden story broke, German politicians have been the most vociferous in their condemnation of US and British connivance in spying upon foreign (including European) citizens. The Gestapo and the Stasi were the secret police and security services respectively of the Third Reich and the German Democratic Republic. For the sake of clarification it is worth translating the acronyms. GESTAPO = Geheime (Secret) Staats (State) Polizei (Police). STASI = Staatssicherheit (State Security). These are the examples most frequently used when reference is made to the most egregious abuses of state power in modern times. There is frequently an implication that, though the two examples are drawn from a fascist and a communist state, they were both German, and somehow this is relevant to their totalitarian efficiency. By comparison, it is implied, the security services of democratic countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom, are benign and fully accountable under the law. MI5 and MI6, Special Branch and GCHQ are worthy of our unqualified trust. We can sleep peacefully in our beds, never having to fear a knock on the door at 3am – unless, of course, we have done something wrong.
We now know that, through the close co-operation between the US National Security Agency and GCHQ, British citizens are under universal surveillance. We also know that the Metropolitan Police’s Special Branch spied on the parents, family and friends of Stephen Lawrence, (a black teenager murdered twenty years ago by a gang of white racist thugs), in order to smear the family’s campaign for justice for their son. We know that the police secretly spy upon and abuse the trust of groups and individuals engaged in perfectly legal protests and campaigns. In the light of the state’s top secrets exposed by the courageous Edward Snowden and other whistleblowers, it is entirely appropriate to describe Britain (in an Anglicised version of the German acronym) as a StaSe state. This may help to dispel the carefully cultivated misapprehension that we don’t have the secret police and “Big Brother” spying on us here. That mistaken belief has been nurtured over decades by the numerous James Bond movies in which the romanticized 007 always overcomes the forces of evil and saves us from countless disasters.
Probably to a greater extent than in any comparable European country, British citizens have been lulled into the deluded belief that they have nothing to fear from their StaSe state. People here are spied upon by CCTV cameras more than in any other European country. Mass-circulation newspapers reaching many millions propagate the message that universal surveillance is necessary to keep us all safe from terrorist attacks. But because for the most part we can be confident that our next-door neighbors and work colleagues are not StaSe agents spying upon us, we feel secure in the belief that our private lives are no-one else’s public property. The advent of the Internet and systems of global communication have made the exchange of information on many aspects of our lives a part of everyday existence for millions. It may seem only a small step from there to accepting with a shrug that nothing remains private any more. But it is that seemingly small step that is so dangerous. Persuading people to accept that there is nothing to be feared from the universal surveillance to which they are daily subjected, is part of the process referred to by Chomsky as “manufacturing consent”. Once again, without suggesting a too simplistic comparison with the methods of fascism, it is worth taking a look at Germany in the 1930s and ‘40s.
Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Minister of Propaganda (or Director of Communications, as he would be called today) was, despite the monstrosity of his ideology and his actions, a very clever man. He was an extremely skilled propagandist. He specifically stated that propaganda, to be most effective, must not be regarded as propaganda by those at whom it is directed. Thus, his directives to the German film industry, over which he exercised control, were intended to insure that most films should be completely devoid of explicit political content and for pure entertainment. He was a great fan of Hollywood, and particularly of Busby Berkeley choreographed musicals and Disney cartoons. The German cinema, he decreed, should imitate Hollywood while throwing in a very few powerful propaganda pieces from time to time. But these had to be expertly made to avoid being seen as crude propaganda. Likewise, apart from the communist and social-democratic press, he did not close down the numerous well-established national and regional newspapers in Germany. There were, of course, openly Nazi papers such as Volkischer Beobachter (People’s Observer) but most of the other established papers were allowed to continue, subject to the condition that their editorial policy and journalistic content accorded with the daily briefings emanating from his ministry – a condition accepted by all those who wished to prove their patriotism, keep their jobs and avoid arrest. Thus, the Third Reich presented a superficial impression of media diversity.
Of course no-one would pretend that Britain today bears any real resemblance to Nazi Germany. But neither should anyone be under any illusion about the health of British democracy. As argued from time to time in these columns, only in the most superficial sense can it be said that we have a free press in this country. The great majority of newspapers, including the largest circulation tabloid belonging to Rupert Murdoch, are owned by corporate tycoons. They are nearly all aggressively right-wing. Most of them have enthusiastically supported the most sustained attack on the living standards of the British people in living memory. The worst of the tabloids, with sales of millions, serve up a daily diet of scandal, sexual titillation, trivia and prejudice that seems deliberately intended to promote discord between different sections of the least affluent and the poorest people in society. We have probably the most prostituted press in the western world, served in its worst cases by hacks that are a disgrace to the profession of journalism. They fulfill their allotted role, which is to help manufacture the consent of their readers to the policies of a government and a system that acts consistently against their interests.
So it is with mass surveillance. These same papers are at one in condemning Edward Snowden and supporting William Hague’s sycophantic praise of the “special relationship” between GCHQ and the NSA, enabling “us” to “share intelligence” with “our closest ally.” Questions about the legality of using the information about British and other nationals, gained by the NSA’s spying activities under the Prism scheme and passed to GCHQ, are sidestepped.
Sadly, the three main parliamentary parties in Britain are all in fundamental agreement about the need to pursue and prosecute Snowden. The Labor party while in government was as assiduous in its defense of the StaSe state as the Tories. David Miliband (Ed’s brother) as foreign secretary was as determined to protect state secrets concerning extraordinary rendition as any Tory. But, in spite of the pusillanimous response from the political establishment in this country, there are encouraging signs that the Obama administration and their British sidekick may not get things entirely their own way. At the time of writing Snowden seems to be beyond the reach of the FBI, either in transit in Moscow or already in Ecuador or Venezuela. It is fervently to be hoped that he is beyond the clutches of his pursuers and that he will have much more to reveal about what the masters of universal espionage have been up to. Last, but not least, The Guardian newspaper has once again come up trumps by lifting the veil on the dark arts of universal state espionage against innocent people. Its investigative journalism is the best the profession has to offer. Long may it continue to serve the interests of the 99% against the 1%.