“He who values security above liberty deserves neither.” Benjamin Franklin.
On 6 September the New York Times and The Guardian both led with an exclusive report that was by any standards sensational. On its front page The Guardian broke the news with a detailed revelation titled “How the US and Britain unlock privacy on the Internet”. The story, which ran over three pages, revealed that The NSA and GCHQ had broken elaborate safeguards to ensure the privacy of personal data on the internet by cracking the online encryption supposed to protect such data. Top secret details about this operation, couched in terms which leave no doubt about the importance the agencies attach to concealing their activities from the public, reveal a system of universal surveillance beyond the wildest dreams of the wackiest conspiracy theorists. The paper highlighted its expectation that the “new Snowden revelations [were] certain to cause [a] political row.” This is what one might have expected. The trouble is they haven’t.
Before Edward Snowden blew the gaff on the sanctimonious hypocrisy peddled by the U.S. and British governments encouraging us to believe that they would never dream of spying on their own people, many did assume that only totalitarian regimes like North Korea, or those almost as bad such as China and Iran would do such things. The insensate fury unleashed against Snowden by his detractors was a measure of how closely they guarded their own dirty secrets. Attention must be deflected away from the alarming revelations at all costs. “Shoot the messenger” was the message from Washington and Westminster. Snowden is a traitor! Like Bradley Manning, he is “aiding the enemy”. But when the truth about the extensive sweep of state surveillance operations by the NSA and GCHQ is revealed beyond any possibility of denial, it becomes vital that the StaSe (State Security) States embark immediately on damage limitation exercises. This process has been in play since early September. How does it work?
Ruling elites and the politicians and communications media that defend their interests have long taken for granted that the public, whose consent they need, have a very limited attention span. Any news that is bad for the ruling elite should receive as little media attention as possible. When faced with inconvenient facts that are, in Bernard Shaw’s phrase “too true to be good” for them, such facts must be buried as soon as possible. One method is silence. Say nothing and hope that people will have forgotten the bad news within days or a week or so. If the government has been obliged to set up a commission of inquiry into something of legitimate public concern (like the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq War) the outcome of which might be very embarrassing for leading politicians, then they will contrive to ensure that its report is delayed for so long that everyone has lost whatever interest they may have had. Something similar to this is happening with the Snowden revelations. “Kill the story by silence” seems to be the message emanating from on high. The Guardian believed that the revelations were certain to cause a political row, and so they should have done. But let us consider what would have been required to ensure that this sensational story claimed the wide public attention it deserved. First, it would have required a vigorous exposure by a robust political opposition in parliament. But the parliamentary Labour party is not such an opposition. In fact, on this matter as on most others, it is no opposition worth the name at all. Members of the Labour “0pposition” Front Bench are terrified of appearing “soft” on matters of “state security”. They are afraid of being labeled lukewarm in defense of the “special relationship” with the US – less patriotic than the Tories. They dare not be seen to criticize the intelligence services. They are obsessed by the need to avoid being pilloried in the right-wing media. Thus, the Labour Front Bench and most of the parliamentary party are complicit with the coalition government in maintaining silence on an issue of paramount public importance, one that exposes probably the greatest threat to democratic liberties in living memory.
How about the press? Most British newspapers shout very loudly in defense of press freedom. Almost all of them oppose any statutory regulation of their activities – activities of a kind that led to the most egregious invasion of public privacy by the Murdoch tabloids in particular, involving criminal activities on an industrial scale. The right-wing press in Britain, which accounts for the bulk of national daily papers with sales of many millions, has long supported neo-conservative calls for diminishing the power and reach of the state. Yet on this issue almost all of them have maintained a stony silence in the face of universal state surveillance of the whole population. Or, they have parroted the mealy-mouthed assurance of the foreign secretary – “if you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve nothing to worry about”. By its failure to challenge the government and GCHQ over universal surveillance, the British press has capitulated to those unaccountable powers responsible for the erosion of democratic liberties in Britain.
And the BBC? In an article in The Observer on 13 September, the liberal columnist Henry Porter, lamenting the weak response to the Snowden revelations, pointed out that on 7 September, the morning after The Guardian broke the story, the BBC’s Today Program’s 8am news bulletin listed, presumably in order of importance, nine items, starting with Putin’s stance on Syria at the G8 and finishing with the decline of water voles in the UK. The Snowden story got no mention, despite the fact that it had, in his words, “featured prominently in two of the world’s most influential newspapers.” Why no mention? It is not good enough to say that it just may not have been considered important enough. There has to be an element of fear here, and if this is true then it is very worrying indeed.
It should not be forgotten that only a few weeks earlier, the prime minister had sent two civil servants to The Guardian’s offices to demand the surrender or destruction of discs containing data supplied by Snowden. Shortly after that, journalist Glenn Greenwald’s partner, David Miranda, was detained and interrogated for nine hours on suspicion of “aiding terrorism”. His laptop and other possessions were confiscated and have so far not been returned. From the mainstream political parties there has been virtually no criticism of any of this. It seems evident that there has been pressure from the government to steer well clear of this subject. The silence is otherwise inexplicable, and this is alarming.
From the files supplied by Snowden we know that the NSA and GCHQ have broken the encryption that is supposed to protect the privacy of personal data on the internet. We also know that the assurances given by internet companies to users allowing them to believe that all online communications, including banking, medical records, etc. are securely encrypted, are worthless. We know that the NSA and GCHQ have been working for years to develop “decryption programs” to give them unrestricted access to all online communications. They admit that “For the past decade, NSA has lead [sic] an aggressive, multi-pronged effort to break widely used internet encryption technologies.” The language used is revealing. The NSA’s and GCHQ’s highly secret and closely guarded activities have been exposed. Now we know what they are up to. We also know that the internet companies have colluded with them and lied to their customers. We have been systematically lied to by governments, by the intelligence services who spy upon us and by the internet companies who collude with them. And they intend to continue to lie to us and expect to get away with it, by lulling us into a soporific stupor where we are expected to internalize the mantra, “if we have done nothing wrong, we have nothing to worry about.”
Well, either they succeed, in which case the majority of us will meekly accept that we must get used to living in a StaSe State where Big Brother has the right to spy on our every act and transaction, and, in the name of “the war on terror” decide if we are doing anything wrong; or we will resist and demand an end to creeping totalitarianism and the erosion of hard-won democratic liberties. No resistance will be forthcoming from the lily-livered “opposition” in parliament. It will only come from determined public pressure; from a genuine grass-roots movement determined to grow, to fight and to win. Such a movement is long overdue in Britain. There are, though, signs of movement in that direction. The time to build the resistance is now.