First there was the Wikileaks disclosure of low-grade correspondence between American diplomats — for which Bradley Manning is serving 35 years and Julian Assange is cowering in London. Then came the illegal phone tapping and dirty tricks for commercial gain by the Murdoch-owned press, for which several are on trial in London. Now, thanks to Edward Snowden on the run in Moscow, is revealed the egregious invasion of privacy and illegal espionage by a group of technologically advanced countries. Emails, SMSes, social media and phone calls are routinely monitored, and checks, balances and parliamentary oversight are not working in the public or human interest.
The United States of America’s technological capability is greater than that of other countries, and so is its paranoia. When the trickle of revelations emerged, the Europeans and their parliament were initially blasé; now they are outraged at the scale of spying, including the surveillance on their leaders. The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, was livid only when she discovered her own phone had been tapped since 2002. She is among at least 35 world leaders who were monitored by 80 special data collection centres operated by the US abroad, 19 of them in Europe. Embassies at the United Nations and Washington were infiltrated, as were the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation in Brussels, Vatican cardinals during the pope’s election, climate change conferences, hotel rooms and communications. Half a million Germans were trawled; 70 million French communications and 60 million Spanish were intercepted in one month. Brazil, Mexico, Germany, Spain and France demand answers from Washington. Bilateral agreements, which Europeans seek, will be of no use, neither will any code of conduct for the US National Security Agency. The Brazilian president, Dilma Rousseff, devoted her entire speech at the UN general assembly to this topic, and her diplomats are calling for extending the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to cover internet activities, but no UN resolution will be effective. Europeans take the view that privacy must be respected and the US has overstepped the limits of propriety. Barack Obama has ordered surveillance to stop, but it is unclear to whom this applies, and when.
Britain has stood aside from Europe because it is complicit. When British intelligence advertised for Arabic and Urdu speakers to spy on minority communities, it raised no furore. The Government Communications Headquarters is the spying hub for Europe and enjoys a privileged relationship with the NSA. The British prime minister, David Cameron, asks the media to exercise ‘social responsibility’ in the national interest — along with the threat that he could take stronger deterrent action. The GCHQ, desperate to fend off reform, fights to prevent its material from being admitted in court as evidence not only for security reasons, but to avoid legal challenges invoking the European Human Rights Act. Internet service providers support the GCHQ for fear of legal and diplomatic repercussions and well-disposed politicians are mobilized to defend the agencies in parliament and media, even as parliament plans to scrutinize the mass surveillance taking place. Data protection is a sensitive issue in Europe and violation is unlawful; sooner or later it must go to court and away from the influence of politicians, diplomats and spies.
In the US, data protection is much less sensitive; the Americans are mainly exercised about the invasion of their own privacy, theoretically protected by the first and fourth constitutional amendments regarding freedom of speech and the right to be secure and inviolate. But the scale of intrusions is appalling; billions of records of Americans have been accessed, although the NSA states that only a handful of officials perform the scrutiny that amounts to less than 300 times a year. It is claimed that surveillance has prevented 54 terror plots, though no specifics are offered. A recent disclosure shows that the NSA started a ‘test-run’ to gather location data on cellphones before even informing the foreign intelligence surveillance court that allegedly supervises it. The default excuse is 9/11; giving up such activity would leave the nation in imminent peril.
American spy agencies have lied to the Congress and hit back under pressure, claiming that allegations by France, Spain and Italy are ‘completely false’. With the ‘we did not do it’ come the ‘innocents have nothing to fear’, ‘everybody does it’, and ‘our diplomats and policy-makers demand it’ arguments. No distinction is made between counter-terrorism and snooping on foreign politicians, ‘leadership intentions’, money transfers and commercial information. Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists boasts that “we are photographing and listening to the entire globe”, and James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, muses that “we ought to come up with a way of stopping” stories about the NSA’s bulk collection. Now the cat is out of the bag, and it becomes ironic for the West to accuse others, like China, of spying.
The problem always is to maintain protective national capability while ensuring transparency and privacy when there is collapse of executive control, legislative oversight, accountability and public debate. The NSA strives to prevent any limitation on its powers, but this depends on the White House attitude. Obama’s internal review is being supplemented by an external one due by mid-December, but is defective since it is being done by establishment insiders. Obama claims he would not discuss classified information, and conceded he was “the final user” of all gathered intelligence. All the rest is opaque, even as to what level of detail reaches the president. The debate turns on how much Obama knew about spying at home and illegalities abroad. Bild of Germany asserts that Obama knew and approved all the wire taps on world leaders. A gulf has grown between the intelligence community and the White House, with anonymous briefings against each other.
Spy operatives are shocked that they need to respect the privacy of the global community, but the outrage from European allies strikes a chord in the Congress although there are party-wise differences. The Republicans say espionage keeps Europeans secure and that “sometimes our friends have relationships with our adversaries”, but for the first time since 9/11, there is a call for restrictions on surveillance. The author of the 2001 Patriot Act, under whose provisions most of the espionage is done, proposes to introduce a bill to ban unwarranted bulk metadata collection and trawling foreign communications for information on Americans.
It is an open secret that the English-speaking white-race caucus of the US, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand collaborate in spying for each other and presumably not on each other. China, Malaysia and Indonesia have all vehemently protested against Australian espionage, but such objections from the Third World will be arrogantly swatted aside. Espionage networks are messy and overlap: the Israelis spy on the Europeans and Arabs on behalf of ‘the West’, and many European agencies collaborate with the GCHQ.
Technology corporates are also deeply implicated. Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Yahoo have given willing cooperation for spying, but are incensed when they discover that the NSA and the GCHQ clandestinely intercept their communication channels to access users’ data. The NSA has few constraints outside the US, and uses a presidential executive order authorizing foreign operations. Millions of records a day are harvested by the NSA and the GCHQ; in one 30-day period, 181 million new records were illegally accessed.
No Indian newspaper has an ‘exclusive’ coverage of the Snowden material, so we may never know the extent to which we are spied upon. The Indian foreign minister has chosen to tip-toe around the issue, presumably because the US shares information on terrorism with India, but how much, and how useful, is not known. Adrian Levy in The Siege counts 26 tip-offs about the Mumbai attack, whereas our intelligence admits to only two. All spying agencies have a very narrow self-interest, as revealed by the David Headley and 26/11 episode. Every country urges international cooperation against terror, but acts only when its own interests are involved, and the Americans are ready to compromise other nations’ security when it comes to protecting their sources.
In India there are multiple intelligence agencies with alarming lack of legislative or judicial oversight. The prime, home, defence and finance ministers are among those receiving intelligence from agencies under their presumed control. There is no parliamentary scrutiny of budgets or jurisdictions, the agencies are immune and omnipotent, and judicial restraints are easily circumvented. Too many low-level Central and state officials can authorize phone tapping. Political circles, both allies and Opposition, are spied upon routinely, even if the reports are not always submitted to higher levels. Politicians like Rajiv Gandhi relied extensively on intelligence reports, and leaders like him bestowed extraordinary prestige and powers on spymasters and operatives. It is high time for a multi- party root-and-branch inquiry into intelligence activity, its cost, its value, its abuse, Indian vulnerability, and the protection of our fundamental rights.