Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Information Wars

"He who sacrifices freedom for security deserves neither" - Benjamin Franklin

Asked the other day about the whereabouts of and official policy toward NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, US Secretary of State John Kerry hit us with a doozy: "I would urge them (Russia and China) to live by the standards of the law because that's in the interest of everybody". Laudable words: strict commitment to the rule of (just) law is an essential component of any democratic system. Let us examine such US commitment.

This 2010 Mark Weisbrot article summarizes a few examples (from a list of many) of US 'interventions' in South America (until 1996 here, and another more recently updated list here).

From Weisbrot's article (see original for sources):

They care enough about Haiti to have overthrown the elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide not once, but twice. The first time, in 1991, it was done covertly. We only found out after the fact that the people who led the coup were paid by the US Central Intelligence Agency. And then Emmanuel Constant, the leader of the most notorious death squad there – which killed thousands of Aristide's supporters after the coup – told CBS News that he, too, was funded by the CIA.

In 2004, the US involvement in the coup was much more open. Washington led a cut-off of almost all international aid for four years, making the government's collapse inevitable. As the New York Times reported, while the US state department was telling Aristide that he had to reach an agreement with the political opposition (funded with millions of US taxpayers' dollars), the International Republican Institute was telling the opposition not to settle.

In Honduras last summer and autumn, the US government did everything it could to prevent the rest of the hemisphere from mounting an effective political opposition to the coup government in Honduras. For example, they blocked the Organisation of American States from taking the position that it would not recognise elections that took place under the dictatorship. At the same time, the Obama administration publicly pretended that it was against the coup.


The US actually intervened in Brazilian politics as recently as 2005, organising a conference to promote a legal change that would make it more difficult for legislators to switch parties. This would have strengthened the opposition to Lula's Workers' party (PT) government, since the PT has party discipline but many opposition politicians do not. This intervention by the US government was only discovered last year through a Freedom of Information Act request filed in Washington. There are many other interventions taking place throughout the hemisphere that we do not know about. The United States has been heavily involved in Chilean politics since the 1960s, long before they organised the overthrow of Chilean democracy in 1973.

In October 1970, President Richard Nixon was cursing in the Oval Office about the Social Democratic president of Chile, Salvador Allende. "That son of a bitch!" said Richard Nixon on 15 October. "That son of a bitch Allende – we're going to smash him." A few weeks later he explained why:

"The main concern in Chile is that [Allende] can consolidate himself, and the picture projected to the world will be his success ... If we let the potential leaders in South America think they can move like Chile and have it both ways, we will be in trouble."

This lawlessness that is perfectly acceptable when the US does it extends in all directions to all areas of society. Allow the excellent Matt Taibbi to explain (long, but a must-read) the stunning criminality of the major US credit rating agencies here, intentional illegality that allowed the banks to impoverish millions through house foreclosures and other calamities while greatly enriching themselves. Note that almost every single person who committed these crimes is still extremely rich and breathing free air.

Does John Kerry really expect anyone to take him seriously about the rule of law after his own nation has spent more than a century making a mockery of it? No, he doesn't; he says it because he can.

However, it is the NSA leak facilitated by whistleblower Edward Snowden that has most vividly exposed US lawlessness and hubris. Caught in the act, the US is incredibly attempting to convince everyone that it has the right to spy on the private communications of anyone on the planet, an attempt that has inspired widespread condemnation and derision. Those supporting the view of the Obama administration and its poodles in the UK are people sufficiently confused and brainwashed by the media, a corporate-owned media that has a vested interest in depicting Mr. Snowden as a traitor and keeping the focus firmly on his personality and behavior (and therefore off the actual crimes he revealed).

One major problem with the privacy issue is perspective. If one were to ask people in the Snowden-is-a-traitor camp to wear a camera (equipped with a microphone) on their head to record all their online behavior and communications for perusal and storage by the authorities, it is likely they would feel a lot more uncomfortable about this obvious invasion of privacy. Going back a couple of decades to the era of letter-writing, how would these same people feel about all their letters being read before they are sent (and received)?

There would be an outcry - probably open civil disobedience - and yet this is precisely what the US and UK governments are doing, the only difference being the methodology of doing it without people noticing it...or indeed being notified of it.

And there are many who believe that the authorities are essentially benign, that if you are not involved in criminal behavior, you have nothing to worry about: nothing to hide, nothing to fear. This view demonstrates an ignorance of history, not to mention extreme naivete. A shocking recent example of abuse by authorities, in this case the London Metropolitan police force, was detailed this week by George Monbiot in The Guardian.

From the article:

'If you are a law-abiding citizen of this country, going about your business and your personal life, you have nothing to fear." That's how William Hague, the foreign secretary, responded to the revelations of mass surveillance in the US and the UK. Try telling that to Stephen Lawrence's family.

Four police officers were deployed to spy on the family and friends of the black teenager murdered by white racists. The Lawrences and the people who supported their fight for justice were law-abiding citizens going about their business. Yet undercover police were used, one of the spies now tells us, to hunt for "disinformation" and "dirt". Their purpose? "We were trying to stop the campaign in its tracks."

The two unfolding spy stories resonate powerfully with each other. One, gathered by Paul Lewis and Rob Evans, shows how police surveillance has been comprehensively perverted. Instead of defending citizens and the public realm, it has been used to protect the police from democratic scrutiny and stifle attempts to engage in politics.

The other, arising from the documents exposed by Edward Snowden, shows that the US and the UK have been involved in the mass interception of our phone calls and use of the internet. William Hague insists that we should "have confidence in the work of our intelligence agencies, and in their adherence to the law and democratic values". Why?

Here are a few of the things we have learned about undercover policing in Britain. A unit led by a policeman called Bob Lambert deployed officers to spy on peaceful activists. They adopted the identities of dead children and then infiltrated protest groups. Nine of the 11 known spies formed long-term relationships with women in the groups, in some cases (including Lambert's) fathering children with them. Then they made excuses and vanished.

They left a trail of ruined lives, fatherless children and women whose confidence and trust have been wrecked beyond repair. They have also walked away from other kinds of mayhem. On Friday we discovered that Lambert co-wrote the leaflet for which two penniless activists spent three years in the high court defending a libel action brought by McDonald's. The police never saw fit to inform the court that one of their own had been one of the authors.


If the state is prepared to abuse its powers and instruments so widely and gravely in cases such as this, where there is a high risk of detection, and if it is prepared to intrude so far into people's lives that its officers live with activists and father their children, what is it not prepared to do while spying undetectably on our private correspondence?

Already we know that electronic surveillance has been used in this country for purposes other than the perennial justifications of catching terrorists, foiling foreign spies and preventing military attacks. It was deployed, for example, to spy on countries attending the G20 meeting the UK hosted in 2009. If the government does this to other states, which might have the capacity to detect its spying and which certainly have the means to object to it, what is it doing to defenceless citizens?

We can also go back in history to see what British officials did when they had power over the Mau Mau people in Kenya in the 1950s:

From another article by Mr. Monbiot:

Interrogation under torture was widespread. Many of the men were anally raped, using knives, broken bottles, rifle barrels, snakes and scorpions. A favourite technique was to hold a man upside down, his head in a bucket of water, while sand was rammed into his rectum with a stick. Women were gang-raped by the guards. People were mauled by dogs and electrocuted. The British devised a special tool which they used for first crushing and then ripping off testicles. They used pliers to mutilate women's breasts. They cut off inmates' ears and fingers and gouged out their eyes. They dragged people behind Land Rovers until their bodies disintegrated. Men were rolled up in barbed wire and kicked around the compound.

There goes the benign authorities defense. The situation, era and perpetrators don't matter in the slightest. Anyone, anywhere and any-when...abuse will occur - often horrific abuse - when one subset of humans is granted power (via knowledge of personal data or otherwise) over another...and then they'll try to cover it up, as the British did in Kenya.

The US (and UK) excuse for the blanket surveillance carried out by the NSA and GCHQ is terrorism, its miniscule threat in terms of numbers killed notwithstanding. Add to this the fact that the vast majority of 'foiled' terrorist plots in the US were fake: planned, set up and funded by the FBI itself.

Terrorism is a threat, but it can be defeated more surely by altering foreign policy so that the US and other Western nations stop interfering in the affairs of other countries. Nations which mind their own business and try to be responsible world citizens without exception suffer a negligible threat from terrorism, with the only real (but very rare) danger coming from militant homegrown groups with extreme ideologies or mentally ill 'lone wolves'.

Speaking of lone wolves, see how the Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg responded to the horrific mass shooting perpetrated by Anders Breivik in 2011:

"The Norwegian response to violence is more democracy, more openness and greater political participation."

Compare and contrast with the paranoia and secrecy of the NSA and US/UK government officials. Note also that Norway has not suffered any further attacks.

Given therefore that the media has failed to inform the public on the true significance of the NSA programs with regard to privacy and freedom and instead focused on trivial personality and behavioral concerns; given that we know that authorities are not benign and that they inevitably abuse their knowledge of and power over the civilian population; given that terrorism is a threat that can be negated by altering the murderous (and extremely costly) foreign policies of the US and its allies; and given that it is certain that even blanket surveillance can never completely eradicate the threat of terrorism or other violent crime (recent mass school shootings, Boston bombings)...given all these things, this deadly farce must end now.

In a truly democratic society, everyone has an obligation to break unjust laws when simply highlighting them is ignored by those in power. Segregation of different races and slavery have all been legal in human history. What if no one had challenged those laws? History has shown without exception that the establishment will react negatively - often violently - when such unjust laws are challenged. Naturally, Obama, Feinstein and their short-sighted, authoritarian ilk have little choice but to react the way they do when one understands that they are essentially paid employees of the financial elites who fund their campaigns and power trips. This does not excuse them, but it should provide an object lesson as follows: our focus should be on the elites, not their political fronts; just as our focus should be on the NSA leaks, not the character or whereabouts of Edward Snowden.

Instead of criminally charging and launching a global manhunt for a brave and idealistic man who is risking his life for the freedom of his fellow citizens, any entity with the power and means to do so must instead bring charges of treason against those officials who have so shredded the US Constitution they swore to protect. This may be an important step towards bringing down those truly responsible for this stripping of our freedoms...and they must always remain the ultimate target.

Simon Wood (Twitter: @simonwood11) is the author of 'The 99.99998271%: Why the Time is Right for Direct Democracy' and the founder of The Movement, a non-profit organization dedicated to peace, justice and democracy. Please follow and support The Movement on Twitter: @1themovement as it strongly urges all progressive movements to unite and pool their resources in the common goal of removing the cancer of corruption that threatens us all. You can also follow Simon Wood on Facebook and at his blog.

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