SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 179 June 2014

Edward Snowden: exposing the ‘architecture of oppression’

The release of masses of data last year turned Edward Snowden from National Security Agency operative to fugitive, on the run from the US state and system he had always backed. As the pressure mounts, on 28 May secretary of state, John Kerry, denounced him as "a man who has betrayed his country", demanding he returns to face trial. Snowden’s story, reviewed by CLARE DOYLE, exposes the workings of the powerful intelligence services, in the US and Britain.

The Snowden Files: the inside story of the world’s most wanted man

By Luke Harding

Published by Guardian Faber, 2014, £12.99

Reviewers of a new dramatization of ‘1984’ comment that this classic story about an all-powerful Big Brother has become chillingly relevant. Today, in so-called democracies across the world, surveillance of individual citizens has gone beyond what even the author George Orwell could have imagined. Under the ‘thought police’, his citizens at least knew that their every movement was being watched. Whistle-blowers from inside the world’s biggest security services have revealed that detailed information is being harvested on hundreds of millions of people without their knowledge, let alone permission.

The Snowden Files unfolds like a spy story with the difference that none of it is made up! The central character is no villain either, more of ‘an innocent abroad’. A young, highly skilled, idealistic computer boffin, Edward Snowden, finds things happening in cyberspace which he believes contravene the American constitution, in which he has enormous faith. He ends up as a fugitive from his own state, in possession of nearly two million data files from what he sees as a spying system out of control.

The book delves into the layers of secrecy that have been constructed by the US and British states, to the extent that elected representatives either ‘know nothing’ or are themselves covering up for what are basically illegal activities. No-one is immune from surveillance by the National Security Agency (NSA) in the US and GCHQ in Britain, whose activities infringe the basic democratic right to privacy.

Spying is carried out not only on world leaders attending G20 meetings or Angela Merkel making personal calls, but on everyone who ever makes a phone call, writes an email, goes onto a social networking site, sends a tweet or takes a selfie. This amounts to colossal banks of data – not including the mass of information from networks of cameras in countless public and not so public places.

A risky business

The Snowden Files was written by Guardian journalist, Luke Harding. Ironically, while Snowden is sheltering somewhere near Moscow, Harding was effectively thrown out of Russia by the Putin regime. Recently, he has covered the ugly situation in Ukraine and pointed to pro-Russian trolling ordered by the Kremlin.

Newspapers and the media are said to constitute a ‘fourth estate’. They dance to the tune of their millionaire owners and generally defend the capitalist establishment. They give little or no publicity to those who argue for socialist change. But sometimes they play the role of a safety valve in society – exposing scandals, revealing the inner workings of the state machine, and arguing for more transparency and democratic control. The Guardian has no doubt boosted it sales and advertising by covering the Snowden bombshell and its fallout. Barely an edition comes out without a reference to Snowden – the most recent being in articles on the ‘right to forget’ and the legal challenge to Google.

The paper took great risks in revealing the Snowden material on the ‘surveillance state’. It spent large sums of money, not least on lawyers’ fees. Its chief editors necessarily operated in extreme secrecy. They were threatened with arrest and imprisonment if they did not part with the material they had received from Snowden. This was in spite of the fact that copies were already at large in Berlin, Brazil and Washington. They had to watch while government officials came to their premises and pulverised their computers in a darkened room while two GCHQ officials – whom they nick-named ‘the hobbits’! – looked on.

Within hours of the publication of the first Snowden story in June 2013, diggers arrived outside the Guardian’s office in Broadway to dig up the pavement and replace it, then outside its Washington office, then at the Brooklyn home of its US editor-in-chief. When Harding visited Rio de Janeiro in July last year to interview Glenn Greenwald, one of the journalists who met Snowden in Hong Kong, he was immediately approached at his hotel by a neatly dressed, tall American who wanted to show him the sights of Copacabana beach!

The ‘Miranda affair’ would have been just as ridiculously amusing if not so frightening for David Miranda when he was arrested in transit at London’s Heathrow airport under a law designed to detain terrorists. As Greenwald’s partner, he was under suspicion for carrying information that would endanger the security of the British (and US) state and interrogated for nine hours. His laptop was also ‘arrested’, and illegally destroyed. Miranda is now challenging the legality of his detention through the courts.

Even more intriguing is the story Harding tells about when he was working on the chapter exposing the NSA’s "close and largely hidden" relationship with US tech companies, revelations that would damage their bottom line. The paragraph he was writing began to self-delete! Only when a German paper carried an article about this mysterious development did it stop. Little wonder that the Russian secret services have reverted to using typewriters.

All this illustrates the paranoia of the British and American states. It justifies the elaborate precautions taken by the newspapers to keep secret the whereabouts of Snowden, even while they were interviewing him in a hotel room in Hong Kong. Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning had been tried a couple of years earlier and sentenced to 35 years in prison for whistleblowing in relation to illegal US activities in Afghanistan and Iraq. No young person in their 20s relishes that prospect, and serious representatives of the media cannot afford to endanger their sources.

Attacking democratic rights

The story of how Snowden finds himself living in a Moscow suburb is worthy of any crime writer but, in Snowden’s mind, it is not he who is committing the crimes, but governments who are flouting basic human rights. Snowden started out serving in the army, moving on to work for the CIA and in the NSA offices in Geneva. He had volunteered for data collection work, not as a ‘lefty radical’, as one writer puts it, aiming to undermine the state. On the contrary, he was deeply concerned for the safety of his homeland and the defence of the democratic values, such as freedom of speech, upheld he thought by the American constitution. "He believed fervently in capitalism and free markets". (p29)

By the time of his flight to Hong Kong in May 2013, Snowden was sorely disillusioned in president Barack Obama. As the New Internationalist pointed out in April: "The Obama administration, for all its rhetoric of free speech, has started more prosecutions against whistle-blowers than all presidents combined since 1917". After 9/11 many Democrats had been as convinced as Republican president George W Bush that the state’s powers of surveillance had to be increased. "Over the ensuing decade, both in America and Britain, there came a new political willingness to invade individual privacy". (p85)

But the reasoning became discredited, particularly in relation to Al Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden. The editor of The Hindu newspaper wrote: "Osama bin Laden did not need Edward Snowden’s revelations about [the data-collecting system] PRISM to realise the US was listening to every bit of electronic communication: he had already seceded from the world of telephony and reverted to couriers. But millions of people in the US, UK, Brazil, India and elsewhere, including national leaders, energy companies and others who are being spied on for base reasons, were unaware that their privacy was being compromised". (p320)

A federal judge in the US, ruling that NSA eavesdropping contravenes the constitution, commented that the government could not cite one instance where the NSA’s data analysis had stopped an imminent terrorist attack.

Holding detailed information on private individuals contravened the basic right to privacy of the ordinary citizen, yet private firms were paid vast sums of money to cooperate. American Telephony agreed to a metadata programme which meant information on all its calls being handed over to the NSA. Google, Facebook, Apple and all the major internet companies readily agreed to allow access to their data by the surveillance state. The budget of the ‘five eyes’ snooping services of the US, UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand is $120 billion.

The British proved to be even more enthusiastic, and secretive, about their information harvesting and established 100% ‘intercept’ of all communications coming into Britain along fibre-optic cables under the Atlantic. Revelations of what was going on at secret establishments near Bude in Cornwall added new meaning to the ‘special relationship’ between the British and American states. Not even government representatives were privy to some of the illegal methods being employed, supposedly to protect the citizens of Britain.

On the run

Snowden, the whistle-blower in waiting, was working in Hawaii, now for the private company, Booz Allen Hamilton – "a long-standing member of the military-industrial complex… a company that has 24,500 employees, a market capitalisation of $2.5 billion and annual revenues of $5.8 billion". (Observer, 23 March 2014) Once Snowden had decided to reveal all, he had to be sure he could get off the island. He could not even leave a note for his girlfriend, Lindsay Mills, to say he was going, let alone where to.

After elaborate arrangements had been made for the reporters – Ewen MacAskill, Greenwald and a documentary filmmaker, Laura Poitras – to meet Snowden secretly in Hong Kong, he began to give them his devastating interviews. The journalists have since received a number of prestigious awards. Greenwald said that each one vindicates what Snowden did and "merits gratitude and not indictments and decades of imprisonment". Snowden was invited to Germany to attend a parliamentary inquiry into NSA surveillance, but was refused entry by the government. That was just hours before Merkel left for a rather tense visit to the US aiming to assure a ‘mutual no-spy agreement’!

Once in Hong Kong – ridiculously accused of being a collaborator of the Chinese state – the net was closing in. Snowden had been offered the help of Sarah Harrison, a collaborator of another fugitive whistle-blower, Julian Assange. She travelled to Hong Kong to accompany Snowden out of the country. She now also finds herself a fugitive, unable to return to Britain where she believes she would be held under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act.

This, she writes, is defined as "an act or threat ‘designed to influence the government’, that ‘is made for the purpose of advancing a political, religious, racial or ideological cause’ and that would pose a ‘serious risk’ to the health or safety of the public". "National security", she continues, "is a catchphrase rolled out by governments to justify their own illegalities, whether that be invading another country or spying on their own citizens". (The Guardian, 15 March 2014) Harrison suggests that even the suffragettes and Jarrow marchers could have been threatened into inaction had such legislation existed in their times.

A determined mass movement, however, will not be held back by laws. They can be successfully defied and broken. Nonetheless, socialists and trade unionists have to fight all attempts by the state to shackle opposition to the powers that be. Two Green politicians in Britain have recently challenged the government over the illegality of harvesting data on parliamentarians as part of the secret GCHQ ‘Tempora operation’, exposed by Snowden. Why not on all citizens? They were told that GCHQ has a "longstanding policy of never commenting on intelligence matters"!

On 23 June 2013, Harrison and Snowden made it out of Hong Kong on a plane to Moscow, en route for Cuba. It was to be another 39 days before Snowden could leave the arrivals lounge at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport. His passport had been cancelled by the US state. Panicky instructions were issued to pilots and a number of European airports not to let planes that might be carrying Snowden land. One flying the Bolivian president, Evo Morales, home from a conference in Moscow was even refused landing permission in Europe. Eventually, in front of 150 journalists and photographers on 12 July, Snowden gave a meticulous account of why he had sacrificed so much to pursue his mission.

An elaborate state apparatus

The state, as Lenin put it, is the executive committee of the dominant class in society. The spying exposed by Snowden was not only being used against ‘friendly’ states but against millions of innocent private individuals. ‘Democracy’ under capitalism is severely limited, including where elected parliaments give the impression that ‘the people’ decide.

The police, armed forces, courts, prisons, and the kept media are all part of an elaborate apparatus. It has been constructed to prevent the 99% from pushing aside the 1% who reap their vast wealth from ownership of land, industry, the banks and commerce. Under capitalism, the state has the additional task of defending national interests against those of others. Hence the secret spying of the most powerful states in the world against each other.

Snowden not only discovered how the US constitution was being trampled on in the name of security. He also revealed that cyber wars were not exclusive to the Chinese state. "Now it appeared the NSA did the same thing, only worse!" (p219) The recent indictment in the US of five Chinese military officers for stealing ‘hundreds of terabytes’ of data from major US companies is an unprecedented move. The attorney-general, Eric Holder’s announcement on 19 May clearly shows the US state defending the interests of American big business at the expense of heightening tension between the two superpowers.

Snowden saw the US and British states constantly blocking transparency, on the bogus pretext of security, in collusion with big companies and some ministers of the state. The tragedy of 9/11 had both exposed the weakness of the security services and provided a huge boost to the demands of the state machine to step up surveillance and increase military expenditure to the benefit of big business. Billions of dollars-worth of public money has gone from the pockets of the 99% into private companies on both sides of the Atlantic.

The scale of this expenditure is fully disclosed by the publication of the Snowden Files. The point is to develop a movement strong enough to challenge the rule of the 1% and to cleanse society of the dirty tactics they use to preserve it – to establish a socialist society, free from snooping and spying by big business and its political hirelings.

Correction: in the print edition, under the heading, A Risky Business, it states: 'Within hours of the publication of the first Snowden story in February 2014, diggers arrived outside the Guardian’s office in Broadway...' The date should read June 2013, and has been corrected in this online article.

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