Review: ‘The Snowden Files’

Exposing the ‘architecture of oppression’

A year ago, in June 2013, Edward Snowden’s release of huge quantities of ‘secret’ data turned him from back-room operative for the National Security Agency into world-famous fugitive from the US state and the system he had always backed. Two weeks ago, US Secretary of State, John Kerry, denounced Snowden as “a man who has betrayed his country” and demanded that he return to the US from Moscow to face trial. This week, former vice-president Al Gore said, “What he revealed…included violations of the US constitution that were way more serious than the crimes he committed”.

‘The Snowden Files’, by Luke Harding, exposes the workings of the vastly powerful intelligence services in the US and Britain. This is a review by Clare Doyle (a version of which is published in Socialism Today, June 2014)

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

The ‘Snowden Files’ published earlier this year is sub-titled “The Inside Story of The World’s Most Wanted Man”. It reads like a spy story with the difference that none of it is invented! 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 files of information about 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. Elected representatives either “know nothing!” or are themselves covering up for what are basically illegal activities. Literally no-one is immune from surveillance by the National Security Service of America (NSA) and GCHQ in Britain. Their activities infringe the basic democratic right to privacy.

Spying is carried out not only on world leaders attending G20 meetings or Chancellor Angela Merkel making personal calls on her ‘handy phone’, 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’. The banks of data gathered by all these means must be filled to overflowing if you add on the formation on film from networks of cameras in countless public and not so public places.

A risky business

‘The Snowden Files’, now being made into a film by Oliver Stone, was written by a Guardian journalist, Luke Harding. Ironically, while Snowden is enjoying some protection in Moscow, Harding was effectively thrown out of Russia by the Putin regime. Recently, he has reported from the ugly situation in Ukraine and also exposed the 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 ‘establishment’. They give little or no publicity to the ideas of 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 considerably by covering the Snowden bombshell and its fall out. Barely an edition comes out without a reference to Snowden, including 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 themselves 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 of the material 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 up from Cheltenham, whom they nick-named ‘the hobbits’, looked on!

Within hours of publication of the first Snowden story last year, diggers arrived outside the Guardian’s office in Broadway to dig up the pavement and replace it, then outside its Washington office and then outside the Brooklyn home of the US editor-in-chief! When Luke Harding visited Rio de Janeiro 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 befriend him and show him the sights of Copacabana Beach!

The ‘Miranda affair’ would have been just as ridiculously amusing if not so frightening for David Miranda himself 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 lap-top computer was also ‘arrested’ and – totally illegally – destroyed. Miranda is now challenging the legality of his detention through the courts (also featured in the Guardian). (Miranda’s Partner, Glenn Greenwald, together with Privacy International, is making a legal challenge to the hacking activities of GCHQ. )

Even more intriguing is the story Harding tells about what happened when he was working on one particular chapter for his book. It was an exposition of the NSA’s “close and largely hidden” relationship with US tech companies that would no doubt 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 the use of the typewriter!)

All this illustrates the paranoia of the British and American state. It justifies the elaborate precautions taken by the newspapers who were revealing the stories to keep entirely secret the whereabouts of Snowden himself, even while they were taping their interviews with 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. Noone in their early 20s relishes that prospect and serious representatives of the media cannot afford to endanger their sources in opening them up to the risk of arrest. One freelancer in the US faces 105 years in prison for using information hacked from a private spying company with close ties to the government.

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 offices of the NSA in Geneva, assisting in data collecting work. He had volunteered for this work, not as a ‘lefty radical’, as one writer puts it, aiming to become a mole and to undermine the state. On the contrary, he was deeply concerned for the safety of his homeland and the defence of all the democratic values such as freedom of speech upheld, he thought, by the American constitution. “He believed fervently in capitalism and free markets”. (p 29)

By the time of his flight to Hong Kong, Snowden was sorely disillusioned in President Barack Obama. As the New Internationalist pointed out, in its April edition: “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 President 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”. (p 85)

But the reasoning became discredited, particularly by the way in which the Al Qaeda leader, Bin Laden hid from view. As 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 the eaves-dropping activities of the NSA state contravene the constitution, commented that the government could not cite one instance of where the NSA’s data analysis had had actually stopped an imminent terrorist attack.

Holding detailed information on private individuals appeared to contravene the basic right to privacy of the ordinary citizen, yet private firms were being paid vast sums 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 agreed to cooperate in the surveillance state – in allowing access to all their data. They even begged to be forced to do so…and were paid! (The total budget of the ‘Five Eyes’ snooping services of the US, UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand is $120bn.)

The British proved to be even more enthusiastic, and secretive, than the NSA about their information harvesting. It established 100% ‘intercept’ of all communications coming into, and then across, 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 totally illegal methods being employed, apparently to protect the citizens of Britain (and the world!). No wonder the race was on to get to Snowden before he could ‘spill the beans’!

On the run

The whistle-blower-in-waiting had been working in Hawaii, after Geneva and Japan. He now worked for “a long-standing member of the military-industrial complex” as the Observer’s John Naughton describes Booz Allen Hamilton – “a company that has 24,500 employees, a market capitalisation of $2.5bn and annual revenues of $5.8bn”. (Observer, 23 March 2014)

Once Snowden had decided to reveal all, he had to be sure he could get off the island. He was not even able to 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 McAskill, Greenwald and a documentary film-maker, Laura Poitras – to meet Snowden secretly in Hong Kong, he began to give them devastating interviews. For their pains, the journalists have received a number of awards.

In accepting the George Polk award for national security reporting, Poitras said, “This award is really for Edward Snowden”. Greenwald said that each one of the awards vindicates what Snowden did and “merits gratitude and not indictments and decades of imprisonment”. Snowden himself was recently invited to Germany to attend a parliamentary inquiry into the NSA’s surveillance. He was refused entry by the government, just hours before Chancellor Merkel left for a rather tense visit to the US aiming to assure a “mutual no-spy agreement”!

Once in Hong Kong (and being ridiculously accused of being a collaborator of the Chinese state), the net was closing in around Snowden. (“If I was a Chinese spy, why wouldn’t I have flown directly into Beijing? I could be living in a palace, petting a phoenix by now”.) He had been offered the help of Sarah Harrison, a collaborator of another fugitive whistle-blower, Julian Assange. She travelled to Hong Kong to give him papers and accompany him out of the country. She now also finds herself a fugitive, unable to return to Britain where she could 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”. This in itself is enough to concern all activists. “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) Sarah Harrison suggests that even the suffragettes and the Jarrow marchers could have been threatened into inaction if such legislation had existed in their times.

A determined mass movement, however, will not be held back by laws. They can be successfully defied and broken. But 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 apply the challenge to all people living in Britain?) They were told that GCHQ has a “longstanding policy of never commenting on intelligence matters”!

On 23 June Sue Harrison and Edward Snowden made it out of Hong Kong airport 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 Sheremetovo airport. His passport had been cancelled by the US state. (He had already been indicted for his ‘crimes’ against the state.).

Panicky instructions were issued to pilots and a number of European airports not to let planes that might be carrying Edward Snowden land. One carrying the Bolivian president, Evo Morales, home from a conference in Moscow was even refused landing permission in a number of European countries on the suspicion that Snowden was on board!

In a speech to a press conference at the Moscow airport on 12 June last year, Edward Snowden outlined his situation and why he had sacrificed so much to pursue his mission. Ironically, given Putin’s considerable dislike for NGOs, and Human Rights NGOs in particular, it was through them that the press conference was arranged to which 150 journalists and photographers turned up.

Some commentators have wanted to present Snowden as ‘a new Philby’ for his apparent defection to Russia. On 17 April, to make sure there were no illusions on this score, he challenged Putin on a live Russian TV programme. His question: “Does [your country] intercept, analyse or store millions of individuals’ communications?” and, “if this was technically legal, could it ever be morally justified?”. Putin “denied” the first and “dodged” the second, according to Snowden.

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, the armed forces, the courts, the 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 their 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. His ‘discoveries’ also revealed that cyber wars were not exclusive to the Chinese state. “Now it appeared the NSA did the same thing, only worse!” (p 219). The 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 for a major stepping up of surveillance and of military expenditure to the benefit of big business. Billions of dollars-worth of public money has gone from the pockets of the 99% into the 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.

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June 2014