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Edward Snowden and PRISM

Whistleblowing at the NSA

by BINOY KAMPMARK

He has been so naughty, at least in the eyes of the security establishment.  The British are up in arms about what information is being obtained on their citizens via U.S. channels.  Foreign Secretary William Hague has tried dousing the fires, claiming that GCHQ’s alleged involvement in the global surveillance program PRISM did not involve any circumvention of the law.  There was merely, claimed the Secretary, “targeted” monitoring within the bounds of the law.

Former Shadow Home Secretary David Davis and Labour chairman of the Commons home affairs select committee, Keith Vaz, are not convinced.  America’s great ally is proving testy and suspicious.  They have every reason to be.

The Obama administration has gone into apologia overdrive.  Senator Mark Udall has called for amendments to the Patriot Act to clip some powers of the NSA.  “I’m calling for reopening the Patriotic Act. The fact that every call I make to my friends or family is noted, the length, the date, that concerns me.”  Udall’s concerns are not small beer.

National Security Agency operative Edward Snowden, now in Hong Kong, has been revealed to be the source behind The Guardian’s documents both on the snooping order of the Foreign Surveillance Court and the cyber surveillance regime that has been in place since 2007 called PRISM.

Snooping on citizens globally, trashing privacy and regarding everything as potentially accessible for Washington’s functionaries, should come as no surprise.  The outrage, rather, is being reminded of it, being told that the world’s sole superpower is intent on getting its fingers dirty in jittery fits of paranoia. And Snowden has been instrumental to exposing that tendency.

What the revelations have done, argues historian Tim Stanley, is expose “both the ambition and the incompetence of Obama’s security state” (The Telegraph, Jun 9).  It has burgeoned without the guarantees of security. It has swallowed up liberties without any noticeable return.  According to Michael Hayden, former director of the NSA, the security state under Obama has become something of an enormous, unaccountable hulk, a bungling specialist.  He should know – it was under Hayden at the direction of President George W. Bush that the warrantless surveillance system was established.

Snowden was discouraged by the very sleuthing activity he saw.  Stationed at Geneva in 2007, he observed CIA operatives in action, behaviour that left a bad taste in his mouth.  Then came the Obama administration, feelings of that ever hollow word hope, that the intelligence culture would be reformed.  This was not to be, and the reformist Obama has been ever enthusiastic about dealing with those of Snowden’s ilk, using the Espionage Act of 1917 as a default position.

Furthermore, Obama has insisted that the activities authorised under the Patriotic Act are merely analogous to a grand jury subpoena, something they are distinctly not.  Even Senator John McCain, ever hawkish on the subject of surveillance, suggested on CNN that there might have been “some over-reach.”

Snowden was subsequently given top-secret clearance to run the NSA’s computer systems albeit as a contractor hired by the appropriately named Booz Allen Hamilton.  Snowden’s disclosures have two features at work here: demonstrating the NSA’s activities in action, and showing a privatised security complex that has marked the collection of data for years.

According to the private defence contractor, “News reports that this individual has claimed to have leaked classified information are shocking, and if accurate, this action represents a grave violation of the code of conduct, and core values of our firm.”  When defence contractors start talking about “core values”, script writers of the absurd are getting their pens ready.

The NSA certainly has produced its fair share of whistleblowers, some of them from the highest ranks.  In what remains one of the worst intelligence failures in its history, the decision to go for the Trailblazer program over the cheaper in-house option ThinThread may have cost the U.S. dearly.

We can always delve into the world of counterfactuals, but incompetence in circles of that anomalous field of endeavour can be the difference between a bungled invasion or misguided interpretations.  In the case of U.S. intelligence, getting the chatter signals wrong prior to the attacks of September 11, 2001 and then bungling over the issue of WMD were twin sets of a perverse analysis.

What tends to be axiomatic in intelligence disclosures is that the person vital to revealing a fact is to be punished for actions over duties.  The quality of the information is secondary to the violation of the post’s undertaking. “Any person who has a security clearance knows that he or she has an obligation to protect classified information and abide by the law,” came the standard line from Shawn Turner, spokesman for the director of national intelligence, James Clapper.

Snowden will be hounded. His family will be harassed.  The GOP have called for his extradition from Hong Kong.  Peter King, chairman of the House homeland security subcommittee has said in a statement that, “If Edward Snowden did in fact leak the NSA data as he claims, the United States government must prosecute him to the fullest extent of the law and begin extradition proceedings at the earliest date.” Snowden himself is pessimistic.  “I do not expect to see home again.”

If he does not, a travesty in itself, we can at least wish that he has ushered in a moment of fearful self-reflection on the part of the Obama administration.  Will this be Caliban looking at his own reflection in rage, or will this be the moment when enlightened reform started to take place?

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com