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The Spy Who Wouldn’t Spy


The  simplicity of the US constitution’s fourth amendment is as refreshing as it is clear.

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons   houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation  and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

That amendment, along with the rest of the constitution, was twice sworn to be upheld by President Barack Obama.

That is just one aspect of the increasing Kafkaesque episode playing out before us.

Edward Snowden  is  facing charges of spying. That was his job, that’s what his American employers hired him to do.

It was his refusal to spy on Americans that led him on the trek to Ecuador and the threat of legal sanction. He should, by rights, be charged with not spying.

The defenders of the spying state insist it was only meta data.. not actual content. In other words, communication records and networks were being monitored rather than what was said.

But a sigh of relief would be misplaced. There is no comfort from the “we are not listening to content” argument. There is no need to listen to content. It is time consuming, laborious and not terribly informative.

Far better, from the spooks point of view, is that meta data kills two birds with one stone. It saves time and this is the clincher…it provides a clearer and bigger picture.

If you ring your bank manager the overwhelming likelihood is that you are discussing money , not say, the weather un less you need a loan for a rainy day.

Besides content can be misleading. Language, accents, laughter, coughing, even bad lines, can garble messages.

And deniability is a big plus. It permits the spooks to say, with more than a grain of truth, we never listen to the content. This allows the veneer of oversight to remain. Lawmakers who do not have a clue about the technology (because it is secret) ask questions not to enlighten but to obfuscate.

What the spooks don’t say is that there was never any need to eavesdrop on content.

Spy agencies know that words do not betray us, actions do. It is not what we are saying that interests them so much as who we are talking to.

Once you know the latter, the former poses little challenge.

But of course, there is always the argument that if you have nothing to hide then you have nothing to worry about. Only the guilty will be afraid on non-stop surveillance.

Many sectors of civil society have a legitimate right to hide certain facts but are not terrorists. Battered wives are just one example. They need safe sanctuary. Nobody would dispute Nigella Lawson’s right to privacy following recent events. Why then deny legitimate privacy to others.

Besides denying people their privacy, on such a scale,  in the US it is unconstituional. Those who have broken the constitution are the very ones demanding the person who exposed their criminality be locked up.

Kafka would have relished this.

TOM CLIFFORD can be reached at


Tom Clifford is a freelance journalist and can be reached at:

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