Manifest Surveillance



It is a pity that an Attorney General with the surname of Dreyfus has decided that history, notably one of injustice, is something for other people. The Dreyfus Affair, France’s divisive scandal involving Captain Alfred Dreyfus’ alleged communication of French military secrets to the German embassy in Paris, plagued France from 1894 to 1906.

The point of it was that Dreyfus was framed and made an example of, banished to Devil’s Island.  He was convicted – twice.  He was exonerated only in 1906.  The military establishment, with its baubles and pleasantries, had been keen to keep evidence coming to light that a certain French Army major by the name of Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy was responsible.

The modern Australian Dreyfus, given name Mark, is of a different nature, a creature of an establishment indifferent to the exposure of corruption and crime via a vigorous blow of the whistle.  According to the highest serving legal officer of the government, Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning are, in fact, not even whistleblowers.

On Tuesday, speaking to the Security in Government Conference in Canberra, Dreyfus not merely attempted to disabuse his audience of the very idea that Snowden and Manning had performed feats of noble duty in untenable situations.  He defended Australia’s own telecommunications interception programme.  His policy: trash and defend.

There was nothing too surprising about his brief.  When the establishment speaks about matters of security, notably about those from within it who breached those onerous covenants of secrecy, its voice is unimaginative and unrepentant.  “Where an activity has been authorised under law and overseen by appropriate government bodies and where no wrongdoing has been identified, the disclosure of information is not ‘whistleblowing’.”[1]

Dreyfus is evidently inhabiting another space of political contemplation.  Crime is up for redefinition.  “Collateral Murder” was evidently authorised, a product of a legal, if misguided enterprise.  The Iraq War logs were of the same ilk.  And the broadest surveillance programs in history, a product not of parliamentary approval but executive gluttony, was perfectly in order. Ergo, it’s all legal, and Manning and Snowden are wrongdoers, merely common “politically motivated” criminals.

Besides, spying on Australian citizens was perfectly legitimate for their own good.  “I want to reiterate that Australia’s intelligence activities are carried out in a manner that is consistent with our law, and or the purpose of protecting Australia’s democratic values.”

But are such measures, questionably legal to begin with, effective, let alone necessary?  Hardly, if you consult the figures in the 2011-12 financial year.  They reveal that 293,501 disclosures of metadata to various government and non-government organisations under the Telecommunications Act resulted in a paltry prosecution rate of 0.7 percent.  The trawling operation is proving to be simply that, a desperate attempt on the part of the government to get a bite.

The Greens have alleged, with some foundation, that there is a “bipartisan agreement” between the Australian government and the opposition coalition to trash and tarnish the role of whistleblowers.  Democratic health is evidently too cheesy for them to stomach.  For them, the gagged are the good.

Greens communications spokesperson Senator Scott Ludlam was particularly forceful at a conference of the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network about this understanding.  “We have, over the last day or so, seen our attorney-general declare that people like Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden are not whistleblowers and respectively cutting them loose indicating that the Australian government doesn’t support the kind of legal protection that really should be [given] to whistleblowers who disclose war crimes.”[2]

Such behaviour demonstrates, yet again, that the centre of Australian politics is polluted, a sinister consensus that surveillance is good, or at worst benign.  This is a concept of manifest surveillance, or, to use Ludlam’s term, a “surveillance agenda”.

Various symptoms result from this manic behaviour: self-censorship and a cultivated climate of constipated fear in revealing information; a further entrenchment of the very security culture we should be guarding against.  Ultimately, such atmosphere manifests a process of inadvertent collaboration: the citizen is encouraged to collaborate in his or her own silence.

Such a strategy also suggests that the surveillance state is merely an extension of broader interests disconnected with the democratic experiment.  Spying is what makes us good; monitoring is what makes us decent.

To Ludlam’s credit, a bill has been introduced to Parliament that would limit the government’s ability to accumulate and gorge itself on intercepted information.  How far it goes given the asphyxiating stance of the major parties remains to be seen.

A few starting steps are required to redress this disease.  German Chancellor Angela Merkel has suggested a measure in the form of a global data protection agreement, though one can’t help feeling that this was done well after the horse of surveillance had bolted.  When caught in the act, any response is bound to be disingenuous.

Even more disingenuous are the staff of the office of the Australian Attorney-General himself.  One spokesperson considered that the legislative hoods of Canberra would consider supporting the “protection of communications and personal information held by private and public sector organisations” in such a global scheme but reiterated that old hoary chestnut of “balance”: intelligence services need their fill; private citizens need their privacy.[3]

That equation has been out of balance for years now, and needs desperate correction. It is not bound to come from that man Dreyfus.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and is on the Victorian ticket for the Senate, running with Julian Assange and Dr. Leslie Cannold.  Email: bkampmark@gmail.com


[1] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/aug/14/australian-attorney-general-attacks-snowden-manning

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

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