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EU Surveillance Blues

The Risk of Snowden Fatigue

by BINOY KAMPMARK

Oh, the fury of the states at the peeping toms of Uncle Sam, the lusty search for data, material and subject matter.  The latest Edward Snowden spectacular has seen the Spanish government haul the US ambassador before its offices to deal with “doubts” arising from his country’s espionage exploits.  Spain’s EU minister, Inigo Mendez de Vigo, cited the familiar round of disapproval with the monitoring allegations, claiming that, if proven, they would be “inappropriate and unacceptable”.  An EU delegate in Washington was quoted by the BBC (Oct 28) as claiming that there had been “a breakdown in trust”.

The Spanish case, highlighted in detail in El Mundo, did more than raise the eyebrows of the public prosecutor, who explained on Monday that the NSA had violated the privacy of millions of Spaniards “which is punishable by up to four years in prison under Article 197 of the Penal Code.”  Much of this took place between December 2013 and January 2013.  US intelligence officials have responded by claiming that while telephone calls, the numbers of the callers, and recipients were logged, the contents of telephone call were not.  This goes to show how the NSA embraces the worst of both worlds: violating privacy, and doing it in a half-baked style.

The higher up the food chain of intelligence, the more revealing.  The German tabloid Bild am Sonntag, for all its smutty mercies, cited unnamed sources on Sunday that President Barack Obama had been told by the NSA director in 2010 that Angela Merkel’s phone was being tapped.  The NSA’s Vanee Vines responded that the NSA had done no such thing, though again, it did not quash suggestions that tapping of the German chancellor’s phone had never happened.  This was truth told in circuit.

Meetings have been held between representatives from the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs and members of the US Congress.  The cool topic: the blanket surveillance of EU citizens, the almost avaricious manner the intelligence services have gone about their task.  One of the members of that delegation, British Labour MEP Claude Moraes, stated the objective.  “We wanted to transmit to them first that this mass surveillance of EU citizens is a genuine concern.”  Confidently, he claimed that those on the Hill were willing “to have some sort of dialogue.”

A few of those steeped in the surveillance culture genuinely can’t see what the fuss is about.  Why listen, suggest the NSA honchos, to the deliberations of a thief who risks lifting the veil of liberty from the American dream?  The NSA Director Keith Alexander is in a tizz and not entirely sure what to do.  He is adamant about one thing: such behaviour as that of Snowden’s must stop.  For the Defense Department’s Armed with Science blog, he claimed that, “We ought to come up with a way of stopping it.  I don’t know how to do that.”  From the director’s “perspective, it’s wrong to allow this to go on.”

Alexander’s description is dim witted.  He sees the disclosure of any secret documentation on surveillance as tantamount to selling material.  “I think it’s wrong that newspaper reporters have all these documents, the 50,000 – whatever they have and are selling them and giving them out as if these – you know it just doesn’t make sense”.  In a recently released YouTube video, Alexander ran with the “hero” line his agency was pursuing: “They do more to save our lives that anybody else that I know.  The leaker is not a hero.  He will have cost lives” (Mashable, Oct 28).  And naturally, such a mission of espionage helps America’s allies, those disgruntled ones unnecessarily concerned about the privacy of their irrelevant citizens. Such are the burdens of empire.

The observations here are prescient, for they chart the avenues open to the EU and their delegates.  Are they genuinely interested in a matter of halting the insidious surveillance culture that has crept around them and their citizens?  Or will they simply adopt the David Cameron model of plugging leaks and identifying the breaches in the dam spiced by the official stance of incandescent fury?  (There is a third, near unmentionable one: the Australian reaction, which is to say nothing, do nothing and hope for the best.)

Altruism and theft do not necessarily go hand in hand, and it all comes down to what proprietary interest one attaches to documents and the material contained therein.  Snowden can hardly have pilfered what was, in any case, information that the global public – and governments – should know about.  Distinctions about friend and foe have simply not applied here – this has become surveillance for surveillance’s own pitiful sake, a cry, perhaps, of an empire teetering rather than strutting.

Public knowledge remains the greatest threat against democratic corrosion.  It is that knowledge that renders the NSA paladins apoplectic, concerned that their ivory tower is finally coming down, or at the very least penetrated.  The only problem may end up being that they have nothing to worry about.  Outrage, if not channelled and used, is merely superfluous sentiment.  EU officials risk remaining sentimental in this regard rather than constructive.  After all, democracy is hardly their forte, and transparency even less so.

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