The White House has been pointing accusatory fingers at China for cyber hacking. Protests by China that it too has been the victim of cyber hacking were dismissed in some quarters as “well, they would say that, wouldn’t they’’.
But now we realize that the White House has sanctioned and defended snooping, on a far greater scale than what China was accused of, against US citizens.
And St. Barack of Guantanamo, the patron saint of broken promises, still insists he is a defender of civil liberties. Under this president, the commander-in-chief, Bradley Manning is facing life in prison on charges he aided the enemy for putting into the public domain information vital for democracy to function. He, in fact, aided the American people by holding government to account and exposing the targeting by a US Apache helicopter of, among others, two Reuters’ journalist in Iraq.
Possibly, then, it should not be a surprise that under an order signed on April 25 by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the US government has unlimited authority to obtain data on the communication records of US citizens until July 19, when it looks set to be renewed. Data on all telephone calls with the US and between the US and other countries will also be collected
In simple terms, the phone records of American citizens are, as a matter of course, examined by their own government. Americans now live in a state of surveillance.
But hold on. Doesn’t the terror threat justify the draconian measures?
It didn’t in the past. The Soviet Union was a real terror threat, a clear and present danger, to use the vernacular of the intelligence services. Its nuclear warheads were programmed to smash into American cities. The world’s fate hung in the balance. The thirteen days of October, 1962 was not the only time when the spectre of a mushroom cloud appearing over the horizon was a distinct possibility.
But US civil liberties were kept, admittedly frayed around the edges, largely intact.
Make no mistake about it there are people who want to do real harm to the West but this invasion of privacy does not make America or the West any safer. Look at the confusion to justify this breach of trust of the America people. It doesn’t stand up to even the most cursory scrutiny.
The White House says that no authorisation has been given to snoop on the contents of phone calls. Technically, a solid argument. The National Security Agency is not allowed to snoop on the contents of phone calls just the records of them, where they were made, how long they lasted, the numbers. Networks, associations, patterns and times of communication, but not content. This seems incredible that they would not look at the content but let’s just say that is the case. Defenders of what the National Security Agency is doing say it is the equivalent, in the electronic age, of looking at, not opening, a stamped letter.
Now we enter a bizarre world. We have the incredible situation where security services are saying matters of urgent national security require we examine the data, but, crucially, not the content. This, in their mindset, must border on negligence because the content is surely where the important information will be, not the outside of the envelope. By their own admission, they are not taking every step to make America safe.
Americans can still draw comfort that they do not live in a police state, they have protections, legal and constitutional. The alarming aspect of that sentence is that it rings less true than it once did. And that, to our great misfortune, will give comfort to the enemy.
TOM CLIFFORD can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org