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The Snowden Testimony

If you want to help me, help me by helping everyone: declare that the indiscriminate, bulk collection of private data by governments is a violation of our rights and must end.

-Edward Snowden, Testimony, Mar 7, 2014

The case of Edward Snowden is an object study about why whistleblowers have mountains to climb when it comes to revealing abuses within a system. Last Friday1, Snowden detailed a series of answers to submitted questions from the European Parliament outlining what those mountains were.

One particularly troubling one is the pressure exerted by the US intelligence community to spread the web of surveillance through its allies, notably by means of a “European bazaar” of intelligence transfer and sharing. “One of the foremost activities of the NSA’s FAD, or Foreign Affairs Division, is to pressure or incentivize EU member states to change their laws to enable mass surveillance.” Legal teams at the NSA and Britain’s GCHQ “work very hard to search for loopholes in laws and constitutional protections that they can use to justify indiscriminate, dragnet surveillance operations that were at best unwittingly authorised by lawmakers.”

Specific examples include pressure on Germany to degrade its G-10 law “to appease the NSA”, the effect of which would diminish civil liberties protected under the Constitution. Agreements are then made with various countries that seemingly protect their citizens while allowing the NSA to spy on others. Just because the NSA promises not to spy on German citizens in Germany does not mean they will not do so from Denmark. The noose is thereby tightened. Each “individual contribution is enabling the greater patchwork of mass surveillance against ordinary citizens as a whole.”

Snowden ventured no less than 10 times2 to make formal complaints about the various government spy programs before releasing information. The National Security Agency disputes3 such efforts claiming that, “after extensive investigation, including interviews with former NSA supervisors and co-workers, we have not found any evidence to support Mr. Snowden’s contention that he brought these matters to anyone’s attention.”

Presidential Policy Directive 194, a measure that supposedly grants federal employees scope to question classified programs, did not prove very useful. At a news conference in August, President Obama pointed out that Snowden might well have availed himself of “other avenues”, suggesting that PPD 19 was one.

The directive itself “prohibits retaliation against employees for reporting waste, fraud and abuse” and protects employees serving in the Intelligence community or those “eligible for access to classified information”. As with any of these directives, the measure is designed to avoid any disclosure outside the structured channels advocated by the President, keeping it within the remit of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

The impediment to Snowden was one that private contractors with access to government information find – the protective loop is simply not there. Governments can effectively evade the internal restrictions placed on their employees via an outsourcing mechanism. “As an employee of a private company rather than a direct employee of the US government, I was not protected by US whistleblower laws, and I would not have been protected from retaliation and legal sanction for revealing classified information about law breaking in accordance with the recommended process.”

The intelligence fraternity, like any other bound by oaths, is bound by self-assumptions of archaic loyalty and sinister practice. The very idea that aspects of it might be questioned is highly problematic. Snowden’s descriptions of reactions to his concerns fell into two camps. The first involved “well-meaning but hushed warnings not to ‘rock the boat’.” Remember the fates, he was cautioned, of those other NSA whistleblowers, such as Wiebe, Binney and Drake. “Everyone in the Intelligence Community is aware of what happens to people who report concerns about unlawful but authorised operations.” The second response tended to be the dismissive one – it was someone else’s problem. Besides, complaining about it would not necessarily result in ending the unlawful program while more than likely ending a career.

Snowden’s testimony put more meat on the body of the security states whose complexes he has so spectacularly exposed. It demonstrates the intelligence communities in question are not so much interested to abide by rules than evade them through agreements, forum shopping and outsourcing. They do so, of course, at the behest of their executives and not-so-bright parliamentarians.

While these programs have the effect of chipping away at the corpus of civil liberties, they are fundamentally worthless – “no western government has been able to present evidence showing that such programs are necessary.” People have tended to be saved, as Snowden ventures with the example of the Underwear Bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, not through mass surveillance as good, old fashioned incompetence. Things as they stand are “the inevitable result of subordinating the rights of the voting public to the prerogatives of State Security Bureaus”.

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

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

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