I wrote this piece of long journalism, whilst doing my Masters degree in International Journalism. It was very close to the time that the Edward Snowden leaks had occurred and state surveillance and other issues were hot on the menu. This piece is over two years old, however with the release of the new Snowden film that covers the man and the leaks, I was reminded of this piece. Therefore I have decided to publish it on this blog.
A democracy fails when the people cannot and do not trust its government. When a government acts against the people who elected it into office, how can it claim to still represent them? But a government’s first responsibility is to ensure the safety of the people… But at what cost? How much can a nation sacrifice in order to protect its citizens?
“Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little Temporary safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” Benjamin Franklin wrote these words in 1755. 259 years later and the words are still central to discussions happening in America and the UK regarding National Security. Since 9/11, the debate between Security and Liberty has raged on the frontline of politics and journalists are the casualties.
Some, including Julian Assange argue that for a democracy to be a true democracy, we need total transparency. We need to know everything that our government is doing. Others argue that there are things that should not be reported because to reveal them would be to risk lives and special interests. Then there are the security officials, who want to carry out their work of protecting the nation without media scrutiny harming that effort.
This issue comes to the forefront of British and American politics every few years, more recently because of leaks perpetrated by whistle-blowers and published by National newspapers. The last set of leaks by National Security Agency (NSA) contractor, Edward Snowden, which were published by The Guardian newspaper in Britain and The New York Times in America revealed massive, unwarranted surveillance by the NSA and Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ). This has led to a fight back by governments against journalists and newspapers in the name of National Security.
The NSA story broke in June 2013, with the Guardian publishing articles by American journalist and Constitutional lawyer, Glenn Greenwald describing the surveillance used by American and British Intelligence agencies. A few days later on the 9th June, Edward Snowden revealed himself to be the source of the leaks in an online video. Snowden told the Guardian, “I really want the focus to be on these documents and the debate, which I hope this will trigger among citizens around the globe about what kind of world we want to live in.” He added, “My sole motive is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them.”
After two months of the Guardian reporting on the leaks, the British Government’s response became public with two events. First was on the 18th August, with the detention of David Miranda, Greenwald’s partner, at Heathrow Airport. Miranda was detained for nine hours under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000, which allows the police to detain, search and question individuals at airports, ports and border areas only. It was later revealed that the Americans had been informed of the detention beforehand, but had not ordered it. This means that the British state decided to detain a citizen of a foreign nation, with no ties to terrorism, under terrorism legislation and had seized materials, including computers. The British state had used the legislation in order to attack journalism that was criticising them for using powers that they had no legal right to use against its own citizens. However on the 19th February 2014, three high court judges decided that the detention was legal because the police had a pressing interest in protecting national security, despite it interfering with press freedom.
Also in August, it was revealed that on the 20th July, government officials demanded the destruction of the hard drives that contained the leaked information at the Guardian’s Kings Cross headquarters without a warrant or court order. The officials threatened to take legal action against the newspaper, which meant that they would not be able to continue reporting on the leaks, unless they destroyed the hard drives. The Guardian’s editor, Alan Rusbridger has said, “It was a rather bizarre situation in which I explained to them that there were other copies and, as with WikiLeaks, we weren’t working in London alone so destroying a copy in London seemed to me a slightly pointless task that didn’t take account of the way that digital information works these days,”. The demand appeared to be a symbolic act for the government to show it was taking a tough line against journalists when they reported against national security.
The threats continued. On the 3rd December 2013, Rusbridger was question in front of Home Affair select committee. Keith Vaz, MP, asked Mr Rusbridger, “Do you love this country?” This question implies that questioning the abuses of the establishment is unpatriotic. Rusbridger’s answer was “We live in a democracy and most of the people working on this story are British people who have families in this country, who love this country. I’m slightly surprised to be asked the question but, yes, we are patriots and one of the things we are patriotic about is the nature of democracy, the nature of a free press and the fact that one can, in this country, discuss and report these things”.
Across the Atlantic, America, the nation that proclaims liberty, freedom and democracy to be the keystones of its society has to deal with the hypocritical nature of its image. America through its politicians, television shows and films portrays itself as the country that stands by liberty, freedom and the “American dream”. Except that this debate, especially the actions of the government have damaged that image. When the Snowden leaks were first revealed, Charles P Pierce wrote an article in Esquire magazine titled “Tell me what is being done in my name”. Pierce starts the article with “OK, let us persist in the notion that I am an American citizen. Let us persist in the notion that I am the citizen of a self-governing political commonwealth. Let us persist in the notion that I have a say — and important and equal say — in the operation of my government here and out in the world.” And that is the point at the heart of the debate. It should be up to the people how far they allow the government to go in protecting them. Most civilians understand that every country has enemies and the more powerful countries have more powerful enemies. The government’s first priority is the protection of its citizens.
In the seventh season of the hit TV show, 24, lead character and counter-terrorism agent, Jack Bauer says, “We’ve done so many secret things over the years, in the name of protecting this country, we’ve created two worlds. Our’s and the people’s we promised to protect. They deserve to know the truth and they can decide how far they want to let us go.” The point Pierce makes in his article is that “we, the people” have a right to know what is being done in our name. Despite the article being written for an American audience, where “we, the people” is a common sentiment, it also transfers to the UK. Both the United Kingdom and the United States are democracies, meaning that the people elected the government. However in the UK, the government is elected to advice the Queen officially. However there is an expectation amongst the electorate that the elected officials are there to serve in the people’s name. The people deserve to know how the government acts on their behalf to protect them.
Actor, Alec Baldwin wrote in The New Statesmen that “Americans, in terms of their enthusiasm for defending their beloved democratic principles in the face of an ever more muscular assault on those principles by the state in the name of national security, are exhausted”.
Liberty & Freedom
The United States of America was founded on the idea of Liberty and Freedom after the War of Independence from the British Empire. It has stated and in some case gloated of its heritage of the country that delivers freedom to its citizens. The word “Liberty” means “the state of being free within society from oppressive restrictions imposed by authority on one’s behaviour or political views”. It is stamped onto their currency. In New York Harbor, the Statue of Liberty stands tall on Liberty Island. It represents the Roman Goddess of Freedom, Libertas. Liberty and Justice. These two ideas that the United States are so in love with and yet politicians and government officials allow them to be threatened because the government allows fear to rule their National Security policy. The late writer, Gore Vidal once said, “Nobody made a sound when we lost Habeas Corpus. Due process of law. And suddenly Bush (George W Bush) managed to get rid of it. Where was the voice on television aside from mine that spoke out against this? Where are all those noble jurors, those great lawyers, those lovers of liberty, where the hell were they? They were nowhere.”
NSA whistleblower, Edward Snowden said, “I don’t want to live in a world where everything that I say, everything I do, everyone I talk to, every expression of creativity or love or friendship is recorded…” This quote sounds as if it describes the world of George Orwell’s 1984, with the mass surveillance of the people, rather than the United States of America.
When the press report leaks that directly affect the security agencies of the respected countries, the agencies retaliate with the same threat of danger. In Britain, Andrew Parker, the head of the Security Service (MI5) claimed “Such information hands the advantage to the terrorists. It is the gift they need to evade us and strike at will.” The threat that revealing the abuses of the security agencies means that Edward Snowden and the newspapers that published him would be responsible for future attacks. ABC News reported that NSA Director, General Keith Alexander said the terrorists “listen, they see what has come out in the press and they adjust. … I believe people will die because we won’t be able to stop some of those threats.” These statements are one the reasons why a debate about national security is needed because according to the heads of these agencies, any reporting by the press that is not on the positive work they do, will result in the deaths of civilians.
“Innocent before proven Guilty”
In the 2014 film, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, superhero and cultural icon, Steve Rogers AKA Captain America has an opinion on how the fictional intelligence agency, S.H.I.E.L.D uses mass surveillance and extra-judicial killings and the consequences that go with them. In a conversation with S.H.I.E.L.D’s spymaster Nick Fury about the news powers awarded to the agency through new technology and politicians, Rogers says two things of interests. The first is “I thought the punishment usually came after the crime.” A key Principle of both the UK and US legal systems is “Innocent until proven Guilty”. However with mass surveillance and extra-judicial killings it appears that this principle has been reversed. All citizens of a nation, including the apparently free people are the UK and US are deemed guilty until proven innocent when the state uses the techniques of tyrants to hunt down their enemies.
Gore Vidal said of the United States, “Now we have a totalitarian government and a totalitarian government wants to watch everybody. Total surveillance of everyone. They listen to the telephone conversations. They look at your credit cards. They look where you travel. We are totally policed. This is contrary to everything in our Constitution. I complain about the United States not being Athens, I would certainly say we are a very good Roman Republic.
Steve Rogers again sums up the erosion of American constitutional rights and values by saying, “This isn’t Freedom. This is fear”. The security services of both countries use the rhetoric of fear by describing how a terrorist attack may happen unless they have these powers. The powers to invade the private lives of any citizen or to eliminate a citizen without going through due process or imprison someone indefinitely . That in itself is a threat to the country.
The First Amendment to the United States of America’s Constitution states:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
This amendment states that the government should not interfere with the exercising of a free press. This means that a free press should be allowed to challenge any administration on any issue especially those that affect the civil liberties of the Nation’s citizens. However when it comes to the treatment of whistleblowers and journalists who challenge the United States government on the actions of its National Security agencies, they are not treated as free citizens but as criminals and terrorists. When Julian Assange, Wikileaks, The Guardian and other news outlets released the War Logs, former Vice-Presidential candidate, Sarah Palin called for him to be hunted down like a terrorists. She wrote on Facebook, “Why was he not pursued with the same urgency we pursue al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders?”
Edward Snowden was the eighth person to be charged under the Espionage Act since Obama was first elected. Al-Jazeera America reports “Obama has prosecuted more people under the 100-year-old act than any other president”. The first was former senior NSA official, Thomas Drake. In April 2010, he was indicted for allegedly retaining classified information about the NSA’s program of wiretapping without warrants. Drake was charged after revealing that Obama Administration had broken the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. The Amendment states “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.”
Trevor Timm reported on Boing Boing that US citizens were being detained at the border without explanation. He wrote “a growing and disturbing problem: the suspension of constitutional rights at the US border, where Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) can detain US citizens for hours and seize their electronic devices without any suspicion of wrong doing. Perhaps worse, the policies and practices of CBP are extremely secretive and in many ways unaccountable, and Freedom of Information Act requests to the agencies are largely stonewalled or ignored.”
He claims that journalists are the main targets of these border detentions. Laura Poitras told the New York Times of her detention at the borders, “It’s infuriating that I have to speculate why. When did that universe begin, that people are put on a list and are never told and are stopped for six years? I have no idea why they did it. It’s the complete suspension of due process. … I’ve been told nothing, I’ve been asked nothing, and I’ve done nothing. It’s like Kafka. Nobody ever tells you what the accusation is.”
Assange told ABC News “The West is becoming a place where the best and brightest, who hold the government to account end up in asylum or exile in other countries.”
Glenn Greenwald told the Huffington Post in March, “I refuse to be exiled from my own country for the crime of doing journalism. I am going to force the issue just on principle.” The threat of arrest on their return did not stop Greenwald or Poitras when they returned to America in April. According to the New York Times, “The two were in New York for the prestigious Polk Award presented to Mr. Greenwald and his colleagues, Laura Poitras and Ewen MacAskill, and the Washington Post reporter Barton Gellman, for national security reporting.”
There was clearly worry that the two could be arrested at the airport because the NY Times continued “The crowd of journalists at the Polk ceremony at the Roosevelt Hotel in Manhattan cheered and applauded when it was announced that Mr. Greenwald and Ms. Poitras had cleared customs and were en route.”
Surveillance isn’t the only issue seen with the huge increase in the “national security” structure in the US and UK. Assassinations or extra-judicial killings or targeted killings have become part of the national strategy. Human Rights campaigners believe that state-sponsored assassinations like CIA drone strikes are deemed as extra-judicial killings and are therefore not only morally wrong but also legally wrong. But do the public agree?
In March 2013, YouGov published a report of a poll of 1,966 British people. More than 50% supported the assassinations of terrorists abroad. This rose when asked if they agreed with targeting individual terrorists. And the agreement rose again when asked if they agreed that pirates or kidnappers should be targeted for assassination. These figures are meant to represent Britons as a whole.
In the USA, last July, a HuffPost/YouGov survey said that 59 per cent of Americans said they approved of the Obama administration using drones to kill high-level terrorism suspects overseas. However when asked if the administration should target terrorists who happened to be Americans, the percentage who agreed fell to 44%. Those that said they weren’t sure rose from 24% to 30%.
However according to a recent national survey of registered American voters by Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind, 48% say they think it’s illegal for the US Government to target its own citizens living abroad with drone strikes. Only 24% agree with the Obama administration that it is legal. “The public clearly makes an assumption very different from that of the Obama administration or Mr Brennan: the public thinks targeting American citizens abroad is out of bounds,” said Peter Woolley, professor of political science at Fairleigh Dickinson University and analyst for PublicMind. However 75% voters approve of the U.S. military using drones to carry out attacks abroad “on people and other targets deemed a threat to the U.S.”
Both the British and American public agree that targeting those deemed terrorists or threats is a good thing. Jeremy Scahill, author of Dirty Wars and narrator of the film, with the same name, said on Real Time with Bill Maher “We define our society by how we treat the most reprehensible of our citizens. If we don’t believe in due process and we instead want a policy with pitchforks… then we should say we’re a different country.” Scahill’s work tells the story of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), how they follow a “kill list” directly from the White House to commit night raids on those deemed enemies of the United States.
Social and political activist and writer, Naomi Wolf writes in The Guardian regarding JSOC “What does it means for the president to have an unaccountable paramilitary force, which can assassinate anyone anywhere in the world? … This arrangement – where death squads roam under the sole control of the executive – is one definition of dictatorship. It now has the potential to threaten critics of the US anywhere in the world.”
In the epilogue to Dirty Wars, Scahill writes:
“After General David Petraeus’s career was brought to a halt as a result of an extramarital affair, President Obama tapped John Brennan to replace him as director of the CIA, thus ensuring that the Agency would be headed by a seminal figure in the expansion and running of the kill program. After four years as Obama’s senior counterterrorism adviser, Brennan had become known in some circles as the “assassination czar” for his role in drone strikes and other targeted killing operations.
When Obama had tried to put Brennan at the helm of the Agency at the beginning of his first term, the nomination was scuttled by controversy over Brennan’s role in the Bush-era detainee program. By the time President Obama began his second term in office, Brennan had created a “playbook” for crossing names off the kill list. “Targeted killing is now so routine that the Obama administration has spent much of the past year codifying and streamlining the processes that sustain it,” noted The Washington Post.
Brennan played a key role in the evolution of targeted killing by “seeking to codify the administration’s approach to generating capture/kill lists, part of a broader effort to guide future administrations through the counterterrorism processes that Obama has embraced,” the paper added. “The system functions like a funnel, starting with input from half a dozen agencies and narrowing through layers of review until proposed revisions are laid on Brennan’s desk, and subsequently presented to the president.”
Obama’s counterterrorism team had developed what was referred to as the “Disposition Matrix,” a database full of information on suspected terrorists and militants that would provide options for killing or capturing targets. Senior administration officials predicted that the targeted killing program would persist for “at least another decade.” During his first term in office, The Washington Post concluded, “Obama has institutionalized the highly classified practice of targeted killing, transforming ad-hoc elements into a counterterrorism infrastructure capable of sustaining a seemingly permanent war.””
Despite the public support for assassinations abroad, including drone strikes, the legality and accountability of such actions have been called into question. According to the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), peacetime assassinations have been banned in America since 1976, however the Bush and Obama administrations argue that they are on a constant state of armed conflict against Al-Qaeda, the Taliban and other Associated forces.
Regarding the killing of American citizens, the CFR states:
“Speaking at Northwestern University in March 2012, Attorney General Holder elaborated on the targeting of U.S. citizens abroad (i.e., Anwar al-Awlaki), stating that such individuals may be killed by U.S. forces, but are still protected under the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause—albeit a consideration that “takes into account the realities of combat.” Holder noted specifically that it would be lawful to target a U.S. citizen if the individual poses an imminent threat, capture is not feasible, and the operation would be executed in observance of applicable laws of war.”
This means that the United States government can target one of its own citizens for execution, ignoring their fifth amendment rights as long as the administration beliefs they are an enemy combatant in the “war against terror”. As Jeremy Scahill said to Bill Maher about al-Awlaki, the man hadn’t been charged with any crime when he was executed. The government is targeting its own citizens without even attempting to go through due process sets a dangerous precedent for those who wish to criticize the United States of America.
Back to the article written by Charles Pierce, “Let us persist in the notion that I am the citizen of a self-governing political commonwealth. Let us persist in the notion that I have a say – and important and equal say – in the operation of my government here and out in the world. Let us persist in the notion that, in America, the people rule. If we persist in these notions… then there is only one question that I humbly ask of my government… can you tell me what’s being done in my name?” Coming back to it, that is the real issue behind the questions about our National Security. Should things be done in our name without us knowing about it? As polls show, slightly more than half the public back actions like assassinations of terrorists abroad and yet the government attempts to deny that that is what they do.
Governments instead of trusting the people with the choice on how far their government should go to protect them instead use the politics of fear to scaremonger the populace into supporting them. Instead of holding those who commit the abuses to account, they target the journalists who reveal the abuses. They miss the point that the public may support the systems and structure they put in place if they know they can trust them. If the public knew that the system wasn’t going to be abused or used against them they would support it. In democracies like the US and UK, the rule of law is based on the idea that you are innocent until proven guilty. Except too often with the issues of national security and especially mass surveillance, the argument is made that if you are innocent, you have nothing to hide. But it is my right as a free person in a democracy where I vote for the government I want that I should not have to prove my innocence without being able to see what evidence there is against me or even if there is any at all. Assange said on ABC News, “What kind of place is Western Democracy going to be? Is it going to be a place with collapsing rule of law? With mass surveillance of entire populations? All the practical elements of a totalitarian regime.”
Nothing to hide, nothing to fear
British Foreign Secretary, William Hague told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show that “If you are a law-abiding citizen of this country, going about your business and personal life, you have nothing to fear about the British state or intelligence agencies listening to the content of your phone calls or anything like that. Indeed you’ll never be aware of all the things those agencies are doing.” In other words, my civil rights as a law-abiding citizen are worth nothing to the British state because I don’t know how deep their penetration of my life is. Article 8 of the Human Rights Act states “Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence” but what if the people choose security over their own privacy? For politicians of both the UK and US to brush away the concerns that their elected governments are using the tools of tyrants to spy on them because they have nothing to hide is a wrong step. It is a step towards a government that is not accountable to the people who elected it, but to itself. The people are forgotten in the quest to find the best way to protect them. In the words of Charles Pierce, “Tell me what is being done in my name”.