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Proletarian issue 55 (August 2013)
Edward Snowden – a brave young idealist hounded by US imperialism
The US’s anger at having its dirty secrets revealed would appear to know no bounds.
After downloading masses of files documenting the US’s spying activities, Edward Snowden, a former employee of both the National Security Agency and the CIA, fled to Hong Kong on 20 May this year. However, before the US had managed to issue legal proceedings against him, he had left Hong Kong for the transit lounge of Moscow Airport, where he has remained ever since, having been deprived of his US passport and left stateless.

Like fellow whistle-blower Julian Assange, Edward Snowden has been effectively deprived of his freedom. No doubt Moscow airport and Ecuador’s London embassy respectively are a great deal more comfortable than the US prison housing Bradley Manning, but nevertheless Snowden and Assange are suspended in limbo, unable to lead a normal human existence of work, family and friends.

Snowden has applied for asylum in many countries, including Russia, and has so far been granted it by Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua. However, with the US brazenly pressuring other countries not only to refuse him asylum but also to sabotage his attempts to travel, he has so far gone nowhere. Meanwhile, the Obama regime is as determined as ever to force Snowden back to the US to face espionage charges and a life behind bars.

Indeed, so enraged are America’s rulers at being exposed, that, at the beginning of July, an aeroplane carrying Bolivia’s President Evo Morales home from Moscow was refused permission to fly over France or Portugal by the respective authorities of those countries (acting on orders from the US) because the US suspected that Edward Snowden was also on board!

In a shocking diplomatic incident, the plane was forced to land in Vienna, where it was thoroughly searched – but, of course, Edward Snowden was not to be found. Nevertheless, this outrage gives some indication of just how difficult it will be for Snowden to leave Moscow. Although Portugal and France have both now expressed ‘regret’ for their actions, which maybe would not be repeated, the US has plenty of tricks up its sleeve to pressurise countries and airlines to bend to its will.

Most airlines, for instance, have Boeings among their fleets, and can be told that no spare parts will be supplied to them for these in future if the airline carries any passenger of whom the US does not approve – effectively grounding the Boeings. In addition, most aircraft refuelling facilities, including all those at every London airport, belong to US corporations, which will dutifully refuse to refuel any aircraft whose owner has failed to carry out the US’s instructions.

As is well known, Edward Snowden, Bradley Manning and Julian Assange have all been responsible for mass leaks to the public of classified government documents. None of the leaked material shows us anything that could not be worked out by studying the US government’s behaviour, but the hard evidence of the US ruling class’s extreme duplicity has caused it considerable embarrassment and drastically undermined its propaganda drives against the various countries it is currently targeting around the world.

From now on, whatever terrible crimes it accuses others of, there is now documentary evidence that the US itself is routinely guilty of these crimes on a massive scale. As David Pilling pointed out recently: “Mr Snowden’s revelations are hardly that surprising. Yet imagining that such things go on and having them spelt out in black and white are quite different things. The US-Sino debate about cyber espionage will never be quite the same again.” (‘America cedes the moral high ground on cyber spying’, Financial Times, 20 June 2013, our emphasis)

US imperialist hypocrisy

On 6 May 2013, over a month before Edward Snowden’s revelations, the New York Times reported that an outspoken report had been laid before the US congress denouncing China’s cyber espionage against the US:

The Obama administration on Monday explicitly accused China’s military of mounting attacks on American government computer systems and defence contractors, saying one motive could be to map ‘military capabilities that could be exploited during a crisis’.

While some recent estimates have more than 90 percent of cyber espionage in the United States originating in China, the accusations relayed in the Pentagon’s annual report to Congress on Chinese military capabilities were remarkable in their directness. Until now, the administration avoided directly accusing both the Chinese government and the People’s Liberation Army of using cyber-weapons against the United States in a deliberate, government-developed strategy to steal intellectual property and gain strategic advantage.

‘In 2012, numerous computer systems around the world, including those owned by the US government, continued to be targeted for intrusions, some of which appear to be attributable directly to the Chinese government and military,’ the nearly 100-page report said.”However, even the New York Times was somewhat taken aback by the hypocrisy of it all – well before Edward Snowden had blown his whistle:

Missing from the Pentagon report was any acknowledgment of the similar abilities being developed in the United States, where billions of dollars are spent each year on cyber defence and constructing increasingly sophisticated cyber weapons. Recently, the director of the National Security Agency, General Keith Alexander, who is also commander of the military’s fast-growing Cyber Command, told Congress that he was creating more than a dozen offensive cyber-units, designed to mount attacks, when necessary, at foreign computer networks.” (‘US blames China’s military directly for cyber attacks’ by David E Sanger)

Since Snowden’s revelations, US hypocrisy has been highlighted in still more garish hues.

I don’t know whether Prism and the other programmes truly stop terrorists. I have my doubts. What I do know is that if you are going to lecture the world about right and wrong and if you’re trying to stop bad behaviour perhaps you shouldn’t be engaging in a version of that behaviour yourself.

Instead, this has become one of the trademarks of the Obama administration: decry human rights abuses abroad, but hold men in prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, who have never been accused of a crime. Say all the right things about freedom of the press even as you’re subpoenaing reporters’ phone records.

And express outrage over Chinese hacking while carrying on a sophisticated spying operation of your own citizens. It may seem to us a false equivalence, but the existence of Prism will make it far more difficult to force the Chinese to get serious about stopping their own hacking.” (‘This isn’t how to stop hacking’ by Joe Nocera, New York Times, 14 June 2013)

The documents leaked by Snowden show that the US has indeed been engaging in the behaviour of which it was accusing China – and doing so on a massive scale.

A secret presidential directive on cyber activities unveiled by Mr Snowden discussing the primary new task of the NSA and its military counterpart, Cyber Command makes clear that when the agency’s technicians probe for vulnerabilities to collect intelligence, they also study foreign communications and computer systems to identify potential targets for a future cyber war.

Infrastructure analysts like Mr Snowden, in other words, are not just looking for electronic back doors into Chinese computers or Iranian mobile networks to steal secrets. They have a new double purpose: building a target list in case American leaders in a future conflict want to wipe out the computers’ hard drives or shut down the phone system.” (‘Job title key to inner access held by Snowden’ by Scott Shane and David E Sanger, New York Times, 30 June 2013)

One can only conclude that if China is not doing anything to protect itself from US cyber warfare, then it certainly ought to be!

Commercial spying

US imperialism has tried, as a damage limitation exercise, to claim that yes, of course, everybody spies for military purposes, but the Chinese also spy in order to steal commercial secrets – an activity which the US claims it does not stoop to. This is not an argument that is going to cut much ice, as the following quotation from Global Research demonstrates:

A prime reason for Europe’s discontent was the suspicion that the NSA had used intercepted conversations to help US companies win contracts heading for European firms. The alleged losers included Airbus, a consortium including interests in France, Germany, Spain, and Britain, and Thomson CSF, a French electronics company.

The French claimed they had lost a $1.4bn deal to supply Brazil with a radar system because the NSA shared details of the negotiations with Raytheon. Airbus may have lost a contract worth $2bn to Boeing and McDonnell Douglas because of information intercepted and passed on by the agency.

According to former NSA agent Wayne Madsen, the US used information gathered from its bases in Australia to win a half share in a significant Indonesian trade contract for AT&T. Communication intercepts showed the contract was initially going to a Japanese firm.

A bit later a lawsuit against the US and Britain was launched in France, judicial and parliamentary investigations began in Italy, and German parliamentarians demanded an inquiry.

The rationale for turning the NSA loose on commercial activities, even those involving allies, was provided in the mid-90s by Senator Frank DeConcini, then chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. ‘I don’t think we should have a policy where we’re going to invade the Airbus inner sanctum and find out their secrets for the purpose of turning it over to Boeing or McDonnell Douglas,’ he opined. ‘But if we find something, not to share it with our people seems to me to be not smart.’” (‘The history of America’s secret wars: corporate espionage and the outsourcing of national security’ by Greg Guma, 14 June 2013)

Ungentlemanly conduct exposed

What has also been made clear is that the US does not feel bound by any ‘gentlemen’s agreements’ that may exist between the various imperialist powers as to what is and what is not a legitimate target for espionage between themselves.

It seems likely that the European imperialists were in fact quite surprised to find that US imperialism, assisted by the British, had been spying on their diplomats. Among the documents Snowden leaked were papers showing that British intelligence agencies had spied on participants at two G20 meetings held in London in 2009. And since this information was leaked from the US, it is evident that the information gleaned was at least shared with that country, if not commissioned by it.

Meanwhile, on 30 June, the German magazine Der Spiegel reported that the United States has been eavesdropping on European Union offices in Washington, Brussels and at the United Nations in New York – both by listening to what was being said there and by accessing email traffic and documents stored on EU computers.

Again, this revelation has come at a particularly embarrassing time for the US, as it is preparing to negotiate the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with Europe to create a super-monopoly intended to give its constituent members such market dominance as to be able to augment profits to unprecedented levels – at the expense of outsiders, of course.

Now, however, “the prospects for a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership may be irreparably damaged. The timing is perfect for a debacle of great economic and political proportions. Discussions on TTIP are supposed to begin this week. Politically, the EU-US symbolism of the deal is now harder to sell.

In substantive terms, TTIP would necessarily include data exchange and protection regimes – a difficult issue made potentially intractable given what we now know of America’s wholesale approach to data acquisition. Finally, there is a legitimate EU concern that its negotiators would be spied upon by the NSA without the US delegates suffering the same disadvantage.” (‘America’s spying has made a European trade deal even harder’ by François Heisbourg, Financial Times, 3 July 2013)

Some European countries, France in particular, are deeply suspicious of TTIP anyway, as it would demand changes to French agricultural policy that, if implemented, would be so unpopular as to risk mass civil unrest. At very least, the required measures would ensure that whatever French political party was associated with implementing the changes would stand no chance of re-election. These countries are hardly going to be assisted in overcoming their objections to TTIP by the revelations of US spying.

What is also rather galling for the Europeans is that the US spying capacity is infinitely greater than theirs:

There was a new tone of disappointment with President Obama and concern that the American intelligence system had become too large for careful political oversight.

‘France is a cynical country,’ said François Heisbourg, a defence expert at the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris.

‘We all spy, but the difference here is the scale up to 60m connections in Germany in a day!’

That spies go ‘spearfishing’ after particular targets is one thing, he said. ‘But no one has understood that our societies were being spied on so massively this isn’t spearfishing but trawling with a big, big net. That’s the real shocker.’” (‘Outrage in Europe grows over spying disclosures’ by Steven Erlanger, New York Times, 1 July 2013)

“The innocent have nothing to fear”

As can be seen from the above, the leaks are not just about the fact that Big Brother is watching all of us all the time, but this has nevertheless been the issue on which most commentators have focused. The stock excuse made by the US government – and, indeed by other governments which maintain close surveillance over their populations, is that the innocent have nothing to fear but everything to gain, since it is claimed that surveillance enables governments to ‘frustrate terrorist attacks’ and to ‘track down criminals’, making life safer for all of us.

This argument was well countered by Robert Shrimsley in the Financial Times:

This is the argument of every democratic government as it seeks to justify a reduction of civil liberties. The innocent have nothing to fear; trust us – we’re the good guys ...

This argument only flies if one can trust the agencies gathering and using this information and, in the UK at least, this debate has flared up just as we are being given reason to question the most visible arm of UK security – the police service ...

This week, it ... emerged that a libellous leaflet about McDonald’s, apparently distributed by green activists in 1986 and which led to a long and costly civil trial, had been written by an undercover officer spying on the environmentalists. Two activists were left to face the music. An inquiry is under way. The innocent have nothing to fear.

Two weeks ago a police officer was arrested in connection with an incident that forced the resignation of a minister. Andrew Mitchell quit the cabinet last year after leaked police logs suggested he called officers ‘plebs’. The evidence against him is now being questioned amid claims it was falsified. An inquiry is under way. The innocent have nothing to fear.

Last year, an inquiry found police officers systematically smeared the victims of the 1989 Hillsborough football disaster to cover up for their own responsibility. An inquiry has been ordered into individual officers’ culpability. The innocent are dead.

These cases may be exceptions but there are rather a lot of them and only space prevents me listing more. And why stop with the police. Recall the ‘shoot to kill’ era when sections of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the army and the intelligence services in Northern Ireland colluded with loyalist paramilitaries to murder republican activists and sympathisers. There have been, and continue to be, inquiries into this.

In politics, we have something known as the Wilson doctrine, banning the phone-tapping of MPs and peers. Why? Because it emerged that ‘rogue’ elements in the intelligence service were indeed tapping MPs’ phones. Interestingly, politicians have concluded they are an exception to the ‘innocent have nothing to fear’ doctrine.” (‘Snooping concerns are not paranoia’, 27 June 2013)

We should not kid ourselves. All the information that is being collected by these state agencies is in the hands of a hostile ruling class, to be used for that class’s advantage and benefit, against the interests of the vast masses of the people.

This is why we need to be opposed to all this snooping, whether or not it is effective at deterring terrorist attacks and occasionally catching criminals. The information gathered is not available to ordinary citizens – it will not be used to identify the burglars who broke into your house or the vandal who damaged your car or the person who abducted your child.

Data harvested by spying agencies is used almost exclusively in the interests of the imperialist ruling class. It is used to help the capitalists maintain their class rule over the proletariat; to help in their repression of oppressed countries; and to help them to beat their foreign rivals – both economically and militarily. As capitalism lurches into ever-deepening crisis and the inevitable resistance of the workers starts to intensify, the ruling class is hastily tooling itself up to the maximum in preparation for confrontation.

With some reluctance, elements of the petty-bourgeoisie are beginning to realise the gravity of the situation: “I don’t think we’re on a slippery slope to a police state, but I think if we are too complacent about our civil liberties we could wake up one day and find them gone not in a flash of nuclear terror but in a gradual, incremental surrender.”(‘Living with the surveillance state’ by Bill Keller, New York Times, 16 June 2013)

However, in the long run, it is not going to be possible to defend our rights without overthrowing the capitalist class, which only allows the workers to enjoy civil liberties so long as it is quiescent, but which cannot help creating the conditions for forcing the proletariat sooner or later into rebellion.

Resistance remains possible

It may seem that the bourgeoisie holds all the cards: we won’t be able to defeat it because it has not only the repressive forces of the state but also all the information at its disposal of which we are deprived. However, the fatal weakness of the bourgeoisie is that it is dependent on members of the proletariat to do these jobs.

In return for relatively privileged conditions of existence, many of them do just that. But, increasingly, there are those who rebel, as Edward Snowden – for the moment a somewhat isolated example – has done, thereby earning the admiration and gratitude of workers the world over. In China and in Russia, for instance, it is ordinary working-class people who are in the forefront of insisting that he should be protected against the wrath of US imperialism.

Scott Shane and David Sanger have confirmed that “Collecting that ocean [of information] requires the brazen efforts of tens of thousands of technicians like Mr Snowden ... there are thousands of people of his generation and computer skills at the agency, hired in recent years to keep up with the communications boom.

The officials fear that some of them, like young computer aficionados outside the agency, might share Mr Snowden’s professed libertarian streak and scepticism of the government’s secret power. Intelligence bosses are keeping a closer eye on them now, hoping that there is not another self-appointed whistle-blower in their midst.”

Among all those thousands, however, there are bound to be those who put the democratic rights and freedoms of the masses above service to the decaying and decadent bourgeoisie.

As we go to press, Russia is still considering Edward Snowden’s request for asylum there. With an eye to diplomacy, the Russian authorities have said that a condition of asylum would be an end to the “damaging” leaks, and Edward’s Russian lawyer has indicated that he would comply with that request. Russia is not a country that is easily bullied by the US and it may well turn out be the best place for him. No doubt his computer skills will be in great demand there, and the country will be well rewarded for the support it has given him.
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