Safe European Home: the Glenn Greenwald divide
December 19, 2013 Leave a comment
Can Glenn Greenwald enjoy one fine day of plain sailing weather? Nope. Not this wednesday.
On Wednesday, the (in) famous journalist, who found himself tied to NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden over six months ago, was to testify before the European Parliament’s Civil Liberties Committee to address the question of civil rights violations and attaining security concerns over the “leaks”. In an apparition via video link that lasted a little over an hour, Greenwald had the opportunity to address the representatives of European countries, themselves either cooperating with or being the target of the NSA – and in some cases, both – to defend his work, his conviction, and what has also become a serious invasion of his own personal life, as one of the few owners of those hundreds of thousands of documents Edward Snowden took with him. It was 5.30am in his timezone: affable, smiling, available, consistent, and firm in his positions, Greenwald opened the door for debate within the European Union on the topic of GCHQ, counter-terrorism policies, and of course that of asylum provisions for Snowden. What has emerged of this hour spent in the company of Members of the European Parliament (MEP)’s company, is that voices clearly and strongly differ on the issue of freedom of the press, freedom of information, and national security. Thanks to Greenwald, at least, those concerns are now out in the open.
“Just the fact that communication exists is reason enough for the NSA to collect and store”
Greenwald opened his testimony by a dose of strong reality. “Keith Alexander made comments about how the NSA wants to collect all data communications”, he started. “The goal of the NSA is to ‘collect it all’, ‘know it all’, ‘exploit it all’.” Reinforcing the idea of an all-encompassing tentacle wielding-monster taking over the world, Greenwald made sure the MEPs present made no mistake: the NSA is not targeting anyone specifically in their methods, nor are they interested in wading through data to look for one specific red flag. The NSA wants it all, and it wants it immediately. “The NSA is obsessed, institutionally, with methods that are impervious to their spying, and are trying day to day to invade those communications slipping away from their grasp.” Greenwald was referring to methods of encryption that have since become common amongst journalists and freedom of information activists – an encryption he did not used before being in contact with Snowden, but that the whistleblower insisted on having him install. Due to the extremely invasive nature of the NSA communications, encryption became a necessity. The confusion lied within the need for a rationale, a coherent narrative, a political motive behind NSA activities and the incredible scope to which they have been taken. In front of befuddled MEPs, Greenwald affirmed: “the NSA doesn’t need a reason to collect. Just the fact that communication exists is reason enough for the NSA to collect and store. It’s an overarching theme.”
The key of Greenwald’s testimony lies within his explanation that the NSA operates on a new paradigm. If governments and executive agencies have justified derogating to civil rights for counter-terrorism purposes for as long as measures such as Article 15 in Europe would allow them to, NSA has and is way beyond a simple method of surveillance made and meant to provide safety from specific individuals engaged or suspected of engaging in nefarious activities. Greenwald hammered home the point that the mass and indiscriminate collection of metadata was the end goal; not surveillance – which would imply there is something to watch. NSA goal is the watching. All types of intimidate activities one citizen is engaging in in their day to day life, their relationships, their medical history, their professional records, their drinking habits… All of that finds its direct context with metadata. A simple phone call can’t reveal as much as other methods of communications surrounding the topic mentioned in the phone call. There is “virtually no constraints” for NSA and its British co-conspirator, private security firm GCHQ.
There is a reason why the right to privacy is enshrined as a fundamental right; it is through private activities, beliefs and communications that we develop personalities, habits, and opinions. When members of a society are operating under mass and indiscriminate surveillance – usually associated with anti-democratic, tyrannical regimes – they find themselves modifying their instinctive habits, second-guessing their acquaintances, and reframing their opinions in order to conform to what the authority in charge is expecting from them; ensuring their safety by self-censoring, hereby stifling dissent by themselves before it even emerges. In short, mass surveillance deprives us of the freedom to be an individual. Mass surveillance is a violation of fundamental human rights.
Greenwald must be sick and tired of answering those questions by now, but he nevertheless engaged with the first concern to be expressed: the now slightly stale debate of “leaks” – published classified documents – vs security interest”. Calm and collected, Greenwald reaffirmed core principles of what European courts had already decided back in 1989: the decision to publish the documents provided by Edward Snowden was cautious, and journalistic integrity, basic elements of safety balanced with public interest helped make the decision on which documents were to be released through The Guardian and which were to remain in the dark. The apparent consensus around a hypothetical recklessness on Greenwald and Poitras’ part in publishing the document has been the one element placed forward by their detractors, accusing them of lacking basic professional ethics and enough intelligence to discern what was necessary to divulge. Greenwald has always taken the time to explain the painful process of not only deciding if taking on Snowden’s request was the right idea, but also jumping into the paranoia-inducing rabbit hole of following an asylum seeker in possession of classified documents around the world. If Greenwald always takes the time to stress the human cost of Snowden’s actions and plead for understanding and political support of the whistleblower, it’s important to stress that it has taken a toll on Greenwald as well.
“None of that is counter-terrorism. It’s diplomatic intimidation, economic advantage and manipulation of power.”
Addressing this concern was the representative for the Green Party in parliament who expressed concern for Greenwald’s safety, following the episode of the UK’s detention of his partner, David Miranda, under the ATCSA 2000 – in clear violation of Article 10. Of all world governments attacked by NSA, Brazil has been the more vocal, active, and thankfully protective of Greenwald’s activities – in a time when European outrage was somewhat shaded in the wake of revelations that French, British, Norwegian and Danish governments were cooperating with the agency. Greenwald was quick to mention that even in matters of cooperation, “no one and nothing matches the NSA in terms of destruction of privacy. No one is on the US and the UK’s level.” Not content to create a massive, global, violating overreach, the NSA activities created the corollary of destroying the concept of press freedom – attacking and intimidating anyone trying to denounce and oppose their policies. It concerns Greenwald, obviously, but also took the shape of an eerily kafkaesque dystopia when Alan Rusbridger, the editor of The Guardian, faced an inquiry at the British Parliament – during which he was asked if he “loved his country”. In a time where the UK is suppressing civil rights at the speed of light and rejecting the authority of European courts, Greenwald’s warning was ominous: “European legislators should take steps for the protection of journalists.” And of us all, too.
Who else raised legitimacy issues but the British conservative representative? Once again questioning the role of Greenwald and Poitras in releasing these documents, he seemingly objected to the qualification of whistleblower, arguing that to be recognized as such, an agent must have blown said whistle to the relevant authorities within the agency then to legislators. Taking the direct step of contacting a journalist – and an independent one at that – is probably, in the eyes of European conservatives, an unforgivable act of political dissent, of borderline anarchist anti-conformism. Despite the various attacks against Snowden and Greenwald, from both sides of the spectrum, from all walks of political intervention and commentary, the same element remains: this apparent gravity-defying faith that a government not only has the citizen’s best interest at heart, but that refusing to use the (little) resources the system has to offer deserves alienation of punishment. From calling Snowden a traitor to condescendingly beg him to “come home and face the consequences of your actions”, Snowden detractors are willingly – or even worse, subconsciously – omitting one significant detail Greenwald highlighted: the Obama administration has prosecuted more whistleblowers in the last 5 years than ever. The legal protection for whistleblowers is inefficient and, in the case of a federal agency leak, virtually inexistent. More importantly, Greenwald reiterated that Senators who had objected to NSA policies in the past had been silenced of ignored. In the face of seeing the highest ranking legislators in the nation being effaced from a much needed conversation, what was Snowden to do? What other recourse could he sensibly have? Expecting Snowden to have moved within the motions of a system designed to block concern instead of addressing it is simply conveniently ignoring that whistleblowers are thrown down the memory hole.
Truth of the matter is, in political history, there are simply no instances in which a government was given the extensive power of mass surveillance without eventually abusing it. Engaging in “responsible and accurate” journalism is supposed to be an effective remedy to a woefully inadequate system of checks and balances. Greenwald has restored the idea of “activist journalism” in which the responsibility he is undertaking touches on the core of the right to truth recently reaffirmed by the United Nations addressing the issue of hyper classification and resulting judicial blockade. Western governments have been so stuck in this permanent loop of freedom versus safety that a security state has been implemented without much possibility for freedom of expression – hereby becoming what they were initially denouncing. As Greenwald commented, “abuses must be challenged in courts and be subjected to accountability, but that’s not the case. None of that is counter-terrorism. It’s diplomatic intimidation, economic advantage and manipulation of power.”
Greenwald’s actions are in essence not that radical; they are merely acts of personal conscience
What to make of this intervention? Despite expected ignorance on the American front, the UK was very quick to respond to Glenn in the form of more misguided attacks and deliberate lies. Louise Mensch, the internet’s litmus test of intelligence, was of course first in line to disparage Greenwald’s intervention and reanimate Cold War ghosts of trading secrets with foreign enemies and engaging into information leaking for profit. If Mensch should be easily dismissed, she was followed by Julian Smith, a British MEP who falsely accused Rusbridger of lying to Parliament on the subject of Snowden documents and their delivery / retrieval by Greenwald. The mistake Smith made was to make his commentary on the very public platform of social media to which Greenwald is very well attuned, and Smith later deleted his tweets and retracted himself. However, Smith is far from being an isolated individual in England as of late. The day after the hearing, Chris Grayling, the Justice Secretary, affirmed he saw little use for European courts of law, specifically the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), always critical of the UK’s counter-terrorism policies and violations of Article 5. Following a series of cases against the ATCSA 2000 shortly after 9/11, the ECHR released a factsheet of counter terrorism and human rights law asserting that it is indeed possible to combine the two as long as fundamental rights were proved to be non-derogating, or at least their derogation submitted to the Court. A week after Hassan v United Kingdom was heard at the ECHR (commentary to follow), the UK’s self-professed atlanticism is veering on a dangerous edge, and its treatment of Greenwald, Miranda, Snowden, Rusbridger and their allies should be treated as a massive red flag. Retreating into an isolationist position, engaging into “ill-taken military aventures” in the name of a permanent, systematic and completely submissive cooperation with the United States in matter of armed intervention and intelligence, the new faces of British totalitarianism, from Andrew Parker to Theresa May, can only be met with the activism of an informed public. The crux of a participative democracy is transparency, and any action taken to fight the right to truth should be translated as an assault on basic civil liberties. Greenwald’s actions are in essence not that radical; they are merely acts of personal conscience carried out in the public interest, in the utmost integrity however in the face of governmental radicalism. Snowden did what he thought was right, and took his conscience to the one he thought he could rely on.
Chelsea Manning turned 26 years old in prison this week, her fourth birthday in jail for doing what she thought was right – denouncing war crimes committed by armed forces and authorized by executive power. She will spend the majority of her life behind bars as a prisoner of conscience in a nation branding itself as the biggest democracy in the world. Edward Snowden is likely to be on the run for a long time as well, despite a possibility of being granted amnesty in return for the documents he has yet to release.
The spokesperson for the committee thanked Greenwald for his participation in the conversation. She explained that “democracy is different from tyranny because we have parliamentary and judicial oversight.” She paused. “But we are limited”, she said, knowing full well the scope of the European Union could only extend as far as its member states would allow it to go, especially if the ECHR’s jurisdiction is no longer recognized. “If you have more you want to share”, she finished, “we would be interested.”