Snowden, Surveillance and the Secret State

Reports of Washington’s anger directed at surveillance whistleblower Edward Snowden indicate a basic truth about power. Noam Chomsky has expressed it as the underlying problem for genuine democracy, even in so-called ‘free’ societies:

“Remember, any state, any state, has a primary enemy: its own population.”  ((Noam Chomsky, Understanding Power, edited by Peter R. Mitchell and John Schoeffel, The New Press, 2002, p. 70.))

Anyone who steps out of line, especially if they defy authority’s attempts to apprehend them, risks severe punishment. All the more so because it is important to publicly discipline miscreants, lest the threat of a ‘bad’ example become a contagion sweeping through society.

Snowden was denounced by Dick Cheney, the warmongering former US vice-president, as a ‘traitor‘ and a possible spy for China. Senator Dianne Feinsten, chair of the US Senate intelligence committee, told reporters that Snowden had committed an ‘act of treason’. There was ‘undisguised fury’ amongst many US politicians at Snowden’s slipping away from Hong Kong and arriving at Moscow airport where he continued to evade detection. General Keith Alexander, director of the National Security Agency, complained that Snowden ‘is clearly an individual who’s betrayed the trust and confidence we had in him. This is an individual who is not acting, in my opinion, with noble intent.’

Given the source of such accusations – largely senior officials in the current and previous US administrations – rational observers will be unimpressed. As Norman Solomon correctly points out:

The state of surveillance and perpetual war are one and the same. The U.S. government’s rationale for pervasive snooping is the “war on terror,” the warfare state under whatever name.

Solomon issues a warning:

The central issue is our dire shortage of democracy. How can we have real consent of the governed when the government is entrenched with extreme secrecy, surveillance and contempt for privacy?

Washington and its allies, sold to the public by the media as “the international community”, are well aware of the stakes. The general population must be subdued and kept in its place. Obama and his officials in the government, and the US intelligence community, need to assert strenuously that Snowden’s exposure of the massive US secret surveillance programme aids and abets ‘the enemy’, and damages international relations.

Snowden’s revelations were brought to light by US journalist Glenn Greenwald in the Guardian. He correctly noted that a campaign of demonisation would attempt to deflect attention from the substance of Snowden’s revelations, and focus instead on Snowden’s personal background and any alleged character defects. Indeed, early reports relentlessly described Snowden as ‘a high school dropout’ or focused on his ‘heartbroken’ and ‘abandoned’ ‘dancer girlfriend’. On June 24, the first edition of the Independent referred to ‘fugitive Snowden’ in the headline to an article by Shaun Walker and David Usborne. The ‘impartial’ BBC also referred to Snowden as a ‘fugitive’, when ‘whistleblower’ would be more accurate, and certainly less loaded. Even the Guardian has referred on several occasions to Snowden as a ‘fugitive’.

Nick Cohen, a laptop war propagandist not known for any ‘Fast and Furious’-style heroics, predictably smeared Snowden as ‘a coward’:

If you run, you look like a coward. It may be that you have good reason to be cowardly. It may be that anyone else in your position would run as far and fast as you do. There is nothing wrong with taking the cowardly course, unless like Edward Snowden, you claim to be engaged in civil disobedience.

What Snowden did, in fact, was immensely brave and a decent journalist would welcome both his actions and his courage. Solomon put Cohen and his ilk to shame:

Too rarely mentioned is the combination of nonviolence and idealism that has been integral to the courageous whistleblowing by Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning. Right now, one is on a perilous journey across the globe in search of political asylum, while the other is locked up in a prison and confined to a military trial excluding the human dimensions of the case.

An admirable Guardian editorial also defended Snowden, saying:

Those who leak official information will often be denounced, prosecuted or smeared. The more serious the leak, the fiercer the pursuit and the greater the punishment.

More to the point, this applies to anyone who challenges power effectively. Ironically, the Guardian is describing exactly what it did to Noam Chomsky in 2005.

The editorial added:

A debate is only possible because of the facts which have been put into the public domain, not by government but by a whistleblower and a still freeish press.

True, although that passing reference to ‘a still freeish press’, where in times gone by it would surely have been simply ‘free press’, is an intriguing hint that the editors concede much of the public may have seen through the façade of the propaganda system.

Inevitably, attempts are now also being made to smear Greenwald, with both the New York Daily News and New York Times attempting to dredge up dirt on the journalist. In an ad hominem piece about Greenwald published on the BuzzFeed website, and illustrated by somewhat sinister-looking photographs, the journalist was cast as ‘a figure long viewed even by many on the left as a difficult eccentric.’ The article bizarrely carried a quote from someone who said Greenwald was “scary — but then I quickly realized that the scariness probably had to do with his short haircut and his intense stare.”

In a live television interview, Greenwald was even asked by NBC News host David Gregory:

‘To the extent that you have aided and abetted Snowden, even in his current movements, why shouldn’t you, Mr. Greenwald, be charged with a crime?’

Greenwald responded robustly:

I think it’s pretty extraordinary that anybody who would call themselves a journalist would publicly muse about whether or not other journalists should be charged with felonies. The assumption in your question, David, is completely without evidence, the idea that I’ve aided and abetted him in any way. […] If you want to embrace that theory, it means that every investigative journalist in the United States who works with their sources, who receives classified information, is a criminal. And it’s precisely those theories and precisely that climate that has become so menacing in the United States. It’s why The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer said, “Investigative reporting has come to a standstill,” her word, as a result of the theories that you just referenced.

Greenwald reports that his home was burgled and, oddly, only a laptop was stolen.  As the journalist himself says:

I would be shocked if the U.S. government were not trying to access the information on my computer.

The Primary Function Of The State

As important as the revelations of Edward Snowden are, the bigger picture is the overwhelming drive by state power to pursue its own strategic designs, to promote the corporate and financial interests with which it is in league, and to protect itself from any threat from the general population to make government truly work for the public.

The independent journalist Jonathan Cook makes the same point (via Facebook, June 26, 2013) that this is the real significance of the recent shocking revelations about surveillance:

I’ve been saying since the first Snowden revelations about the NSA that the goal of all this mass surveillance is not to foil terrorism; it’s to prevent all challenges to, or efforts to hold accountable, the corporate elites who are plundering our communities and the planet to enrich themselves.

Cook quotes from a Guardian article which reveals that a UK police unit called the National Domestic Extremism Unit is monitoring 9,000 political activists:

In recent years the unit is known to have focused its resources on spying on environmental campaigners, particularly those engaged in direct action and civil disobedience to protest against climate change.

Cook concludes:

The tapping of our phone calls and internet activity is being used for exactly the same nefarious purposes: to ensure we remain either docile or intimidated as our political and financial elites grow ever more ostentatious in their depravity and corruption.

Historian Mark Curtis, who has extensively analysed formerly secret government records for several groundbreaking books, has noted that the primary function of the British state, ‘virtually its raison d’être for several centuries – is to aid British companies in getting their hands on other countries’ resources.’ The British security services have an important role to play in support of ‘the national interest’:

As Lord Mackay, then Lord Chancellor, revealed in the mid-1990s, the role of MI6 is to protect Britain’s “economic well-being” by keeping “a particular eye on Britain’s access to key commodities, like oil or metals [and] the profits of Britain’s myriad of international business interests”.  ((Mark Curtis, Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World, Vintage, 2003, pp. 210-211.))

A similar picture could be painted of all the major ‘democracies’, not least the United States.

The shocking extent of the corruption of democracy by big business and its political allies remains mostly off the corporate media’s agenda. And corporate-employed reporters and commentators have mastered the art of not making painful connections; painful for powerful interests, that is. No wonder, too, that our major political parties offer no real choice: they all represent essentially the same interests crushing any moves towards meaningful public participation in the shaping of policy.

Making The Planet Uninhabitable

In the introduction of a new book, Managing Democracy, Managing Dissent, Rebecca Fisher outlines the stranglehold that corporate power, including its mass media sector and political accomplices, has on democracy. Fisher, an activist with Corporate Watch, writes:

Our legal avenues to hold our putative representatives to account, or to persuade them to take heed of our demands, are restricted to actions via pressure groups or tame and largely ineffectual protests about specific, isolated issues. This ensures that the capitalist system is able to reap catastrophic damage upon subject populations and the environment, even to the extent of threatening the habitability of the planet, while remaining, for the most part, insulated from public challenge.  ((Rebecca Fisher, editor, Managing Democracy, Managing Dissent: Capitalism, Democracy and the Organisation of Consent, Corporate Watch, London, 2013, p. 2))

The framework of global capitalism – its reigning institutions, policies and practices – tends to be taken for granted in the corporate media. Media academic and activist Robert McChesney points to the ‘persistent reluctance’ of commentators to ‘make a no-holds-barred assessment’ of capitalism. He makes a revealing comparison to illustrate this absurdity:

A scholar studying the Soviet Union would never discount the monopoly of economic and political power held by the Communist Party and the state and then focus on other matters. The political economy would be central to any credible analysis, or the scholar would be dismissed as a charlatan. The same is true of any academic study of any ancient civilization.  ((Robert McChesney, Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism Is Turning The Internet Against Democracy, The New Press, New York, 2013, p. 17))

But on the rare occasion when the system is questioned, notes McChesney, even critical writers feel obliged to provide a ‘loyalty oath’ to capitalism:

Whenever scholars examine their own society, it is generally taboo to challenge the prerogatives and privileges of those who stand atop it and benefit from the status quo, even in political democracies. This may be nearly as true of the United States as it was of the old Soviet Union.  ((Ibid., p. 17))

McChesney’s observations about ‘scholars’ extend to media professionals, as he makes clear in his book. As we have often said, one cannot expect a corporate media system to report honestly or accurately about the corporate world.

Fisher rightly warns that the corporate system ‘cannot co-exist with genuine democracy’, adding:

The emergence and predominance of the corporation has facilitated the emergence of a form of democracy – liberal democracy – which, by careful processes of management is made safe for corporations to dominate society, and for the capitalist system to reap enormous human and environmental damage.

In other words, so-called ‘liberal democracy’ has become a lethal shield that protects capitalism from the threat of proper democracy based on meaningful participation by the general population. As we have explained in numerous books and media alerts, corporate power has for decades carried out huge campaigns of disinformation – called ‘public relations’ – and political lobbying to create the illusion of ‘consensus’ required to pursue its own selfish aims.

Fortunately, there is an inherent weakness here, because the system is maintained only so long as there is large-scale public acceptance of the status quo. Noam Chomsky puts it well when he says that:

Even the most efficient propaganda system is unable to maintain the proper attitudes among the population for long. […] fundamental social and economic problems cannot be swept under the rug for ever.  ((Noam Chomsky, Deterring Democracy, Vintage, 1993, pp. 134-135).))

There is thus plenty to be said about living under a giant system of government surveillance. Just don’t expect the corporate media to explore the full extent of what it really all means.

Media Lens is a UK-based media watchdog group headed by David Edwards and David Cromwell. The most recent Media Lens book, Propaganda Blitz by David Edwards and David Cromwell, was published in 2018 by Pluto Press. Read other articles by Media Lens, or visit Media Lens's website.