Thursday, 21 November 2013

‘This house believes that Snowden is no hero’:
briefing notes for this evening’s debate in the Phil


Patrick Comerford

These notes have been prepared as a personal briefing for this evening’s debate in the University Philosophical Society, in Trinity College Dublin [21 November 2013] at which I have been invited as President of the Irish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (Irish CND) to debate the topic: “This house believes that Snowden is no hero.”

1, What Edward Snowden has done:

In recent months, Edward Snowden has leaked files to the Guardian, the Washington Post and Der Spiegel.

These leaks have shed light on some of the US government’s most secret programmes. They show that the US National Security Agency (NSA) has collected vast amounts of information on the electronic activity of US citizens and that the NSA has spied on millions of other people, including the democratically-elected political leaders of Germany, Mexico and Brazil.

Snowden defends himself, saying: “I believe in the principle declared at Nuremberg, in 1945: ‘Individuals have international duties which transcend the national obligations of obedience. Therefore individual citizens have the duty to violate domestic laws to prevent crimes against peace and humanity from occurring’.”

He has exposed serious crimes over the last 10 years in countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and Pakistan, where many people have been murdered through the use of drones and missiles.

He has released information about bankers and people who have been involved in money laundering, including Lord Green of HSBC.

Reports in the Guardian show GCHQ has been tapping internet cables since 2008, potentially allowing it to see the emails and web activity of millions of users.

His whistle-blowing can lead to prosecutions against those involved in war crimes in places like Afghanistan and Iraq or in financial crime. Now, I have to ask, what’s wrong with that – bringing war criminals and miscreant bankers to answer for their criminal misdoings in court?

Why are some people afraid? Only criminals should be so afraid, surely?

Edward Snowden has exposed the criminals … now the criminals are going for him.

2, How we should respond:

Now Snowden has been forced to seek refuge in two of the most repressive yet technologically sophisticated countries: Russia and Hong Kong, which is part of China.

Snowden is actually exposing criminals. Our government is already committed, in principle, to a whistle-blowers’ charter. So, if Ireland is serious about human rights and justice, we should be inviting him to Dublin, saying: “Yes, you can tell all your secrets or stories here. You’ll be safe here.”

For this he has been called a “traitor” by former Vice-President Dick Cheney. But no wonder: the man who was effectively President during the ineffective Presidency of George W Bush is already facing arrest for war crimes if he ever steps inside Canada.

The Speaker of the House, John Boehner, Senator John McCain and Senator Dianne Feinstein join Dick Cheney in calling Snowden a traitor who should be tried for treason. Yet former President Bill Clinton has refused to criticise him. Could there be a political agenda there that is dividing Republicans and Democrats?

3, You don’t treat friends and neighbours like this

It is the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, not me, who says Snowden’s allegations have tested Berlin’s relationship with Washington, and have damaged negotiations between Europe and the US on a free trade agreement. The list of questions the German government sent to the US last July has not yet been answered.

In the Bundestag this week, Germany’s Interior Minister, Has-Peter Friedrich, criticised the NSA for its silence in response to Snowden’s revelations that the US has hacked Merkel’s private phone calls of Angela Merkel. And it was this German cabinet minister, not someone waiting in the wings to his left, who spoke this week of “conspiracy theories.”

The Italian Prime Minister, Enrico Letta, says the allegations are “inconceivable and unacceptable” and wants to establish the truth. His questions too have been ignored in Washington.

President Francois Hollande is alarmed that millions of French calls had been tapped.

The US has been spying on EU internal computer networks in Washington and at the EU’s UN office in New York. The EU representation at the UN has been a “location target.” The NSA had also conducted an electronic eavesdropping operation in the building in Brussels where the EU Council of Ministers and the European Council are located.

In all, 38 embassies and missions have been the “targets” of US spying.

If I was constantly peering through my neighbour’s windows, she would not call me friendly, she would call the police.

4, The reaction to Snowden is a threat to civil liberties

Snowden has shown that the technology used by Britain’s spy agencies to conduct mass surveillance is “out of control” and the response to him raises fears about the erosion of civil liberties. This is the voice not from some extreme anti-American campaigner, but the voice of Lord Ashdown (Paddy Ashdown), who is a former Liberal Democrat leader, an adviser to Britain’s Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, and who chairs the Liberal Democrats’ general election team.

Speaking to the Guardian earlier this week [19 November 2013], he said it was high time for a high-level inquiry into fundamental questions about privacy in the 21st century.

Ashdown has criticised “lazy politicians” who frighten people into thinking “al-Qaida is about to jump out from behind every bush therefore it is legitimate to forget about civil liberties.”

“Well, it isn’t,” he adds.

He believes the questions raised by Snowden’s revelations about the NSA in the US and GCHQ in Britain are so important that they cannot “be ignored or swept aside in a barrage of insults.”

He says he is “frightened by the erosion of our liberties.”

He also says the reports in the Guardian have done a very important job in exposing a really important issue ...”

5, If Snowden were a Chinese dissident:

Imagine anyone arguing that a Russian or Chinese dissident – who had exposed Russia’s spying technology or China’s monitoring of trade calls by neighbouring heads of government – should return to China to “face the music.”

That is unthinkable and unimaginable. And it is unthinkable and unimaginable that their plight would be ignored by President Obama during a visit to Moscow or Beijing.

If we demand human rights in Russia and China, then equally we must demand them in western democracies too.

6, It’s not only the left that has taken up Snowden’s cause:

A Conservative peer and former cabinet minister has attacked the British media’s “lackadaisical” response to Edward Snowden and has called on “defenders of liberty” to speak out against invasion of personal freedoms by the intelligence services.

The former Tory party chairman John Gummer, now Lord Deben, said the revelations should be a cause for concern “from right to left” as spying agencies too easily use terrorism as an excuse to invade civil liberties.

His intervention comes after David Cameron and the head of MI5, Andrew Parker, accused the Guardian of endangering national security by publishing reports based on Snowden’s leaks.

Lord Deben said Britain had a “duty of guardianship” to its citizens and warned it was dangerous to accept the word of the intelligence agencies.

“If you look back into history, the times at which people lose their freedoms are always times when the loss of freedom is excused by national emergency or by the need to fight terrorism,” he said. “It means that whenever that’s the argument used, people who believe in freedom should be extremely quick to stand up ... This is the moment in which it should have been an issue from right to left.”

Lord Deben is not an outsider in the British political system – he also advises David Cameron’s government on climate change. He says there is a need for a serious political debate about how far surveillance should be allowed to go.

“You can’t just hide it by saying ‘well, we live in a world threatened by terrorism’,” he says. “Are we going to allow the terrorists to remove the very freedoms we defend? I’m not blaming anybody, I’m merely saying this ought to be a real national debate and people who are involved in the very good business of surveillance, which is a very necessary part of a free society, ought to know that what they do is subject to very real concerns by people outside.”

He says we should not assume the spying agencies are acting within proper boundaries.

“The only thing I can do is to say, well look here, freedom means you have to be constantly on your guard against those who use terrorism and the need to defend against it as an excuse for actions which are manifestly unacceptable,” he says.

This Lord Deben is no soft, cuddly Tory. This is the same man who as John Selwyn Gummer, a right-wing Tory MP, boasted publicly about feeding untested burgers to his own children during Mad Cow disease crisis. He puts the survival of capitalism above the survival of his children.

7, Even the establishment knows Snowden is doing democracy a service

Britain’s intelligence chiefs may have exaggerated the threat posed to national security by the leaking of the NSA files, according to a former lord chancellor who has questioned whether the legal oversight of MI6, MI5 and GCHQ is “fit for purpose.”

Lord Falconer of Thoroton is sceptical of the claim by the heads of GCHQ, MI6 and MI5 that the leaks represent the most serious blow to their work in a generation, and warns that the NSA files highlight “bulk surveillance” by the state.

Falconer, who also deprecates attempts to portray the Guardian as an “enemy of the state,” points out that 850,000 people had access to the files leaked by the whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Falconer is no raving left-winger. He is a close ally of Tony Blair and was the British Lord Chancellor from 2003 to 2007. He told the Guardian this week he is a strong supporter of the intelligence agencies from his time working with them during his decade in government.

8, Snowden shows the security services threaten democracy

Snowden has also revealed how that the security services are not only unable to protect democracy, but are a threat to democracy. While the security services are worried about us knowing about who they monitor, they were not monitoring and protecting the security of phone calls by ministers in the last British government.

They were not able to protect Government ministers, including John Prescott and David Blunkett, against the prying of Murdoch Empire.

And if the News of the World and the Sun could tap into phone calls by British Government ministers to find out about their private lives, and the security services did nothing about it, how can we be confident they were able to protect the Prime Minister, the Chancellor, the Foreign Secretary, the Defence Secretary, being tapped, with state secrets being put at risk? We don’t.

How can we know that the Murdoch Empire, with its crass concern for profits, and its vast Chinese connections, was not tapping the Prime Minister, the Chancellor, the Foreign Secretary or the Defence Secretary, for state secrets and selling them, or just giving them to the Chinese? We don’t? Perhaps it was not? But MI5 or MI6 can’t tell us. Only Edward Snowden can, it seems.

Is this because the British security agencies are more interested in protecting the interests of Old Etonians and their cronies – after all David Cameron has been a close friend of Andy Coulson, Rebeka Brooks and her husband – than in protecting the security of Government Ministers because, although democratically elected, they were on the left, and not from the right social class?

And, more worrying still, if they do not know whether the News of the World and the Sun were tapping the phones of Labour Government ministers, how could they ever know if their phones were being tapped by the Russians, the Chinese, or even worse al-Qaida?

9, We must defend the freedom of the press

A senior United Nations official responsible for freedom of expression has warned that the British government’s response to Snowden’s revelations is doing serious damage to Britain’s international reputation for investigative journalism and press freedom.

Frank La Rue, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression, is “absolutely shocked about the way the Guardian has been treated, from the idea of prosecution to the fact that some members of parliament even called it treason.” He says. “I think that is unacceptable in a democratic society.”

10, Some remedies

If the intelligence agencies really want to protect democracy against al-Qaida, then they need to give up on high-cost, low-value surveillance of millions of ordinary people, and our Google and Facebook messages, and concentrate on the real targets, the real threats. They simply have too much money to spend – and readily-available money expends its spending capacity. Nature abhors a vacuum.

In a parliamentary debate last week, a cross-party group of MPs, including Tory Dominic Raab, Labour MP Tom Watson and Liberal Democrat Julian Huppert, argued there should be greater oversight over intelligence agencies.

The loss of classified data is not the responsibility of journalists. It is the responsibility of the intelligence community itself.

For just cost-effectiveness alone, and trying to ensure we get value for money, Edward Snowden is a hero.

11, Let’s go for the real criminals

David Cameron has threatened “tougher measures” against the Guardian unless it demonstrates “some social responsibility.” Well David Cameron and his government, with their present economic and fiscal policies, from spending cuts in the NHS down to the ‘bedroom tax,’ know all about demonstrating “some social responsibility.”

The former British defence secretary, Liam Fox, has written to the new director of public prosecutions, Alison Saunders, about the Guardian reports on Edward Snowden’s leaks.

Now, perhaps I have been missing something, but did Tory politicians write to the director of public prosecutions about the spying tactics of the Murdoch newspapers?

Sir John Sawers of MI6 said al-Qaida are rubbing their hands with glee because of the Snowden leaks. This is in the context of maybe 850,000 people literally having access to this material.

But Sawers has already shown real contempt for the democratic process. The Sunday Times has quoted a Tory MP describing the joint appearance by Sawers, the GCHQ director, Sir Iain Lobban, and the MI5 director general, Andrew Parker, as a “total pantomime.” It turns out they were told of questions in advance as part of a secret deal with the committee.

Al-Qaida activists may well be rubbing their hands. And yes, I hope tall involved in al-Qaida are caught, prosecuted and brought to justice, in free and open courts.

I do not want in any way to diminish the threat or the danger posed by al-Qaida. But how many people have died in recent years, been made homeless, lost their jobs, have had their families reduced to poverty, because of the conspiracies and secret activities of criminal bankers?

And what were the NSA and GCHQ doing about monitoring and tapping them, and telling elected governments about the threat to our society, our democracy and our survival? Nothing. Nothing at all.

Trinity College Dublin … the venue for this evening’s debate at ‘he Phil’ about Edward Snowden (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

The guest speaker opposing me this evening is TJ Mulloy who is the head of Democrats Abroad in Ireland. The other speakers are students. Guest speakers have 10 minutes to speak, students have seven minutes.

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