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LEAKER, SAVIOUR, TRAITOR, SPY?
TRANSCRIPT OF A RECORDED DOCUMENTARY
Presenter: David Aaronovitch
Producer: Simon Coates
Editor: Innes Bowen
New Broadcasting House
W1A 1AA Broadcast date: 07.10.2013. 20.30-21.00 Repeat date: 13.10.2013. 21.30-22.00 Audio file number: PLN341/13VT1041 Duration: 27.45 1
Taking part in order of appearance:
Alan Rusbridger Editor-in-Chief, Guardian Constanze Stelzenmüller Senior Transatlantic Fellow, German Marshall Fund, Berlin Richard Epstein Professor of Law, New York University Dr. Philip Bobbitt Director of the Center for National Security, Columbia University, New York Dr. Nigel Ashford Senior Programme Officer, Institute for Humane Studies, George Mason University, Virginia 2 AARONOVITCH: Last June, a man not yet out of his twenties with, as he put it, a “home in paradise” went on the run. He took with him huge amounts of secret information belonging to his country’s security services.
Into the new pantheon of digital mega-whistleblowers, Edward Snowden followed his compatriot, Bradley Manning―the army private who now wishes to be known as Chelsea―and who, in 2010, provided WikiLeaks and others with more than seven hundred thousand classified diplomatic and military communications.
At a press conference held at Moscow Airport in July, Snowden made a claim to the world about what he, as a data analyst with the National Security Agency, could do.
EDWARD SNOWDEN STATEMENT: I also had the capability, without any warrant of law, to search for, seize and read your communications―anyone’s communications at any time. That is the power to change people’s fates. It is also a serious violation of the law.
AARONOVITCH: Naturally, what he had to say raised an immediate and angry furore about surveillance―what the democratic state is entitled to know about its citizens and how it can be held accountable. As a Times columnist and a journalist for more than thirty years, I recognize this is a hugely important question.
But there’s another almost equally big problem raised by Snowden and Manning, and this one―I think―has been much less discussed. It’s this: what secrets is the state itself, our state, entitled to keep―from us and from potential enemies? And who decides: the security services, Parliament or Congress and the Government? Or the pressand the whistleblowers?
What I will argue is that state secrets are more vulnerable than they have ever been to mass disclosure, and this is not least because some of the people to whom they’re entrusted―people like Edward Snowden―may believe ideologically that the state should have almost no secrets at all.
Back in 2010, the Guardian was chosen by WikiLeaks as one of its original partners and it was to a Guardian contributor, Glenn Greenwald, that Edward Snowden passed the material on the US National Security Agency earlier this summer. The man who’s overseen much of this modern avalanche of revelation―a revelanche, if you like―is Alan Rusbridger, the editor of the Guardian. Why does he think, in this case, it’s justifiable to reveal state secrets?
RUSBRIDGER: You can say that GCHQ, NSA are doing no more than MI5 used to do with, you know, members of the British Communist Party or animal activists or green activists or what the Stasi did or what the FBI did in the 1950s. But what has changed is the ability of the state to collect everything on everybody, and I think that is the apparatus of tyranny, it’s the apparatus of totalitarianism. So, it doesn’t mean that what is happening is necessarily malign or bad―it’s not totalitarianism―and we have cuddly liberals in charge of our governments at the moment. But I think what Snowden was trying to draw attention to is that they are building the mechanism to collect everything on everybody and store it forever. That’s the route they’re on. And so that’s why it’s very, very
Because it’s about everybody.
Everybody, every citizen has their communications, their data, what they’re thinking―because that’s what Google searches reveal―who they’re speaking to, who they’re e-mailing, so everything is potentially there to be harvested.
AARONOVITCH: Whether what you Google, what you e-mail and what you order on Amazon constitute everything about you is questionable. But there are plenty who share Alan Rusbridger’s sense of alarm.
Take a sober constitutional lawyer like Constanze Stelzenmüller who works for the German Marshall Fund in Berlin.
STELZENMÜLLER: Where they have perhaps done us all a service is that they have brought before us, in a way that hasn’t quite been done before, the need to review the balance between freedom and security in an age where all our borders are porous and much of our personal information is available to all―very often because we have made it available ourselves through Facebook and other social networks. And I think to have brought that fundamental tension of modern life into public debate is an achievement, whether one likes the person who did it or not.
AARONOVITCH: The poles of this debate are―or should be―clear: our already compromised privacy versus the need for the state to do whatever is required to protect us. In the information age, many of our personal secrets―those that are recorded―are retrievable by others and easily retrievable too.
But those details can be of enormous value in tracking the actions of criminals, spies and terrorists.
Alan Rusbridger and Constanze Stelzenmüller, though, are convinced that the balance has tilted too far towards state intrusion. This is because, technologically, we’re in a different place now, nearly a different planet. The über-geeks are on the march and are capable of creating things we can barely comprehend, let alone oversee. Alan Rusbridger.
RUSBRIDGER: One of the things that we are peeling back through the Snowden revelations is a sense of what the technologists are doing.
And Snowden was a technologist; he was a data analyst. And I get a very powerful sense from what he’s said and the documents that we’ve looked at that the intelligence agencies employ very sophisticated and talented engineers. I know how engineers work. You have them in your newspaper, we have them here.
4 what the news media could be like. So you’ve got these engineers who are saying, “Look, we could do this. We could put a bug in this guy’s fridge, we can put a bug in his television.” They are racing ahead with the possibilities of what they can do―which is way ahead of where the law is or where any form of parliamentary or congressional oversight is, I think. And so I think Snowden was saying, “Look, you’ve got no idea what is going on.” AARONOVITCH: This spectre of the killer engineers is frightening, but what has actually happened, concretely, to make us worry? Richard Epstein is professor of law at New York University.
If there’d been evidence of abuse of this
particular system, I would be very sympathetic to the criticisms. But thus far nobody’s been able to point out that abuse. And if you’re collecting data from millions upon millions of people and thousands upon thousands of iterations and there’s never been an allegation of impropriety, chances are the rate of error’s relatively low. But I think if the basic question is, “Can you collect this data only if you know whom it is you’re searching?”, that’s a perverse criticism. The whole point of this metadata system is to identify people who might be suspect whom you could not possibly identify by other means.
AARONOVITCH: At this point, my own, dog-eared cards need to go onto the table. My family were communists at the height of the Cold War; my father worked for the party. Our ’phone was tapped; our letters were sometimes opened; and it’s almost certain that informers, masquerading as comrades, reported back on meetings that my parents attended. The files on us are either still classified or have been destroyed―and all with the tacit agreement of the people of Britain.
You might think that such an experience would make me inclined towards the fear of a state that can process incomprehensible amounts of data about its citizens. But it doesn’t. To me, the putative discomfort of having the mere fact of one’s digital activities subject, along with everyone else’s, to scrutiny for patterns of activity is minor―minor compared with the fact that we were spied on by actual spies who read actual letters, listened to actual phone calls and wrote real reports. In fact, emotionally, I feel as if a big aspect of this great surveillance hoo-ha is a form of liberal me-tooism: “Oh, look, they may spy on me!” But for Constanze Stelzenmüller in Berlin, my attitude looks dangerously complacent.
Germans, she asserts, have reasons to be more worried.
STELZENMÜLLER: I think pre-World War Two is sufficiently summarized with the word, Gestapo. And for the West Germans―of whom I’m one, that’s the country I grew up with―we knew it was crawling with spooks, we know that everybody was spying on everybody else, but it still made for a certain atmosphere of paranoia. And that was reinforced, of course, when we had our own domestic brand of terrorism―the Rote Armee Fraktion―and there is a great deal of surveillance put into place to deal with it. Necessary, no doubt, but still quite unpleasant. And then, of course, in East Germany, you had the Stasi―horrific secret police, pretty much on the model of the Gestapo―which surveilled everybody and
In the United States, more than a decade on from 9/11, there have been detailed polls testing people’s reactions to the surveillance stories. By a small margin, people approve of the Government’s collection of ’phone and internet data, and that’s despite the fact that a large majority think―wrongly―that the content of communications is subject to scrutiny.
But it seems no longer to matter what the people think the state should be entitled to keep secret. If we ask the question, “Who decides what we and anyone else, including our enemies, are allowed to know about the state?”, then the de facto answer these days appears to be, “It’s the media that decides.” That doesn’t make everyone happy. Philip Bobbitt is Director of the Center for National Security at Columbia University in New York. No securocrat, Bobbitt is an East Coast liberal Democrat, albeit from Texas.
BOBBITT: My guess is that, while newspapers and television, electronic media may see one side of this argument, because it’s their job to get more information, that much of the public is not persuaded of that; and were the public to appreciate the cost of these exposures, I think they might find they don’t share the views so prominent in the media. And it is, after all, in the public interest that the state is supposed to work, not just in the interest of its most powerful elements―which, by the way, are not only banks and billionaires; they are media enterprises.
AARONOVITCH: Alan Rusbridger acknowledges the problem of having editors like himself in charge of state secrets. But he thinks he’s up to the job. He describes how he and his colleagues went about their task.
RUSBRIDGER: We met as a group of journalists and we tried to draw up rules for ourselves and we had discussions with government. We said, “We will be writing about this, this and this. What makes you anxious about that?” And we allowed them time to make representations and then we decided ourselves, “Is this a case where the government is trying to avoid embarrassment or is this a case where there is a genuine case?” And sometimes we held stuff back, having listened to governments, and sometimes we thought, “Actually, that’s more about political embarrassment than it is about endangering operations or people.” So those are decisions that, in the end, are editorial decisions.
AARONOVITCH: They are editorial decisions, but when a government says to you, “We’re worried that this information could lead to this malign result,” as a citizen are you content to have the editor-in-chief of the Guardian effectively decide those things for you, or are there better ways?
RUSBRIDGER: Because it would endanger individual people or it’s about operations that are rightfully, properly secret, and so we haven’t.
And I believe that the governments of the US and the UK would give us some credit for behaving “responsibly”.
Part of that “responsible” behaviour, it
seems, was the famous supervised destruction of the hard drives in four Guardian computers at the end of July. But let’s just stick with Alan Rusbridger’s judgment on what is and isn’t, in his words, “rightfully, properly secret”. How fallible are such media adjudications? Pretty fallible, says Philip Bobbitt. He points to an example relating to how intelligence is gathered on terrorist activities in Pakistan where journalists made the wrong decision.
BOBBITT: There are a great many things about which we can be informed that may do the state―and by the state, the public―more damage. To take just very simple examples, there have been disclosures in recent months about some of the methods you use to capture internet traffic, some of the protocols that the intelligence services use; that they’ll look for a message in a foreign language, different from languages that are common in Pakistan. So, if they pick up a German message, they might query its recipient. Well, you don’t have to do that for very long for people to stop using them. The assumption that al-Qaeda has communicated only by courier is manifestly wrong, but it is certainly true that they have modified their methods considerably in the last couple of years.