Despite the size and scope of Edward Snowden's NSA whistleblowing, there's little sign of Washington DC changing its practices, and even less of an indication that any of its European allies will actually hold it to account.
Germany’s change of direction on this issue reveals a lot about the scale of the problem. Angela Merkel’s initial public response seemed to be that of outrage. "We are no longer in the cold war," said Angela Merkel’s spokesman, Steffen Seibert. "If it is confirmed that diplomatic representations of the European Union and individual European countries have been spied upon, we will clearly say that bugging friends is unacceptable"(Guardian July 1, 2013).
Merkel’s public façade didn’t hold up for long after Snowden revealed in Der Spiegel magazine only days later that the US and Germany were in fact partnering in the global spy network. “They are in bed with the Germans, just like with most other Western states”, the German magazine quotes Snowden as saying, adding that the NSA has a Foreign Affairs Directorate which is responsible for cooperation with other countries (RT July 8, 2013). The Der Spiegel report also indicated how German Federal Intelligence Service, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND) and NSA work together.
The embarrassment of this Snowden bombshell seemed to force Germany down a notch, with Merkel opting for a new policy of appeasement instead. So was the initial rift between the US and Germany mere political theatre?
Merkel told Die Zeit that there was "a need to discuss the balance between privacy and security, but protection against terrorism was not possible without the option of electronic surveillance”. She then added, "(I want) the necessary discussions with the United States to be conducted in the spirit which, despite the many justified questions, never forgets that America has been our most loyal ally over the decades and still is" (Reuters July 10, 2013).
But it’s Merkel’s last statement which indicates that she may be just as out of touch with public opinion as the culture of denial which still dominates Washington DC. "For me, there is no comparison at all between the state security (Stasi) of the GDR and the work of intelligence services in democratic states," Merkel told Die Zeit (Reuters July 10, 2013). Incredible.
Putting the overall theme of government abuse of power into perspective, this week provided a solid example of what should happen in an advanced civilized democracy. Luxembourg’s long-serving Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker announced his resignation this week over a spying scandal involving illegal phone-taps, alongside a number other highly corrupt activities.
In normal times, what happened in Luxembourg should also happen in other countries like the US, or Great Britain - but these are far from normal times. What passes for normal in this bizarre epoch is anyone’s guess, and the same goes for what is deemed to be ‘legal’, especially in the United States.
Snowden’s revelations should have been a watershed moment, but instead in 2013, there appears to be no parliamentary controls to regulate the practice of warrantless digital surveillance and data theft on the part of government agencies, and even less chance of justice in the courts, where adjudicators have been rendered impotent to enforce the law which have been buried under an avalanche of emergency war-time edicts and executive orders.
Well before the Snowden affair this year, Germany effectively cleared the legal path for one of the corporations within the NSA collective. Through the use of administrative courts and the EU, the Administrative Court of Schleswig, Germany upheld two decisions on February 14th, 2013 which ruled that German data protection laws do not apply to data processing by Facebook (file numbers 8 B 60/12 and 8 B 61/1).These controversial judicial procedure were initiated by Facebook Inc. (USA) and by Facebook Ltd. (Ireland, EU), and reversed a previous order by the Independent State Center for Data Protection of Schleswig-Holstein (ULD) which had ruled to allow users to sign in on Facebook using a pseudonym and to unblock those user-accounts that had been blocked due to the users not using their real name and personal data. At the time this was seen as a victory for Facebook the corporation – when in fact it was really a victory for the NSA - who harvests its data from Facebook.
Based on these latest Snowden leaks, we’ve learned more about the true nature of America’s NSA and Britain’s GCHQ partnership in this international spy network, sharing their data and communications. Through the UK Government’s Communications Headquarters known as TEMPORA, the British agency is able to tap over 200 fiber optic cables landing in the UK, saving everything - up to 27 petabytes a day, which are then parsed out to 300 GCHQ analysts and 250 NSA colleagues who then sift through it.
Over a decade of Patriot Acts, FISA laws and Wikileaks cables has left Americans and Europeans alike in a precarious state akin to Stockholm Syndrome, where their love of digital communications almost trumps their concerns for privacy. This same ambiguity has been echoed by Obama and Merkel, who both claim that protection against terrorism is not possible without the option of electronic surveillance. But the narrative which was originally framed around Washington’s invasion of its citizens’ privacy has since gone international. It’s now about governments partnering with each other - and with corporations, in the largest global digital dragnet imaginable.
The extent of the US National Security Agency (NSA) overseas spying in Europe has stunned the European public for sure, and appears to have rattled the political classes in Germany and Brussels – but only for now.
According to Edward Snowden’s revelations in the German magazine Der Spiegel last week, the NSA snoops through approximately 20-60 million German phone connections, and 10 million internet data sets a day. According to the Snowden report, all in all, the NSA combs through around half a billion German phone calls, emails and text messages on a monthly basis.
To add insult to injury, it’s been said the US intelligence regards Germany as a “third class partner”, on par with the likes of China and Iraq, making them fair game for NSA targeting. It’s not just Berlin, as the NSA are also said to have bugged EU diplomatic offices and gained access to EU internal computer networks.
So where is the crisis of international diplomacy between the US and Europe? Under normal circumstances, this might morph into a major diplomatic crisis pitting the EU members on one side and the US on the other – but alas, these are not really normal times. Germany and the EU came out swinging, well, sort of.
President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz hit out immediately stating:
“If the allegations prove to be true, it would be an extremely serious matter which will have a severe impact on EU-US relations”.
Brussels immediately passed a non-binding resolution, which said that unless the US provided full disclosure about its email and communications data, then two EU-US transatlantic information-sharing deals could be revoked. Those deals are the Terrorist Finance Tracking Program (TFTP) and Passenger Name Records (PNR). Both were rammed through the EU Parliament during the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks. It seemed like the right thing to do at the time. It gives the US Treasury carte blanche on all European stored data on international financial transfers, and gives US Homeland Security carte blanche on all passenger check-ins and ticket bookings on flights.
Few believe that the EU will actually make good on their threats, seeing the initial reaction as a mere face-saving exercise, leading to no real action by MEPs in Brussels.
The corporate aspect should not be underrated in terms of its central role in the international digital data trade. Edward Snowden’s PRISM revelations of government controlled NSA wiretapping and data theft are nothing new, as former CIA analyst Russell Tice prove almost a decade ago in 2005 by showing that the NSA were engaged in unlawful and unconstitutional wiretaps on American citizens. But the NSA cannot operate without the partnership of these companies – all of whom have offices and operational hubs in most foreign markets.
Herein resides the key aspect in all of this - that in order for agencies like the NSA and GCHQ to get easy access to all of our digital communications and data, they still need the cooperation of corporations to do it. In the US, it’s now known what role major ISPs and mobile carriers like Verizon and AT&T play in this equation within US borders, including the existence of NSA-controlled SG3 collection rooms embedded within the companies facilities. Shocking enough, but not nearly as shocking if you consider the role of transnational corporations in enabling the NSA access to your digital threads.
Internationally, citizens have already signed over most of their privacy simply by using the digital services of US multinationals like Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Skype, Yahoo and others. All of these corporation operate within a ‘profit-first’ ethical vacuum where, in many cases, they are actually charging the NSA for the privilege of consuming their customers’ communications and data. According to the recent Snowden leaks, the level of collusion between Microsoft Corp and the NSA is astonishing, where Microsoft allows the NSA to skirt encryption protocols on Outlook, Skype video and cloud services, and where data captured by the NSA is routinely passed on to both the FBI and the CIA (Guardian July 12, 2013).
The horrible irony here is too obvious to ignore: the US government, through its NSA, is giving away taxpayer dollars so these corporations can profit from handing over all of your personal communications and data.
Such an unholy alliance between partnering governments and transnational corporations could be defined as fascism, but the global nature of this operation might require a new term to define what means as a global phenomenon.
Amidst the international Snowden media circus, it’s important not to forget that what has enabled agencies like the NSA and GCHQ to act with impunity, is the fact that both these governments have excelled in capitalising on a post-September 11th paranoia that has hijacked the national consciousness in both the US and the UK. The entire basis upon which their relentless war-time remit has been erected can be described in three words: “War on Terror”.
It’s already clear to the global citizenry that the US federal government and its NSA are out of control, and should be reined in as soon as possible in order to preserve any remaining moral standing for a country which has exhausted nearly all of its goodwill internationally – as well as domestically.
Judging by Washington’s stoic and unapologetic stance thus far, goodwill doesn’t seem to be a high priority yet. Until the problem is properly addressed, there will remain a gaping hole of moral leadership in the international community.
What political leaders are slow the realize is that when the goodwill has been exhausted, so has the trust, and that’s a very slippery slope indeed.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.