Of Spies, Traitors and Ballerinas

[This article of mine, an expansion on my previous post, was printed on The Daily Star]

Last week, sales of George Orwell’s classic ’1984′ jumped more than 9500 percent. Media reports suggest it had a lot to do with the recent leak about the NSA’s mass surveillance programme code-named PRISM. While clocks are yet to strike thirteen, there are strong parallels between recent developments and Orwell’s dystopia of a constantly-monitored citizenry, a state locked in perpetual war and an inner party consisting of two percent of the populace. And thus, ’1984′ may be serving as a proxy narrative that helps people understand what it means to be watched in their own living-rooms.

Image

There is a lot of speculating and groping around for information – perhaps because people have virtually zero intel on PRISM. Think back to all the articles you’ve read or reports you’ve seen. How much was about PRISM and how much about Snowden, Hong Kong, China and a Rubik’s Cube? The answer probably is: all we’ve seen of PRISM are badly-designed PowerPoint slides and an identical paragraph that goes:

The National Security Agency and the FBI are tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading US Internet companies, extracting audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails, documents, and connection logs that enable analysts to track foreign targets. PRISM data is collected directly from the servers of these US Service Providers: Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, Apple etc.

The rest reads fascinatingly like a spy-novel where informants mysteriously whisper, “you don’t find me – I find you”, just before disappearing into an ocean of oriental commuters. One must concede it’s a lot more exciting than the mental image of balding operatives in half-shirts listening in on interminable afternoon arguments and peering over endless streams of binary code. These days, the news needs to be sexy, with a human face.

***

In modern times, there is no such thing as ‘no communication’. If there’s a gap in communication – misinformation, rumors, fantasies and plain untruths fill the void. While such cases never work in favor of citizens – vested interest groups often find it particularly useful.

“The tactic of the US government has been to attack and demonize whistleblowers as a means of distracting attention from their own exposed wrongdoing and destroying the credibility of the messenger so that everyone tunes out the message. That attempt will undoubtedly be made here,” wrote Glenn Greenwald on The Guardian. Greenwald, who also broke the PRISM story, had it spot on!

So, before pondering how a State can spy on its own (and other) people – other peripheral questions have crowded the mainstream media: ‘who is Snowden? Is it true he doesn’t even have a high-school diploma?’ And of these, the most stirring online topic is still, ‘is Snowden a hero or a traitor?’.

2001 Modeling photos of Snowden.
2001 Modeling photos of Snowden.

The overly-simplified ‘traitor-hero’ binary has caught the public’s imagination. He has broken the law and therefore, must be considered a criminal: simple. Others say it’s more than a crime – Snowden’s actions compromised the very security of the USA. That’s as good as selling state secrets to, say, China. That’s treason. Still more argued that whistleblowers like Snowden act not out of greed or hubris, but a genuine concern for Freedom and citizen’s rights.

More attacks on Snowden’s credibility have followed swiftly. One Daily Mail article has painted him as a sexual deviant who discussed his choice of post-coital snacks (Krispy Kremes) on online forums. It paints him as a juvenile, sex-crazed computer-wizard who, despite having no degrees, had employers fighting over him. Judging from the depth of report, The Mail may have allocated its top resources to dig up yearbook pictures and shirtless snaps of Snowden.

Most bizarre is the series of reporting on Snowden’s girlfriend Lindsay Mills – a ballerina and self-proclaimed ‘pole dancing superhero’. This line of reporting patronises Lindsay’s career choices and paints Snowden as a bad boyfriend who left Lindsay ‘at sea without a compass’. The implied question was: is this what a truly responsible man does? While she was blogging about heartbreak after he traveled to Hong Kong, most mainstream media outlets have managed to grab and print semi-nude pictures of Lindsay too.

A scantily-clad Mills has made headlines all over.
A scantily-clad Mills has made headlines all over.

Someone’s out to kill the messenger: at least figuratively. Snowden’s employer has made a show of firing him. The US Army has confirmed that Snowden enlisted for Special Forces, but was discharged quickly. The former Head of the UK’s intelligence agency GCHQ has argued that unreasonable pacifists like Snowden refuse to accept the need for ethical balancing of spying and freedoms. For more, consider the language of some reporting: Radio 4 News described him as, “a former employee of Booz Allen Hamilton who was sacked and fled to Hong Kong.” While these are facts, the mere phrasing makes him sound cowardly and disreputable. One netizen aptly commented, “they are doing an ‘Assange’ on him.”

All in all, it’s almost as if there’s a concerted effort to pump personal, even irrelevant, information on Edward Snowden to fill the void left by the mention of PRISM. One would be remiss not to point out the irony in the fact that news about the invasion of personal privacy has resulted in such intense personal scrutiny of the messenger.

Blowback has come from indie media like blogs, tweets and posts, which indiscriminately lashed out at administrations, a senile Congress / Parliament and Legality-Over-Morality stances. This is how commoners’ logic works: whistleblowers act against big-government or shady-corporations (that we perceive to be immoral) – ipso facto, they must be good. What most commentators fail to mention unequivocally is that whether Assange, Manning or Snowden are good, decent people or not – is inconsequential. It is the nature of the news that must concern us.

***

We can choose to see the collective digression as irresponsible misinformation or deliberate misdirection. But because modern societies are largely informed by mainstream media – the world has a dire need for them to be clear, sincere and forthcoming. Framing the news from an ethical perspective incriminates the government(s). Coming from a legal angle, it indicates the whistleblower.

Notice how in today’s media coverage, the story is being subtly shifted away from the ethical debate to the legal one; did the NSA / GCHQ act within the legal framework? Can FISA Courts legally sanction this? If yes, then data-mining cannot be challenged and Snowden is the only villain in this. Many are arguing that this is not the question. The question is: is it right that they are allowed to do this? What Snowden did was illegal. But what should someone do when protecting classified information means breaking the law – not just any law, but one of the core protections of constitutions? Should any law that doesn’t serve the Greater Good be allowed to exist? That’s the ethical dilemma.

***

Whistleblowers are byproducts of an overly secretive society that goes behind the backs of its citizens. And secrets revealed are invariably unsavory (no whistleblower ever revealed secret investments in cancer research or feeding of stranded dolphins). In the absence of effective checks-and-balances – whistleblowers will continue to serve as societies’ antidote to this culture of secrecy and obsession with security. As long as that happens, governments will also bully and lock-up these traitors who challenge the entire structure from within. Any government attempt at a ’2-Minute Hate’ is too little, too late. Whistleblowing is not something that has an immediate solution – unlike the specific case of PRISM.

Ellsberg exposed secrecy and misdirection over the Vietnam War in 1971.
Ellsberg exposed secrecy and misdirection over the Vietnam War.

“In my estimation, there has not been in American history a more important leak than Edward Snowden’s release of NSA material – and that definitely includes the Pentagon Papers 40 years ago,” wrote Daniel Ellsberg. Ellsberg, in 1971, had leaked the Pentagon Papers that revealed gross, government secrecy and misconduct over the Vietnam War. Many agree that the NSA / GCHQ have crossed a line this time.

A more important question, then, should be how far can a government infringe upon civil liberties in the pursuit of security? As Glenn Greenwald argues, “the way things are supposed to work is that we’re supposed to know virtually everything about what they do: that’s why they’re called public servants. They’re supposed to know virtually nothing about what we do: that’s why we’re called private individuals.”

The NSA vs. Snowden debate reflects on our inability to frame political issues outside tribal affiliations: you are either a mindless, security-freak or a juvenile, liberal apologist; you’re either with NSA / GCHQ or with the likes of Snowden. That there may be a more nuanced position – where whistleblowing is frowned upon – but indiscriminate surveillance of citizens is considered a grave assault upon freedom – is completely ignored or bypassed. And as long as our obsessions end with teams, traitors and ballerinas, this balance will continue to elude us.

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18 comments

  1. You’re very right: we hear about naked dancers and ugly slides, but hardly anyone cares to actually explain what PRISM means to regular citizens and to the world as a whole.

    • Hey Ana! That’s precisely my point too. When will mainstream media realize how perilously close they are to becoming sad caricatures of entertainment channels: equally full of bullcrap, just not as entertaining?

  2. Last year Felix Baumgartner made his sky dive from the edge of space. I posted something called “Sorry Felix, D.B. Cooper Still Has My Vote, referring to American folk hero D.B. Cooper who high jacked an American Airlines plane in the 1970`s, then parachuted somewhere over the Cascade mountains with the $200,000 ransom – never to be seen again. Cooper remains on the FBI`s most wanted list, and there is apparently some connection or reported sightings in Vancouver where I live. In less than an hour from the time I hit post my email was hacked – the source according to Yahoo was Langley, Virginia – home to FBI headquarters. Another post on Chinese ghost cities took the Chinese less than 30 minutes to do the same. Pandora`s box is open, we will never be able to close that lid again 🙂

  3. Hey Adnan,
    first of all thanks for sharing your thoughts with us. I think most people agree that the extend of government surveillance of citizens exceeds anything we could have imagined a few years ago. But are we really that surprised? If we ask the question of how it is possible that an intelligence service could gather such an amount of private data we should also ask ourselves why we are so willing to give away our personal information to companies such as Google, Facebook and the likes. Creating a transparent citizen (or society) seems not such a big deal after all. If any people have the government they deserve that surely counts for government espionage also. Maybe we should ask ourselves how much we really value our privacy and constitutional rights.
    However, I created a couple of images on the Prism and NSA issue and more are to follow soon. If you like take a look on the website shown below.

    • Hello Admeyer: thanks for reading and leaving a very thought-provoking comment. And yes, with revelations about GCHQ’s Tempora (PRISM’s English cousin) program – the surveillance is appearing to run really deep.
      Re: your point about how much we value our privacy – I understand that internet, social-networking corporations may use our private data in a way we didn’t intend. We had effectively chosen to unshackle private greed a long time back. But the government? Aren’t they entrusted with safeguarding citizens’ privacy and welfare? Isn’t that their sole purpose? Sadder yet is the role mainstream media is playing – because, ideally, they are supposed to be the ‘watchdog’ with oversight of government actions.
      The surveillance may be a one-off thing. But the failure of fundamental institutions of democracy is something that makes me anxious.

      Will definitely swing by to check out your work. Thanks again for your comment. Can’t tell you how much I appreciate it.

  4. Hey Adnan,
    first of all thanks for sharing your thoughts with us. I think most people agree that the extend of government surveillance of citizens exceeds anything we could have imagined a few years ago. But are we really that surprised? If we ask the question of how it is possible that an intelligence service could gather such an amount of private data we should also ask ourselves why we are so willing to give away our personal information to companies such as Google, Facebook and the likes. Creating a transparent citizen (or society) seems not such a big deal after all. If any people have the government they deserve that surely counts for government espionage also. Maybe we should ask ourselves how much we really value our privacy and constitutional rights.
    However, I created a couple of images on the Prism and NSA issue and more are to follow soon. If you like take a look at my website http://admeyerart.de

  5. It’s a fascinating and frightening issue — how much secrecy is too much? In whom do we place (more) trust and why? I agree, being a journalist, that much “coverage” is lazy BS.

    I live near NYC and my husband was involved in the attacks there of 9/11 as a photo editor for the NYT…It is too easy, from a distance, to forget the very real terror that still exists for some Americans of further such attacks and the resulting credulity for the line of “We’re just protecting you. This surveillance has prevented even more such attacks”. etc.

    I’m not defending the NSA! But it is a complex stew of fear, (mis) trust, civil liberties, citizen action, civil disobedience…In an era when millions of Americans are also long unemployed, people, I think, are even more cowed politically. They just want a paycheck and some peace of mind.

    • Hello Caitlin – thanks for reading and posting your thoughts. I appreciate the moderation and level-headedness in your comment – it is indeed a complex stew!

      The freedom-vs-security debate in the West affects the world (India has just adopted its own surveillance program, CMS). That’s why there needs to be serious debates over where freedom stops and security begins. I’m just plain irked by mainstream media’s obsession over Snowden’s every move – which is gradually turning him into a bigger story than PRISM. And he’s not! Even ‘treatment and protection of whistleblowers should come before a personal history of Snowden.

      As for the bigger debate of how far can the govt. go in the name of security – I, personally, stick with Ben Franklin, “they who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” But that’s an absolute stand and I understand that there are nuances to the debate; which is why I wait for it to begin – in the USA and eventually, in Bangladesh.

      I’m very sorry to hear about your husband’s ordeal in the 9/11 attacks. I wish you both the best. Peace be upon you.

      • I didn’t know that about India — sorry! — so I see why this is so compelling for you. Given relations with your neighboring nations, I can also see why there would be, as there should be, some hot debate.

        As for Snowden’s personal life, I agree with you that endless detail is distracting. I think people are fascinated/horrified/intrigued by who he is, though. So many people would be too scared to do what he did (I admire him) and the powers he faces are very powerful indeed.

  6. I’ve had a post on the boil for days now on just this topic. When I finally get it finished and published I’ll make sure there is a link back to your post here. This was an informative and very useful article. Thanks!

    • Hey Ken – thanks a bunch. I see mass surveillance becoming a global affair in the next 10 years and we all need some clarity on the moral-vs-legal aspects of it. Given your follower-base, your message will surely reach a diverse audience. I appreciate your considering linking back to my post; I look forward to yours.

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