Saturday, 15 June 2013

A discussion on Edward Snowden

Liberty on the Barricades (After Delacroix) - Robert Ballagh (b. 1943)

This is a longer than usual blog because it is the record of a conversation with Mark Husmann conducted on the message board of Facebook. I don't know Mark personally but have generally been sympathetic to what he has put up on his own board, and, once embarked on the discussion, grew to like him more and more, to the extent that, though he lives in the north east of the country, I hope to meet him some time.

It was, I suppose, the 'no brainer' invitation that got me thinking in greater detail about the case of Edward Snowden. My normal, quite instinctive, loyalties would, in fact, have been to sign the petition - I do sign a reasonable number - but I hate doing things so to speak, 'brainlessly'. 

So here is the discussion, exactly as it happened. I have no illusions about thinking that it is a particularly significant one as the world goes, but it clears my own thinking a little, for which thanks to Mark, and hope it isn't too tedious for others to read.


The original message:

Mark Husmann
Another no-brainer. Would you sign this, please? [link]

Mark Husmann
I've just signed a campaign to stand with Edward Snowden. This 29-year-old just gave up basically his whole life to let us know about the US’s insane plan to read all our emails, Skype messages and Facebook posts. The US is pledging vengeance, but with us behind him he’s much more likely to be treated fairly.

Join me in standing with him: -- [link]

The discussion begins here:

George Szirtes
I am still thinking about this, Mark, and will respond when I have thought it through.

Mark Husmann
Thanks for replying, George! I'd be very eager to hear your thoughts. To me, it's rather clear-cut. I have always supported whistleblowers and defectors (during time of the Gulf Wars, for example). Is there anything you will post publicly?

George Szirtes
I might, Mark. I am trying to disentangle in my mind the knowledge that this kind of thing goes on all the time and that some aspects of it are normal in a society where communications have moved into the electronic sphere, and the sense of outrage I should feel that this half-suppressed knowledge is now out in the open.

Mark Husmann
A good point. Do we feel "OK" about certain issues until we're cornered by a friend on FB and feel pressed to click? Are we still saying "Oh, I didn't know about it", if that is at all credible? How much do we regard it as our responsibility as a moral and ethical citizen to inform ourselves?

George Szirtes
Mark, this must by its nature be a longer answer. 

I am perhaps too sensitive about the conduct of disagreement. It may well be - in fact I am pretty sure it must be - that the normal attention of the security services is something we take for granted, and that there are, and have been, effective disruptions of plans for violence and destruction, and that as soon as there is such violence, for example the Woolwich killing, the press, and the people too by and large, demand to know why the security services had not acted earlier. 'Why didn't you know? Why didn't you realise such and such was a valuable piece of information? If you had known lives might have been saved.'

So there is a demand for surveillance - of the right people, we say, and indeed expect that kind of protection.

This is in the context of a society that is very security conscious. We are afraid of a lot of things. We vet people carefully before we give them charge over our children, we don't let our children out in case they are kidnapped or assaulted - or simply hurt. We double lock and don't leave our doors open. We need security cards before we can enter certain buildings including the BBC. I could go on with this list, and so could you until we started beating at the old 'elf and safety' doors. We are risk averse in that we only admire risk when it has been shown to be successful.

The case here needs to be argued through. There is the argument in spirit and there is the argument in practice. 

In spirit many of us are for or against many things and we like to feel good about that. We feel it is the better way. We point out the dangers of the other way and we accuse those who think differently of bad faith. I see this in political discourse all the time.

In the case of surveillance the noise of shouting may drown out the genuine arguments which do need to be heard. If you ask me personally I want the least surveillance possible. What is that least level? That is to be argued

In the case of Snowden, I don't think he was endangering anyone with his revelation so I think there is no serious case for prosecuting him - certainly none in spirit - but there is an interesting point of debate as to what, if anything, should be done? What degree of security is a country entitled to? Any? None? And how should that security operate?

I am happy to shout with the best, but I want to think through these things before shouting. I am aware that I stand in danger of being thought of 'bad faith' in even thinking this, which makes me just a little more obstinate.

Mark Husmann
You're being too modest, George. I think no-one can accuse you of bad faith. Your posts are careful, thoughtful, kind. You are the opposite of a knee jerker. In this particular case, I want to make two points in reply: the intelligence on the Woolwich killer DID exist, and still the killing happened. This deflates the argument that more "intelligence" equates more security. It might, statistically, pan out like that over a number of decades. That will be of little comfort for Lee Rigby's family and friends. Second, I agree with you completely that we desperately need to have the debate on how much security we want any state to have. This goes at the heart of human and civil rights. Again, in this case, I feel very strongly that our governments are willfully attempting to by-pass that very debate. They are collecting data against the wishes of who they pretend to represent. So, yes, I do my part of the shouting here, as I am outraged. Have you been following the case of Bradley Manning? It's a different kind of case, since he may have endangered people's lives by being less discriminate about what he leaked (Snowden targeted very specific documents to ensure people's safety was not compromised). However, the extremely undemocratic way the US deals with him in court shocks me. Our level of civility (is that a word?) can be measured by the way we treat whistleblowers.

George Szirtes
In most respects I agree with you, Mark. On Manning I am generally with you. And indeed in general I am instinctively much for more for you than against you. 

My hesitations? I am not sure of your judgment on Rigby. Your argument only demonstrates that there should have been better use of security, not that there should have been no security at all.

The other is less to do with the act - Snowden's / Manning's - than with our perception of the US reaction to it. In fact I suspect that is what we are really talking about. Not that there is too much difference between us on this point either, it's just that it shades off into areas that may be worth more talking than shouting about for now

What are the degrees of distinction within the argument?...

Mark Husmann
I think my main concern is this: intelligence on the potential killer has not resulted in what you call more security (which, I think, we all want). Still, UK and US governments deceive us, in order to gather even more intelligence. Not just targeted subjects, but indiscriminate blanket surveillance is what they want. Now, what could be their motivation? If that motivation was what they claim, then would have attempted this in a more democratic way, and quite possibly failed. I do not believe that our governments' ultimate motivation is civilian security.

George Szirtes
...On the one hand there are the apologists for harsh USA sentences. They claim that Manning's act in particular is an act of treason much like the betrayal of a raid in wartime might have been.

Note 1: The assumption here is that the War on Terror (to use the original name as coined) is a war against a side that regards itself as being at war, to which the answer can only be in terms of war. 

Note 2: This however implies that those who are trying to kill Americans and others by planting bombs etc are in fact combatants in a war, not criminals. 

Note 3: There is a danger of blurring the distinction between soldiers and criminals here, just as there is about the term 'war crime' which rests on the assumption that war is conducted under strictly definable terms - and to some degree it is - that a war crime contravenes. A state might choose to define an act for its own convenience, not just the US but any state.

On the other hand there are critics who condemn the USA in particular. They claim that the USA is inherently a warmongering state, and take a view that is not too far from the Ayatolla Khomeini's description of the USA as 'The Great Satan'. The current revelations - Manning's and Snowden's - are simply proof of that for them,  and the US administration's desire to be punitive to a point of illegality is further proof. This view needs no notes as far as I can see (I might be wrong) because there are no subtleties required to make the case.

There is another point of view, which is closer to my own, one that is set in the complex area of realpolitik - the area where we actually operate - where we are constantly in a sceptical frame of mind. We know that what politicians and their agents say is a mixture of code and half-truth that occasionally is an outright lie.

This world assumes that most of the centre ground is governed by moral uncertainty. It is neither black nor white in moral terms, but a struggle between aspects of possible good and aspects of possible bad. Outside this there do exist areas that do seem very bad and some that seem pretty near good. Not many of us would argue for North Korea, I imagine. Then come Burma, China etc. Nor would we argue that the UK or the USA are altogether good. The USA in particular, in view of its military power, is the subject of amplified perception.

You may be right in not believing that 'our governments' ultimate motivation is civilian security.' It is possible. But what is it then? That is the point I am hesitating about, Mark. What is that motivation, what evil purpose does it have? In order to think the purpose was sinister and evil I'd have to nudge a lot closer to the claim made by those for whom the USA is already The Great Satan. I am not happy getting too close to that. 

What I might support is the idea that agencies within a state may run away with their own projects, that, like any organisation, their natural tendency is to grow, and that this might - in fact probably would - result in some kind of paranoid nation if only because the mechanism's growth depends on it. The process in itself is not evil, nor has it an evil intention, it is just what happens everywhere, on the ground, on the smallest scale - it is the amplified effect of bureaucracy and managerialism that must find things to do. The question that I would then want addressed is whether the civic order has sufficient control of that tendency. It would be in the interests of civil society to control any such expansion if only because it costs a fortune.

That is a danger and that is what I think must be watched and protested against. I haven't lost all faith in Obama. I still think he is an essentially decent man who is doing a better job than any Republican would. The people I worry about are the Tea Party sort, the equivalent of which I am trying to resist in Hungary too.

ps This isn't an argument I am trying to 'win'. I am almost hoping that, if it were that, that you would 'win' it'. It is just a way of trying to think.

Mark Husmann
I, too, am attempting to think here. And I would be happy for you to blog this. Let me know where. 

I hope you don't think I think our government is 'evil'. Or the US government. I don't believe in Bond-style plot by a super villain. I do, however, note that we have entered an era of neo-feudalism in the Western world. It is not civilians, voters, that are represented by our governments. It is vast corporate wealth, shrouded in secrecy and hidden away in Switzerland, the Cayman Islands, Ireland, you name it, and various virtual places around the digital globe and accounts that can never be traced, monitored, policed. 

I am also aware (and this frightens me the most) that what we learn through our privatised news channels is what we are allowed to learn. Make the link between immense power in the form of wealth and damn little public control of the media, then you know who is making the decisions here about intelligence-gathering. Are you assuming that our government, for example, is acting out of their own free will? Then why do learn almost weekly about ministers and MPs breaking their code of practice regarding lobbying? 

You may also have seen in my facebook posts that I am a trade unionist and I am involved in numerous environmental campaigns, internationally. At every corner I see the power you gain by influencing others - friends, colleagues - through efficient use of the media. Just having a (good) argument doesn't work. Even the Tea Party know that much. 

Incidentally, I don't worry about them. Neither do I worry about the EDL here in the UK. I don't even worry about UKIP, who actually have a fighting chance of winning a seat here and there at the next election. Bring'em on. I feel the parliamentary processes are strong enough to deal with them democratically. Now, this may sound a little like I'm contradicting what I claimed earlier - that our government / parliament is not representing us, the voters. 

They are, but only to an extent that allows corporate wealth to grow. It has no interest in immigration politics. 

That is as far as we have got, and I am generally persuaded by Mark's argument to the extent that I will sign the petition. I suspect I might have done so eventually anyway, but the process of actually thinking through has been very valuable. It could go on, of course, but we both have lives to lead.

I suspect my instinct - as I hinted above - is that the stronger and louder the shouts of certainty around me the more I findmyself digging my heels in. This is true even in questions where I myself am most passionate and whose conclusions touch me directly, including - for instance - the question of anti-Semitism. I always want to know why it is possible to think so differently from 'the good'.  How dangerous is it to see oneself as the good and to dismiss those that think otherwise of being of bad faith'. Even irrationality has its reasons. Even psychosis has events it refers to.


Gwil W said...

When 'they' have collected all the data on everybody what do you suppose 'they' are going to do with it? Put it safely in a mountain bunker?

Where America leads the west follows. And so we in the west will end up, we're almost there now, with a world of data collectors - the collectors of the 99.9% useless information, and the subjects - and eventually, as with all accumulations of too much 'stuff' there will need to be a process what we might call 'sorting out' or a 'more efficient' selection of data . . .

. . . poets for example - now there's a useless non-productive group a time wasters for you - and the readers of poetry - every one of them a potential enemy of the state - just like that Bukowski guy - you remember he wrote 'Post' - got himself arrested - an FBI record - send him to the gulag.

But wait: -

instead of snooping in every citizen's computer why don't we simply put a computer inside every citizen. At birth would be a good time. We have the technology.

Gwil W said...

Just on my dinky radio on the midday newstertainment with a scandalous item containing the very words " . . . revelations . . . 2009 . . . Snowden . . . Gordon Brown. . . phones . . . computers . . . "

So it goes. Just when I hoped he'd say Blair he said Brown.

But maybe there's more to come.

I think they're too late for your signature George. Another horse fallen. It's getting like the Grand National out there.

George S said...

Why go to China where hacking is pretty well universal?

Gwil W said...

I guess it's just over two decades since the young Juian Ah Sang designed a prog to hack 40,000 codes per sec on his basic pc in his trailer home back in Oz. Now victim of a possibly honeytrap sitting and waiting for mercy. How swiftly time and technology doth fly.

Gwil W said...

A Guardian piece on this very subject by China's most famous artist the indomitably courageous WWW appears in English in the Austrian broadsheet on 16/6 that is Die Presse am Sonntag.
Maybe this can be found at