Matthew Steele’s report on what the recent revelations about the U.S. surveillance services means for Americans, and the wider world.


Last week, The Guardian published two revealing stories regarding the US National Security Agency’s tactics in fighting the ‘Global War on Terror.’ On 5 June, The Guardian revealed that US-Telephone Company Verizon was ordered by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, a secretive group established by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, to hand over its telephone records ‘on a daily basis’ for a 3 month period which began in April of this year. It is understood that the records obtained by the US government contain only ‘telephony metadata,’ which does not reveal the content of phone calls or the caller’s identity, but does disclose the telephone numbers involved in the calls, their duration, and the locations of the numbers involved. Further warrants are required if law enforcement officials wish to proceed further in identifying terror suspects.


The next day, both The Guardian and The Washington Post revealed a top secret NSA programme called PRISM which attempted to gain the consent of and access to the servers of leading multinational technology firms such Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Skype and Apple (though it is not known to what extent these companies allowed access to their servers at that information is still classified). All of these companies are mostly based in the United States. The PRISM programme allows the government to collect large swathes of email information, video and voice chat information, videos, photos, file transfers, login notifications and social media details to be stored in an NSA database. PRISM is further designed to target non-US Citizens and does so using a software which indicates ‘selector’ categories which intend to identify an individual’s ‘foreignness.’ However, the software only has a minimum of 51 per cent accuracy in identifying an individual’s ‘foreignness.’ This obviously leaves open the possibility of collecting private information of many innocent American citizens and has raised a slew of questions regarding the surveillance state and its role in identifying terrorism.


Fighting Terrorism

September 11th, 2001 was a decisive moment in the international system of states as it brought to the fore, especially in the West, a newfound state-driven focus towards terrorism. For the United States, this newfound focus resulted in two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and countless other proxy conflicts in Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan. The desired end of the United States in participating in the ‘Global War on Terror’ was, and remains, to eradicate Islamic extremist fundamentalism wherever it may be in operation. The consequence of this ‘War on Terror’ has resulted in a catastrophic subversion of the very normative ideals that the United States was founded upon and as a result delegitimises the potency of the United States in being the arbiter of the international system of states. Terrorism, in effect, is forcing the United States to undermine the principles and established rules it is supposedly defending in fighting the ‘War on Terror.’ The revelations of last week are perfect iterations of this stringent, all-encompassing and ultimately narrow-minded approach in tackling terrorism. As a result, the the state is imploding from within and we, the people who live in the state, are the ultimate victims of the gross overcompensation.


The fear aroused by terrorism, whether intentional or not, is the driving force behind the government’s subversion of the democratic principles upon which the country was founded. Internally, the most concerning aspect of this is the state’s quest to obliterate its opponents through increasing the potency of state apparatus. In this it is concerning that, at every point, government agencies are seemingly becoming the unquestioned purveyors of truth. Mother Jones Magazine revealed on 10 June that the FISC court sanctioned to provide checks to government snooping programmes, such as the pair outlined above, rejected only 11 of the 33,900 cases brought to the court, just .03 per cent of all cases. How is it possible that an established system of checks and balances grants the state nearly unlimited access? The very institution which is supposed to act as a check to state power is being used as a rubber stamp for government snooping. This process legitimises and establishes a dubious precedent of unchecked state power. Some may think this a paranoid delusion, it is not. We should not now be fearful of what the government can do, but of the counterfactual: of what it can do or could do in the future if there were more malignant forces in power.


Unchecked Balances

Problematic still is the secrecy surrounding the government institutions doing the spying. General Keith Alexander, the director of the NSA, testified at a Congressional hearing on 13 June that the snooping programmes helped prevent ‘dozens’ of terror attacks since being put into operation. Firstly, the director of the NSA should know exactly how many attacks the programmes prevented. More importantly, however, is the irony that the classified status of the NSA snooping programmes prohibit government officials from disclosing the actual number of prevented attacks. Essentially, the government allows itself to rubber-stamp snooping procedures and then prevents the information surrounding these programmes to ever be released. When the government is hiding pertinent information to public dialogue from the public, transparency is lost; as is the definite ability to put wholesome trust into the transgressions of the government. How do we know and how can citizens protest if the government hides its actions behind closed doors?


The aspect of this story that is most damaging, and yet unsurprisingly underreported, is the main target of the snooping operation—foreign entities. Washington is keen to portray China as the main antagonist in such activities as cyber-espionage. Even though China is certainly guilty of said practices, the revelation of PRISM highlights the US’s double-standards. More important than that, the question as to what gives the United States government the right to ignore the sovereignty and privacy of citizens which are not subject to US law has yet to be answered.


The snooping programme is merely a small constituent of the wider issue facing the United States. Whether it is the drone programme, the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or the sheer amount of rhetoric spewing from Washington; the US is ignorant of its position in the world. It is ignorant that its foreign policy decisions actually inflame terrorists rather than subdue them. That the US’s stellar reaction to terrorism is actually what the terrorists want—to see the United States destroy itself through enacting overzealous programmes which overcompensate and incite anger at the United States, rather than engaging foreign populations in understanding how we can all work together in a globalised age is worrying. The founding principles upon which the United States was founded still provide beacons of hope for what the United States can and should represent. However, if the US proceeds down the path it is currently on, problems will befall the US and its people in their striving for an increasingly uncertain ideal.


Matthew Steele


Image Credit: Quevaal