Revelations of US and other state espionage on their own and foreign citizens has taken a farcical turn with the claim by Der Spiegel magazine that the US National Security Agency (NSA) monitored the mobile phone of the German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The NSA is accused of spying on several European and other government communications. The US and UK ambassadors in Berlin have been summoned for questioning.
The huge scale of spying became clear in June 2013 when the Guardian and Washington Post newspapers published evidence provided by whistle-blower Edward Snowden, a former CIA employee and NSA contractor. Secret electronic spying programmes included:
PRISM: The NSA demanded stored internet communications from companies including Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Facebook, YouTube, Skype and Apple. Meant to target non-US nationals, it nevertheless drew in US citizens communicating with non-US nationals.
Xkeyscore: Programme used to search and analyse internet data about foreign nationals across the world, run jointly with agencies including Australia’s Defence Signals Directorate and New Zealand’s Government Communications Security Bureau.
Tempora: Operated by the British Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) to gain access to internet users’ personal data in the UK and abroad. Data is shared with the NSA.
There has been a massive post-9/11 expansion of US intelligence capacity. The US intelligence budget was $75 billion in 2012, 2.5 times the size it was in September 2001.
As well as being obtrusive, much of the espionage done is ineffectual. A 2010 investigation by the Washington Post showed that:
• 854,000 people in the US hold top-secret security clearances.
• Many security and intelligence agencies duplicate work.
• Analysts publish 50,000 intelligence reports each year – many of them are never read.
The Washington Post concluded that all these resources are not effective at defending against terrorism or other threats: “lack of focus, not lack of resources, was at the heart of the Fort Hood shooting [in 2009] that left 13 dead, as well as the Christmas Day bomb attempt [in 2009], thwarted not by the thousands of analysts employed to find lone terrorists but by an alert airline passenger who saw smoke coming from his seatmate.”
And it is unclear whether the surveillance done complies even with US law which is very permissive in this area.
In the UK, the equivalent of the NSA is the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ). Bodies such as NSA and GCHQ monitor electronic communications – “listen in” or spy on telephone calls, emails, radio transmissions, etc, ostensibly for security purposes. But whose security?
Occasionally, such bodies gather useful information that helps prevent the loss of innocent life. But the overall purpose of these bodies is to defend capitalist states. The people they identify as potential enemies include anyone who wants to subvert those states, including socialists. It is we who have most to fear from the extension of their reach and power. We have strong interests in investigating, exposing and protesting against their work.
Right now that means we should defend whistle-blowers such as Chelsea Manning, recently jailed for 35 years, and Edward Snowden, who faces spying charges in the US and has temporary asylum in Russia (of all places), and the right of the press to expose and investigate such matters.
We should also take up campaigns where the left has clearly been targeted by the state.
For example, those women who were victims of a British police spying operation on the environmental movement. These women, who had personal relationships with the police spies, have just learned that their court case that their human rights have been breached must be heard in secret.
Socialists should protest against this and support the women’s campaign.