Privacy under attack: the NSA files revealed new threats to democracy
Thanks to Edward Snowden, we know the apparatus of repression has been covertly attached to the democratic state. However, our struggle to retain privacy is far from hopeless
US National Security Agency
Tuesday 27 May 2014 11.00 BST
In the third chapter of his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon gave two reasons why the slavery into which the Romans had tumbled under Augustus and his successors left them more wretched than any previous human slavery. In the first place, Gibbon said, the Romans had carried with them into slavery the culture of a free people: their language and their conception of themselves as human beings presupposed freedom. And thus, says Gibbon, for a long time the Romans preserved the sentiments – or at least the ideas – of a freeborn people. In the second place, the empire of the Romans filled all the world, and when that empire fell into the hands of a single person, the world was a safe and dreary prison for his enemies. As Gibbon wrote, to resist was fatal, and it was impossible to fly.
The power of that Roman empire rested in its leaders’ control of communications. The Mediterranean was their lake. Across their European empire, from Scotland to Syria, they pushed roads that 15 centuries later were still primary arteries of European transportation. Down those roads the emperor marched his armies. Up those roads he gathered his intelligence. The emperors invented the posts to move couriers and messages at the fastest possible speed.
Using that infrastructure, with respect to everything that involved the administration of power, the emperor made himself the best-informed person in the history of the world.
That power eradicated human freedom. “Remember,” said Cicero to Marcellus in exile, “wherever you are, you are equally within the power of the conqueror.”
The empire of the United States after the second world war also depended upon control of communications. This was more evident when, a mere 20 years later, the United States was locked in a confrontation of nuclear annihilation with the Soviet Union. In a war of submarines hidden in the dark below the continents, capable of eradicating human civilisation in less than an hour, the rule of engagement was “launch on warning”. Thus the United States valued control of communications as highly as the Emperor Augustus. Its listeners too aspired to know everything.
We all know that the United States has for decades spent as much on its military might as all other powers in the world combined. Americans are now realising what it means that we applied to the stealing of signals and the breaking of codes a similar proportion of our resources in relation to the rest of the world.
The US system of listening comprises a military command controlling a large civilian workforce. That structure presupposes the foreign intelligence nature of listening activities. Military control was a symbol and guarantee of the nature of the activity being pursued. Wide-scale domestic surveillance under military command would have violated the fundamental principle of civilian control.
Instead what it had was a foreign intelligence service responsible to the president as military commander-in-chief. The chain of military command absolutely ensured respect for the fundamental principle “no listening here”. The boundary between home and away distinguished the permissible from the unconstitutional.
The distinction between home and away was at least technically credible, given the reality of 20th-century communications media, which were hierarchically organised and very often state-controlled.
When the US government chose to listen to other governments abroad – to their militaries, to their diplomatic communications, to their policymakers where possible – they were listening in a world of defined targets. The basic principle was: hack, tap, steal. We listened, we hacked in, we traded, we stole.
In the beginning we listened to militaries and their governments. Later we monitored the flow of international trade as far as it engaged American national security interests.
Last century we desperately fought and died against systems in which the state listened to every telephone conversation
The regime that we built to defend ourselves against nuclear annihilation was restructured at the end of the 20th century. In the first place, the cold war ended and the Soviet Union dissolved. An entire establishment of national security repurposed itself. We no longer needed to spy upon an empire with 25,000 nuclear weapons pointed at us. Now we spied on the entire population of the world, in order to locate a few thousand people intent on various kinds of mass murder. Hence, we are told, spying on entire societies is the new normal.
In the second place, the nature of human communication changed. We built a system for attacking fixed targets: a circuit, a phone number, a licence plate, a locale. The 20th-century question was how many targets could be simultaneously followed in a world where each of them required hack, tap, steal. But we then started to build a new form of human communication. From the moment we created the internet, two of the basic assumptions began to fail: the simplicity of “one target, one circuit” went away, and the difference between home and abroad vanished too.
That distinction vanished in the United States because so much of the network and associated services, for better and worse, resided there. The question “Do we listen inside our borders?” was seemingly reduced to “Are we going to listen at all?”
At this point, a vastly imprudent US administration intervened. Their defining characteristic was that they didn’t think long before acting. Presented with a national calamity that also constituted a political opportunity, nothing stood between them and all the mistakes that haste can make for their children’s children to repent at leisure. What they did – in secret, with the assistance of judges appointed by a single man operating in secrecy, and with the connivance of many decent people who believed themselves to be acting to save the society – was to unchain the listeners from law.
Not only had circumstances destroyed the simplicity of “no listening inside”, not only had fudging with the foreign intelligence surveillance act carried them where law no longer provided useful landmarks, but they actually wanted to do it. Their view of the nature of human power was Augustan, if not august. They wanted what it is forbidden to wise people to take unto themselves. And so they fell, and we fell with them.
Our journalists failed. The New York Times allowed the 2004 election not to be informed by what it knew about the listening. Its decision to censor itself was, like all censorship and self-censorship, a mortal wound inflicted on democracy. We the people did not demand the end at the beginning. And now we’re a long way in.
Oak Ridge, Tennessee Women working on the Manhattan Project at a secret plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, during the second world war – when the enemy was clear. Photograph: Ed Westcott
Our military listeners have invaded the centre of an evolving net, where conscriptable digital superbrains gather intelligence on the human race for purposes of bagatelle and capitalism. In the US, the telecommunications companies have legal immunity for their complicity, thus easing the way further.
The invasion of our net was secret, and we did not know that we should resist. But resistance developed as a fifth column among the listeners themselves.
In Hong Kong, Edward Snowden said something straightforward and useful: analysts, he said, are not bad people, and they don’t want to think of themselves that way. But they came to calculate that if a programme produced anything useful, it was justified.
It was not the analysts’ job to weigh the fundamental morality for us.
In a democracy, that task is given by the people to the leaders they elect. These leaders fell – and we fell with them – because they refused to adhere to the morality of freedom. The civilian workers in their agencies felt their failure first. From the middle of last decade, people began to blow whistles all over the field. These courageous workers sacrificed their careers, frightened their families, sometimes suffered personal destruction, to say that there was something deeply wrong.
The response was rule by fear. Two successive US administrations sought to deal with the whistleblowers among the listeners by meting out the harshest possible treatment.
Snowden said in Hong Kong that he was sacrificing himself in order to save the world from a system like this one, which is “constrained only by policy documents”. The political ideas of Snowden are worthy of our respect and our deep consideration. But for now it is sufficient to say that he was not exaggerating the nature of the difficulty.
Because of Snowden, we now know that the listeners undertook to do what they repeatedly promised respectable expert opinion they would never do. They always said they would not attempt to break the crypto that secures the global financial system.
That was false.
When Snowden disclosed the existence of the NSA’s Bullrun programme we learned that NSA had lied for years to the financiers who believe themselves entitled to the truth from the government they own. The NSA had not only subverted technical standards, attempting to break the encryption that holds the global financial industry together, it had also stolen the keys to as many vaults as possible. With this disclosure the NSA forfeited respectable opinion around the world. Their reckless endangerment of those who don’t accept danger from the United States government was breathtaking.
The empire of the United States was the empire of exported liberty. What it had to offer all around the world was liberty and freedom. After colonisation, after European theft, after forms of state-created horror, it promised a world free from state oppression.
Last century we were prepared to sacrifice many of the world’s great cities and tens of millions of human lives. We bore those costs in order to smash regimes we called “totalitarian”, in which the state grew so powerful and so invasive that it no longer recognised any border of private life. We desperately fought and died against systems in which the state listened to every telephone conversation and kept a list of everybody every troublemaker knew.
Snowden spied on behalf of the human race. As he said, only the American people could decide if his sacrifice was worth it.
But in the past 10 years, after the morality of freedom was withdrawn, the state has begun fastening the procedures of totalitarianism on the substance of democratic society.
There is no historical precedent for the proposition that the procedures of totalitarianism are compatible with the system of enlightened, individual and democratic self-governance. Such an argument would be doomed to failure. It is enough to say in opposition that omnipresent invasive listening creates fear. And that fear is the enemy of reasoned, ordered liberty.
It is utterly inconsistent with the American ideal to attempt to fasten procedures of totalitarianism on American constitutional self-governance. But there is an even deeper inconsistency between those ideals and the subjection of every other society on earth to mass surveillance.
Some of the system’s servants came to understand that it was being sustained not with, but against, democratic order. They knew their vessel had come unmoored in the dark, and was sailing without a flag. When they blew the whistle, the system blew back at them. In the end – at least so far, until tomorrow – there was Snowden, who saw everything that happened and watched the fate of others who spoke up.
He understood, as Chelsea Manning also always understood, that when you wear the uniform you consent to the power. He knew his business very well. Young as he was, as he said in Hong Kong, “I’ve been a spy all my life.” So he did what it takes great courage to do in the presence of what you believe to be radical injustice. He wasn’t first, he won’t be last, but he sacrificed his life as he knew it to tell us things we needed to know. Snowden committed espionage on behalf of the human race. He knew the price, he knew the reason. But as he said, only the American people could decide, by their response, whether sacrificing his life was worth it.
Listening devices used at Bletchley Park during the second world war. Listening devices used at Bletchley Park during the second world war. Photograph: Martin Argles
So our most important effort is to understand the message: to understand its context, purpose, and meaning, and to experience the consequences of having received the communication.
Even once we have understood, it will be difficult to judge Snowden, because there is always much to say on both sides when someone is greatly right too soon.
In the United States, those who were “premature anti-fascists” suffered. It was right to be right only when all others were right. It was wrong to be right when only people we disagreed with held the views that we were later to adopt ourselves.
Snowden has been quite precise. He understands his business. He has spied on injustice for us and has told us what we require in order to do the job and get it right. And if we have a responsibility, then it is to learn, now, before somebody concludes that learning should be prohibited.
In considering the political meaning of Snowden’s message and its consequences, we must begin by discarding for immediate purposes pretty much everything said by the presidents, the premiers, the chancellors and the senators. Public discussion by these “leaders” has provided a remarkable display of misdirection, misleading and outright lying. We need instead to focus on the thinking behind Snowden’s activities. What matters most is how deeply the whole of the human race has been ensnared in this system of pervasive surveillance.
We begin where the leaders are determined not to end, with the question of whether any form of democratic self-government, anywhere, is consistent with the kind of massive, pervasive surveillance into which the United States government has led not only its people but the world.
This should not actually be a complicated inquiry.
For almost everyone who lived through the 20th century – at least its middle half – the idea that freedom was consistent with the procedures of totalitarianism was self-evidently false. Hence, as we watch responses to Snowden’s revelations we see that massive invasion of privacy triggers justified anxiety among the survivors of totalitarianism about the fate of liberty. To understand why, we need to understand more closely what our conception of “privacy” really contains.
Our concept of “privacy” combines three things: first is secrecy, or our ability to keep the content of our messages known only to those we intend to receive them. Second is anonymity, or secrecy about who is sending and receiving messages, where the content of the messages may not be secret at all. It is very important that anonymity is an interest we can have both in our publishing and in our reading. Third is autonomy, or our ability to make our own life decisions free from any force that has violated our secrecy or our anonymity. These three – secrecy, anonymity and autonomy – are the principal components of a mixture we call “privacy”.
Edward Snowden during an online Q&A Edward Snowden during an online Q&A. Photograph: ITAR-TASS/Barcroft Media
Without secrecy, democratic self-government is impossible. Without secrecy, people may not discuss public affairs with those they choose, excluding those with whom they do not wish to converse.
Anonymity is necessary for the conduct of democratic politics. Not only must we be able to choose with whom we discuss politics, we must also be able to protect ourselves against retaliation for our expressions of political ideas. Autonomy is vitiated by the wholesale invasion of secrecy and privacy. Free decision-making is impossible in a society where every move is monitored, as a moment’s consideration of the state of North Korea will show, as would any conversation with those who lived through 20th-century totalitarianisms, or any historical study of the daily realities of American chattel slavery before our civil war.
In other words, privacy is a requirement of democratic self-government. The effort to fasten the procedures of pervasive surveillance on human society is the antithesis of liberty. This is the conversation that all the “don’t listen to my mobile phone!” misdirection has not been about. If it were up to national governments, the conversation would remain at this phoney level forever.
The US government and its listeners have not advanced any convincing argument that what they do is compatible with the morality of freedom, US constitutional law or international human rights. They will instead attempt, as much as possible, to change the subject, and, whenever they cannot change the subject, to blame the messenger.
One does not need access to classified documents to see how the military and strategic thinkers in the United States adapted to the end of the cold war by planning pervasive surveillance of the world’s societies. From the early 1990s, the public literature of US defence policy shows, strategic and military planners foresaw a world in which the United States had no significant state adversary. Thus, we would be forced to engage in a series of “asymmetric conflicts”, meaning “guerrilla wars” with “non-state actors”.
In the course of that redefinition of US strategic posture, the military strategists and their intelligence community colleagues came to regard US rights to communications privacy as the equivalent of sanctuary for guerrillas. They conceived that it would be necessary for the US military, the listeners, to go after the “sanctuaries”.
Then, at the opening of the 21st century, a US administration that will go down in history for its tendency to think last and shoot first bought – hook, line and sinker – the entire “denying sanctuary”, pervasive surveillance, “total information awareness” scheme. Within a very short time after January 2002, mostly in secret, they put it all together.
The consequences around the world were remarkably uncontroversial. By and large, states approved or accepted. After September 2001, the United States government used quite extraordinary muscle around the world: you were either with us or against us. Moreover, many other governments had come to base their national security systems crucially on cooperation with American listening.
By the time the present US administration had settled into office, senior policymakers thought there was multilateral consensus on listening to other societies: it could not be stopped and therefore it shouldn’t be limited. The Chinese agreed. The US agreed. The Europeans agreed; their position was somewhat reluctant, but they were dependent on US listening and hadn’t a lot of power to object.
Teenagers during their induction to the Korean People’s Army in Pyongyang, North Korea. Teenagers during their induction to the Korean People’s Army in Pyongyang, North Korea. Photograph: Eric Lafforgue/Barcroft Media
Nobody told the people of the world. By the end of the first decade of the 21st century, a gap opened between what the people of the world thought their rights were and what their governments had given away in return for intelligence useful only to the governments themselves. This gap was so wide, so fundamental to the meaning of democracy, that those who operated the system began to disbelieve in its legitimacy. As they should have done.
Snowden saw what happened to other whistleblowers, and behaved accordingly. His political theory has been quite exact and entirely consistent. He says the existence of these programmes, undisclosed to the American people, is a fundamental violation of American democratic values. Surely there can be no argument with that.
Snowden’s position is that efforts so comprehensive, so overwhelmingly powerful, and so conducive to abuse, should not be undertaken save with democratic consent. He has expressed recurrently his belief that the American people are entitled to give or withhold that informed consent. But Snowden has also identified the fastening of those programmes on the global population as a problematic act, which deserves a form of moral and ethical analysis that goes beyond mere raison d’état.
Hopelessness is merely the condition they want you to catch, not one you have to have
I think Snowden means that we should make those decisions not in the narrow, national self-interest, but with some heightened moral sense of what is appropriate for a nation that holds itself out as a beacon of liberty to humanity.
We can speak, of course, about American constitutional law and about the importance of American legal phenomena – rules, protections, rights, duties – with respect to all of this. But we should be clear that, when we talk about the American constitutional tradition with respect to freedom and slavery, we’re talking about more than what is written in the law books.
We face two claims – you meet them everywhere you turn – that summarise the politics against which we are working. One argument says: “It’s hopeless, privacy is gone, why struggle?” The other says: “I’m not doing anything wrong, why should I care?”
These are actually the most significant forms of opposition that we face in doing what we know we ought to do.
In the first place, our struggle to retain our privacy is far from hopeless. Snowden has described to us what armour still works. His purpose was to distinguish between those forms of network communication that are hopelessly corrupted and no longer usable, those that are endangered by a continuing assault on the part of an agency gone rogue, and those that, even with their vast power, all their wealth, and all their misplaced ambition, conscientiousness and effort, they still cannot break.
Hopelessness is merely the condition they want you to catch, not one you have to have.
So far as the other argument is concerned, we owe it to ourselves to be quite clear in response: “If we are not doing anything wrong, then we have a right to resist.”
If we are not doing anything wrong, then we have a right to do everything we can to maintain the traditional balance between us and power that is listening. We have a right to be obscure. We have a right to mumble. We have a right to speak languages they do not get. We have a right to meet when and where and how we please.
We have an American constitutional tradition against general warrants. It was formed in the 18th century for good reason. We limit the state’s ability to search and seize to specific places and things that a neutral magistrate believes it is reasonable to allow.
That principle was dear to the First Congress, which put it in our bill of rights, because it was dear to British North Americans; because in the course of the 18th century they learned what executive government could do with general warrants to search everything, everywhere, for anything they didn’t like, while forcing local officials to help them do it. That was a problem in Massachusetts in 1761 and it remained a problem until the end of British rule in North America. Even then, it was a problem, because the presidents, senators and chancellors were also unprincipled in their behaviour. Thomas Jefferson, too, like the president now, talked a better game than he played.
This principle is clear enough. But there are only nine votes on the US supreme court, and only they count right now. We must wait to see how many of them are prepared to face the simple unconstitutionality of a rogue system much too big to fail. But because those nine votes are the only votes that matter, the rest of us must go about our business in other ways.
The American constitutional tradition we admire was made mostly by people who had fled Europe and come to North America in order to be free. It is their activity, politically and intellectually, that we find deposited in the documents that made the republic.
But there is a second constitutional tradition. It was made by people who were brought here against their will, or who were born into slavery, and who had to run away, here, in order to be free. This second constitutional tradition is slightly different in its nature from the first, although it conduces, eventually, to similar conclusions.
We face two claims. One says: ‘It’s hopeless, privacy is gone, why struggle?’ The other: ‘I’m not doing anything wrong, why should I care?’. These are actually the most significant forms of opposition we face.
Running away from slavery is a group activity. Running away from slavery requires the assistance of those who believe that slavery is wrong. People in the United States have forgotten how much of our constitutional tradition was made in the contact between people who needed to run away in order to be free and people who knew that they needed to help, because slavery is wrong.
We have now forgotten that in the summer of 1854, when Anthony Burns – who had run away from slavery in Richmond, Virginia – was returned to slavery by a state judge acting as a federal commissioner under the second fugitive slave act, Boston itself had to be placed under martial law for three whole days. Federal troops lined the streets, as Burns was marched down to Boston Harbor and put aboard a ship to be sent back to slavery. If Boston had not been held down by force, it would have risen.
When Frederick Douglass ran away from slavery in 1838, he had the help of his beloved Anna Murray, who sent him part of her savings and the sailor’s clothing that he wore. He had the help of a free black seaman who gave him identity papers. Many dedicated people risked much to help him reach New York.
Our constitutional tradition is not merely contained in the negative rights found in the bill of rights. It is also contained in the history of a communal, often formally illegal, struggle for liberty against slavery. This part of our tradition says that liberty from oppressive control must be accorded people everywhere, as a right. It says that slavery is simply wrong, that it cannot be tolerated or justified by the master’s fear or need for security.
So the constitutional tradition Americans should be defending now is a tradition that extends far beyond whatever boundary the fourth amendment has in space, place, or time. Americans should be defending not merely a right to be free from the oppressive attentions of the national government, not merely fighting for something embodied in the due process clause of the 14th amendment. We should rather be fighting against the procedures of totalitarianism because slavery is wrong. Because fastening the surveillance of the master on the whole human race is wrong. Because providing the energy, the money, the technology, the system for subduing everybody’s privacy around the world – for destroying sanctuary in American freedom of speech – is wrong.
Snowden has provided the most valuable thing that democratic self-governing people can have, namely information about what is going on. If we are to exercise our rights as self-governing people, using the information he has given us, we should have clear in our minds the political ideas upon which we act. They are not parochial, or national, or found in the records of supreme court decisions alone.
A nation conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, enslaved millions of people. It washed away that sin in a terrible war. Americans should learn from that, and are called upon now to do so.
Knowing what we know, thanks to Snowden, citizens everywhere must demand two things of their governments: “In the first place,” we must say to our rulers, “you have a responsibility, a duty, to protect our rights by guarding us against the spying of outsiders.” Every government has that responsibility.
It must protect the rights of its citizens to be free from intrusive mass surveillance by other states. No government can pretend to sovereignty and responsibility unless it makes every effort within its power and its means to ensure that outcome.
In the second place, every government must subject its domestic listening to the rule of law. The overwhelming arrogance of the listeners and the foolishness of the last administration has left the US government in an unnecessary hole. Until the last administration unchained the listeners from law, the US government could have held up its head before the world, proclaiming that only its listeners were subject to the rule of law. It would have been an accurate boast.
For almost nothing, history will record, they threw that away.
Card indexes of the former East German Stasi secret service are seen in Berlin. Card indexes of the former East German Stasi secret service are seen in Berlin. Photograph: Jan Bauer/AP
To the citizens of the United States, a greater responsibility is given. The government is projecting immensities of power into the destruction of privacy in the world’s other societies. It is doing so without any democratic check or control, and its people must stop it. Americans’ role as the beacon of liberty in the world requires no less of us.
Freedom has been hunted round the globe. Asia and Africa have long expelled her. Europe has been bullied into treating her like a stranger and Britain would arrest her at Heathrow if she arrived. The president of the United States has demanded that no one shall receive the fugitive, and maybe only the Brazilian president, Dilma Rousseff, wants to prepare in time an asylum for mankind.
Political leaders around the world have had much to say since Snowden began his revelations, but not one statement that consisted of “I regret subjecting my own people to these procedures”. The German chancellor, though triumphantly re-elected with not a cloud in her political sky, is in no position to say, “I agreed with the Americans to allow 40m telephone calls a day to be intercepted in Germany; I just want them to stop listening to my phone!”
The US listeners are having a political crisis beyond their previous imagining. They do not like to appear in the spotlight, or indeed to be visible at all. Now they have lost their credibility with the cybersecurity industry, which has realised that they have broken their implicit promises about what they would not hack. The global financial industry is overwhelmed with fear at what they’ve done. The other US government agencies they usually count on for support are fleeing them.
We will never again have a similar moment of political disarray on the side that works against freedom. Not only have they made the issue clear to everybody – not only have they created martyrs in our comrades at Fort Leavenworth, at the Ecuadorian embassy in London and at an undisclosed location in Moscow – not only have they lit this fire beyond the point where they can piss it out, but they have lost their armour. They stand before us in the fullness of who they really are. It is up to us to show that we recognise them.
What they have done is to build a state of permanent war into the net. Twelve years into a war that never seems to end, they are making the net a wartime place forever. We must reimagine what a net at peace would look like: cyberpeace. Young people around the world now working on the theory of cyberpeace are doing the most important political work of our time. We will now have to provide what democracies provide best, which is peace. We have to be willing to declare victory and go home. When we do, we have to leave behind a net that is no longer in a state of war, a net which no longer uses surveillance to destroy the privacy that founds democracy.
This is a matter of international public law. In the end this is about something like prohibiting chemical weapons, or landmines. A matter of disarmament treaties. A matter of peace enforcement.
What if every book for the past 500 years had been reporting its readers at headquarters?
The difficulty is that we have not only our good and patriotic fellow citizens to deal with, for whom an election is a sufficient remedy, but we have also an immense structure of private surveillance that has come into existence. This structure has every right to exist in a free market, but is now creating ecological disaster from which governments alone have benefited.
We have to consider not only, therefore, what our politics are with respect to the states, but also with respect to the enterprises.
Instead we are still at a puppet show in which the people who are the legitimate objects of international surveillance – namely politicians, heads of state, military officers, and diplomats – are screaming about how they should not be listened to. As though they were us and had a right to be left alone.
And that, of course, is what they want. They want to confuse us. They want us to think that they are us – that they’re not the people who allowed this to happen, who cheered it on, who went into business with it.
We must cope with the problems their deceptions created. Our listeners have destroyed the internet freedom policy of the US government. They had a good game so long as they could play both sides. But now we have comrades and colleagues around the world who are working for the freedom of the net in dangerous societies; they have depended upon material support and assistance from the United States government, and they now have every reason to be frightened.
What if the underground railroad had been constantly under efforts of penetration by the United States government on behalf of slavery?
What if every book for the past 500 years had been reporting its readers at headquarters?
The bad news for the people of the world is we were lied to thoroughly by everybody for nearly 20 years. The good news is that Snowden has told us the truth.
A server room at Facebook Our secrets in their hands: one of four server rooms at the Facebook data centre in North Carolina. Photograph: Rainier Ehrhardt/Getty
Edward Snowden has revealed problems for which we need solutions. The vast surveillance-industrial state that has grown up since 2001 could not have been constructed without government contractors and the data-mining industry. Both are part of a larger ecological crisis brought on by industrial overreaching. We have failed to grasp the nature of this crisis because we have misunderstood the nature of privacy. Businesses have sought to profit from our confusion, and governments have taken further advantage of it, threatening the survival of democracy itself.
In this context, we must remember that privacy is about our social environment, not about isolated transactions we individually make with others. When we decide to give away our personal information, we are also undermining the privacy of other people. Privacy is therefore always a relation among many people, rather than a transaction between two.
Many people take money from you by concealing this distinction. They offer you free email service, for example. In return, they want you to let them read all the mail. Their stated purpose is advertising to you. It’s just a transaction between two parties. Or, they offer you free web hosting for your social communications, and then they watch everybody looking at everything.
This is convenient, for them, but fraudulent. If you accept this supposedly bilateral offer, to provide email service to you for free as long as it can all be read, then everybody who corresponds with you is subjected to this bargain. If your family contains somebody who receives mail at Gmail, then Google gets a copy of all correspondence in your family. If another member of your family receives mail at Yahoo, then Yahoo receives a copy of all the correspondence in your family as well.
If someone in your family uses Gmail, then Google gets a copy of all your correspondence. If someone in your family uses Gmail, then Google gets a copy of all your correspondence. Photograph: Boris Roessler/EPA
Perhaps even this degree of corporate surveillance of your family’s email is too much for you. But as Snowden’s revelations showed, to the discomfiture of governments and companies alike, the companies are also sharing all that mail with power – which is buying it, getting courts to order it turned over, or stealing it – whether the companies like it or not.
The same will be true if you decide to live your social life on a website where the creep who runs it monitors every social interaction, keeping a copy of everything said, and also watching everybody watch everybody else. If you bring new “friends” to the service, you are attracting them to the creepy inspection, forcing them to undergo it with you.
This is an ecological problem, because our individual choices worsen the condition of the group as a whole. The service companies’ interest, but not ours, is to hide this view of the problem, and concentrate on getting individual consent. From a legal perspective, the essence of transacting is consent. If privacy is transactional, your consent to surveillance is all the commercial spy needs. But if privacy is correctly understood, consent is usually irrelevant, and focusing on it is fundamentally inappropriate.
We do not, with respect to clean air and clean water, set the limits of tolerable pollution by consent. We have socially established standard of cleanliness, which everybody has to meet.
Environmental law is not law about consent. But with respect to privacy we have been allowed to fool ourselves.
We’ve lost the ability to read anonymously. Without anonymity in reading there is no freedom of mind, there’s literally slavery
What is actually a subject of environmental regulation has been sold to us as a mere matter of bilateral bargaining. The facts show this is completely untrue.
An environmental devastation has been produced by the ceaseless pursuit of profit from data-mining in every legal way imaginable. Restraints that should have existed in the interest of protection against environmental degradation have never been imposed.
There is a tendency to blame oversharing. We are often told that the real problem of privacy is that kids are just sharing too darn much. When you democratise media, which is what we are doing with the net, ordinary people will naturally say more than they ever said before. This is not the problem. In a free society people should be protected in their right to say as much or as little as they want.
The real problem is that we are losing the anonymity of reading, for which nobody has contracted at all.
We have lost the ability to read anonymously, but the loss is concealed from us because of the way we built the web. We gave people programs called “browsers” that everyone could use, but we made programs called “web servers” that only geeks could use – very few people have ever read a web server log. This is a great failing in our social education about technology. It’s equivalent to not showing children what happens if cars collide and people aren’t wearing seat belts.
We don’t explain to people how a web server log captures in detail the activity of readers, nor how much you can learn about people, because of what and how they read. From the logs, you can learn how long each reader spends on each page, how she reads it, where she goes next, what she does or searches for on the basis of what she’s just read. If you can collect all that information in the logs, then you are beginning to possess what you ought not to have.
Frederick Douglass. Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist who said reading was the pathway from slavery to freedom. Photograph: J R Eyerman/Time & Life Pictures/Getty
Without anonymity in reading there is no freedom of the mind. Indeed, there is literally slavery. Reading was the pathway, the abolitionist Frederick Douglass wrote, from slavery to freedom. Writing his memoir of his own journey, Douglass recalled that when one of his owners tried to prevent him from reading, “I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty – to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man.”
But what if every book and newspaper he touched had reported him?
If you have a Facebook account, Facebook is surveilling every single moment you spend there. Moreover, much more importantly, every web page you touch that has a Facebook “like” button on it which, whether you click the button or not, will report your reading of that page to Facebook.
If the newspaper you read every day has Facebook “like” buttons or similar services’ buttons on those pages, then Facebook or the other service watches you read the newspaper: it knows which stories you read and how long you spent on them.
Every time you tweet a URL, Twitter is shortening the URL for you. But it is also arranging that anybody who clicks on that URL will be monitored by Twitter as they read. You are not only helping people know what’s on the web, but also helping Twitter read over everybody’s shoulder everything you recommend.
This isn’t transactional, this is ecological. This is an environmental destruction of other people’s freedom to read. Your activity is designed to help them find things they want to read. Twitter’s activity is to disguise the surveillance of the resulting reading from everybody.
We allowed this system to grow up so quickly around us that we had no time to understand its implications. By the time the implications have been thought about, the people who understand are not interested in talking, because they have got an edge, and that edge is directed at you.
Commercial surveillance then attracts government attention, with two results that Snowden has documented for us: complicity and outright thievery.
The data-mining companies believed, they say, that they were merely in a situation of complicity with government. Having created unsafe technological structures that mined you, they thought they were merely engaged in undisclosed bargaining over how much of what they had on you they should deliver. This was, of course, a mingled game of greed and fear.
What the US data-mining companies basically believed, or wanted us to believe they believed until Snowden woke them, was that by complicity they had gained immunity from actual thievery. But we have now learned their complicity bought them nothing. They sold us out halfway, and government stole the rest.
The headquarters of the US National Security Agency. The headquarters of the US National Security Agency. Photograph: Trevor Paglen/Rex
They discovered that what they had expected by way of honesty from the US listeners, the NSA and other agencies, they hadn’t got at all. The US listeners’ attitude evidently was: “What’s ours is ours, and what’s yours is negotiable. Unless we steal it first.”
Like the world financial industry, the great data-mining companies took the promises of the US military listeners too seriously. That, at any rate, is the charitable interpretation of their conduct. They thought there were limits to what power would do.
Thanks to Snowden, for the data-miners, as for the US listeners, the situation is no longer politically controllable. They have lost their credibility, their trustworthiness, before the world. If they fail to regain their customers’ trust, notwithstanding how convenient, even necessary, their services may seem to us, they are finished.
Environmental problems – such as climate change, water pollution, slavery, or the destruction of privacy – are not solved transactionally by individuals.
It takes a union to destroy slavery. The essence of our difficulty, too, is union.
Another characteristic of the great data-miners is that there is no union within or around them.
They are now public corporations, but the union of shareholders is ineffective in controlling their environmental misdoing. These companies are remarkably opaque with respect to all that they actually do, and they are so valuable that shareholders will not kill the goose that lays the golden egg by inquiring whether their business methods are ethical. A few powerful individuals control all the real votes in these companies. Their workforces do not have a collective voice.
Snowden has been clear all along that the remedy for this environmental destruction is democracy. But he has also repeatedly pointed out that, where workers cannot speak up and there is no collective voice, there is no protection for the public’s right to know.
When there is no collective voice for those who are within structures that deceive and oppress, then somebody has to act courageously on his own. Before Augustus, the Romans of the late republic knew the secrecy of the ballot was essential to the people’s right.
In every country in the world that holds meaningful elections, Google knows how you are going to vote. It’s already shaping your political coverage for you, in your customised news feed, based upon what you want to read, and who you are, and what you like. Not only does it know how you’re going to vote, it’s helping to confirm you in your decision to vote that way – unless some other message has been purchased by a sponsor.
Without the anonymity of reading there is no democracy. I mean of course that there aren’t fair and free elections, but much more deeply than that I mean there is no such thing as free self-governance.
And we are still very ill-informed, because there are no unions seeking to raise ethical issues inside the data-miners, and we have too few Snowdens.
The futures of the data-miners are not all the same. Google as an organisation has concerned itself with the ethical issues of what it does from the very beginning. Larry Page and Sergey Brin [the founders of Google] did not stumble randomly on the idea that they had a special obligation not to be evil. They understood the dangerous possibilities implicit in the situation they were creating.
It is technically feasible for Google to make Gmail into a system that is truly secure and secret, though not anonymous, for its users.
Mail could be encrypted – using public keys in a web of trust – within users’ own computers, in their browsers; email at rest at Gmail could be encrypted using algorithms to which the user, rather than Google, has the relevant keys.
Google would be forgoing Gmail’s scant profit, but its actions would be consistent with the idea that the net belongs to its users throughout the world. In the long run it is good for Google to be seen not only to believe, but to act upon, this idea, for it is the only way for it to regain those users’ trust. There are many thoughtful, dedicated people at Google who must choose between doing what is right and blowing the whistle on what is wrong.
Mark Zuckerberg Mark Zuckerberg wants privacy for his family. Photograph: Kristoffer Tripplaar/Sipa US/Rex
The situation at Facebook is different. Facebook is strip-mining human society. Watching everyone share everything in their social lives and instrumenting the web to surveil everything they read outside the system is inherently unethical.
But we need no more from Facebook than truth in labelling. We need no rules, no punishments, no guidelines. We need nothing but the truth. Facebook should lean in and tell its users what it does.
It should say: “We watch you every minute that you’re here. We watch every detail of what you do. We have wired the web with ‘like’ buttons that inform on your reading automatically.”
To every parent Facebook should say: “Your children spend hours every day with us. We spy upon them much more efficiently than you will ever be able to. And we won’t tell you what we know about them.”
Only that, just the truth. That will be enough. But the crowd that runs Facebook, that small bunch of rich and powerful people, will never lean in close enough to tell you the truth.
Mark Zuckerberg recently spent $30m (£18m) buying up all the houses around his own in Palo Alto, California. Because he needs more privacy.
So do we. We need to make demands for that privacy on both governments and companies alike. Governments, as I have said, must protect us against spying by other governments, and must subject their own domestic listening to the rule of law. Companies, to regain our trust, must be truthful about their practices and their relations with governments. We must know what they really do, so we can decide whether to give them our data.
The president must end this war in the net, which deprives us of civil liberties under the guise of depriving foreign bad people of sanctuary
A great deal of confusion has been created by the distinction between data and metadata, as though there were a difference and spying on metadata were less serious.
Illegal interception of the content of a message breaks your secrecy. Illegal interception of the metadata of a message breaks your anonymity. It isn’t less, it’s just different. Most of the time it isn’t less, it’s more.
In particular, the anonymity of reading is broken by the collection of metadata. It wasn’t the content of the newspaper Douglass was reading that was the problem – it was that he, a slave, dared to read it.
The president can apologise to people for the cancellation of their health insurance policies, but he cannot merely apologise to the people for the cancellation of the constitution. When you are president of the United States, you cannot apologise for not being on Frederick Douglass’s side.
Barack Obama: the president has the only vote that matters concerning the end of the war on privacy. Barack Obama: the president has the only vote that matters concerning the end of the war on privacy. Photograph: Sipa USA/Rex
Nine votes in the US supreme court can straighten out what has happened to our law. But the US president has the only vote that matters concerning the ending of the war. All the governmental destruction of privacy that has been placed atop the larger ecological disaster created by industry, all of this spying is wartime stuff. The president must end this war in the net, which deprives us of civil liberties under the guise of depriving foreign bad people of sanctuary.
A man who brings evidence to democracy of crimes against freedom is a hero. A man who steals the privacy of societies for his profit is a villain. We have sufficient villainy and not enough heroism. We have to name that difference strongly enough to encourage others to do right.
We have seen that, with the relentlessness of military operation, the listeners in the US have embarked on a campaign against the privacy of the human race. They have compromised secrecy, destroyed anonymity, and adversely affected the autonomy of billions of people.
They are doing this because they have been presented with a mission by an extraordinarily imprudent US administration, which – having failed to prevent a very serious attack on civilians at home, largely by ignoring warnings – decreed that it would never again be put in a position where it “should have known”.
The UK government must cease to vitiate the civil liberties of its people. It must cease to deny the freedom of the press
The fundamental problem was the political, not the military, judgment involved. When military leaders are given objectives, they achieve them at whatever collateral cost they are not explicitly prohibited from incurring. That is why we regard civilian control of the military as a sine qua non of democracy. Democracy also requires an informed citizenry.
About this, Snowden agrees with Thomas Jefferson [the chief author of America’s Declaration of Independence], and pretty much everybody else who has ever seriously thought about the problem. Snowden has shown us the immense complicity of all governments. He has shown, in other words, that everywhere the policies the people want have been deliberately frustrated by their governments. They want to be protected against the spying of outsiders. They want their own government’s national security surveillance activities to be conducted under the independent scrutiny that characterises the rule of law.
In addition, the people of the United States are not ready to abandon our role as a beacon of liberty to the world. We are not prepared to go instead into the business of spreading the procedures of totalitarianism. We never voted for that. The people of the US do not want to become the secret police of the world. If we have drifted there because an incautious administration empowered the military, it is time for the people of the United States to register their conclusive democratic opinion.
The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, should focus less on her mobile phone and more on whether it is right to deliver all German calls and text messages to the US. The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, should focus less on her mobile phone and more on whether it is right to deliver all German calls and text messages to the US. Photograph: Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters
We are not the only people in the world to have exigent political responsibilities. The government of the UK must cease to vitiate the civil liberties of its people, it must cease to use its territory and its transport facilities as an auxiliary to American military misbehaviour. And it must cease to deny freedom of the press. It must stop pressuring publishers who seek to inform the world about threats to democracy, while it goes relatively easy on publishers who spy on the families of murdered girls.
The chancellor of Germany must stop talking about her mobile phone and start talking about whether it is OK to deliver all the telephone calls and text messages in Germany to the US. Governments that operate under constitutions protecting freedom of expression have to inquire, urgently, whether that freedom exists when everything is spied on, monitored, listened to.
In addition to politics, we do have lawyering to do. Defending the rule of law is always lawyers’ work. In some places those lawyers will need to be extremely courageous; everywhere they will need to be well trained; everywhere they will need our support and our concern. But it is also clear that subjecting government listening to the rule of law is not the only lawyers’ work involved.
As we have seen, the relations between the military listeners of the United States, listeners elsewhere in the world, and the big data-mining businesses are too complex to be safe for us. Snowden’s revelations have shown that the US data-mining giants were intimidated, seduced, and also betrayed by the listeners. This should not have surprised them, but it apparently did. Many companies manage our data; most of them have no enforceable legal responsibility to us. There is lawyers’ work to do there too.
In the US, for example, we should end the immunity given to the telecommunications operators for assisting illegal listening. Immunity was extended by legislation in 2008. When he was running for president, Barack Obama said that he was going to filibuster that legislation. Then, in August 2008, when it became clear that he was going to become the next president, he changed his mind. Not only did he drop his threat to filibuster the legislation, he interrupted his campaigning in order to vote for immunity.
We need not argue about whether immunity should have been extended. We should establish a date – perhaps 21 January 2017 – after which any telecommunications operator doing business in the US and facilitating illegal listening should be subject to ordinary civil liability. An interesting coalition between the human rights lawyers and commercial class action litigators would grow up immediately with very positive consequences.
The people of the United States are not ready to abandon our role as a beacon of liberty to the world. We are not prepared to go instead into the business of spreading the procedures of totalitarianism
If non-immunisation extended to non-US network operators that do business in the United States, such as Deutsche Telekom, it would have enormous positive consequences for citizens of other countries as well. In any country where de facto immunity presently exists and can be withdrawn, it should be lifted.
The legal issues presented by the enormous pile of our data in other people’s hands are well-known to all systems of law. The necessary principles are invoked every time you take your clothes to the cleaners. English-speaking lawyers refer to these principles as the law of “bailment”. What they mean is, if you entrust people with your stuff, they have to take care of it as least as well as they take care of their own. If they fail, they are liable for their negligence.
We need to apply the principle of trust in bailment, or whatever the local legal vocabulary is, to all that data we have entrusted to other people. This makes them legally responsible to us for the way they take care of it. There would be an enormous advantage in treating personal data under the rules of bailment or its equivalent.
Such rules are governed by the law where the trust is made. If the dry cleaner chooses to move your clothes to another place where a fire breaks out, it doesn’t matter where that fire happened: the relevant law is the law of the place where they took the clothes from you. The big data-mining companies play this game of lex loci server all the time: “Oh we are not really in country X, we’re in California, that’s where our computers are.” This is a bad legal habit. We would not be doing them a grave disservice if we helped them out of it.
Nuclear testing on Bikini Atoll: the US and USSR eventually agreed to ban such tests. Nuclear testing on Bikini Atoll: the US and USSR eventually agreed to ban such tests. Photograph: US air force
Then there is lawyering to be done in international public law. We must hold governments responsible to one another for remedying current environmental devastation.
The two most powerful governments in the world, the US and China, now fundamentally agree about their policy with respect to threats in the net. The basic principle is: “Anywhere in the net there is a threat to our national security, we’re going to attack it.”
The US and the Soviet Union were in danger of poisoning the world in the 1950s through atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. To their credit, they were able to make a bilateral agreement prohibiting it.
The US and the government of China could agree not to turn the human race into a free-fire zone for espionage. But they won’t.
In any country where de facto immunity presently exists and can be withdrawn, it should be lifted
We must pursue legal and political redress for what has been done to us. But politics and law are too slow and too uncertain. Without technical solutions we are not going to succeed, just as there is no way to clean up the air and the water or positively affect global climate without technological change.
Everywhere, businesses use software that secures their communications and much of that software is written by us. The “us” I mean here is those communities sharing free or open source software, with whom I have worked for decades.
Protocols that implement secure communications used by businesses between themselves and with consumers (HTTPS, SSL, SSH, TLS, OpenVPN etc) have all been the target of the listeners’ interference.
Snowden has documented their efforts to break our cryptography.
The US listeners are courting global financial disaster. If they ever succeed in compromising the fundamental technical methods by which businesses communicate securely, we would be one catastrophic failure away from global financial chaos. Their conduct will appear to the future to be as economically irresponsible as the debasing of the Roman coinage. It is a basic threat to the economic security of the world.
The bad news is that they have made some progress towards irremediable catastrophe. First, they corrupted the science. They covertly affected the making of technical standards, weakening everyone’s security everywhere in order to make their own stealing easier.
Edward Snowden in Moscow after revealing the scale of state surveillance. Edward Snowden in Moscow after revealing the scale of state surveillance. Photograph: AP
Second, they have stolen keys, as only the best-financed thieves in the world can do. Everywhere encryption keys are baked into hardware, they have been at the bakery.
At the beginning of September when Snowden’s documents on this subject first became public, the shock waves reverberated around the industry. But the documents released also showed that the listeners are still compelled to steal keys instead of breaking our locks. They have not yet gained enough technical sophistication to break the fundamental cryptography holding the global economy together.
Making public what crypto NSA can’t break is the most inflammatory of Snowden’s disclosures from the listeners’ perspective. As long as nobody knows what the listeners cannot read, they have an aura of omniscience. Once it is known what they cannot read, everyone will use that crypto and soon they cannot read anything any more.
Snowden has disclosed that their advances on our fundamental cryptography were good but not excellent. He is also showing us that we have very little time to improve our own cryptography. We must hurry to recover from the harm done to us by technical standards corruption. From now on, the communities that make free software crypto for everyone else must assume that they are up against “national means of intelligence”. In this trade, that is bad news for developers, because that’s the big leagues. When you play against their opposition, even the tiniest mistake is fatal.
It’s as though every factory in our society had an advanced fire safety system – while everybody’s home had nothing
Second, we must change the technical environment so it is safer for ordinary people and small businesses. This is largely about spreading technologies big businesses have been using for a decade and a half. Far too little has so far happened along these lines. It’s as though every factory in our society had an advanced fire safety system – smoke detectors, carbon monoxide detectors, sprinklers, high pressure hoses, fancy fire extinguishers – while everybody’s home had nothing.
We must commoditise personal uses of the communication security and privacy technologies that businesses have already adopted. This has to be as simple as installing a smoke detector, hanging a fire extinguisher on the wall, talking to your kids about which door to use if the stairs are burning, or even putting a rope ladder in a second-floor window. None of this solves the problem of fire. But if a blaze breaks out, these simple measures will save your child’s life.
There are many software projects and startup companies working on these measures. My FreedomBox is one such non-profit project. But I am particularly delighted to see we are beginning to have commercial competition. Businesses are now aware: the people of the world have not agreed that the technology of totalitarianism should be fastened on every household. If the market offers them good products that make this spying harder, they will buy and use them.
We must commoditise personal uses of the communication security and privacy technologies that businesses have already adopted. If the market offers them good products that make this spying harder, they will buy and use them.
Snowden’s courage is exemplary. But he ended his effort because we needed to know now. We have to inherit his understanding of that fierce urgency.
Our politics can’t wait. Not in the US, where the war must end. Not around the world, where people must demand that governments fulfil the basic obligation to protect their security.
We need to decentralise the data. If we keep it all in one great big pile – if there’s one guy who keeps all the email and another guy who manages all the social sharing – then there isn’t really any way to be any safer than the weakest link in the fence around those piles.
But if everyone is keeping her and his own, then the weak links on the outside of any fence get the attacker exactly one person’s stuff. Which, in a world governed by the rule of law, might be optimal: one person is the person you can spy on because you’ve got probable cause.
Email scales beautifully without anybody at the centre keeping all of it. We need to make a mail server for people that costs five bucks and sits on the kitchen counter where the telephone answering machine used to be. If it breaks, you throw it away.
Decentralised social sharing is harder, but not so hard that we can’t do it. For the technologically gifted and engaged around the world this is the big moment, because if we do our work correctly freedom will survive and our grandkids will say: “So what did you do back then?” The answer could be: “I made SSL better.”
Snowden has nobly advanced our effort to save democracy. In doing so he stood on the shoulders of others. The honour will be his and theirs, but the responsibility is ours.
It is for us to finish the work that they have begun.
We must see to it that their sacrifices have meaning. That this nation, and all the nations, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the Earth.
• This essay is built from the “Snowden and the Future” talk series
delivered at Columbia Law School, which is available at snowdenandthefuture.info. It
is released under the CC-BY-SA licence.
In 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte wrote to Major-General Berthier that the
“…barbarous custom of whipping men suspected of having important secrets to reveal must be abolished. It has always been recognized that this method of interrogation, by putting men to the torture, is useless. The wretches say whatever comes into their heads and whatever they think one wants to believe. Consequently, the Commander-in-Chief forbids the use of a method which is contrary to reason and humanity.”
The CIA’s Poisonous Tree
The old Washington adage that the cover-up is worse than the crime may not apply when it comes to the revelations this week that the Central Intelligence Agency interfered with a Senate torture investigation. It’s not that the cover-up isn’t serious. It is extremely serious—as Senator Dianne Feinstein said, the CIA may have violated the separation of powers, the Fourth Amendment, and a prohibition on spying inside the United States. It’s just that in this case, the underlying crimes are still worse: the dispute arises because the Senate Intelligence Committee, which Feinstein chairs, has written an as-yet-secret 6,300 page report on the CIA’s use of torture and disappearance—among the gravest crimes the world recognizes—against al-Qaeda suspects in the “war on terror.”
By Senator Feinstein’s account, the CIA has directly and repeatedly interfered with the committee’s investigation: it conducted covert unauthorized searches of the computers assigned to the Senate committee for its review of CIA files, and it secretly removed potentially incriminating documents from the computers the committee was using. That’s the stuff that often leads to resignations, independent counsels, and criminal charges; indeed, the CIA’s own Inspector General has referred the CIA’s conduct to the Justice Department for a potential criminal investigation.
But the crime that we must never lose sight of is the conduct that led to the investigation in the first place. To recall: in 2002, shortly after the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration authorized the CIA to establish a series of secret prisons, or “black sites,” into which it disappeared “high-value” al-Qaeda suspects, often for years at a time, without any public acknowledgment, without charges, and cut off from any access to the outside world. The CIA was further authorized to use a range of coercive tactics—borrowed from those used by the Chinese to torture American soldiers during the Korean War—to try to break the suspects’ will. These included depriving suspects of sleep for up to ten days, slamming them against walls, forcing them into painful stress positions, and waterboarding them.
The program was approved by President Bush himself, as well as Vice-President Dick Cheney, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Attorney General John Ashcroft, and CIA Director George Tenet. John Yoo and Jay Bybee, Justice Department lawyers, wrote memos to whitewash the program. These acts were war crimes under the laws of war and grave human rights abuses. Yet no one has yet been held accountable for any of them. And the investigation by the Senate Intelligence Committee is until now the only comprehensive effort to review the extensive classified CIA records about the program.
Even before the investigation began, the CIA appears to have been aware that its interrogation practices might not withstand scrutiny. The intelligence committee’s investigation was itself sparked by a CIA agent’s destruction of ninety-two videotapes of the agency’s actual interrogations. According to accounts by former CIA officials, twelve of the tapes documented the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” including waterboarding. One tape showed al-Qaeda suspect Abu Zubaydah, apparently screaming and vomiting. In 2012, John Rizzo, who was the CIA’s acting general counsel at the time the tapes were made, told the BBC that a US intelligence official who reviewed the footage had found that “portions of the tapes, particularly those of Zubaydah being waterboarded, were extremely hard to watch.”
But we cannot know for certain what was on the tapes, because in November, 2005, Jose A. Rodriguez, Jr., the head of the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, the agency’s clandestine service, ordered them destroyed. He did so over the stated objections of the White House Counsel and the Director of National Intelligence, and despite their obvious relevance to numerous possible criminal investigations—of the suspects interrogated and of the CIA itself.
In 2007, when the New York Times first reported that the CIA had destroyed interrogation tapes, the Senate Intelligence Committee launched an inquiry. The CIA assured the committee that the tapes’ destruction would not hinder review of its program, because it had many cables contemporaneously describing the interrogations in detail. (These would of course be the CIA’s descriptions of what was done, not an actual record of what was done.) The intelligence committee requested access to those documents. The CIA replied, in Senator Feinstein’s words, with a classic “document dump,” giving the committee literally millions of documents, entirely unorganized and unindexed, presumably hoping to overwhelm their limited resources.
The CIA refused to allow the Senate staff to use their own computers to review the documents, insisting that they be reviewed in a separate CIA-leased facility. According to an agreement worked out between the Committee and the CIA, the agency was to provide the committee with a
’stand-alone computer system’ with a ‘network drive’ ‘segregated from CIA networks’…that would only be accessed by information technology personnel at the CIA—who would ‘not be permitted to’ ‘share information from the system with other [CIA] personnel, except as otherwise authorized by the committee.’
It soon became clear, however, that the CIA had violated the agreement. In 2010, Feinstein explained,
I learned that on two occasions, CIA personnel electronically removed committee access to CIA documents after providing them to the committee. This included roughly 870 documents or pages of documents that were removed in February 2010, and secondly roughly another 50 were removed in mid-May 2010.
Feinstein took the matter to the White House, and the CIA was compelled to apologize and to reaffirm its commitment not to interfere with the investigation. But when the CIA later learned that one of the documents the committee had received was the agency’s own internal review of the cables, directed by then-director Leon Panetta, it covertly searched the committee’s files yet again.
Why the concern over the internal review? From Feinstein’s perspective, the CIA’s real worry is that this internal review corroborates her committee’s findings about the CIA’s own abuses—and contradicts a subsequently drafted official CIA response that tries to deny or minimize CIA abuses. As Feinstein put it, “What was unique and interesting about the internal documents was not their classification level, but rather their analysis and acknowledgement of significant CIA wrongdoing.” Apparently the CIA was willing to give the Senate committee access to all evidence except the smoking gun.
So blatant is this obstruction that the CIA’s own Inspector General referred the matter to the Justice Department for a potential criminal investigation of CIA staff. In what appears to be retaliation, the CIA’s acting general counsel, Robert Eatinger, in turn asked the Justice Department to investigate the Senate committee staff regarding their access to the internal review. Eatinger, Feinstein notes, was himself previously oversaw the CIA’s interrogation program, and is mentioned by name some 1,600 times in the Senate committee’s report. Evidently, however, he saw no conflict of interest in requesting a Justice Department investigation of those reviewing his own conduct.
How this controversy ultimately gets resolved, Feinstein rightly noted, “will show whether the Intelligence Committee can be effective in monitoring and investigating our nation’s intelligence activities, or whether our work can be thwarted by those we oversee.”
But even more urgent than resolution of the inter-branch dispute, is the release of the intelligence committee’s 6,300-page report. Though the committee adopted the report in December 2012, not one word of it has yet seen the light of day. That the investigation has gone on so long, cost so much (reportedly $50 million), resulted in such an extensive report, and still not been seen by the public, reflects the gravity of what is at stake here. The nation’s highest officials coldly approved war crimes and human rights abuses—and to date, no one has been held accountable in any manner for doing so.
As I have argued before, accountability comes in many forms; there is little likelihood that former officials will be criminally prosecuted, even after the report is issued. But an official report can itself be a form of reckoning. In both Canada and the United Kingdom, official inquiries have served exactly that purpose, after the US rendition of Canadian Maher Arar to Syria, and after the UK’s detention and coercive interrogation of suspected IRA members. A secret report, however, is no accountability at all. In an encouraging sign, President Obama on Wednesday said that he favors making the report public so that the American people can judge for themselves the CIA’s conduct. You can bet the CIA will fight tooth and nail to frustrate that pledge. We must insist that President Obama keep this promise.
In law, we say that torture “taints” an investigation. The legal doctrine that precludes reliance on evidence obtained from torture is called the “fruit of the poisonous tree” rule. But as this latest saga reflects, torture does far more than merely “taint” evidence. It corrupts all who touch it. The CIA’s desperate efforts to hide the details of what the world already knows in general outline—that it subjected human beings to brutal treatment to which no human being should ever be subjected—are only the latest evidence of the poisonous consequences of a program euphemistically called “enhanced interrogation.”
Noam Chomsky and Ken Loach criticise University of Birmingham suspensions
In an open letter, signed by 40 people and published by the Guardian, they criticised the University of Birmingham‘s actions as being “at odds with freedom of speech“. They demanded the immediate reinstatement of the students, who were among 13 arrested during the demonstration at the university last month.
“We believe that the suspensions seen at the University of Birmingham are further evidence of the contempt for freedom of expression, both political and academic, in the contemporary university,” they wrote.
The signatories, also include former secretary of state for international development and Birmingham MP Clare Short, who said: “These suspensions are at odds with freedom of speech and the right to protest, setting a threatening precedent for how dissent is dealt with on campuses across the country.
“We condemn these suspensions in the strongest terms and call for the immediate reinstatement of the students affected.”
Their intervention comes amid growing tensions between student activists and the management in some universities, who have clashed over what the protesters called the “marketisation of education”. The protesters want to see an end to cuts and privatisations of university services, and a return to free access to education.
The Defend Education Birmingham activists who occupied part of Birmingham University’s campus said they were part of a peaceful protest and were unlawfully kettled by police, who demanded their personal details in exchange for release. But the university argued that their protest was not peaceful and caused damage to property. West Midlands police have also insisted that the protesters were detained as part of a criminal investigation, not kettled.
Deborah Hermann, 21, who studies European politics, society and economics was one of the students suspended, along with Simon Furse, 22, Kelly Rogers, 21, Emily Farmer, 20 and Pat Grady, 21. She said the university’s stance “shows the wider picture; the repression of the protest shows why the protest is so important”.
She added: “It is unjust, I have been treated very unfairly. I know the university doesn’t care about me, they just want to intimidate students. They always put out statements saying that they really support peaceful and legitimate action, but they don’t in practice.
“They try to stop any kind of protest. Anything we do, they call it illegitimate. Instead, they have just repressed us. In 1968, students occupied the same Great Hall as us. It was emotional, but incredibly frustrating to be there doing the same. Then the police came. It is clear the university doesn’t care about our opinions whatsoever.”
Edd Bauer, a campaigner with the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, said: “The reason we see oppression is because [the university management’s] ideological positions are weakly supported. They have no choice but to resort to the stick. It is their only answer because they have no political argument.
“The university is telling people not to protest and threatening them. Their message is that anyone who wants to protest, anyone who wants to occupy buildings, ‘We will have you arrested, we will suspend you and cut you off from education.’ We are seeing that all over the country.
He said that the student movement he is part of is protesting against “more corporate universities”.
In 2012, the University of Birmingham was criticised by human rights groups – including Amnesty International – over an injunction it sought to pre-emptively ban protests. Its actions were described as “criminalising” sit-in protests and were called aggressive and censorious by Amnesty, Liberty and Index on Censorship.
A University of Birmingham spokesman said the institution respects the right to protest peacefully and within the law and said that students have a “variety of ways” of making their concerns known.
The spokesman said: “Whilst peaceful protest is part of university life, the university will not tolerate behaviour that causes harm to individuals, damage to property or significant disruption to our university community.”
The spokesman added the Defend Education Birmingham demonstration “included defacing buildings and property, throwing smoke bombs and fireworks, smashing down doors, damaging historic buildings including Aston Webb and the Old Joe clock tower, and injuring staff”.
Kako to spremeniti?
There is no alternative
Governments now answer to business, not voters. Mainstream parties grow ever harder to distinguish. Is democracy dead?
Henry Farrell is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. His latest book is The Political Economy of Trust (2009).
Last September, Il Partito Democratico, the Italian Democratic Party, asked me to talk about politics and the internet at its summer school in Cortona. Political summer schools are usually pleasant — Cortona is a medieval Tuscan hill town with excellent restaurants — and unexciting. Academics and public intellectuals give talks organised loosely around a theme; in this case, the challenges of ‘communication and democracy’. Young party activists politely listen to our speeches while they wait to do the real business of politics, between sessions and at the evening meals.
This year was different. The Italian Democratic Party, which dominates the country’s left-of-centre politics, knew that it was in trouble. A flamboyant blogger and former comedian named Beppe Grillo had turned his celebrity into an online political force, Il Movimento 5 Stelle (the Five Star Movement), which promised to do well in the national elections. The new party didn’t have any coherent plan beyond sweeping out Old Corruption, but that was enough to bring out the crowds. The Five Star Movement was particularly good at attracting young idealists, the kind of voters who might have been Democrats a decade before.
Worries about this threat spilt over into the summer school. The relationship between communication and democracy suddenly had urgent political implications. The Democratic Party had spent two decades suffering under the former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s stranglehold on traditional media. Now it found itself challenged on the left too, by internet-fuelled populists who seemed to be sucking attention and energy away from it.
When Bersani started talking, he gave a speech that came strikingly close to a counsel of despair
The keynote speaker at the summer school, the Democratic Party leader and prospective prime minister Pier Luigi Bersani, was in a particularly awkward position. Matteo Renzi, the ‘reformist’ mayor of Florence, had recently challenged Bersani’s leadership, promising the kind of dynamism that would appeal to younger voters. If Bersani wanted to stay on as party leader, he had to win an open primary. The summer school gave him a chance to speak to the activists in training, and try to show that he was still relevant.
I was one of two speakers warming up the crowd for Bersani. The party members and reporters endured us patiently enough as they waited for the real event. However, when Bersani started talking, he gave a speech that came strikingly close to a counsel of despair. He told his audience that representative democracy, European representative democracy in particular, was in crisis. Once, it had offered the world a model for reconciling economy and society. Now it could no longer provide the concrete benefits — jobs, rights, and environmental protection — that people wanted. In Italy, Berlusconi and his allies had systematically delegitimized government and undermined public life. The relationship between politics and society was broken.
Bersani knew what he didn’t want — radical political change. Any reforms would have to be rooted in traditional solidarities. But he didn’t know what he did want either, or if he did, he wasn’t able to describe it. His speech was an attack, swathed in the usual billowing abstractions of Italian political rhetoric, on the purported radicalism of both his internal party opponent and the Five Star Movement. He didn’t really have a programme of his own. He could promise his party nothing except hard challenges and uncertain outcomes.
Why do social democrats such as Bersani find it so hard to figure out what to do? It isn’t just the Italians who are in trouble. Social democrats in other countries are also in retreat. In France, Francoise Hollande’s government has offered many things: a slight softening of austerity (France’s deficit this year will be somewhat higher than the European Commission would like); occasional outbursts of anti-business rhetoric (usually swiftly contradicted by follow-up statements); higher taxes on the very rich (to be rolled back as soon as possible). What it has not offered is anything approaching a coherent programme for change.
Germany’s Social Democrats are suffering, too. The Christian Democrat-led government can get away with austerity measures as long as it convinces voters that it will do a better job of keeping their money safe from the Spaniards, Italians and Greeks. And the Social Democratic Party’s candidate for Chancellor, Peer Steinbrück, is not well placed to object. In 2009 he helped introduce a constitutional measure to limit government spending, hoping that this would make his party look more responsible. He now appears like a weaker, less resolute version of his opponent, Chancellor Angela Merkel, and has 32 per cent job approval.
Greece’s mainstream socialist party, Pasok, won only 12.3 per cent of the vote in the election in June last year. Spain’s social democrats are perhaps in even greater disarray than the conservative government. Ireland’s Labour Party, a junior party in the current government, saw its vote collapse from 21 per cent to 4.6 per cent in a by-election in March.
Where they are in opposition, European social democrats don’t know what to offer voters. Where they are in power, they don’t know how to use it. Even in the United States, which has never had a social democratic party with national appeal, the Democrats have gradually changed from a party that belonged ambiguously to the left to one that spans the limited gamut between the ever-so-slightly-left-of-centre and the centre-right. It, too, has had enormous difficulty in spelling out a new agenda, because of internal divisions as well as entrenched hostility from the Republican Party.
This isn’t what was supposed to happen. In the 1990s and the 2000s, right-wing parties were the enthusiasts of the market, pushing for the deregulation of banks, the privatisation of core state functions and the whittling away of social protections. All of these now look to have been very bad ideas. The economic crisis should really have discredited the right, not the left. So why is it the left that is paralysed?
Colin Crouch’s disquieting little book, Post-Democracy (2005), provides one plausible answer. Crouch is a British academic who spent several years teaching at the European University Institute in Florence, where he was my academic supervisor. His book has been well read in the UK, but in continental Europe its impact has been much more remarkable. Though he was not at the Cortona summer school in person, his ideas were omnipresent. Speaker after speaker grappled with the challenge that his book threw down. The fear that he was right, that there was no palatable exit from our situation, hung over the conference like a dusty pall.
Crouch sees the history of democracy as an arc. In the beginning, ordinary people were excluded from decision-making. During the 20th century, they became increasingly able to determine their collective fate through the electoral process, building mass parties that could represent their interests in government. Prosperity and the contentment of working people went hand in hand. Business recognised limits to its power and answered to democratically legitimated government. Markets were subordinate to politics, not the other way around.
The realm of real democracy — political choices that are responsive to voters’ needs — shrinks ever further
At some point shortly after the end of the Second World War, democracy reached its apex in countries such as Britain and the US. According to Crouch, it has been declining ever since. Places such as Italy had more ambiguous histories of rise and decline, while others still, including Spain, Portugal and Greece, began the ascent much later, having only emerged from dictatorship in the 1970s. Nevertheless, all of these countries have reached the downward slope of the arc. The formal structures of democracy remain intact. People still vote. Political parties vie with each other in elections, and circulate in and out of government. Yet these acts of apparent choice have had their meaning hollowed out. The real decisions are taken elsewhere. We have become squatters in the ruins of the great democratic societies of the past.
Crouch lays some blame for this at the feet of the usual suspects. As markets globalise, businesses grow more powerful (they can relocate their activities, or threaten to relocate) and governments are weakened. Yet the real lessons of his book are about more particular forms of disconnection.
Neo-liberalism, which was supposed to replace grubby politics with efficient, market-based competition, has led not to the triumph of the free market but to the birth of new and horrid chimeras. The traditional firm, based on stable relations between employer, workers and customers, has spun itself out into a complicated and ever-shifting network of supply relationships and contractual forms. The owners remain the same but their relationship to their employees and customers is very different. For one thing, they cannot easily be held to account. As the American labour lawyer Thomas Geoghegan and others have shown, US firms have systematically divested themselves of inconvenient pension obligations to their employees, by farming them out to subsidiaries and spin-offs. Walmart has used hands-off subcontracting relationships to take advantage of unsafe working conditions in the developing world, while actively blocking efforts to improve industry safety standards until 112 garment workers died in a Bangladesh factory fire in November last year. Amazon uses subcontractors to employ warehouse employees in what can be unsafe and miserable working conditions, while minimising damage to its own brand.
Instead of clamping down on such abuses, the state has actually tried to ape these more flexible and apparently more efficient arrangements, either by putting many of its core activities out to private tender through complex contracting arrangements or by requiring its internal units to behave as if they were competing firms. As one looks from business to state and from state to business again, it is increasingly difficult to say which is which. The result is a complex web of relationships that are subject neither to market discipline nor democratic control. Businesses become entangled with the state as both customer and as regulator. States grow increasingly reliant on business, to the point where they no longer know what to do without its advice. Responsibility and accountability evanesce into an endlessly proliferating maze of contracts and subcontracts. As Crouch describes it, government is no more responsible for the delivery of services than Nike is for making the shoes that it brands. The realm of real democracy — political choices that are responsive to voters’ needs — shrinks ever further.
Politicians, meanwhile, have floated away, drifting beyond the reach of the parties that nominally chose them and the voters who elected them. They simply don’t need us as much as they used to. These days, it is far easier to ask business for money and expertise in exchange for political favours than to figure out the needs of a voting public that is increasingly fragmented and difficult to understand anyway. Both the traditional right, which always had strong connections to business, and the new left, which has woven new ties in a hurry, now rely on the private sector more than on voters or party activists. As left and right grow ever more disconnected from the public and ever closer to one another, elections become exercises in branding rather than substantive choice.
Crouch was writing Post-Democracy 10 years ago, when most people thought that things were going quite well. As long as the economy kept delivering jobs and growth, voters didn’t seem to mind about the hollowing out of democracy. Left-of-centre parties weren’t worried either: they responded to the new incentives by trying to articulate a ‘Third Way’ of market-like initiatives that could deliver broad social benefits. Crouch’s lessons have only really come home in the wake of the economic crisis.
The problem that the centre-left now faces is not that it wants to make difficult or unpopular choices. It is that no real choices remain. It is lost in the maze, able neither to reach out to its traditional bases of support (which are largely dying or alienated from it anyway) nor to propose any grand new initiatives, the state no longer having the tools to implement them. When the important decisions are all made outside of democratic politics, the centre-left can only keep going through the ritualistic motions of democracy, all the while praying for intercession.
Most left-wing parties face some version of these dilemmas. Cronyism is less a problem than an institution in the US, where decision-makers relentlessly circulate between Wall Street, K Street, and the Senate and Congress. Yet Europe has some particular bugbears of its own. Even if national political systems were by some miracle to regain their old responsiveness, the power of decision has moved to the European Union, which is dominated by a toxic combination of economic realpolitik and bureaucratic self-interest. Rich northern states are unwilling to help their southern neighbours more than is absolutely necessary; instead they press for greater austerity. The European Central Bank, which was deliberately designed to be free of democratic oversight, is becoming ever more important, and ever more political. Social democrats once looked to the EU as a bulwark against globalisation — perhaps even a model for how the international economy might be subjected to democratic control. Instead, it is turning out to be a vector of corrosion, demanding that weaker member states implement drastic economic reforms without even a pretence of consultation.
Let’s return to Italy, the laboratory of post-democracy’s most grotesque manifestations. Forza Italia, Silvio Berlusconi’s elaborate simulacrum of a political party, is a perfect exemplar of Crouch’s thesis: a thin shell of branding and mass mobilisation, with a dense core of business and political elites floating free in the vacuum within.
After the Cortona summer school, Bersani won his fight with Renzi in November last year and led his party into the general election. His coalition lost 3.5 million votes but still won the lower house in February, because the Italian electoral system gives a massive bonus to the biggest winner. It fell far short of a majority in the upper house and is doing its hapless best to form a government. Grillo’s Five Star Movement, on the other hand, did far better than anyone expected, winning a quarter of the votes. Grillo has made it clear that his party will not support the Democratic Party. Renzi has tried to advance himself again as a compromise leader who might be more acceptable to Grillo, so far without success. In all likelihood there will be a second general election in a few months.
‘We die if a movement becomes a party. Our problem is to remain a movement in parliament, which is a structure for parties. We have to keep a foot outside’
The Italian Democratic Party is caught on one tine of the post-democratic dilemma. It is trying to work within the system as it is, in the implausible hope that it can produce real change within a framework that almost seems designed to prevent such a thing. As the party has courted Grillo, it has started making noises about refusing to accept austerity politics and introducing major institutional reforms. It is unclear whether senior Democratic figures believe their new rhetoric; certainly no one else does. If the party does somehow come to power, the most it will do is tinker with the system.
The Five Star Movement has impaled itself on the other tine, as have the Indignados in Spain, Occupy in the US and UK, and the tent movement in Israel. All have gained mass support because of the problems of post-democracy. The divide between ordinary people and politicians has grown ever wider, and Italian politicians are often corrupt as well as remote. The Five Star Movement wants to reform Italy’s institutions to make them truly democratic. Yet it, too, is trapped by the system. As Grillo told the Financial Times in October: ‘We die if a movement becomes a party. Our problem is to remain a movement in parliament, which is a structure for parties. We have to keep a foot outside.’
The truth is, if the Five Star Movement wants to get its proposals for radical change through the complex Italian political system, it will need to compromise, just as other parties do. Grillo’s unwillingness even to entertain discussions with other parties that share his agenda is creating fissures within his movement. Grillo is holding out for a more radical transformation, in which Italian politics would be replaced by new forms of internet-based ‘collective intelligence’, allowing people to come together to solve problems without ugly partisan bargaining. In order to save democracy, the Five Star Movement would like to leave politics behind. It won’t work.
The problems of the Italian left are mirrored in other countries. The British Labour Party finds itself in difficulty, wavering between a Blairite Third Wayism that offers no clear alternative to the present government, and a more full-blooded social democracy that it cannot readily define. The French left has mired itself in scandal and confusion. The Greek left is divided between a social democratic party that is more profoundly compromised than its Italian equivalent and a loose coalition of radicals that wants to do anything and everything except find itself in power and be forced to take decisions.
All are embroiled, in different ways, in the perplexities of post-democracy. None has any very good way out. Ever since France’s president François Mitterrand tried to pursue an expansive social democratic agenda in the early 1980s and was brutally punished by international markets, it has been clear that social democracy will require either a partial withdrawal from the international economy, with all the costs that this entails, or a radical transformation of how the international economy works.
It is striking that the right is not hampered to nearly the same extent. Many mainstream conservatives are committed to democracy for pragmatic rather than idealistic reasons. They are quite content to see it watered down so long as markets work and social stability is maintained. Those on the further reaches of the right, such as Greece’s Golden Dawn, find it much easier than the Five Star Movement or Syriza, the Greek radical-left coalition, to think about alternatives. After all, they aren’t particularly interested in reforming moribund democratic institutions to make them better and more responsive; they just want to replace them with some version of militaristic fascism. Even if these factions are unlikely to succeed, they can still pull their countries in less democratic directions, by excluding weaker groups from political protection. The next 10 years are unlikely to be comfortable for immigrants in southern Europe.
Post-democracy is strangling the old parties of the left. They have run out of options. Perhaps all that traditional social democracy can do, to adapt a grim joke made by Crouch in a different context, is to serve as a pall-bearer at its own funeral. In contrast, a new group of actors — the Five Star Movement and other confederations of the angry, young and dispossessed — have seized a chance to win mass support. The problem is, they seem unable to turn mass frustration into the power to change things, to create a path for escape.
Perhaps, over time, they will figure out how to engage with the mundane task of slow drilling through hard boards that is everyday politics. Perhaps, too, the systems of unrule governing the world economy, gravely weakened as they are, will fail and collapse of their own accord, opening the space for a new and very different dispensation. Great changes seem unlikely until they happen; only in retrospect do they look inevitable. Yet if some reversal in the order of things is waiting to unfold, it is not apparent to us now. Post-democracy has trapped the left between two worlds, one dead, the other powerless to be born. We may be here for some time
Edward Snowden says he sleeps well – despite potential death treats.Mr Snowden did you sleep well the last couple of nights because I was reading that you asked for a kind of police protection. Are there any threats?
There are significant threats but I sleep very well. There was an article that came out in an online outlet called Buzz Feed where they interviewed officials from the Pentagon, from the National Security Agency and they gave them anonymity to be able to say what they want and what they told the reporter was that they wanted to murder me. These individuals – and these are acting government officials. They said they would be happy, they would love to put a bullet in my head, to poison me as I was returning from the grocery store and have me die in the shower
But fortunately you are still alive with us.
Right but I’m still alive and I don’t lose sleep because I’ve done what I feel I needed to do. It was the right thing to do and I’m not going to be afraid.
Whistleblower Edward Snowden leaked the documents about US mass surveillance. He spoke about his disclosures and his life to NDR journalist Seipel in Moscow. (Germany only)
“The greatest fear I have”, and I quote you, “regarding the disclosures is nothing will change.” That was one of your greatest concerns at the time but in the meantime there is a vivid discussion about the situation with the NSA; not only in America but also in Germany and in Brazil and President Obama was forced to go public and to justify what the NSA was doing on legal grounds.
What we saw initially in response to the revelations was sort of a circling of the wagons of government around the National Security Agency. Instead of circling around the public and protecting their rights the political class circled around the security state and protected their rights. What’s interesting is though that was the initially response, since then we’ve seen a softening. We’ve seen the President acknowledge that when he first said “we’ve drawn the right balance, there are no abuses”, we’ve seen him and his officials admit that there have been abuses. There have been thousands of violations of the National Security Agency and other agencies and authorities every single year.
Is the speech of Obama the beginning of a serious regulation?
It was clear from the President’s speech that he wanted to make minor changes to preserve authorities that we don’t need. The President created a review board from officials that were personal friends, from national security insiders, former Deputy of the CIA, people who had every incentive to be soft on these programs and to see them in the best possible light. But what they found was that these programs have no value, they’ve never stopped a terrorist attack in the United States and they have marginal utility at best for other things. The only thing that the Section 215 phone metadata program, actually it’s a broader metadata programme of bulk collection – bulk collection means mass surveillance – program was in stopping or detecting $ 8.500 wire transfer from a cab driver in California and it’s this kind of review where insiders go we don’t need these programs, these programs don’t make us safe. They take a tremendous amount of resources to run and they offer us no value. They go “we can modify these”. The National Security agency operates under the President’s executive authority alone. He can end of modify or direct a change of their policies at any time.
For the first time President Obama did concede that the NSA collects and stores trillions of data.
Every time you pick up the phone, dial a number, write an email, make a purchase, travel on the bus carrying a cell phone, swipe a card somewhere, you leave a trace and the government has decided that it’s a good idea to collect it all, everything, even if you’ve never been suspected of any crime. Traditionally the government would identify a suspect, they would go to a judge, they would say we suspect he’s committed this crime, they would get a warrant and then they would be able to use the totality of their powers in pursuit of the investigation. Nowadays what we see is they want to apply the totality of their powers in advance – prior to an investigation.
You started this debate, Edward Snowden is in the meantime a household name for the whistleblower in the age of the internet. You were working until last summer for the NSA and during this time you secretly collected thousands of confidential documents. What was the decisive moment or was there a long period of time or something happening, why did you do this?
I would say sort of the breaking point is seeing the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, directly lie under oath to Congress. There’s no saving an intelligence community that believes it can lie to the public and the legislators who need to be able to trust it and regulate its actions. Seeing that really meant for me there was no going back. Beyond that, it was the creeping realisation that no one else was going to do this. The public had a right to know about these programs. The public had a right to know that which the government is doing in its name, and that which the government is doing against the public, but neither of these things we were allowed to discuss, we were allowed no, even the wider body of our elected representatives were prohibited from knowing or discussing these programmes and that’s a dangerous thing. The only review we had was from a secret court, the FISA Court, which is a sort of rubber stamp authority
When you are on the inside and you go into work everyday and you sit down at the desk and you realise the power you have – you can wire tap the President of the United States, you can wire tap a Federal Judge and if you do it carefully no one will ever know because the only way the NSA discovers abuses are from self reporting.
We’re not talking only of the NSA as far as this is concerned, there is a multilateral agreement for co-operation among the services and this alliance of intelligence operations is known as the Five Eyes. What agencies and countries belong to this alliance and what is its purpose?
The Five Eyes alliance is sort of an artifact of the post World War II era where the Anglophone countries are the major powers banded together to sort of co-operate and share the costs of intelligence gathering infrastructure.
So we have the UK’s GCHQ, we have the US NSA, we have Canada’s C-Sec, we have the Australian Signals Intelligence Directorate and we have New Zealand’s DSD. What the result of this was over decades and decades what sort of a supra-national intelligence organisation that doesn’t answer to the laws of its own countries.
In many countries, as in America too the agencies like the NSA are not allowed to spy within their own borders on their own people. So the Brits for example they can spy on everybody but the Brits but the NSA can conduct surveillance in England so in the very end they could exchange their data and they would be strictly following the law.
If you ask the governments about this directly they would deny it and point to policy agreements between the members of the Five Eyes saying that they won’t spy on each other’s citizens but there are a couple of key points there. One is that the way they define spying is not the collection of data. The GCHQ is collecting an incredible amount of data on British Citizens just as the National Security Agency is gathering enormous amounts of data on US citizens. What they are saying is that they will not then target people within that data. They won’t look for UK citizens or British citizens. In addition the policy agreements between them that say British won’t target US citizens, US won’t target British citizens are not legally binding. The actual memorandums of agreement state specifically on that that they are not intended to put legal restriction on any government. They are policy agreements that can be deviated from or broken at any time. So if they want to on a British citizen they can spy on a British citizen and then they can even share that data with the British government that is itself forbidden from spying on UK citizens. So there is a sort of a trading dynamic there but it’s not, it’s not open, it’s more of a nudge and wink and beyond that the key is to remember the surveillance and the abuse doesn’t occur when people look at the data it occurs when people gather the data in the first place.
How narrow is the co-operation of the German Secret Service BND with the NSA and with the Five Eyes?
I would describe it as intimate. As a matter of fact the first way I described it in our written interview was that the German Services and the US Services are in bed together. They not only share information, the reporting of results from intelligence, but they actually share the tools and the infrastructure they work together against joint targets in services and there’s a lot of danger in this. One of the major programmes that faces abuse in the National Security Agency is what’s called “XKeyscore”. It’s a front end search engine that allows them to look through all of the records they collect worldwide every day.
What could you do if you would sit so to speak in their place with this kind of instrument?
You could read anyone’s email in the world. Anybody you’ve got email address for, any website you can watch traffic to and from it, any computer that an individual sits at you can watch it, any laptop that you’re tracking you can follow it as it moves from place to place throughout the world. It’s a one stop shop for access to the NSA’s information. And what’s more you can tag individuals using “XKeyscore”. Let’s say I saw you once and I thought what you were doing was interesting or you just have access that’s interesting to me, let’s say you work at a major German corporation and I want access to that network, I can track your username on a website on a form somewhere, I can track your real name, I can track associations with your friends and I can build what’s called a fingerprint which is network activity unique to you which means anywhere you go in the world anywhere you try to sort of hide your online presence hide your identity, the NSA can find you and anyone who’s allowed to use this or who the NSA shares their software with can do the same thing. Germany is one of the countries that have access to “XKeyscore”.
This sounds rather frightening. The question is: does the BND deliver data of Germans to the NSA?
Whether the BND does it directly or knowingly the NSA gets German data. Whether it’s provided I can’t speak to until it’s been reported because it would be classified and I prefer that journalists make the distinctions and the decisions about what is public interest and what should be published. However, it’s no secret that every country in the world has the data of their citizens in the NSA. Millions and millions and millions of data connections from Germans going about their daily lives, talking on their cell phones, sending SMS messages, visiting websites, buying things online, all of this ends up at the NSA and it’s reasonable to suspect that the BND may be aware of it in some capacity. Now whether or not they actively provide the information I should not say.
The BND basically argues if we do this, we do this accidentally actually and our filter didn’t work.
Right so the kind of things that they’re discussing there are two things. They’re talking about filtering of ingest which means when the NSA puts a secret server in a German telecommunications provider or they hack a German router and they divert the traffic in a manner that let’s them search through things they’re saying “if I see what I think is a German talking to another German I’ll drop it” but how do you know. You could say “well, these people are speaking the German language”, “this IP address seems to be from a German company to another German company”, but that’s not accurate and they wouldn’t dump all of that traffic because they’ll get people who are targetes of interest, who are actively in Germany using German communications. So realistically what’s happening is when they say there’s no spying on Germans, they don’t mean that German data isn’t being gathered, they don’t mean that records aren’t being taken or stolen, what they mean is that they’re not intentionally searching for German citizens. And that’s sort of a fingers crossed behind the back promise, it’s not reliable.
What about other European countries like Norway and Sweden for example because we have a lot of I think under water cables going through the Baltic Sea.
So this is sort of an expansion of the same idea. If the NSA isn’t collecting information on German citizens in Germany are they as soon as it leaves German borders? And the answer is “yes”. Any single communication that transits the internet, the NSA may intercept at multiple points, they might see it in Germany, they might see it in Sweden, they might see it in Norway or Finland, they might see it in Britain and they might see it in the United States. Any single one of these places that a German communication crosses it’ll be ingested and added to the database.
So let’s come to our southern European neighbours then. What about Italy, what about France, what about Spain?
It’s the same deal worldwide.
Does the NSA spy on Siemens, on Mercedes, on other successful German companies for example, to prevail, to have the advantage of knowing what is going on in a scientific and economic world.
I don’t want to pre-empt the editorial decisions of journalists but what I will say is there’s no question that the US is engaged in economic spying.
If there’s information at Siemens that they think would be beneficial to the national interests, not the national security of the United States, they’ll go after that information and they’ll take it
There is this old saying “you do whatever you can do” so the NSA is doing whatever is technically possible.
This is something that the President touched on last year where he said that just because we can do something, and this was in relation to tapping Angela Merkel’s phone, just because we can do something doesn’t mean that we should, and that’s exactly what’s happened. The technological capabilities that have been provided because of sort of weak security standards in internet protocols and cellular communications networks have meant that intelligence services can create systems that see everything.
Nothing annoyed the German government more than the fact that the NSA tapped the private phone of the German Chancellor Merkel over the last 10 years obviously, suddenly this invisible surveillance was connected with a known face and was not connected with a kind of watery shady terrorist background: Obama now promised to stop snooping on Merkel which raises the question: did the NSA tape already previous governments including the previous chancellors and when did they do that and how long did they do this for?
This is a particularly difficult question for me to answer because there’s information that I very strongly believe is in the public interest. However, as I’ve said before I prefer for journalists to make those decisions in advance, review the material themselves and decide whether or not the public value of this information outweighs the sort of reputational cost to the officials that ordered the surveillance. What I can say is we know Angela Merkel was monitored by the National Security Agency. The question is how reasonable is it to assume that she is the only German official that was monitored, how reasonable is it to believe that she’s the only prominent German face who the National Security Agency was watching. I would suggest it seems unreasonable that if anyone was concerned about the intentions of German leadership that they would only watch Merkel and not her aides, not other prominent officials, not heads of ministries or even local government officials.
How does a young man from Elizabeth City in North Carolina, 30 years old, get in such a position in such a sensitive area?
That’s a very difficult question to answer. In general, I would say it highlights the dangers of privatising government functions. I worked previously as an actual staff officer, a government employee for the Central Intelligence Agency but I’ve also served much more frequently as a contractor in a private capacity. What that means is you have private for profit companies doing inherently governmental work like targeted espionage, surveillance, compromising foreign systems and anyone who has the skills who can convince a private company that they have the qualifications to do so will be empowered by the government to do that and there’s very little oversight, there’s very little review.
Have you been one of these classical computer kids sitting red eyed during the nights in the age of 12, 15 and your father was knocking on your door and saying “switch off the light, it’s getting late now”? Did you get your computer skills from that side or when did you get your first computer?
Right I definitely have had a … shall we say a deep informal education in computers and electronic technology. They’ve always been fascinating and interesting to me. The characterisation of having your parents telling you to go to bed I would say is fair
If one looks to the little public data of your life one discovers that you obviously wanted to join in May 2004 the Special Forces to fight in Iraq, what did motivate you at the time? You know, Special Forces, looking at you in the very moment, means grim fighting and it means probably killing and did you ever get to Iraq?
No I didn’t get to Iraq … one of the interesting things about the Special Forces are that they’re not actually intended for direct combat, they’re what’s referred to as a force multiplier. They’re inserted behind enemy lines, it’s a squad that has a number of different specialties in it and they teach and enable the local population to resist or to support US forces in a way that allows the local population a chance to help determine their own destiny and I felt that was an inherently noble thing at the time. In hindsight some of the reasons that we went into Iraq were not well founded and I think did a disservice to everyone involved.
What happened to your adventure then? Did you stay long with them or what happened to you?
No I broke my legs when I was in training and was discharged.
So it was a short adventure in other words?
It’s a short adventure.
In 2007 the CIA stationed you with a diplomatic cover in Geneva in Switzerland. Why did you join the CIA by the way?
I don’t think I can actually answer that one on the record.
OK if it’s what you have been doing there forget it but why did you join the CIA?
In many ways I think it’s a continuation of trying to do everything I could to prosecute the public good in the most effective way and it’s in line with the rest of my government service where I tried to use my technical skills in the most difficult positions I could find in the world and the CIA offered that.
If we go back Special Forces, CIA, NSA, it’s not actually in the description of a human rights activist or somebody who becomes a whistleblower after this. What happens to you?
I think it tells a story and that’s no matter how deeply an individual is embedded in the government, no matter how faithful to the government they are, no matter how strongly they believe in the causes of their government as I did during the Iraq war, people can learn, people can discover the line between appropriate government behaviour and actual wrongdoing and I think it became clear to me that that line had been crossed.
You worked for the NSA through a private contractor with the name Booze Allen Hamilton, one of the big ones in the business. What is the advantage for the US Government or the CIA to work through a private contractor to outsource a central government function?
The contracting culture of the national security community in the United States is a complex topic. It’s driven by a number of interests between primarily limiting the number of direct government employees at the same time as keeping lobbying groups in Congress typically from very well funded businesses such as Booze Allen Hamilton. The problem there is you end up in a situation where government policies are being influenced by private corporations who have interests that are completely divorced from the public good in mind. The result of that is what we saw at Booze Allen Hamilton where you have private individuals who have access to what the government alleges were millions and millions of records that they could walk out the door with at any time with no accountability, no oversight, no auditing, the government didn’t even know they were gone
At the very end you ended up in Russia. Many of the intelligence communities suspect you made a deal, classified material for Asylum here in Russia.
The Chief of the Task Force investigating me as recently as December said that their investigation had turned up no evidence or indications at all that I had any outside help or contact or had made a deal of any kind to accomplish my mission. I worked alone. I didn’t need anybody’s help, I don’t have any ties to foreign governments, I’m not a spy for Russia or China or any other country for that matter. If I am a traitor who did I betray? I gave all of my information to the American public, to American journalists who are reporting on American issues. If they see that as treason I think people really need to consider who do they think they’re working for. The public is supposed to be their boss not their enemy. Beyond that as far as my personal safety, I’ll never be fully safe until these systems have changed.
After your revelations none of the European countries really offered you asylum. Where did you apply in Europe for asylum?
I can’t remember the list of countries with any specificity because there were many of them but France, Germany were definitely in there as was the UK. A number of European countries, all of whom unfortunately felt that doing the right thing was less important than supporting US political concerns.
One reaction to the NSA snooping is in the very moment that countries like Germany are thinking to create national internets an attempt to force internet companies to keep their data in their own country. Does this work?
It’s not gonna stop the NSA. Let’s put it that way. The NSA goes where the data is. If the NSA can pull text messages out of telecommunication networks in China, they can probably manage to get facebook messages out of Germany. Ultimately the solution to that is not to try to stick everything in a walled garden. Although that does raise the level of sophistication and complexity of taking the information. It’s also much better simply to secure the information internationally against everyone rather than playing “let’s move the data”. Moving the data isn’t fixing the problem. Securing the data is the problem.
President Obama in the very moment obviously doesn’t care too much about the message of the leak. And together with the NSA they do care very much more about catching the messenger in that context. Obama asked the Russian president several times to extradite you. But Putin did not. It looks that you will stay to the rest of your life probably in Russia. How do you feel about Russia in that context and is there a solution to this problem.
I think it’s becoming increasingly clear that these leaks didn’t cause harm in fact they served the public good. Because of that I think it will be very difficult to maintain sort of an ongoing campaign of persecution against someone who the public agrees serve the public interest.
The New York Times wrote a very long comment and demanded clemency for you. The headline “Edward Snowden Whistleblower” and I quote from that: “The public learned in great detail how the agency has extended its mandate and abused its authority.” And the New York Times closes: “President Obama should tell his aides to begin finding a way to end Mr Snowden’s vilification and give him an incentive to return home.” Did you get a call in between from the White House?
I’ve never received a call from the White House and I am not waiting by the phone. But I would welcome the opportunity to talk about how we can bring this to a conclusion that serves the interest of all parties. I think it’s clear that there are times where what is lawful is distinct from what is rightful. There are times throughout history and it doesn’t take long for either an American or a German to think about times in the history of their country where the law provided the government to do things which were not right.
President Obama obviously is in the very moment not quite convinced of that because he said to you are charged with three felonies and I quote: “If you Edward Snowden believe in what you did you should go back to America appear before the court with a lawyer and make your case.” Is this the solution?
It’s interesting because he mentions three felonies. What he doesn’t say is that the crimes that he has charged me with are crimes that don’t allow me to make my case. They don’t allow me to defend myself in an open court to the public and convince a jury that what I did was to their benefit. The espionage act was never intended, it’s from 1918, it was never intended to prosecute journalistic sources, people who are informing the newspapers about information that’s of public interest. It was intended for people who are selling documents in secret to foreign governments who are bombing bridges who are sabotaging communications not people who are serving the public good. So it’s I would say illustrative that the president would choose to say someone should face the music when he knows the music is a show trial.
I haven’t paid much attention to François Hollande, the president of France, since it became clear that he wasn’t going to break with Europe’s destructive, austerity-minded policy orthodoxy. But now he has done something truly scandalous.
I am not, of course, talking about his alleged affair with an actress, which, even if true, is neither surprising (hey, it’s France) nor disturbing. No, what’s shocking is his embrace of discredited right-wing economic doctrines. It’s a reminder that Europe’s ongoing economic woes can’t be attributed solely to the bad ideas of the right. Yes, callous, wrongheaded conservatives have been driving policy, but they have been abetted and enabled by spineless, muddleheaded politicians on the moderate left.
Right now, Europe seems to be emerging from its double-dip recession and growing a bit. But this slight uptick follows years of disastrous performance. How disastrous? Consider: By 1936, seven years into the Great Depression, much of Europe was growing rapidly, with real G.D.P. per capita steadily reaching new highs. By contrast, European real G.D.P. per capita today is still well below its 2007 peak — and rising slowly at best.
Doing worse than you did in the Great Depression is, one might say, a remarkable achievement. How did the Europeans pull it off? Well, in the 1930s most European countries eventually abandoned economic orthodoxy: They went off the gold standard; they stopped trying to balance their budgets; and some of them began large military buildups that had the side effect of providing economic stimulus. The result was a strong recovery from 1933 onward.
Modern Europe is a much better place, morally, politically, and in human terms. A shared commitment to democracy has brought durable peace; social safety nets have limited the suffering from high unemployment; coordinated action has contained the threat of financial collapse. Unfortunately, the Continent’s success in avoiding disaster has had the side effect of letting governments cling to orthodox policies. Nobody has left the euro, even though it’s a monetary straitjacket. With no need to boost military spending, nobody has broken with fiscal austerity. Everyone is doing the safe, supposedly responsible thing — and the slump persists.
In this depressed and depressing landscape, France isn’t an especially bad performer. Obviously it has lagged behind Germany, which has been buoyed by its formidable export sector. But French performance has been better than that of most other European nations. And I’m not just talking about the debt-crisis countries. French growth has outpaced that of such pillars of orthodoxy as Finland and the Netherlands.
It’s true that the latest data show France failing to share in Europe’s general uptick. Most observers, including the International Monetary Fund, attribute this recent weakness largely to austerity policies. But now Mr. Hollande has spoken up about his plans to change France’s course — and it’s hard not to feel a sense of despair.
For Mr. Hollande, in announcing his intention to reduce taxes on businesses while cutting (unspecified) spending to offset the cost, declared, “It is upon supply that we need to act,” and he further declared that “supply actually creates demand.”
So what’s the significance of the fact that, at this of all times, Mr. Hollande has adopted this discredited doctrine?
As I said, it’s a sign of the haplessness of the European center-left. For four years, Europe has been in the grip of austerity fever, with mostly disastrous results; it’s telling that the current slight upturn is being hailed as if it were a policy triumph. Given the hardship these policies have inflicted, you might have expected left-of-center politicians to argue strenuously for a change in course. Yet everywhere in Europe, the center-left has at best (for example, in Britain) offered weak, halfhearted criticism, and often simply cringed in submission.
When Mr. Hollande became leader of the second-ranked euro economy, some of us hoped that he might take a stand. Instead, he fell into the usual cringe — a cringe that has now turned into intellectual collapse. And Europe’s second depression goes on and on
Church finances: Holy disorder
By Alex Barker in Maribor
Father Joze Golovsek is praying for a bailout. But if it comes to the worst and the banks seize his church, he can take solace from knowing they cannot asset-strip the angels.
“It is protected as a cultural heritage,” says the priest, wistfully looking up at the pastel pink and yellow hues of the handsome baroque building in Maribor, Slovenia’s second city. “Any new owner wouldn’t be allowed to resell the relics inside. They can’t dismantle the altar and remove the panorama of holy St Aloysius, or take away the angels.”
ON THIS STORY
- The scandal at the Vatican bank
- Slovenia struggles to avoid EU bailout
- Lex Slovenia
- Slovenia rules out bailout
- Editorial Sliding Slovenia
ON THIS TOPIC
- Understanding EntrepreneursSlovenia
- Slovenia sees sharp slump in output
- Brussels trains its sights on Slovenia
- Slovenian tale need not echo Cyprus script
This 18th century house of God is at risk of repossession not because of the prohibitive cost of repairs but as a result of the commercial misadventures of its clergy. The Archdiocese of Maribor is bankrupt, unable to pay its debts and at the mercy of its creditors. Father Golovsek’s church may pay the price.
The Roman Catholic Church is no stranger to financial troubles. Yet by sheer size, the collapse of Maribor diocese and its associated investment funds – Zvon Ena and Zvon Dva (Bell One and Bell Two) – is one of the biggest to blight the modern Church. Total claims have reached up to €1bn – all that for a small city of 114,000 souls nestled in the lush foothills of the Pohorje mountains.
The events that put St Aloysius into receivership and rocked Slovenia involve unchecked entrepreneurial spirits, arms-length financing, soft porn, a runaway bubble and suspected demonic possession. Already three bishops have resigned and a priest turned financial wizard is facing jail.
For Slovenia, it is a painful reminder of – and a contributor to – the go-go years of the past that have left its economy today on the brink of a eurozone bailout. For the Vatican, now under a Pontiff battling the “idolatry of money”, it is a stark lesson in the perils of hands-off management.
The Church in Slovenia is still reeling. “These events are the fruits of ploys by mysterious evil forces,” said Monsignor Andrej Glavan, president of the Slovenian Bishops’ Conference, last year. “Rationally it is difficult to grasp and understand.”
St Aloysius’s problems stem from being pledged as collateral, along with the bishop’s seat in Maribor’s main square, assorted vineyards, an organ workshop and a disused monastery. These scant assets underpinned an epic financial folly, a sprawling enterprise funded in part by priests urging their flock to entrust the Church with the privatisation certificates they received after Slovenia broke from Yugoslavia and threw off communism. Some 60,000 heeded their call.
Through the two Zvon funds, the diocese stood astride an investment empire spanning publishing, paint manufacturing, glassworks, water parks, telecommunications, Croatian property and a slaughterhouse in Buenos Aires. Paper gains in an overheated stock market secured loans to expand further. When the boom collapsed, so did most investment funds. The Zvons stood out because of their Church ties: this was not a religious institution struggling to manage inherited wealth but a ruinous attempt at building a fortune from scratch.
The final tally from the failure is hard to pin down. Although total claims lodged in the bankruptcy process exceed €1bn, a more accurate figure is perhaps roughly €500m in net loans from banks. By comparison, the Holy See’s annual administration budget is about €250m. It is a remarkable sum given, under Vatican rules, any loans in excess of €1m require Rome’s approval.
Blame for the calamity is heaped on Mirko Krasovec, a canny priest who acted as Maribor’s treasurer for almost a quarter of a century. As the bankruptcy hit in 2011, Krasovec was banished to an Austrian monastery and last month sentenced to two years in jail for a role in embezzling EU grants – a guilty verdict against which he is appealing. While admitting mistakes, he insists he is no more than a scapegoat. His critics are less generous. Anton Guzej, a banker with whom he formerly worked, said: “He always behaved like a baron. His methods were those of Slovenian tycoons.” Krasovec declined to comment.
It is an unlikely fate for a man born to a modest farming family in which four out of five brothers entered the priesthood. He showed an enterprising spirit from a young age, whether making his own shoes or pianos. He was trained in theology, not economics, but impressed as a parish priest when managing a renovation project. In 1985 he took over as treasurer, shepherding Maribor through a critical transition.
The demise of Tito’s Yugoslavia was the Church’s opportunity to reclaim what it had lost. Communist partisans saw the bishops as the enemy within, a permanent threat, tarred with collaborating with fascists during the second world war. Once a state within a state – with football clubs, schools and hospitals – the Church was left with almost nothing. Persecution was relentless. In 1953 Anton Vovk, Ljubljana’s archbishop, was doused in petrol and set alight in the street. The wounds inflicted on Slovenian society are still raw.
As Slovenia seceded in 1991, Krasovec’s sharp instincts proved invaluable. He built connections overseas and opened Krekova, a successful savings bank, which was bought by Austria’s Raiffeisenbank for about €30m in 2002. Relative to Ljubljana, its episcopal big brother, Maribor fared poorly from the restitution of property. Jealousy was rife; Krasovec was the priest with the nous to close that gap. Clerics recall his predecessor saying: “As an old-style treasurer I dealt with the money I had. My successor is dealing with the money he thinks he will have some day.”
A pivotal decision was to collect certificates granted to Slovenes during mass privatisation, which had a notional value of €1,500-€3,000. Priests throughout Slovenia were enlisted to help. St Stanislaus Institute, Slovenia’s top Catholic education institute, claimed that investing with the Church “out of love” would bring “inner joy, now and in eternity”. “God who sees in secret will reward you,” it said.
In the early days, Maribor fared well. While most certificates were badly invested, it oversaw a blue-chip fund that soared as Slovenia moved into the eurozone in 2004. The main market index jumped 500 per cent between 2003 and 2007 – a rise that was eventually wiped out. Simon Zdolsek, the former head of Zvon Ena, said: “We all made a mistake – Zvon and the banks and the Church – because we believed in this boom.”
Krasovec, in an interview with the Delo newspaper before his banishment, said: “It is like you have sown wheat and then the crop is destroyed by hail and at the same time the barn is burnt. Had anyone warned us this would happen, we would never have done it.”
Like many investment funds, the Zvons borrowed too much. Certain decisions made the fallout worse for the bishops. One was to take a controlling stake in the Zvons in 2005 via a vehicle named Gospodarstvo Rast. Legally, there was a distinction but the Zvons were bound to the Church. Another problem was failing to prevent Zvon’s management from straying into more speculative investments. And then there was T2.
It was pornography, in the end, that alerted the Vatican. In late 2007, T2, a company controlled by Zvon Ena, sought to muscle in on the Slovenian television market with a 120-channel package – including several adult offerings. One banker joked that it offered the “finest pornography in Slovenia”. But for the archbishop of Maribor, this was no laughing matter. The morality of its investments was being debated in public.
. . .
There are conflicting accounts of whether Pope Benedict raised the matter directly. But in 2008 when Slovenia’s bishops visited Rome, the message was clear: the porn and financial escapades must stop. The Pontiff preached to the assembled Slovenian bishops in their black cassocks and purple cincture bands on “greater fidelity to the Gospel in the administration of Church property”.
Over time it became apparent that T2’s soft porn was one of its more astute commercial decisions. Its big misjudgment was attempting to build its own telecoms infrastructure across Slovenia – an unfinished and ultimately ruinous goal. The market turned when the project was at its most vulnerable; banks took fright. It was Zvon’s biggest asset and the key to the downfall.
While the Vatican’s suspicions of Maribor were raised in 2008, it took three years for the Holy See to take charge, eventually calling in NM Rothschild, its advisers, ordering an inquiry and ousting three bishops. Even now in Slovenia there is open criticism of Pope Francis for last summer pushing out Monsignor Anton Stres, a popular cleric who became archbishop of Ljubljana after serving in Maribor.
Krasovec argues that he was given strategic direction by the bishops he served. They approved the strategy and backed the crucial decisions, he claims. The problem was the leap into the capitalist markets, not the execution.
In a 30-page letter to clergy leaked to the newspaper Dnevnik by a source other than its author, Krasovec said he “accepted the role of scapegoat”. “But the twisting of the truth goes too far . . . this unjustified blackening of my name will not let the Church save face”.
Aftershocks continue. More prosecutions are possible. Alenka Bratusek, Slovenia’s centre-left prime minister, said the scandal was “amazing”. “We are conducting forensic searches now in our banks so that those that did on purpose commit any wrongs will be brought before the judges.”
Creditors are expecting back only a fraction of their claims. Debate is raging within the Church over compensation for faithful investors. Bogdan Knavs, a Franciscan friar born in Maribor, openly argued regret alone would not absolve the sin of recklessly squandering “savings of small people”. “If this injustice is not settled . . . the stain will blight the Church for decades,” he wrote.
The bishops are standing firm. In their eyes the responsibility is limited: other dioceses are not answerable for Maribor’s errors; Maribor was legally separate from the investment companies; and investors were given several opportunities to cash out. Msgr Glavan said the compensation demands were “unreasonable” given that the Maribor archdiocese “completely depends on its beggar’s stick”.
A neighbouring Austrian diocese may yet intervene to save St Aloysius, and perhaps the bishop’s seat. The Church is painfully aware of the reputational hit it has suffered; a few yards from St Aloysius church are walls daubed with names of church leaders and swastikas. The resentment runs deep.
“I learnt something about the church,” said Zoran Zeljic, a psychologist who invested late in Zvon. “At every mass there is confession, recognition of sin. It is ritual, they say it but they don’t mean it, life goes on as before. They are hiding, hiding from moral responsibility, hiding behind legal structures, hiding from what they owe.”
Church and society: The threat of the satanic red dragon
The ruin of the Maribor archdiocese is a parable for Slovenia as it struggles with the hangover of a runaway boom and the unhealed divisions of history. The country of just 2m people, squeezed between the Adriatic and the Alps, faces its biggest crisis since independence as the bills from a decade of excess and political negligence come due.
Once feted as the great success of post-communist transition, Slovenia has been brought low by corporate cronyism, lax lending and a state that still looms large over the economy.
The clerics of Maribor were far from alone in being swept along in an unsustainable bubble. But their downfall has bitterly divided a society still grappling with the legacy of the second world war and 50 years of communism.
“The red dragon relentlessly attacks,” said Monsignor Andrej Glavan, the Bishop of Novo Mesto, evoking the seven-headed beast of the Book of Revelations. “Satan exploits the weaknesses and failures of one of the six dioceses . . . to mount an attack on the entire Church in Slovenia.”
Ivan Stuhec, a prominent theologian, said: “My opinion remains that the Zvons could have been saved. If we could have saved the Zvons we could have saved Rast [the Church holding company] and with that we would have saved the archdiocese.”
The Zvons were in better shape than other Slovenian funds that collapsed. Companies it backed are still prospering. But Slovenian stocks fell 40 per cent after the Zvons declared bankruptcy. Any white knight for Maribor needed deep pockets.
People involved in the final days say a Vatican-brokered loan was close – even provisionally accepted – before it was scuppered by a mysterious intervention. Banks later demanded collateral from other dioceses, leaving some suspecting a plot against the entire Church.
Mr Stuhec has previously denounced lobbies attempting to “behead” the Church. “I don’t think the trap was set for us,” he said. “The people within the Church strayed so far that they could be captured. And when they were already in the trap it was of course exploited by opponents of the Church.”
Additional reporting: Urban Cervek and Caroline Bauman