No place to hide: Snowden, Greenwald and Australia’s “national security media”
This piece was first published in New Matilda on 29 July 2014
Australia is about to get a new raft of national security legislation – the National Security Legislation Amendment Bill – that will radically increase the scope and powers of our spy agencies to snoop on private citizens. The justification for this ramping up of ASIO and ASIS espionage power is the supposed threat from Islamic radicals who, having fought overseas in Syria and Iraq, will be likely to import violent jihad back into Australia. It is a line run almost daily in the Australian news media over the past few weeks .
This is a tenuous justification at best. The historic evidence shows that the police – at both state and federal level – and the nation’s spooks already have ample power to deal with any real and present danger posed by jihadists. For example, Operation Pendennis, which led to the conviction of 13 alleged terrorists in 2007-2008, was conducted using existing phone-tap and other surveillance powers. Between July 2004 and November 2005, the Pendennis dragnet accumulated 16,400 hours of recordings from bugs and 98,000 telephone intercepts; but now ASIO, the Federal Police and state agencies want to sweep up even more calls and even more data.
Additional powers – to tap phones, infiltrate and hack computer networks, give spies the power to entrap suspects and to store electronic metadata for several years – are not necessary under current conditions. However, that has not stopped Attorney General George Brandis (aka “Raging Bedsore”) from touting the new laws as measures to save Australian lives and to keep safe the national interest.
Well, of course the Government – and her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition – would say that wouldn’t they? It’s no surprise that the nation’s politicians, who govern through the promotion of irrational fears and promises of a quick fix, would jump on the “more powers to the spooks” bandwagon. After all, there are votes and endorsements in “security” issues; as well as happy feelings of safety and warmth induced by the vague and unfounded notion of keeping the country out of “harm’s way” and by appearing to be “tough” on terrorists. It is the tried and true method of invoking the sexy beast Laura Norder; and in a world of uncertainty, devastation and death (think Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan Gaza, MH17 and other global hotspots) her warm, comforting embrace seems like a haven from the horror and bloodshed.
But perhaps we might have expected a little more searching, or a little more critical and independent analysis from the nation’s leading media outlets. Maybe it would not have been too much to ask for at least one correspondent or pundit to write a “think piece” about how the call for more spying and less oversight could result in less freedom, not more. Surely there is one “national security” correspondent or “defence” editor out there in the media world who feels it necessary to add a note of caution about our unthinking stumble towards Nineteen Eighty-four?
If you’ve been looking for that op-ed or the news piece quoting critics of the Government’s new legislation, you’ve no doubt been thoroughly disappointed. It is missing in action; not there, invisible and unreported. Instead what we’ve seen in the last few weeks is article after op-ed after editorial praising and supporting the unseemly rush to becoming a nation of spies and spied upon.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised at the lack of critical reporting; and, if you’ve seen Glenn Greenwald’s excellent recent book, No Place to Hide , you might be slightly and wryly amused at the lack of opposing views, but you won’t be surprised.
Greenwald has written his insider’s account of meeting Edward Snowden for the first time in a Hong Kong hotel room and coming to terms with the enormity of Snowden’s selfless action and the implications held in the treasure trove of National Security Administration data held in the cache of secrets he handed over for public scrutiny.
That story should be familiar to New Matilda readers. Unless you’ve been on Mars for the past year you will know about the NSA documents that revealed, inter alia, Australia’s spying on the Indonesians, the Americans spying on the Germans and pretty much any nation and anybody with a copper wire communication network, an Internet connection or mobile phone.
The sheer scale of snooping – billions of intercepted messages every day – is mind-boggling enough. Greenwald is convinced (and convincing) on the point that the NSA has a goal to collect every bit of electronic information that blips its way across the global communication network. He writes that the NSA mantra is “collect everything” and it is the logistics of doing this, then storing and sorting the results, that he forensically dissects in No Place to Hide.
One of the realisations that any intelligent reader of this book will come to is that the NSA and its “Five Eyes” partners (UK, New Zealand, Canada and Australia) [https://www.privacyinternational.org/reports/eyes-wide-open/understanding-the-five-eyes] could not manage the collection and sifting of so much data without the explicit cooperation of the world’s major telecommunications companies. Yep, just about everyone you deal with for your electronic data life is implicated – Yahoo, Skype, Microsoft, Apple, Google, Verizon, Dell, Facebook and countless others – everyone is scooping and sharing your data with the NSA and God knows who else.
As Edward Snowden told Greenwald during one of their first Hong Kong interviews: “I saw firsthand that the State, especially the NSA, was working hand in hand with the private tech industry to get full access to people’s communications.”
A quick reminder that Snowden was employed by the private consulting firm Booz, Allen Hamilton while working at the NSA HQ is all you need to grasp the implications of this. The entire global economy is now systemically and irrevocably enmeshed in an alliance with Governments to suck, squeeze and pulp our data in order to make the juice of profits and to keep the world safe from people like us.
That’s why it is really good to have strong individuals like Glenn Greenwald and Edward Snowden in the world today. If we relied on the mainstream media to tell us this stuff, we would never know.
No Place to Hide also provides clues as to the “Why?” of the MSM’s silence on the downsides to the creeping, all-seeing surveillance state. There’s a fantastic chapter that details the media’s complicity in not reporting, or more often mis-reporting, the actions of the NSA. The details are different, of course, but the general outline is applicable in Australia. We are experiencing the world of the “national security news media”.
The roots of the media’s complicit silence in relation to surveillance go back to the immediate political reactions to the events of “9/11”. Since that time, Greenwald writes, “the US media in general has been jingoistic and intensely loyal to the government and this hostile, sometimes viciously so, to anyone who exposed its secrets.” The same thing applies here. Even today some columnists cling to the lie of Iraqi WMD, preferring to spout the line that they just “haven’t been found yet”; more than a decade on from the disaster of Iraq some commentators refuse to see that it was a terrible mistake, built on fabrication and probably a war crime. But, history is written by the victors and its first “rough draft” is compiled by the loyal stenographers in the political press corps.
When it comes to “national security” and the surveillance state, loyal news editors and respected senior writers on policy and politics continue to toe theline. When Greenwald was doing the rounds of American political talk shows, he was confronted with a wall of hostility from his journalistic colleagues: “Many US journalists resumed their accustomed role as servants to the government.” In June 2103 the story turned from the expose of “serious NSA abuses”, to one that Snowden had “betrayed” the US, “committed crimes and then ‘fled to China’”.
In Australia, the Snowden is a “traitor” line continues to be vehemently pursued in the Murdoch newspapers, which increasingly reflect a kind of Aussie-fied Tea Party ideological bent. And it is Murdoch’s The Australian that is leading the “national security”: cheer squad for Bedsore’s touted “improvements” to ASIO and ASIS spying powers. However, to be fair, the Fairfax outlets are well and truly in-line and waving the flag almost as vigorously as News Corps.
I call this proposition the “position of the complicit insider” and it’s not a new phenomenon. The political media – Press Gallery journalists in Australia – enjoy a privileged status alongside politicians, political advisors and senior bureaucrats. Reporters and commentators are often seduced by the close access they gain to the centres of power and political operators are therefore able to prevail upon them to non-disclosure of uncomfortable secrets. As well as this agreement not to rock the boat too hard in return for favours (in reality scraps of information that the insiders want revealed), political reporters feel a false sense of duty to act “responsibly” and not reveal information, or write stories that might damage some false notion of “national security”.
Anyone who regularly reads the “quality” press in Australia (including The Guardian), or who watches political chat shows on television will instantly recognize this problem.
In July 2014 we saw a good example of the supportive opinion piece genre in The Weekend Australian. Associate Editor Cameron Stewart wrote a lengthy commentary endorsing the Government’s proposed tougher surveillance powers and data retention laws . Stewart noted the “hand-wringing” of Left and liberal commentators when the then Howard Government updated and upgraded anti-terror and security laws in 2005 and added that in 2014 it was only “the Greens and a handful of human rights lawyers” who seemed to be complaining. Stewart repeats all the claims made by Bedsore and ASIO boss David Irvine that returning jihadists pose a significant danger and that the collection of electronic “metadata” is just a harmless means of identifying potential threats.
In Stewart’s worldview, any opposition to greater surveillance powers is dismissed as being an issue of concern only for “the Left” and its “prism of Cold War excesses”. Security officials are uncritically quoted about the effectiveness of metadata collection in previous terror-related prosecution. Stewart has only one area of concern: that journalists could be targeted by new provisions to prevent Snowden-style leaks. Stewart’s newspaper has never had much regard for Edward Snowden, whom it says – echoing the American view – is a traitor, not a whistleblower.
The Weekend Australian also carried an editorial supporting the boosting of security laws; ironically the paper seemed to blame communications technology for creating the need to change the law:
In the internet age, legislation governing Australia’s intelligence agencies must keep pace with terrorists’ capacity to use technology
When it comes to the Snowden materials, Greenwald makes the argument that the well-connected Washington media will never go all the way. He says it is an “unwritten rule” that only a few documents from such a vast treasure trove of secrets would be revealed, “so as to limit its impact…and then walk away, ensuring that nothing had really changed”.
This sensibility is evident in the recent Australian reporting of ASIO seeking more powers, or police breach of their own rules for eavesdropping.
A June 2014 story headlined ‘New surveillance powers aim to boost fight against terrorism’, by the Fairfax “National security correspondent” David Wroe, is framed in such a way that the move seems both natural and necessary. The lede clearly suggests that the move is necessary, “amid growing fears about the terrorism threat posed by Australians fighting in the Middle East.”
In the second par the clear distinction is made between “innocent third-party computers” and “a computer used by a suspect terrorist or criminal”, but already the scope of the powers is broadened from just a “suspect terrorist” to now include “criminal” behaviour.
The third par equates the reader’s interest with the point of view of the security services themselves by suggesting the new rules would benefit law enforcement “dramatically freeing up surveillance powers”. Of course, there’s really nothing to worry about because the new, expanded spying powers would only be used, reassuringly, “under ministerial authorisation”.
In the fifth par we are lulled to sleep with the anodyne phrase the “intelligence community” and with the further assurance that what this benign community group has “long called for” is to remove “hurdles” in the way of legitimate “investigations” and to fix a “failure of the law to keep pace with technology”.
The report goes on to tell us that the changes are based on recommendations made by a “parliamentary inquiry, last year, supported by Labor” – the appearance of bi-partisan support is meant to be reassuring too. We are reminded that the report to parliament “stressed there needed to be strict safeguards, including guarantees that the intrusion on the third party’s privacy would be minimised”.
The security community worldwide is fond of the word “minimised”. “Minimisation” is supposed to occur in the US context too, where it means that all non-relevant information is stripped from surveilled communications before it is passed on for analysis. However, as the Snowden documents reveal, in the race to “collect everything”, non-relevant data is always collected and nearly always stored, analysed and archived for later retrieval.
In other words, we cannot trust our political masters; they are probably lying to us and they are most certainly pulling the wool over the eyes of gullible “National security reporters” like David Wroe. Perhaps I’m being a bit harsh by suggesting Wroe is gullible and there is another explanation that stands up. If you are the “National security reporter” it really is not in your interests (or your employer’s) for you to run foul of the key sources who inhabit your beat. If you were to write critically about an official source, for example, the next time you call for a comment, s/he might hang up on you. More likely, their departmental boss will call your boss and you’ll be back on the shipping rounds.
Whatever the ultimate cause, the gulling of the public continues in Wroe’s June 2014 article when he pulls in a “third party” expert to assess the situation. In this case the expert is hardly an independent analyst:
Tobias Feakin, a cybersecurity expert at the Australian Strategic Police [sic] Institute, said the changes would update legislation that was ”well out of date”.
Oops, an interesting Freudian slip by David Wroe; Dr Feakin is actually attached to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and has solid ties into the defence and security establishment, including the Royal United Services Institute (a UK-based military think tank) where he was “Head of Homeland Security Capabilities” and “Director, National Security and Resilience Department” between 2006 and 2007.
Most of the time we don’t bother to check the CVs of these experts that are put in front of us, all too often without question. If “expert” and “official” sources say something then a journalist will usually just report it with stenographic accuracy and perhaps (if we’re lucky) offer up one or two tame questions to be kicked away by the expert.
Dr Feakin is particularly popular on ABC News24 where he pops up on an all too regular basis, confirming Greenwald’s central thesis about media complicity. In September 2013 Dr Feakin was used as a source in an Australian Financial Review story about the new and expensive ASIO headquarters building in Canberra. This story reveals that when ASIO and the Defence Signals Directorate (DSD) occupy their new building, private companies in the security industry will be offered the opportunity to “collocate” some of their employees alongside the nation’s senior spooks.
It is expected the centre will allow executives and security staff from select industries to share knowledge and learn from government cyber specialists…in a bid to liaise more frequently with private industry, a task DSD cannot easily do as a Department of Defence entity.
This is another classic play from the American security state experience that highlights with some certainty that the Security State needs to be enmeshed with the security industry in order to function at a high level. If you ever thought the interests of the State and of Capital were not contiguous, let this dispel you of that myth right now. The AFR article confirms it with this simple statement:
Senior intelligence officials said they remain deeply concerned about the vulnerabilities that exist outside a few “islands of excellence”. They said relatively “hardened” areas include the major banks and Telstra, which last year hired a former DSD deputy director, Mike Burgess, as its chief security officer. (emphasis added)
Dr Feakin makes an appearance in the final two paragraphs of the story and it is abundantly clear which side of the security fence this “independent” analyst sits:
[Feakin] welcomed the move to integrate private firms into the new cyber operations centre, but said companies would have to be “willing to share data with government, otherwise momentum will be lost and they won’t keep their focus on such efforts”.
The story of Dr Feakin is also a salutary lesson that we should never take for granted the so-called independence and bona fides of the experts served up to us by a complicit and compliant media.
We can expect to see more of this type of “national security news” over the coming months as the new expanded spying power legislation is passed and bedded in. If you want to really know what’s going on, look beyond the mainstream media, which has decided to enjoy the comforts of the insider and to lull the rest of us into a false sense of security.
Remember, there really is no place to hide any longer.