edward-snowden-petitionThere’s a passage in the must-watch interview with the NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden that pulled me up short. He says:

Even if you’re not doing anything wrong you’re being watched and recorded. … You simply have to eventually fall under suspicion from somebody even by a wrong call. And then they can use this system to go back in time and scrutinize every decision you’ve ever made, every friend you’ve ever discussed something with. And attack you on that basis to sort to derive suspicion from an innocent life and paint anyone in the context of a wrongdoer.

It pulled me up short because it reminded me of The Crucible, Arthur Miller’s play set against the backdrop of the 1692 Salem witch trials. Of course, The Crucible was an allegory about America’s domestic Cold War politics, of McCarthy, HUAC and “Are you now or have you ever been…?”.

So, suddenly the whole thing laid itself out for me. Let me try to explain.

Guilt by association

The Crucible is a play about suspicion, and it works in much the same way that Snowden describes, in which guilt by association is construed retrospectively, and new information is never proof of innocence, or, indeed, falsifiable. In the context of 21st century politics, this is about the construction of a state of fear, in both senses of the word, in which the bland protestations (for example by British Foreign Secretary William Hague) that “you have nothing to fear if you have nothing to hide” become meaningless. As Snowden observes, anyone can become an object of suspicion after the fact. There’s a New Yorker article on Miller and Salem that helps:

The Salem court had moved to admit “spectral evidence” as proof of guilt; as in 1952, the question was not the acts of an accused but his thoughts and intentions. Miller understood the universal experience of being unable to believe that the state has lost its mind.

Of course, the FBI did well out of the Cold War anti-communist phase in American domestic politics, with J. Edgar Hoover using it to blight his enemies, whether or not they had done anything wrong. And, of course, so did the other agencies. There’s an easy metaphorical connection to make to NASA and PRISM, but there’s also a structural one as well.

The decline of the bad guy business

One of the problems that the security services have had since the end of the Cold War is that there isn’t really enough business to go round. Now that the bad guy industry is largely freelance, instead of being state-supported, there just isn’t the same volume of work. Private sector businesses facing this problem do one of two things: they downsize, or they look for ways to create new sources of demand. And that’s what the secusity services have done. Make-work schemes have proliferated.

I know that at this point some readers will be asking, “What about al-Qaeda?” I’m not saying they’re not real, just that they’re disproportionately small in comparison to the resources the security services have, and wish to protect from cuts.

And so we end up in the world of the elephant gun. The elephant gun? Ah yes, the elephant gun. An old music hall joke:

FUNNY MAN: I say, I say, I say, I bought an elephant gun to keep the elephants down.
STRAIGHT MAN: But there aren’t any elephants in Balham.
FUNNY MAN: That just shows you how effective it is.

Crossing the lines

And without having to go too far into the realms of conspiracy theories, it is also the case that the relationship between the security services and those they seek to monitor strays beyond monitoring to encouragement. If you doubt this, it is worth spending some time with the recent Open Democracy article on the close links between MI5 and the radical Islamic group that spawned the killers of Drummer Lee Rigby on the streets of Woolwich last month. And at the same time, certainly in the UK, there is the creation of whole groups of enemies of the state, who are actually engaging in non-violent protest, where the line between surveillance and entrapment is crossed.

Indeed, one of the many things to like about the last Bond film, Skyfall, was the way it played off this issue. On the one hand, Judi Dench’s M makes the speech to the Parliamentary Committee (or whatever it is) about our enemies:

M: I suppose I see a different world than you do, and the truth is that what I see frightens me. I’m frightened because our enemies are no longer known to us. They do not exist on a map. They’re not nations, they’re individuals. … Our world is not more transparent now, it’s more opaque! It’s in the shadows. That’s where we must do battle. So before you declare us irrelevant, ask yourselves, how safe do you feel?

By the time she gets back to headquarters it is in flames. But it turns out that their enemy (small spoiler alert) Is one of their own gone rogue. We have seen the enemy – and he is us.

The rise of security theatre

In fact there’s no better indicator of this new world of “security theatre” that MI6’s ostentatious Terry Farrell-designed headquarters by the banks of the Thames, featured in Skyfall, and commissioned just after the end of the Cold War (no, this is not coincidence). When I worked as a journalist in the ’80s, the security services were largely invisible – the network of discreet offices and safe houses portrayed in John LeCarre’s Smiley novels. You needed to know investigative journalists, or read between the lines of official documents, to find out where they where. When these buildings announce themselves to us in architecture journals, security has become performance.

Of course, the final question is why politicians let them get away with it, which is the question implicit in the Snowden interview. And this is a complicated story. But at heart it can be stripped down to some essentials.

  • Organisational dynamics. As the security services have developed their approach to security theatre, the daily life of the politician has become increasingly cut off from the rest of us – and dropped into a world where security is an overwhelming feature of their everyday lives.
  • Game theory. There’s no upside, and a huge downside, to disbelieving the security services’ claims of impending terrorist attacks. If you call it wrong, reject their advice, and something happens, you’re toast. Much safer to go along with world of over-claim, “reliable field reports”, and false positives. None of which you can ever share.
  • Disconnected political class. Now that politicians have more or less detached themselves from their political parties, they have little connection with ordinary people. Instead they live in a Beltway or Westminster Bubble, in a world of nods and winks and narrowly shared assumptions, where it is a sign of status to know about secrets, even if the secrets themselves are nonsense.

A threat to the political class

And there’s a huge danger in that distance, because it means that dissent is no longer seen as part of the political process but as a threat to the political class. Digital technology means that surveillance is greater than ever, as Prism has demonstrated, but it goes further than surveillance. In the United States, anarchists charged with no crime are likely to be jailed for not testifying to a shadowy Grand Jury on a “fishing expedition”; in the UK the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police can claim it proportionate to have scores of riot police storm a house being used by protestors, while at the same time justifying the use of under-cover agents provocateurs embedded in protest groups. [Update: Not to mention Obama’s sweeping ‘Insider Threats‘ programme.]

So we’re in a world where the only people who can disrupt this shadow state are people who used to do the work themselves. Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers, says Snowden’s material is the most significant disclosure in American history, and I think he’s probably right. This is true even if it turns out that this huge leak is inspired by an internecine feud between different agencies, as has happened in the past. The important part is that by leaking the material, regardless of motive, he’s torn a huge hole in the “normal” world of mass surveillance now being managed by our security services largely in their own interests, and pushed it into the light.

One of the things that Snowden said in his clear interview is that this is essentially about politics: that judgments that should be public and political judgments were suborned by unaccountable and secretive agencies:

I think that the public is owed an explanation of the motivations behind the people who make these disclosures that are outside of the democratic model. When you are subverting the power of government that’s a fundamentally dangerous thing to democracy.

But that’s a story for another post.

The image from the top of this post is from Mashable’s story on the petition to the White House to pardon Snowden, and is used with thanks.