Edward Snowden and PRISM were headline news not because of the surveillance activities of the American intelligence system, but the sheer volume, geographical spread and range of subjects. There has been considerable feigned surprise about this but the truth is that state surveillance is as old as history. It is perhaps the extent — 97 billion pieces of information collected from all over the world in March 2013 for instance — that has frightened some. It is also part disbelief that this massive surveillance occurs in the great open American society.
If Echelon was huge years ago, PRISM is even bigger today. It is estimated there are 800,000 government employees and private contractors working on intelligence in the US. In the United States, everything is on a gigantic scale. Also, they can afford this profligacy of spending billions of dollars on intelligence in trying to secure their nation. But there’s also something else at play here: Big Money.
There has been investigative and authoritative writing by several Americans. Tim Shorrock (Spies for Hire) explained in detail the privatisation and outsourcing of intelligence to mega-corporations with revolving doors and James Bamford (The Puzzle Palace and The Body of Secrets) detailed the gigantic scale of National Security Agency (NSA) operations. Shorrock called it the industry-intelligence complex, in addition to the military-industrial complex that Dwight D. Eisenhower had warned about over half a century ago. We go a step further now, and it’s called the security-industry complex.
For the extra diligent Andrew Feinstein’s The Shadow World is recommended. This is about the global arms trade and where the American revolving door between the government and the corporate sector operates with equal ease and mutual profit, giving a clear idea where real power resides. It’s not in the White House nor on Capitol Hill. Big names like Dick Cheney, George Bush Sr and Jr, Donald Rumsfeld and a host of others appear on both sides. Even the Bin Laden family had figured with Big Money. The tie-ups of Congressmen and bureaucrats with defence contractors extend to all major US defence weapons and equipment manufacturers. The campaign funds of some Congressmen are believed to be financed by top private military contractors. It’s not surprising that when the issue of surveillance was to be discussed in the Congress recently, only one-third of Congressmen could find time to participate.
The Carlyle Group, a major conglomerate, which owns another giant, Booz Allen Hamilton, has its board members on several other mega-corporations like ExxonMobil, Reuters and Ford Motor, and relies heavily on Wall Street money. There are others in this intricate web of alliances and arrangements with the Central Intelligence Agency and NSA. These include IBM, Lockheed Martin, SAIC, and CACI. We now we have Verizon, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo!, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter whose data is mined by companies like Booz Allen Hamilton, Palantir and i2, all of them enveloping the world in a gigantic stratospheric echo chamber which includes US nationals in America.
With the miniaturisation of technology to nano-technology we are looking at entirely new ways by which the Big State can keep watch on citizens. Maybe it will, by law, and in time, embed chips in newborn children that will monitor, from cradle to grave, all movements, speech, action and possibly even thought so that all coverage is automatic, instant and all-pervasive. Add to this artificial intelligence, that would be faster than human intelligence, and Big Brother will know us by our barcodes. Welcome George Orwell, this is 2084.
Ultimately, it’s up to each country and its people to determine how much security they need and how much liberty they are willing to give up. There is no doubt many countries are threatened in their way of life by terrorism. It is surprising and alarming that in a country that prides itself on adherence to the rule of law, there is such extensive surveillance on its own citizens in the US, mostly achieved through a pliant Congress or by circumventing it.
Yet, the most difficult issue is to decide when do privacy and individual rights give way to unlimited state surveillance. In times of war, certainly, for the limited time that the war lasts. But counterterrorism is a long, dirty, unseen and endless war against an unseen enemy. Terrorists don’t carry name tags or flags, nor do they have mailing addresses. In India, those in the business have known how important and difficult it is to have access to worthwhile eavesdropping as part of technical surveillance. We all remember the famous Musharraf-Aziz conversation during the Kargil War that pinned the blame on the Pakistan Army. Recently, one heard a recording of conversations between Lashkar-e-Tayyaba controllers and operatives discussing plans to eliminate the BJP leadership. There have been numerous other incidents when intelligence surveillance saved the day for the country and for individuals.
Besides, fighting terrorism is not just the concern of the police, armed forces or the intelligence agencies. Terror is also against the common man and he has to participate in the fight against this menace. But is he willing to sacrifice some amount of his privacy to help the cause? After all, when the police hunt for a criminal or a terrorist travelling on a highway, they do have surveillance and roadblocks. We do subject ourselves to scrutiny at airports, railway stations and in India, entry into malls and cinema halls. We have our agony aunt columns where we are willing to share secrets with unknown entities. We happily share details of our bank accounts and income-tax returns when we apply for visas. So why not with the state?
Of course there have to be constitutional provisions and institutionally-legalised supervisions/oversight to this kind of action, accompanied by empowerment of the intelligence organisation. This would be to ensure against misuse at all levels and guard against the tyranny of the petty bureaucrat, venality of the system or politicisation of this privilege. This is the most difficult part of the arrangement in a country like ours where our observance of the rule of law is very weak.
The basic rule is that intelligence surveillance of all kinds is a necessary add-on to “humint”, and simply cannot be put away. The perennially unresolved issue is — what price freedom, and what cost security?
The writer is a former head of the Research and Analysis Wing, India’s external intelligence agency