The communications revolution is stirring up national and global politics. The ‘powers that be’ are scurrying to gather and control information so they can continue to further their clandestine objectives. Democracy is being challenged to mature or falter.
Corporate, military and other interests use information technology with a vengeance. While they work hard to keep the public onside and in the dark, a new generation of global whistle blowers enters the historical scene. Those protecting narrow interests attack the global dissidents as “criminals”, even “traitors”, while they may use their centralized powers to circumvent the rule of law. Those with enough personal courage to reveal the deception face the threat of severe sanctions.
Optimistically, the era we are entering might be called the globalization of conscience. And a global conscience is what we’ll need to make the transition to a more sustainable time. While state and corporate agencies hack into other peoples or governments computers and monitor their calls, some who witness what’s happening behind the cloak of secrecy ask why the public which is the electorate and taxpayer doesn’t know? And so the information wars begin.
Just since 2010 we’ve seen a 25 year-old army intelligence officer who served in Iraq, Bradley (Chelsea) Manning, release military and diplomatic files to Wikileaks (2010). She’s now serving 35 years for violating the Espionage Act. We’ve seen the then 35 year-old founder of Wikileaks (2006), Julian Assange fleeing from a European arrest warrant and since June 2012 being captive under diplomatic asylum in Ecuador’s London Embassy. And just this past May 2013 we’ve seen a 30 year-old contract computer specialist, Edward Snowden disclose classified documents showing mass, global internet and telephone surveillance by the U.S. National Security Authority (NSA). Snowden has been charged with espionage and is presently in asylum in Russia.
We’ve come a long way since 1971 when Daniel Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers exposing U.S. deception during the Vietnam war. Assange, Manning and Snowden are the first, high profile pioneers of this generation’s information activists for global democracy. Thanks to them we are seeing what our governments have been doing in secrecy, in our names and we are starting the vital debate about the encroachment of national security into the realm of privacy. We are beginning to understand the economic double standard, where the rich hide wealth off-shore and the rest of us pay our fair share of taxes. We are seeing how national security is being used as a guise to advance commercial interests.
Such massive spying is repeatedly justified as necessary to counter terrorism. But this can also be a ploy to cover over the motives and pervasiveness of the surveillance. Snowden’s leaks show that not only is the U.S.’s National Security Agency (NSA) spying on its own civilians but has been monitoring the inner communications of other friendly governments. Not even Germany’s Chancellor Merkel has escaped the NSA’s net. The “Five Eyes” spy network (U.S., UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada) which conspires for such intrusions, seems modeled on the British Empire and its Anglo-Saxon colonies.
The NSA is now a mammoth surveillance bureaucracy 40,000 strong. From leaks we know that it’s involved in commercial surveillance, for example monitoring Brazil’s mining. In the guise of intensifying security after 9/11, state surveillance is being done in the name of protecting corporate growth and profit. This is the logical outcome of placing “economism” above all else: above democracy, human rights, environmental protection and scientific evidence itself.
Snowden’s files are now in the hands of Glenn Greenwald who is working with The Guardian, Washington Post and The New York Times to ensure that ongoing releases follow journalistic conventions in the public interest. And Snowden’s leaks have already brought the issues to our doorstep. With the help of the CBC and The Globe and Mail we know that for six days in 2010, with Canadian government knowledge, the NSA used their Canadian Embassy to spy on the countries attending the G20 meetings in Toronto. Not only were civilians arrested without cause but the Harper government seems complicit in NSA surveillance on Canadian visitors that would be illegal for our own counterpart, the Communications Security Establishment Canada or CSEC. Under Harper the CSEC has grown, now with a budget of $460 million dollars and 2,000 strong. Officials haven’t denied what the NSA leaks show, they just paraphrase what our laws say as though this will inoculate them from this new scandal.
The growth of global whistle blowers has happened since the Harper Conservatives won power in 2006. After recent revelations about the senate scandal it seems clear that the Harper Conservatives also intentionally keep crucial information from the voting public. Whether using attack tactics, condescending talking points or evading straight-forward questions, they divert attention from finding the truth. Political transparency and accountability have suffered greatly. Meanwhile history provides many examples of how prolonged use of anti-democratic tactics enables dictatorial-like governments to get re-elected. Voter beware!
While the federal government puts more surveillance mechanisms in place, it also tries to shield itself from transparency. The Harper government has systematically narrowed access to information that should be widely available to ensure an informed citizenry. The emails of lawyer Benjamin Perrin who acted for Harper’s PMO in negotiations with Senator Duffy first disappeared and were said to be erased. but have now reappeared three months after they were first requested. The senate majority has voted down hearing testimony that might reveal conflict of interest and perhaps even collusion between auditors and the Conservative Party. Imagine how little we would know about the senate scandal if the RCMP hadn’t been able to track the PMO emails which show the backroom and potentially illegal wheeling and dealing? Imagine what governance would be like if Harper was able to control the police the way he has controlled parliament and tried to control the senate?
How much protection do we have from such anti-democratic practices? Canada’s Commissioner of Information has just informed us that there remains a “gaping hole” in public access to information; the text messaging involved in the costly administration of both parliament and senate is not subject to Access to Information requirements and these messages disappear from servers within 30 days. Might these disappearing records help answer the questions that Harper and his stand-in MP’s refuse to answer during Question Period? Might there have been some from Harper’s past PMO lawyer?
THE DEMOCRATIC CHALLENGE
Since 2006 the Harper government has been quite successful in end-running both the elected parliament and the “free press”. According to liberal democratic ideology the official opposition and Fourth Estate are supposed to keep governments accountable to the citizenry that elects them. It hasn’t worked that well to date.
The Harper government wants to lord over us, protected from public scrutiny, using undemocratic practices to erode our right to privacy, our right to know and even our right to a clean environment. It’s likely that the Harper government has used the same tactics of spying to undermine global attempts to get a climate change treaty. Increasing restrictions on what government-employed scientists can do or say about the impending climate crisis is another, very dangerous way that the Harper government steers governance from evidence to ideologically-based cover-ups and untruths.
The public interest can never be served by governments that are not only driven by their fear of the public becoming more knowledgeable about what they are doing, but by their own fears of knowledge itself. The global whistle blowers have perhaps come just in time. Hopefully they will continue to expose the inner workings of Harper’s would-be corporate state so that after 2015 we can rebuild Canada upon its democratic traditions in this global information age.