I spy with my little eye something that looks like hypocrisy

Opinion: It is surprising that so many people seem surprised by the extent of surveillance

On Wednesday last week, German chancellor Angela Merkel telephoned Barack Obama and protested in reportedly robust terms against the hacking of her mobile phone by the US National Security Agency.

Mrs Merkel will have known for at least a month – maybe much longer – that the NSA had for years been monitoring the phone and email communications of perhaps millions of German citizens. But it was only when she learned that she had herself been a target that she was sufficiently exercised to tell Obama, or his security services, to stop snooping on her.

This hints at the real attitude of European leaders to the revelations of Edward Snowden – who deserves to be swamped in praise from all who believe in the public's right to know, but who instead is reviled and belittled even by British journalists who use their next breath to shout from the rooftops about the dangers to freedom of the flimsy press regulator proposed by the Westminster parties.

Nothing new
The most surprising aspect of the Snowden revelations is that so many have claimed to be surprised and expected this claim to be believed. The scale of the surveillance and the depth of the intrusion may be unprecedented. That's mainly a function of technological advance. But there is nothing new about the readiness of the security agencies – not just in the US – to use every means available to invade the privacy of citizens and then to mutter the mantra "national security" as justification.

Anyone with a serious interest in global politics will have known the basic facts prior to Snowden blowing the whistle.


In the mid-1970s, a senate committee under Democrat Frank Church investigated the operations of the country's security agencies and delivered a series of reports of sharp relevance to current matters. At the time, few members of Congress knew much of what the CIA was up to and next to nothing of the activities of the NSA. It was apparently a Washington joke that the initials stood for "No Such Agency".

Church's committee was far from a maverick outfit. It included future Democratic vice-president Walter Mondale, conservative Republican Howard Baker and even more conservative Republican Barry Goldwater. Church himself was a middle of the road Democrat from Idaho. In August 1975, he spoke to NBC's Meet the Press about his committee's discoveries.

"The United States government has perfected a technological capability that enables us to monitor the messages that go through the air . . . That capability at any time could be turned around on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left . . . Telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn't matter. There would be no place to hide.

“[This] technological capacity . . . could enable (the government) to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back because the most careful effort to combine together in resistance to the government, no matter how privately it was done, is within the reach of the government to know.”

A senator who spoke in such terms today would face a hurricane of abuse.

On September 26th, the Guardian, quoting the Snowden documents, revealed that Church and Baker were themselves placed under NSA surveillance in the late 1970s. Baker was a strong supporter of the Vietnam War. It was presumably on account of his involvement in the Church investigation that he was being watched.

Despite this long history, President Obama had, seven weeks earlier, on August 6th, reassured Americans on national television that, “We don’t have a domestic spying programme . . . There is no spying on Americans.”

As for the "revelation" that the United Nations had been targeted . . . In February 2004, Clare Short, who had just resigned as international development secretary in the Blair government in protest against the war in Iraq, told a BBC interviewer that, "The UK in this time was also getting spies on [UN secretary general] Kofi Annan. Well, I know – I've seen transcripts of Kofi Annan's conversations."

Taken aback, the interviewer pressed: “Let’s be very clear about this in case I am misunderstanding you. British spies have been instructed to carry out operations inside the UN on people like Kofi Annan?” Ms Short replied, “Yes, absolutely.”

Some of the spying on the UN had obviously been undertaken by the NSA’s British partner, the government communications headquarters.

The evidence suggests that the anger of American and other western leaders at Snowden letting citizens know what’s being done in their name arises not from fear of national security being compromised but from chagrin at being found out.

Edward Snowden has destroyed his life in the service of truth and democracy. He is a 22-carat hero. It is difficult to think of any other official involved in the controversy who has emerged with credit.