Juan Cole: We Shouldn't Be Spying on OurselvesRoundup: Historians' Take
Juan Cole, on his blog (Feb. 27, 2004):
Philip Knightley and Kim Sengupta describe how the US National Security Agency and the British Government Communications Headquarters eavesdrop on the whole world. The NSA is forbidden from listening in on Americans without a warrant, but the US government circumvents this problem by formally allowing the GCHQ to spy on Americans. The NSA listens in on British calls, and then the two just swap the information.
The NSA is ten times larger with regard to personnel than the CIA, with a budget larger than the other intelligence agencies as well ($8 bn. out of about $30 bn. total). Frankly, after September 11 I think most Americans would be happier if it listens in on calls in Pakistan and Afghanistan and Hamburg a little more intently than in the past. It is not so clear that they would be happy to know it was listening in on Americans not under any suspicion of criminality.
The GCHQ was founded in 1946, but I heard somewhere that the deal on having the US spy on British citizens and the British on US, and then swapping the data, goes back to World War II.
The current row over GCHQ in New York monitoring UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's phone calls was in some sense begun in spring of 2003 when GCHQ employee Katharine Gunn blew the whistle on the US and the British governments, revealing that the US had asked GCHQ to listen in on the phone calls of the UN ambassadors of 6 swing vote countries on the Security Council with regard to the building Iraq war. The British government seriously considered prosecuting Gunn, but backed off just a few days ago. Some have suggested that the British authorities began worrying that if the case went to court, Gunn's attorney would demand to see the memos of Lord Goldsmith, the British attorney general, on the legality of the Iraq war. We know from one leaked memo that he felt that without a UN Security Council resolution, a prolonged Anglo-American occupation of Iraq would likely involve the two in policy making that contravened international law (as it has). Others say that it just seemed highly unlikely a British jury would convict Gunn, given how unpopular the war and occupation have been in the UK.
This week, ex-British cabinet member Clare Short, who broke with Tony Blair over the Iraq war, revealed that while on the cabinet she had seen transcripts of Kofi Annan's telephone calls.
Now it turns out that whenever UN weapons inspector Hans Blix was in Iraq, his cell phone was monitored. That Blix was under surveillance and that transcripts of his phone calls were shared among the US, the UK, Australia and Canada, puts a new spin on the Blix allegation last summer that he had been the object of a smear campaign by officials in the US Department of Defense. If Feith, Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld had his personal phone calls, they were in a position to cook up plausible smears against him. Blix maintains that the authority of the United Nations has been perhaps irretrievably damaged by the very countries who should have been supporting it.
The Blix wiretaps raise an interesting question. Did the US and UK know even more about the lack of evidence for weapons of mass destruction than we thought, from what Blix was saying privately in spring of 2003 before the war?
While the GCHQ listening in on phone calls in the US is apparently just a regular occurrence, tapping Kofi Annan's line would be illegal because the UN headquarters is not considered US soil. Whatever deal Roosevelt and Churchill made about each spying on the other's citizens doesn't apply at the UN.
The framers of the US constitution wanted individuals to have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their own homes, and wanted the police to leave them alone unless there was good evidence they had committed a crime. The rise of the National Security State during WW II and in the Cold War has effectively gutted the constitution in this regard for all practical purposes. The Patriot Act more or less repeals the Bill of Rights, which has bedevilled successive US regimes, especially that of Richard Nixon, who now finally has his revenge.
I suppose the real question is whether, when Bin Laden boasted, "I will take away their freedom," it was an empty boast or an accurate prediction.
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