How much more power will the secret services accumulate before we begin a serious debate about the usurping of democracy by a national security state? The detailed revelations on the NSA’s Prism programme are shocking on many levels – from the sheer scale of domestic and international surveillance; through the years of official denials that such capabilities were being put in place; to the total lack of accountability at a Congressional and Parliamentary level, as legal protections and basic human rights to privacy are trampled into the ground.
What should be even more disturbing is that Prism is only one element of a global, electronic surveillance system constructed by the NSA to ensure US supremacy in intelligence-led warfare, using special operations forces and armed drones. Both the Bush and Obama administrations have expanded the funding of the major intelligence agencies, including the NSA and the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) to what is now a collective budget of over $80 billion a year. The objective is to move beyond their traditional military, commercial and diplomatic espionage functions and to build a fully-integrated network, combining the interception of all forms of electronic communications with highly-detailed satellite imagery. Ultimately, this will provide real-time intelligence to identify targets and to carry out attacks anywhere in the world without the need for conventional, ground forces.
The UK plays a vital role through Menwith Hill, one of the largest of the NSA’s regional electronic spy bases. Located in North Yorkshre, it has undergone a vast expansion of its surveillance capabilities, combining satellite and fibre-optic telecommunications interceptions, with extraordinary computing power and analytical support, in one of the largest and most sophisticated technological programmes ever seen in the UK. Nominally an RAF base, the majority of the staff are US personnel from the NSA and commercial contractors like Lockheed Martin. The UK is represented through GCHQ operatives but access to satellite communications and computer analysis is reserved exclusively for senior US staff. Intelligence assessments are directly fed to the NSA headquarters at Fort Meade, along with those from other major regional centres in Hawaii and Australia, to ensure global coverage.
And there you have it – the basic stucture of a national-security state. All private communications are routinely intercepted in ways that can be used to profile ordinary citizens involved in domesitc poltical activities, while the whole planet becomes a permanent, remote-control battlefield for secret operations against military and civilian targets. The intelligence high priesthood takes on the roles of judge, jury and executioner, while any criticism of this extraordinary accumulation of power is simply rebuffed by the incantation of that ultimate gagging order, national security and the threat from global terrorism.
In historical terms, the war on terror is simply the most recent manifestation of Western power projection to legitimise military interventions and support for authoritarian governments. Often, those classifed as terrorists are opposition groups with genuine, popular support against corrupt regimes and where anti-Western sentiments are fuelled precisely by the sorts of attacks, like drone strikes, that result in the deaths of innocent civilians. Terrorists can and do carry out despicable acts of individual violence, as at the Boston Marathon and Woolwich, but this does not constitute an existential threat to our way of life from a global enemy.
Far from protecting us against terrorism, the national security state is enslaving us with secret courts, new powers of arrest and detention, and restrictions on assembly for political protest that can only lead to further invasive surveillance in a spiral of authoritarianism.
Can we reclaim democracy when faced with such unaccountable power? Looking back on the emergence of the modern nation state, there have been crucial periods when radical reforms were made and enshrined in legislation. Perhaps the best example is the Bill of Rights in 1689, where the king could no longer raise a standing army without the authority of Parliament. Absolutism was effectively replaced by constitutional government.
A modern Bill of Rights would re-establish the primacy of the people’s interest over the state. At its heart would be the right to privacy and a highly-restricted role for the security agencies built around criminal law. Any individual would have the right to access data held on them by those agencies, to appeal to an independent commissioner against that information being held if access were denied, and to have such records destroyed if that appeal proved successful.
Hopefully, a strong political momentum is building for reform following the Prism revelations. But it would be all too easy for this to be dissipated into a series of superficial ‘recalibrations’ of checks and balances that leave the structure of the national security state intact. For example, a similar sense of outrage followed the European Parliament’s investigation of NSA activities in the late 1990s and early 2000s. This identified the scale of commercial espionage carried out under the Echelon programme, whereby US corporations were given access to the confidential bids and negotiations of EU competitors on international contracts.
The final report, passed by the EP in September 2001, condemned NSA commercial spying in Europe and resolved that the conduct of electronic surveillance by US intelligence agencies breached the European Convention of Human Rights, even when allegedly for law enforcement purposes. The report gained worldwide media attention, forcing the US authorities into a rare acknowledgement of the existence of the NSA and its intelligence functions, while denying that commercial spying was taking place. But the momentum for reform was lost in the face of these blanket denials and assertions that secrecy had to be maintained in the interests of national security.
The stakes now are too high, the accumulation of power even greater, and the threat to democracy so acute that we cannot accept anything other than root-and-branch reform. As far as the UK is concerned, the issue is very clear. A national campaign must build an unignorable demand that NSA Menwith Hill is closed down before it becomes a fully-operational, regional intelligence hub in 2015. This would signal to the rest of the world that UK territory is no longer being used for NSA operations, and that we are ready and willing to work with others in Europe to rebuild our democratic institutions, enhance our civil rights and dismantle the national security state. Let’s live in a democracy of hope rather than a tyranny of fear.
Dr Steve Schofield is an independent researcher and author of “Lifting the Lid on Menwith Hill” (2012)