American Public Broadcast Service (PBS) last week launched, on its investigative flagship, Frontline, a two part series entitled The United States of Secrets. In the globalised world in which we live its subject matter is of interest to every one of us – and our fascination with it must be heavily shaded with dark forebodings.
Are we now caught up in a world in which the word “privacy” is as meaningless as the word “family”, or the word “marriage” are threatening to become? In our headlong surrender to the means of modern communication, information technology and the internet – beguiled by all they have given us, and continue to promise us – should we see a Godzilla on a scale not even Hollywood could imagine, arising out of the ocean and trampling all over us.
The first part of the series began with footage of the 9/11 atrocity, the security nightmare it created for the American administration, and the desperate efforts to plug the gaping holes in the intelligence and security services which it revealed. Then, moving to a level more like a John le Carré plot, Edward Snowden’s equally desperate response to what the administration eventually put in place, the notorious surveillance “programme”, unfolded. It did so in a tale of coded messages, off-radar flights linking media men and women in Rio, Washington and London and eventually ending up with secret rendezvous in Hong Kong. Ewen MacAskill of the Guardian, among those meeting Snowden, was given the phrase by his US bureau which was to indicate over the phone if the story was everything they hoped it might be. He was to tell them “the Guinness is good”. And so it was.
The first part in the series then went back to “the programme” – as the massive surveillance operation was called – its design, its implementation and the horrible compromises with the truth which everyone, from the President (Bush) down, had to make. It then dealt with the exceptional few who had misgivings and who eventually blew the whistle and paid the price. But even though they blew the whistle no one wanted to hear it – not even the New York Times emerged uncompromised.
The most disturbing thing about the layers of revelation put before us by Frontline was the moral confusion of the protagonists. Principle after principle was compromised as the main players abandoned morality in the search for legal legs to stand on to justify what they were doing. They allowed themselves to be driven into a deceitful secrecy, authorising universal surveillance and victimisation of whiltleblowers in their pursuit of security. But as we watched the revelation of the inner workings of government we could not honestly put a hand-on-heart and say that we might have been clever enough, brave enough and resourceful enough to do any differently. This government was confronting the threat of multiple 9/11 massacres – because after the Twin Towers had come Madrid and London to strike more panic into those whose job it was to try to protect us. Desperation is a terrible thing.
As Robert Lloyd said in his review in the Los Angeles Times, it may have come to our attention, sometime in the last several years, that the government of the United States makes an expensive habit of spying on its citizens in ways that have often been illegal, quasi-legal or formerly illegal until the law was changed to make them legal. But it was the kind of awareness that — like global warming — can feel too huge to grasp, especially when Johnny is down with the flu and Sally has soccer practice and your editor would like to know when he’ll get that review you promised him.
It takes something as stark as what this series reveals to jolt us out of our complacency. The Frontline series will not answer all the questions, will not even pass a final judgement on the case. What it does is reveal a great deal of the truth about what went on and how men responded. We will have to draw the lessons from it ourselves.
We will have to say “yes” or “no” to surrendering our privacy to Google, Facebook, Twitter – which we have probably done already. If we have and did not really want to, then we will have to withdraw to a quieter and less well connected social environment to keep that word meaning something.
We will have to scrutinise our laws more carefully and see what powers they actually give to those whom we have elected to government. We will have to examine our system of government to see if it is fit for purpose – because if the big boys can create a mess like this, so can the little ones. I think of the small island in which I write and look with dismay at the Irish electorate which tomorrow is expected to ineffectively tell its political establishment – a plague on all your houses. Even if they do, very little will happen, so sclerotic is the creaking Irish political set-up.
Part two of Frontline’s series examined the worryingly close relationship between the government and Silicon Valley. It left everyone wondering if this bastion of information technology, instead of enhancing our freedom, has in fact been leading us on a road to a kind of Nineteen Eighty-Four slavery?
John Doyle, writing in the Toronto Globe and Mail, wryly commented that while he assumed – like most of us – “that somebody, somewhere, has the ability to look at what I write, even privately. What would the snoopers see? Well, sarcastic remarks about English soccer players and even more sarcastic remarks about the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Expressions of worship for FC Barcelona. Sometimes, civil and literate discussion of matters Irish – writers, books, plays. All of it boring babble, really”, he thought.
He continued, “Part of the issue with the snooping is that we have become accustomed to being followed online by commercial enterprises. Last year when I realized that a certain favourite type of Jockey underwear was being taken off the market, I did some online looking for it. And, for months, it seemed, Jockey underwear followed me as I surfed the Internet, researching all kinds of things. Not an unnerving experience, but amusing. It just happens.”
The United States of Secrets made him think a bit more about all this. “There is nothing amusing about what Edward Snowden revealed. The mass invasion of privacy, the constant, mind-boggling collection of data, is the biggest issue of our time. We should never underestimate what Snowden did.”
For Doyle the meat of the program is an attempt to answer these questions – “how did tech giants react when the government asked them to turn over data on millions of ordinary American citizens? And how much do companies like Google, Facebook and Yahoo really know about you? The answers are deeply troubling. It emerges that such companies as AT&T and Verizon see themselves as in partnership with the U.S. government. As one tech expert says, ‘No one at these companies is losing sleep about this issue’.”
Doyle says: This Frontline is must-see TV. Disturbing and creepy, it forces you to rethink what social media is and where it takes us. There we are, being all chatty and catty and flippant. And very foolish as we do it.
Perhaps this cartoon, published in The Week after the NSA story broke, says it all.