Surveillance, the British and US debates compared

In Britain, allegedly, no one cares that the state is collecting vast data on all of us. In the US things are clearly very different.

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
3 November 2015

Oliver Huitson. All rights reserved.

The British government’s new Investigatory Powers Bill, colloquially known as the Snoopers Charter, gets its first reading in the Commons on November 4th. The spooks are engaging in a massive attempt to soften up opinion, as Henry Porter shows in the Observer. This is a critical moment for liberty in the UK and because of its central location in the US dominated surveillance system, perhaps globally too.

One thing that strikes me after returning from a month in the United States is how backward and stupefyingly complacent public awareness is in this country compared to America. It would be hard to find a better example than a recent Financial Times column by Janan Ganesh. Aghast that the expected patriotic thrill of going to see the latest James Bond film has been punctured, by a storyline of Spectre capturing ‘C’ and thus subverting “the most British thing” about James Bond – that our agents are “benign”, Ganesh can hardly control his prose. He feeds his small-minded reaction into the espresso machine and pumps it up with froth, creating a column that reads like an application for Trevor Kavanagh’s place in the Sun. The FT used to be a home for argument of substance. Instead, certainly in this case, Ganesh crows that no one listens to liberals and civil libertarians here. In this sturdy land a people confident in their security forces and happy with the state ignores all such hand wringing. The argument hardly matters, opinion settles all and makes protest pointless.

Ganesh is wrong in that privately people are genuinely concerned and even frightened by the amount of surveillance and its nature but he taps into the official zeitgeist. No point in worrying, old chap, the good folk of Britain have faith in us. You are onto a losing cause if you protest.

The difference with the States since Edward Snowden's revelations came home to me as I watched the Democratic candidates debate for the presidential nomination, hosted by CNN and moderated by Anderson Cooper. I reproduce the relevant section here, slightly edited for sense, from the New York Times.

Three things stood out. First, everyone conceded that illegal surveillance without a warrant had taken place and that the Patriot Act had been abused by the US administration and the spying agencies. Second, no one challenged the allegation that huge databases of information are being accrued and retained, or dismissed the idea as alarmism (as would happen here in Britain). Third, Jim Webb made the most important observation. This was surprising in a way as he was the most hard-line figure among the five candidates. A Vietnam veteran who boasted in the debate of having killed his enemies, he was a Secretary of the Navy under President Reagan before switching to the Democrats. Although he marginalised himself in the debate and shortly after withdrew from the race, threatening to run as an independent, this does not take away from what he said here: We’ve got a vast data bank of information that is ripe for people with bad intentions to be able to use. And they need to be destroyed.”

All the taunting from the Financial Times about the complacency of the British public will not take away this point. It is not the seeking out of terrorists by using surveillance that is the risk to all our liberties. It is the accumulation of databases available to be abused for other purposes that intimidates, and whose only function is social control, that is the central issue.

Let the argument be joined. I have little doubt that in America the security apparatus has the upper hand. Hilary Clinton, who will almost certainly win the nomination, took the opportunity to be glacially hard on the issue, as you can see. She was also wrong as Dan Froomkin at the Intercept promptly explained, while Edward Snowden himself reinforced the fact that he did not have protection as a whistleblower.

But what took place between the candidates was a serious exchange with a genuine awareness of the gravity of the issues and the basic facts: the illegality of the state’s activities, and the immensity of the scale of data collection – openly established and acknowledged. Compare this to the Labour leadership debates where from what I have seen of them the issue was never raised let alone seriously and honestly addressed.


  • The Democratic Candidates debate Snowden and Surveillance, 13 October 2015
  • Lincoln Chafee, Governor of Rhode Island (2011-2015), and Republican Senator for Rhode Island (1999-2007)
  • Bernie Sander, Independent Senator for Vermont since 2007
  • Martin O’Malley, Governor of Maryland since 2010
  • Hilary Clinton, Democratic Senator for New York 2001-2009, Secretary of State 2009-2013
  • Jim Webb, Secretary of the Navy 1987-1988, Senator for Virginia, 2007-2013

ANDERSON COOPER (of CNN): Governor Chafee, you and Hillary Clinton both voted for the Patriot Act which created the NSA surveillance program. You’ve emphasized civil liberties, privacy during your campaign. Aren’t these two things in conflict?

CHAFEE: No, that was another 99 to one vote for the Patriot Act, and it was seen as at the time modernizing our ability to do what we’ve always done to tap phones, which always required a warrant. And I voted for that.

COOPER: Do you regret that vote?

CHAFEE: No, no. As long as you’re getting a warrant, I believe that under the Fourth Amendment, you should be able to do surveillance, but you need a warrant. That’s what the Fourth Amendment says. And in the Patriot Act, section 215 started to get broadened too far. So I would be in favor of addressing and reforming section 215 of the Patriot Act.

COOPER: Secretary Clinton, do you regret your vote on the Patriot Act?

CLINTON: No, I don’t. I think that it was necessary to make sure that we were able after 9/11 to put in place the security that we needed. And it is true that it did require that there be a process. What happened, however, is that the Bush administration began to chip away at that process. And I began to speak out about their use of warrantless surveillance and the other behaviour that they engaged in. We always have to keep the balance of civil liberties, privacy and security. It’s not easy in a democracy, but we have to keep it in mind.

COOPER: Senator — Senator Sanders, you’re the only one on this stage who voted against the Patriot Act in 2001.

SANDERS: It was 99 to one and I was maybe the one….

COOPER: ... and the reauthorization votes. Let me ask you, if elected, would you shut down the NSA surveillance program?

SANDERS: Absolutely. Of course.

COOPER: You would, point blank.

SANDERS: Well, I would shut down… I’d shut down what exists right now in that virtually every telephone call in this country ends up in a file at the NSA. That is unacceptable to me. But it’s not just government surveillance. I think the government is involved in our e-mails; is involved in our websites. Corporate America is doing it as well. If we are a free country, we have the right to be free. Yes, we have to defend ourselves against terrorism, but there are ways to do that without impinging on our constitutional rights and our privacy rights.

COOPER: Governor Chafee, Edward Snowden, is he a traitor or a hero?

CHAFEE: No, I would bring him home. The courts have ruled that what he did…

COOPER: Bring him home, no jail time?

CHAFEE: …what he did was say the American government was acting illegally. That’s what the federal courts have said; what Snowden did showed that the American government was acting illegally for the Fourth Amendment. So I would bring him home.

COOPER: Secretary Clinton, hero or traitor?

CLINTON: He broke the laws of the United States. He could have been a whistleblower. He could have gotten all of the protections of being a whistleblower. He could have raised all the issues that he has raised. And I think there would have been a positive response to that.

COOPER: Should he do jail time?

CLINTON: In addition — in addition, he stole very important information that has unfortunately fallen into a lot of the wrong hands. So I don’t think he should be brought home without facing the music.

COOPER: Governor O’Malley, Snowden?

O’MALLEY: Snowden put a lot of Americans’ lives at risk. Snowden broke the law. Whistleblowers do not run to Russia and try to get protection from Putin. If he really believes that, he should be back here.

COOPER: Senator Sanders, Edward Snowden?

SANDERS: I think Snowden played a very important role in educating the American people to the degree in which our civil liberties and our constitutional rights are being undermined.

COOPER: Is he a hero?

SANDERS: He did — he did break the law, and I think there should be a penalty to that. But I think what he did in educating us should be taken into consideration before he is sentenced.

COOPER: Senator Webb, Edward Snowden?

WEBB: I would leave his ultimate judgment to the legal system. Here’s what I do believe. We have a serious problem in terms of the collection of personal information in this country. And one of the things that I did during the FISA bill in 2007, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, was introduce with Russ Feingold two amendments basically saying, “We understand the realities of how you have to collect this broad information in the Internet age, but after a certain period of time, you need to destroy the personal information that you have if people have not been brought — if criminal justice proceedings have not been brought against them.” We’ve got a vast data bank of information that is ripe for people with bad intentions to be able to use. And they need to be destroyed.

Note: For a further engagement with the much more robust argument about these issues in the US see my interview with General Mike Hayden, who was head of the NSA during 9/11 and created the domestic surveillance programme under President Bush, and my subsequent interview with William Binney who helped create the technology for mass data capture and then resigned from the NSA when he saw it being abused; he also analyses Snowden's evidence for the way surveillance is organised.

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