Print Friendly and PDF
only search openDemocracy.net

Why did intelligence agencies spy on Greenpeace?

Because they are building a vast system of social control.

Flickr/jonathan mcintosh

With the evidence of so much unregulated mass surveillance and the interception of practically every form of communication that we once regarded as private, the spying on Greenpeace's International Executive Director, Kumi Naidoo, and what are termed other 'rogue NGOs' seems less significant than the headlines generated by Edward Snowden over the last 18 months.

But this story, which comes from a cache of cables disclosed by Al Jazeera and the Guardian, is important because it is not just about the system of favours that operates between agencies; it shows that monitoring of legitimate and law abiding targets has become the default practice in democratic states.

A vast system of social control is being constructed, with sophisticated methods of espionage turned on the very freedoms that the intelligence services and law enforcement once sought to defend. And political establishments across the west have effectively sided with the agencies, enabling the accumulation and abuse of a range of intrusive powers.

The idea that the South African born Greenpeace executive is in anyway a threat to South Korea,­ the country that requested information on him from South Africa,­ would be risible if it were not so sinister: Naidoo was placed on a list of three dangerous men, the other two being wanted in Pakistan. He was effectively classed as a threat, rather like Laura Poitras, who has endured years of harassment by American authorities and has just won the Oscar for CitizenFour (screening tonight on Channel 4).

"Sadly, the assumption that we make, especially after the Edward Snowden leaks and the Wikileaks information came out, is that we are heavily monitored and under constant surveillance," Naidoo said when told of the cables by Al Jazeera.

These stories barely raise an eyebrow. Few protest, let alone pause to wonder how we got to a place where activism and political dissent are grounds for state suspicion, and surveillance of innocent people has become the norm.

Part of the explanation, of course, is that politicians have encouraged the agencies, or simply averted their gaze, while the public has gone along with the argument that dragnet surveillance increases their safety. But a much deeper trend is at work, which is the theme of a brilliant but little known book, Counterinsurgency, by an American military academic Douglas Porch. Porch follows the insight of Hannah Arendt who noted in The Origins of Totalitarianism that the violence and racism that accompanies imperial conquest abroad usually has a boomerang effect on the homeland. Porch shows how counterinsurgency strategies such as those used in Palestine by the British and Algiers by the French had far reaching domestic consequences.

Another example comes from the intelligence techniques used by the US in the Philippines at the turn of the century, which were later deployed against Italian and Japanese Americans in the 1940s and Hollywood filmmakers in the 1950s.

In his conclusion, he writes, "Nor has the United States escaped the domestic consequences of the global war on terror which recalls the British and French cases: democratic dissent is first colonialised (by which I think he means made alien) and then criminalised."

Techniques developed for the war on terror have been imported to the American homeland. Porch points out that the police have become militarised, both in appearance and in the sorts of weapon and tactics that they deploy in fairly humdrum policing situations. And let's not forget that America, like the rest of the west, is experiencing an astonishing decline in crime. (The US murder rate has fallen to the 1960 level.)

The policing of the Ferguson troubles was a prime example of this development, as is the very disturbing story of the 'black site' used by Chicago's police to illegally interrogate innocent people without the slightest regard for their rights, or the fundamentals of the American constitution. In other words, a CIA black site, used in the great modern counterinsurgency operation of the War on Terror, was viewed as an appropriate tactic for domestic policing.

It is not just in America that the attitudes and techniques of counterinsurgency operations abroad have been re-imported to have serious impacts on freedoms at home. In Britain, there is mass surveillance of communications and the police think nothing of building image banks of innocent people for facial recognition systems and plundering the phone records of mainstream journalists. On the basis of these few stories that have reached the public domain, it is reasonable to assume that surveillance of legitimate journalists, activists and politicians in Britain is far greater than any of us appreciate.

Our leaders assure us that parliamentary oversight is the key to controlling surveillance by the agencies and police but there is nothing in the behaviour of the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC), for instance, which gives you confidence that the agencies have in any way been restrained by parliament. The ISC was until this week chaired by a former foreign secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, who was entirely in the camp of the agencies when it came to the Snowden revelations. He stands discredited after the Channel Four documentary showed him eagerly selling his influence to a bogus Chinese company. His career is rightly in tatters, yet he still shamelessly seeks to influence the committees report into mass surveillance by GCHQ and the NSA.

There is a connection between the suspicion that fell on a Greenpeace activist and the developments we have seen in America and Britain since 2001. Across the west, the business of journalistic inquiry and ordinary political dissent are now seen as alien and threatening and, therefore, grounds for suspicion. The authoritarian mindset induced by the war on terror and counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan has boomeranged to jeopardise political freedom and the processes of accountability at home.

About the author

Henry Porter is a novelist, columnist for the Observer and London Editor of Vanity Fair. In the spring of 2016 with the help of Casey Larsen, he founded Inker magazine.

Read On

The Great Charter Convention – an open, public debate on where arbitrary power lies in the UK today and how we should contest and contain it.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the
oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.