B S Raghavan

US on the boil over government snooping

B. S. RAGHAVAN | Updated on March 08, 2018

The US Government is currently finding itself embroiled in a fierce uproar following the revelations of extensive cyber-snooping being carried out by the National Security Agency (NSA).

The outrage in the US is the result, as per a report in the Washington Post, of the NSA and the FBI “tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading US Internet companies, extracting audio, video, photographs, e-mails, documents and connection logs that enable analysts to track a person’s movements and contacts over time”. The service providers said to have lent themselves to this prying on a massive scale include famous names such as Google, Apple, Verizon, Yahoo, Microsoft, Paltalk, AOL, Skype and YouTube.

As is only to be expected, all those in the US Administration involved in carrying out this activity called Operation Prism, have sprung to its defence, putting forward a number of arguments. The first, of course, is that information collected under this process is absolutely essential for the purpose of protecting the nation from a wide variety of threats.

The second argument is that such programmes have been authorised by the US Congress and are subject to its oversight. The third is that there is already in existence an independent executive branch agency – the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board – with a legal mandate to make sure that clandestine counter-terrorism operations by government agencies are undertaken solely in the interest of national security.

Presidential exasperation

A further argument is that no surveillance can be mounted without specific authorisations by federal courts, and such data as are gathered are limited to only the names of the persons and their locations, and do not cover the content of the communication passing between them. The US President, Barack Obama, has justified it by asserting: “You can’t have 100 per cent security and then also have 100 per cent privacy and zero inconvenience …(we) have to make some choices as a society.” He then self-righteously and in exasperation asks why people “can’t trust not only the executive branch but also don’t trust Congress and don’t trust federal judges to make sure that we’re abiding by the Constitution, due process and rule of law”.

The reason, Mr President, is that the existence of these so-called safeguards has not stopped the US intelligence and security agencies from resorting to “dirty tricks” in the past to the extent of violating the sovereignties and jurisdictions of other nations.

For instance, taking the present furore itself, James R. Clapper, Director of NSA, says that Operation Prism is not intended to be used “against any US citizen, any other US person, or anyone located within the US”. Which means what? That the US has assumed all the bad and ugly guys are outside its own borders? No wonder, governments and civil libertarians in Britain, Europe and elsewhere are hopping mad.

Leaving all that aside, the most noteworthy aspect of the entire episode is the courage shown by the British and the US media in bringing to light the top secret presidential directive and the court order obtained under it.

This makes for a study in contrasts, bringing out the difference between a genuine and sham democracy. If it were India, the full fury of the draconian Official Secrets Act will be turned on the hapless publications.

Fear of reprisal

There have been innumerable instances of official agencies in India spying on citizens and trampling on civil rights. Police brutalities, fake encounters, suspicious custodial deaths and moral police thrashing respectable persons are all commonplace. Even young boys and girls using social media are sought to be crushed with the full might of the state for expressing opinions unpalatable to officialdom.

But other than some noise raised in the media, there is hardly any sustained campaign to bring the Government to its senses. Indeed, even people in the higher stratum of society do not want to call a misbehaving government functionary to account for fear of reprisals being instantly unleashed on them. As one who has lived and seen conditions both during British rule and after Independence, I am convinced of the public’s mortal dread of vengefulness by those in power and authority being more widely prevalent now than ever before. And this, when we are supposed to be running a democracy with all its trappings.

There is no supervision of any sort of the working of the Intelligence Bureau and the Research and Analysis Wing either by an independent, eminent citizens’ body or by Parliament. The report of the L.P. Singh Committee, of which I was Member-Secretary, had proposed, as early as in 1978, comprehensive safeguards to be enacted into law, but that report has been buried nine fathoms deep. Even my appeal in a public meeting to L.K. Advani, when he was Leader of the Opposition, to place it in the public domain and ask for action on it went unheeded.

Published on June 09, 2013

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