US – France – Germany – Brazil – If Some Countries Want Intelligence System Scandals, They Need Not Really Leave Home To Do That – 22 October 2013

This is an interesting piece about how the French spy on a lot of their own citizens as well, despite being shocked, simply shocked I tell you, at current Snowden and Greenwald claims about American spying on French communications networks.Germany and Brazil, who have also chimed in about their state of shock at American behaviour, also have institutions that conduct regular surveillance on their own populations.

None of this absolves the US from these claims being made, mind you; nor will you only hear about this from me and a hardy band of like-minded bloggers – indeed, standard operating procedure thus far for Snowden and Greenwald has been to get American allies outraged at the US for its iniquities, and then, after everyone has vented against the US, point out that they have spy agencies like the NSA in their own countries, many of which do similar things. It wouldn’t do to leave any country feeling too good about itself or like it had a democracy that was up to the task of governing effectively and fairly.

I have another reason for posting about this article than to prop up Obama (whose response to the NSA controversies I have been finding considerably lacking) or to claim Snowden and Greenwald are phonies (they are, but I certainly agree with them that the countries currently criticising Obama and the Americans have similar spying machinery locally, so I’ll have to pick on them later).

My reason for drawing your attentions to this article is the following – I’d like you to note one very telling passage from the article. “Fitting the trend among other states, Brazil maintains its own formidable intelligence agency, with a history of spying both foreign and domestic. Agência Brasileira de Inteligência (ABIN) got into trouble several years ago for its wiretapping of Brazilian senators and Supreme court members, resulting in the suspension of the agency’s head. Likewise, in 2000, ABIN’s director was fired for spying on groups such as Greenpeace and Monsanto alike. More recently, ABIN also reportedly launched its own version of the NSA’s practices to access private companies’ data related to its citizens, working directly with these companies and gathering metadata in realtime.”

This passage doesn’t fit the usual firebag narrative because of one astounding assertion – the idea that, if intelligence officers go beyond their legal mandates, the law can pin their ears back.

Wow. What a concept.

The Brazilians fired their intelligence director for abusing the position’s mandate. They didn’t say “Oh, we have a secret government that will always prevail, so what’s the point? Democracy is doomed.” They enforced the law.

Of course, part of the issue here is that sometimes the law permits spying and it does this for an important reason. Brazil, despite its problem with everyone else’s spying, and indeed, despite its problems with its own spy agency, didn’t go cold turkey on intelligence gathering. It just insisted that spying be strictly limited by the law – and that those laws be reasonable and balanced in application.

Other countries could learn from that example, don’t you think?

But more importantly even than that, the way we know Brazil _has_ balanced the need for security with civil liberties is that when a line is crossed, the law speaks.

Ultimately, that’s the only way we are to know there is no “secret government”. If intelligence agencies are unclear on what they are allowed to do, the law must clarify boundaries, and if intelligence agencies cross those boundaries anyway, there may be sanctions, or even criminal punishments if the case warrants.

The real issue isn’t even incursions into privacy – it’s what we’re going to do in public to ensure such incursions don’t go too far. The reason the firebag narrative focuses so exclusively on fears about privacy is that it wants to annihilate our hopes about what anything we can do as an organised public.

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