Seumas Milne Guardian/UK 11 June 2013
Democratic institutions have spectacularly failed to hold US and other western states' intelligence and military operations to account. So it's been left to a string of whistleblowers to fill the gap. Courtesy of the whistle-blower Edward Snowden, we now know the US National Security Agency is collecting 200 billion pieces of intelligence a month, hoovering up the mobile records of more than 200 million Americans and helping itself to a vast quantity of emails, web searches and live chats from the world's largest internet companies via a program called Prism.
Such rampant blanket surveillance of course makes a mockery of the right to privacy. But this is as much about power as it is about privacy. Surveillance and intelligence are tools of control, at home and abroad. The history of their abuse by the US and British governments is voluminous, both in subverting and overthrowing foreign governments, from Iran to Chile, or in attacking civil rights at home, during the cold war and since 9/11.
The NSA and GCHQ, whose collaboration is at the heart of the US and British "special relationship", have been central to that for decades. Their global eavesdropping role is the cornerstone of the "five eyes" alliance of anglophone states (including Australia, Canada and NZ) which underpins US-dominated western global power. Both agencies were founded to spy on the rest of the world, but ended up also targeting their own people.
Two elements are new. The first is the sheer scale and scope of the NSA's trawling, which dwarfs what was possible in the past. The second is the central role of private corporations in the emerging global surveillance state. Corporations have long been hand in glove with the secret state, working with the security services to this day to blacklist trade unionists and funding covert labour movement organisations during the cold war. What's changed is that communication is in the hands of the corporations. And the companies whose servers are vacuumed up by Prism are a roll call of US internet giants, from Google to YouTube.
Any idea that these tax-dodging behemoths represent a new form of libertarian democratic cool has now been comprehensively exposed as yesterday's marketing guff. But it's the war on terror that has driven the hyper-expansion of the new security-industrial complex. Along with the meaningless catch-all justification of "national security", terrorism is invoked to justify all manner of anti-democratic innovations. And since nobody wants to be blown up on buses or trains, it gives a veneer of credibility to formerly discredited spying organisations.
In reality, both the NSA and GCHQ, along with their sister spying outfits, are fuelling as much as fighting terrorism. It is they who provide the intelligence for drone attacks that have killed thousands of civilians in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia. A Pakistani man is currently taking a case to the court of appeal against GCHQ for allegedly providing the "intelligence" for a CIA drone strike that killed his father. And it's the same US and British intelligence services that have been involved in widespread torture, kidnapping and other crimes in the past decade – as well as scandalous intelligence manipulation over Iraqi weapons of mass destruction – who now claim to be protecting us from some of the consequences.
At home, GCHQ and the NSA were mobilised to conduct spying and dirty tricks operations against the 1980s British miners' strike, while in the 1970s the US Senate Church committee exposed systematic abuse of US eavesdropping powers against civil rights and anti-war activists (along with assassination abroad). Senator Frank Church himself warned then that the NSA's capability "at any time could be turned around on the American people". That is what has now happened. Claims that the intelligence agencies are now subject to genuine accountability have been repeatedly shown to be nonsense. But the political elites have their own priorities. Instead of drawing back from mass surveillance, British ministers are chafing to introduce new legislation to extend it.
The US and allied intelligence services are instruments of both domestic and global power and dominance, far beyond issues of terrorism. Revealingly, the state shown by the leaks to be the NSA's biggest intelligence target in Europe is the economic powerhouse of Germany – to a flurry of cautious protests from German politicians.
Democratic institutions have spectacularly failed to hold US and other western states' intelligence and military operations to account. So it's been left to a string of whistleblowers – from Cathy Massiter andKatharine Gun to Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden – to fill the gap. It's now up to the rest of us to make sure their courage isn't wasted. Twitter: @SeumasMilne [Abridged]