World of surveillance is our responsibility

Privacy should not have to be defended

Do you see any positive outcomes from a moral or universal perspective from Edward Snowden’s revelations? Do you think this kind of spying will face any kind of overhaul, or will nations continue to conduct international eavesdropping in an unscathed and even romanticised manner?

Each of us has our own concerns, priorities, capacities, moral and political judgments, says Prof Noam Chomsky. “We each have to find our own ways through the morass of personal and political life.” Donna Coveny/MIT.

The revelations certainly have created an outcry. Thus in its Jan 1 lead editorial, The New York Times editors wrote that thanks to Mr Snowden’s courageous and honourable actions, "the public learned in great detail how the [NSA] has exceeded its mandate and abused its authority, prompting outrage at kitchen tables and at the desks of Congress, which may finally begin to limit these practices". It is not quite true that the public is outraged, though some are. Many are confused by the claims of "security breaches" and "protecting us from terrorism", claims that have considerable force among a population that lives in constant fear, an odd characteristic of American culture that goes back centuries, disconnected from reality in a country with unique security and power. These security claims are highly dubious at best.

The Times editors observe, that "the shrill brigade of his critics say Mr Snowden has done profound damage to intelligence operations of the United States, but none has presented proof his disclosures hurt the nation’s security".

My suspicion, and fear, is that the genie is out of the bottle. New and more exotic techniques of surveillance and control are constantly being developed. Thus components of computers are now being designed to provide data to manufacturers and authorities about every key stroke.

Robotics has proceeded to the point where there may soon be fly-sized drones that can be inside a room for spying, and perhaps eventually lethal actions. It is also well-understood that these new technologies can become perfect weapons for jihadis, but that in no way impedes their development, just as [US President Barack] Obama’s global terror campaign, by far the most extreme in the world, is not impeded by the understanding that murder of suspects by drones generates potential terrorists more rapidly than it eliminates them. Contrary to many illusions, security is not typically a high priority of state planners.

And while the US is the leader in developing new and more effective technology of surveillance and control, it is certainly not alone in these criminal endeavors.

How high of a priority do you think it is for the US government to find a way to prosecute Mr Snowden?

One of the leading principles of international affairs, much too little recognised, is what may be called "the Mafia doctrine". The Godfather does not tolerate disobedience. It is too dangerous. Even the slightest departure from subordination might incite others to follow the same path, eroding the system of domination. To a frightened public, this is sometimes presented as the "domino theory": if we don’t stop “them” in Vietnam, or Chile, or Yemen, then the dominoes will fall and soon we will be defenceless in a hostile world.

The basic fear was expressed very well by president Lyndon Johnson, in a talk to American troops in the Pacific, when he warned that there are 3 billion of "them" and only 150 million of "us", and if might makes right they will sweep over us and take what we have — so we had better stop "them" in Vietnam.

The Godfather can also be brutal and vindictive. One dramatic and revealing case is US policy towards Cuba since its liberation in 1959. The US reacted almost at once with subversion, aggression, large-scale terror [particularly under the Kennedy administration], and savage economic warfare. It is virtually isolated internationally, as annual votes at the United Nations demonstrate. But this is of no concern. Cuba must be punished for what US planners 50 years ago described as its "successful defiance" of US policies going back to the Monroe Doctrine in 1823.

The same principle applies to whistleblowers, though the Obama administration has gone far beyond its predecessors in seeking to control exposure of government actions.

Others are commonly unwilling to challenge US power and vindictiveness, even when they sharply disagree with policy. A striking illustration occurred a few months ago, when Bolivian president Evo Morales tried to fly home in his presidential plane from Russia. France and other western countries refused to allow the plane to enter their airspace, and when it finally had to land for technical reasons in Austria, the police searched the plane. These are unprecedented violations of diplomatic norms, and were harshly condemned in Latin America — but not Europe. The reasons were fear of the Godfather, who might act to kidnap Mr Snowden if he were on board.

Can you help us clarify when deceitful practices like espionage are necessary or morally acceptable? For example, in the case of Nazi Germany and the need to defeat it: I would have thought you would have supported whatever it took, including elaborate forms of deceit and treachery given the circumstances. Are there circumstances in the world today that warrant such behaviour? Propaganda tends to suggest that in today’s environment, people become "radicalised" and once that happens to them, they become enemies of the existing system, however rotten that system may be. How do you distinguish between what’s right and wrong in these struggles between nations for military and economic superiority?

There is no algorithm, no general rule that can be mechanically applied. One has to evaluate each particular situation: to try to determine the actual facts, constantly obscured by propaganda and deceit; and to try to assess the consequences of particular actions. My own judgment with regard to Nazi Germany is as you indicate — though I felt at the time, and feel much more strongly and with much better evidence today, that the Nazi plague could have been contained and reversed before the war broke out if the western powers had actually opposed fascism. The record is quite mixed.

A good rule of thumb, in international as well as personal affairs, is to begin by looking into the mirror — often the hardest task. If we are willing to undertake this task, the moral and honourable one, we will quickly discover actions for which we share responsibility that are contributing substantially, often massively, to suffering and disaster. Curing ourselves is the primary task, particularly for those enjoying privilege and power. We may then find cases where "deceit and treachery" are justified to deal with the crimes of others, but that stand has to justify itself, an effort rarely undertaken honestly, and not an easy one to carry out.

In the Snowden case, we learned that he was employed at one stage by Booz Allen Hamilton, which was a contracted part of the national security apparatus. Do you think the private sector in general has a greater willingness to engage in immoral activities than government does? Do you see unholy alliances between government and private sector that tend to become anti-citizen or develop a life of their own such as president Eisenhower warned as he left office?

It is not often stressed that Eisenhower issued this warning "as he left office", as you say. Why not when he was in office, and was a leading participant in these practices? The government is partially subject to public control. Private sector enterprises are unaccountable tyrannies, except insofar as they can be constrained by popular action, commonly through government. As for initiatives within the private sector, it is well to bear in mind that they typically rely on crucial government support, through funding, protectionist measures (as in the international trade agreements constructed by the powerful and imposed on others), the hard and creative work of research and development, and other ways.

With regard to your activism against the Vietnam War: while you have stated that communism is generally worth resisting, when you look at the world today since your anti-war activities 50 years ago, has the world changed for the better and become more civilised? Has the US become more civilised or more anti-citizen, or both?

The US did not intervene in Vietnam to block "communism". Internal documents from the early 1950s and later make it clear that the concern was the usual one: the Mafia doctrine. It was feared that if Vietnam pursued a successful independent path, then the "virus" would “spread contagion” to others, to borrow Henry Kissinger’s terms, referring to the threat of democratic socialism in Chile under Allende. The concern is the same whether the culprits are "communist", or as in the case of Chile, Guatemala, and many others, parliamentary democracies.

To prevent a virus from spreading contagion it is necessary to kill the virus and "inoculate" potential victims, by establishing harsh dictatorships that will prevent any spread of disobedience. That is what was done in the case of Indochina. Vietnam was virtually destroyed, and could not be a model for anyone. And vicious dictatorships were installed or backed throughout the region. The most important was Indonesia, a major prize because of its rich resources, unlike Vietnam, which did not matter much, despite the pretences of president Eisenhower and others about its tin and rubber and oil.

In retrospect, Kennedy-Johnson National Security adviser McGeorge Bundy reflected that it would have been wise to end the US attack against Vietnam (called "defence" of course) in 1965, after the US-backed Suharto coup in Indonesia slaughtered hundreds of thousands of people and ended any threat that Indonesia might follow an independent course.

What might have happened in Indochina had the US not intervened massively from the early 1950s, we cannot know. In South Vietnam, the main target was the National Liberation Front, which had mixed policies, and was decimated. In Cambodia, as now recognised by serious scholarship, the horrendous US bombing campaign of the early 1970s — at the scale of all allied air operations in the Pacific theatre during World War II — was instrumental in creating the Khmer Rouge. Similar observations hold of Laos.

Lots of things have changed since then. It took a long time for a popular movement against the Indochina wars to develop in the US and elsewhere, but it finally did, though far too late to save Indochina from virtual destruction. And it has had lasting effects.

In the early 1980s, Reagan tried to duplicate in Central America what Kennedy had done very easily in South Vietnam 20 years earlier. He had to pull back because of a strong popular reaction, and turn to terror and subversion instead of direct aggression.

Twenty years after that, when Mr Bush and Mr Blair launched their invasion of Iraq, there was an enormous public protest even before it was officially launched, the first time in the history of imperialism that anything like that had happened.

The invasion took place anyway, with a horrifying impact on Iraq that persists until the present, and lethal consequences spreading through the region. But again, it could have been far worse.

Mr Bush could never even contemplate the measures that were used in South Vietnam from the beginning: chemical warfare to destroy crops, saturation bombing of civilian areas, and the rest of the measures that devastated Indochina.

Today, popular opposition to aggression is strong enough to sharply restrict the resort to violence in the Middle East and elsewhere. That is far from the only impact of the anti-war movement. It also contributed to other developments that have made the US a more civilised place in many respects: women’s rights, civil rights generally, concerns about the environment, and much else. There has also been a severe backlash since the 1970s. These struggles never end.

As for the world, there is a lot to say. The neo-liberal assault on the global population since the 1970s, particularly since Reagan and Thatcher, has been extremely harmful almost everywhere, within the US as well, but there is also significant resistance. East Asia managed to largely avoid its impact. In the past decade, Latin America has largely freed itself from western — in the past century, US — domination for the first time in 500 years, a development of historic significance. And there have been many other changes in the world scene, far beyond what I can hope to mention here.

A lot of private sector internet "social media" companies like Facebook have a business model where they get people to sign themselves up for free and get them to agree to legalese which they often don’t even read. This enables the social media company to sell that person’s information, cross-referenced according to age, race, location, marital status, income level, and food and consumer preferences and so on. Do you find this business model insidious?

Highly insidious, as is the tendency of many people, particularly young people, to succumb to these inducements. It shouldn’t be necessary to defend privacy as a value to be respected and protected — but unfortunately it is necessary, a sign of serious social pathology in my opinion.

Can you sum up the best way you think for citizens to be involved in rather than be subject to the whims of the government of the day?

I am in no position to give advice or to legislate to others. Each of us has our own concerns, priorities, capacities, moral and political judgments. We each have to find our own ways through the morass of personal and political life. There is no one "right answer" for everyone.

The interview was conducted by Stuart Alan Becker. Linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky, 85, is Professor Emeritus at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Prof Chomsky is known for his criticism of US foreign policy dating back 50 years to his opposition to the Vietnam War and his understanding of how corporations and governments use propaganda to shape the public mind.

About the author

Writer: Stuart Alan Becker