John Naughton writes: [T]he biggest misjudgment of all – the one that legitimised most of the excesses that Snowden has unveiled – was … a political one. It was the decision of the George W Bush administration to declare a “war on terror” in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks – and the eager adoption by the UK and other allies of the same stance.
As Professor Eben Moglen of Columbia University puts it, the intelligence agencies “presented with a mission by an extraordinarily imprudent national government in the United States, which having failed to prevent a very serious attack on American civilians at home, largely by ignoring warnings, decreed that they were never again to be put in a position where they should have known. This resulted in a military response, which is to get as close to everything as possible. Because if you don’t get as close to everything as possible, how can you say that you knew everything that you should have known?” In a real war, one in which the very survival of a state is threatened by a foreign adversary, almost anything is permissible, including the suspension of civil liberties, the right to privacy and all the other things we liberals hold dear. Between 1939 and 1945, Britain was governed by what was effectively a dictatorship wielding unimaginable powers, including comprehensive censorship, the power to requisition private property on demand, and so on. Citizens might not have liked this regime, but they consented to because they understood the need for it.
The “war” on terror is not a war in this sense. It is a rhetorical device aimed at engineering consent for a particular political strategy. But it was enough to provide legislative cover for the acquisition by the US intelligence-gathering agencies of warlike powers, which included the means of surveilling every citizen on earth who had an internet connection, and every owner of a mobile phone in most countries of the world. The war on terror may have succeeded in turbocharging the surveillance capabilities of the US and its allies, but it has also inflicted significant collateral damage on the foreign policy of the US, threatened its dominance of cloud computing and other markets, undermined its major technology companies, infuriated some of its most important allies and superimposed a huge question-mark on the future of the internet as a global system. The war on terror may have made tactical sense in the traumatic months post-9/11. But as a political decision it has had a catastrophic long-term impact. [Continue reading…]