Afghans Probably Aren’t Surprised the NSA Is Recording All of Their Phone Calls

By Patrick McGuire



Image via WikiMedia Commons.
Earlier this week, I wrote about the potential shitstorm Wikileaks was threatening to cause by releasing the name of “Country X,” a previously unknown territory that the NSA is targeting under their once-classified SOMALGET program, which allegedly records 100 percent of the phone calls in a target country.

On Monday, The Intercept revealed that Kenya, the Philippines, Mexico, and the Bahamas were all under the SOMALGET program. They made an editorial, and moral, decision to redact the name of the fifth country. Glenn Greenwald tweeted that releasing the name of the final country “could harm innocents,” an explanation that evidently pissed off Wikileaks. So, early this morning, Assange and his leak-team published the name of the final country where the NSA is tapping every single phone call: Afghanistan.

Before Wikileaks even made their announcement, analysis based primarily on the length of the black bar used to redact the name of the country circled around the internet. Those reports predicted that Afghanistan would be the mystery country. The Intercept’s method of censorship clearly wasn’t very airtight if all people had to do was type different names of countries into the black box, to see which ones fit. Evidently, Afghanistan matched up snugly. Wikileaks referred to this analysis as “forensic scrutiny of imperfectly applied censorship.”

Wikileaks’ reasoning for revealing the depths of the NSA’s thirst for Afghan communications was explained by Assange himself: “We do not believe it is the place of media to ‘aid and abet’ a state in escaping detection and prosecution for a serious crime against a population.”

Assange’s statement goes on to question the United States government’s insistence that revealing their surveillance plans in Afghanistan could lead to direct mortal harm:

“WikiLeaks has years of experience with such false or overstated claims made by US officials in their attempts to delay or deny publication…

The United States government’s claims to the media lack credibility. Not only has it not bothered to contact WikiLeaks pre-publication in this matter, it has been aware of the material obtained by Edward Snowden for almost a year. Almost every office in Washington DC has specifically known of the material relating to the censored country since at least March 18, 2014, when the Washington Post issued a front page story on the subject (with the identity of Afghanistan censored). It is the US government’s ‘responsibility’ to protect its assets. It has had an egregious amount of time to do so. Given the above we believe any ongoing perceived risks to be fanciful or willfully embraced by the US [sic] goverment.”

To get a sense of what the reaction might be like in Afghanistan, and to figure out whether or not The Intercept’s concerns were justified, I reached out to Graeme Smith. Graeme is a Senior Analyst for the Crisis Group, an NGO dedicated to resolving and preventing deadly conflict worldwide. Graeme currently oversees the Crisis Group’s faction in Kabul.

I asked Graeme whether or not this morning’s Wikileak is likely to incite more conflict in Afghanistan. In short, he doesn’t think it will:

“...nearly all of my Afghan friends already understand that the U.S. deploys intense electronic surveillance in this country. The television series 24 was wildly popular here, and many Afghans imagine that the fictional Jack Bauer is a realistic depiction of U.S. intelligence at work.

Besides, it's not only the Americans. In a war zone like Afghanistan we usually assume that half a dozen spy agencies are monitoring our communications. It was also grimly amusing to read the WikiLeaks comment that ‘If a nation wants to engage in a revolt on the basis that the US government is recording all their phone calls, that is their right,’ because, really, it shows the enormous gulf in perceptions between somebody sitting comfortably behind a laptop in the West and an ordinary person in rural Afghanistan. There's a frenzy of concern about surveillance in the rich world at the moment, but over here the problems are more basic: rising violence, villagers fleeing their homes, Taliban choking off supply routes, the war economy grinding to a halt, etc.”

While Graeme is not a fortune-teller, he makes a very persuasive argument. Why would Afghans, who have been struggling with an American invasion for more than a decade, be surprised that the Americans are also listening to their phone calls?

Beyond a national revolt, the U.S. government must also be concerned with the safety of their own nationals who are currently working to rebuild the country, or at least to keep it somewhat stable, in an already volatile time. Not to mention the troops still stationed over there. This news certainly can’t make anything better. But, Assange teasing at a “revolt” is probably not based in reality.

Hopefully the shitstorm has been averted for now, because Afghanistan certainly doesn’t need more shit to deal with. 

@patrickmcguire

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