WikiLeaks revealed today that Afghanistan is the other country, along with the Bahamas, whose mobile phone network is under near-total NSA surveillance. The spy agency reportedly monitors and stores “full-take audio” and metadata from practically every cell phone call made or received within the war-torn country.
Glenn Greenwald’s The Intercept published a report about the NSA program earlier this week, but didn’t identify Afghanistan out of concern that doing so would put lives at risk. WikiLeaks went ahead, however, tweeting the following pronouncement:
What does it mean that even Glenn Greenwald, who helped introduce Snowden’s NSA leaks to the world, abided by US government requests to refrain from naming Afghanistan?
WikiLeaks editor- and creep-in-chief Julian Assange released a statement on the revelation in which he noted that “by denying an entire population the knowledge of its own victimization, this act of censorship denies each individual in that country the opportunity to seek an effective remedy, whether in international courts, or elsewhere.”
Loath as I am to agree with Assange, there’s force to his point.
The US government warned media outlets that revealing the NSA’s surveillance grip on Afghanistan could lead to “increased violence.” It is being highly selective about violence here. There is already substantial violence within war-beleaguered Afghanistan. And a particularly sinister variety of violence — a quiet brutality of control — is enacted when one country secretly imposes total surveillance on the citizens of another.
The violence is in and on the hands of the US government. Revelations of this sort might cause more tragic bloodshed but, as Assange noted, the US made that very claim to prevent further revelations about atrocities at Abu Ghraib. Keeping secrets does not prevent violence, it simply maintains a US monopoly over the shaping of violence.
Greenwald isn’t one to shy away from revealing shady government activity, especially when it comes to NSA spycraft. His decision to keep “state X” unnamed is a bulwark against critics who claim that he has indiscriminately published Snowden’s leaks without regard for national security. Whether one agrees with Assange or Greenwald on the issue of revealing “state X,” their differing approaches certainly illustrate that the latter tempers his audacity with a degree of journalistic caution.
But the fact that “state X” is Afghanistan comes as little surprise. Afghanistan’s last decade has been defined by a bloody and overreaching American occupation. Ongoing and unbounded spying is consistent with the protracted state of war America has produced in the country. Anti-American sentiment likely couldn’t be any higher after 13 years of war, but the additional disclosure of total surveillance won’t help.
Then there’s the poor political optics for the Obama administration as it coordinates a military withdrawal from Afghanistan. The NSA’s stranglehold on Afghan communications suggests that the removal of US troops from the country doesn’t amount to the removal of the US war machine. Drones, contractors, non-governmental organizations, and other assets will remain in that gaping wound opened by the US invasion — all watched over by our sprawling surveillance apparatus.
One need be no fan of Assange to agree that citizens and foreign nationals in Afghanistan should be privy to the real state of war there, including the extent of surveillance. The late philosopher Bernard Williams rightly observed that “to say peace when there is no peace is to say nothing.” But at the same time, to say nothing is not to suggest there is peace.
WikiLeaks’ revelation simply points to one violent act — the fact of mass surveillance of a whole country — in an ongoing series of violence and counterviolence. It is a sequence that neither Assange’s revelation, nor Greenwald’s silence, can break.
Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter: @natashalennard
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