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Journalist, Who Unmasked ECHELON, On 40 Years Exposing The Global Surveillance State

When it comes to reporting on intelligence and security agencies, the climate for reporters hasn’t changed as much as one might think, according to a British journalist who has faced prosecution and worked to uncover details on mass surveillance for about 40 years.

This week, Duncan Campbell published a story for The Intercept detailing his effort to expose the global surveillance project, ECHELON. According to his reports, documents from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden finally confirm the existence of the dragnet surveillance program, which Western intelligence officials have spent the past decades trying to cover-up.

“I have been raided three times; jailed once; had television programs I made or assisted making banned from airing under government pressure five times; seen tapes seized; faced being shoved out of a helicopter; had my phone tapped for at least a decade; and … been lined up to face up to 30 years imprisonment for alleged violations of secrecy laws,” Campbell recalled in his story.

“And why do I keep going? Because from the beginning, my investigations revealed a once-unimaginable scope of governmental surveillance, collusion, and concealment by the British and U.S. governments — practices that were always as much about domestic spying during times of peace as they were about keeping citizens safe from supposed foreign enemies, thus giving the British government the potential power to become, as our source that night had put it, a virtual ‘police state.'”

I interviewed Campbell and asked him to follow up on what he described in his story for The Intercept. Particularly, I was interested in what has or has not changed since he faced persecution in the 1980’s. I was also interested in his thoughts on government secrecy, especially the differences between NSA and GCHQ.

“The temperature for journalists doesn’t seem to have changed as much as you might think,” Campbell declared. “The Guardian was very much threatened when it started publishing material from Snowden, down to the situation where they were forced to destroy their computers as a piece of pure theater to intimidate journalists. And, [it had] no security purpose because of course all the Snowden papers were all over the world.”

Addressing how Intercept journalist Glenn Greenwald’s partner, David Miranda, had been detained under a terrorism law in an effort to disrupt publication of documents, Campbell called the act “outrageous brutality” and said the “use of terrorism legislation to serve the purpose of trying to conceal what the intelligence agencies were doing was a disgrace and rightly aroused huge protest.” Campbell noted it still is unclear whether the UK continues to pursue Miranda as a criminal suspect or not.

“In Germany, we’ve just seen an extraordinary sudden threat to journalists that they might be prosecuted for treason,” Campbell added, referring to investigations against reporters at Netzpolitik. It is all “for having told the German people about secret plans to expand internet surveillance.”

Campbell stated, “You’re a lot safer in the United States.” The US has the Bill of Rights, “which was specifically designed and intended to seal off the kind of harms that the British inflicted on the early colonists—and it’s still pretty wonderful.” He argued the First and Fourth Amendments remain a “model” for the world.

Nonetheless, both NSA and GCHQ have granted their agencies permission to undermine and violate human rights law and other laws. The extent to which they engage in these operations still is not entirely known.

He described how the US and UK operate with regulations designed to carefully regulate what is done with communications between their own citizens, while permitting dragnet surveillance of entire populations in various non-English speaking countries.

“That is completely vile and repugnant in terms of the discipline of human rights. Human rights says every citizen has the same rights,” Campbell maintained.

He argued this flies in the face of the Universal Human Rights and the Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (CCPR) by saying you’re second class if you’re not American.

“Where the hell does that come from? That is repugnant and offensive and it’s repugnant by every country that practices it. And you even find civil rights groups and most of the political advocates [saying] if it’s about a foreign person it’s alright. That is the sort of attitude I would have liked to have seen left behind in the Middle Ages, but it prevails.”

Indeed, it does fly in the face of the CCPR and a United Nations committee, which recently gave the US government low grades for failing or refusing to implement recommendations to bring surveillance in line with the treaty.

The agencies are capable of protecting human rights. Campbell noted the Five Eyes agreement, which Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US have to not spy on each others’ citizens. They negotiated human rights for those populations, but refuse human rights for other populations.

“How outrageous is that,” Campbell added. “So we have our human rights managed in secret by a coalition of multinational intelligence agencies.”

Reflecting on how things have changed or not changed in history, Campbell suggested the security agencies will always find threats or some shared purpose to justify their massive operations.

“When I started out, the great theme was the Cold War. In the minds of some people, not the intelligence and [others], but in the mindset of some people there was as previously with Nazi Germany a real serious existential threat from which it flowed that anything necessary and everything necessary should be allowed and done if somebody decided it was going to help contain that threat. I think almost everybody in the UK would have signed up to that philosophy when we were talking about fascism and Naziism across Europe.”

This philosophy gained strength as Britain and the US launched the Cold War to halt the advances of Soviet communism in Europe.

“We then enjoyed a brief lull in the 1990s, when the intelligence agencies and their backers could not reach for any such threat because there was none,” Campbell recounted. “But on the dim horizon was al-Qaida and then the events of 9/11 were transformative from the point of view of the agencies. Now, we see whatever you might want to call Daesh or ISIS being presented as the new and existential threat that requires society to hunker down and sacrifice civil liberties. Twenty years from now, it’s going to be something else.”

“While the themes of repression against say Muslim activists or radicals who are not advocates of violence can be compared to McCarthyism in the United States or the suppression of free reporting in Britain or in Germany, they’re just history playing the same theme time and time again.”

He added that the “times of the greatest reduction in mission and personnel and budgets are the times when there was least that could be pushed in our faces to fear. They are, not the intentional, but the effective handmaidens of the people, who create the threats—the Bin Ladens, the caliphate promoters. The more these people rise, the better times are in Fort Meade and Cheltenham in England.”

On the effect of Snowden’s disclosures, Campbell concluded, “The impact will continue for years ahead, both because new material and new understanding will be derived.”

“It has informed significant changes and understanding in most of our countries. Some of those changes have actually been for the worse despite the public debate, but what is important above all else is that there is public debate.”

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."