The recent story that the Canadian intelligence community has been spying on the Brazilian energy ministry creates something of an interesting quandary that pits our nationalist instincts against philosophical views on surveillance.
When Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald first broke the stories of the National Security Agency collecting metadata and scooping mass amounts of Internet data, it was met with a mixture of anger and frustration. Then, when it became apparent that Great Britain had spied on allies at the G8 summit in Longon, the rest of us were incensed.
And then, we realized that all the assurances by the Obama administration that they only spied on foreigners were sort of useless…us Canadians, despite our insistence on some sort of special relationship with the United States, are just as foreign as anyone else.
However, the tables turned slightly on Greenwald and former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, I think, once it was revealed that the U.S. had plans for offensive cyber operations. Why? Because it is the sort of thing that people think jeopardizes national security operations.
The reaction is justifiable — to some extent — but it was plainly obvious these operations were underway beforehand. The outrage is far more about the dirty laundry strung across the yard than it is about national security, and the journalistic imperative is to expose that hypocrisy.
Nevertheless, we were quite able to sit back smugly here in Canada and watch the popular savaging of the British and American intelligence establishment.
And now the tables have turned on us. Greenwald, who lives in Brazil with his partner, worked with the Brazilian television program Fantastico, and revealed that Communications Security Establishment Canada has been spying on the Brazilian government.
The program used by CSEC, according to a report in the Globe and Mail, is called “Olympia.” It’s a distinctly Canadian twist that a competitor to Zamboni in the ice resurfacer market is called Olympia. But, I digress.
Fundamentally, this is different than spying for the purposes of preventing terrorism. This is spying for economic benefit, because Canada has significant interests in Brazil’s energy sector.
So the real question is, why do we care?
The fear of Greenwald’s work is predicated on two things: one, that he’s an “activist,” and two, that he is harming the national interests — or security — of various countries, or in this case our country.
Of the two, the second is clearly more consequential.
An activist, by definition, is someone who has a specific political cause. It is, in my view anyway, a little bit unclear what Greenwald’s activism would be about. He has defended civil liberties, criticized torture, and been harsh with Obama for his unthinking continuation of Bush administration policies.
If Greenwald is an activist, at best, it seems like his goal is to make government uncomfortable.
And so what if he is technically an activist? A great many journalists are activists, at least in the sense that they have agendas. Columnists are journalists, so are members of a newspaper editorial board. Think, for example, of Nick Kristof’s work on Darfur, or any number of campaigns to get people out of prison or off death row.
The cold, hard truth is that if we were okay with Greenwald airing America’s dirty laundry, it’s a bit unseemly to complain when ours is aired as well.
Of course, that’s the nationalist thing. The U.S. has been damaged by the revelations, that’s without a doubt. We don’t want that to happen to our country. But here’s why that view is, at minimum impractical, and at most, just plain wrong.
The first thing to know is that Greenwald lives in Brazil. He has for some time. He has no reason to be particularly defensive of Canada. So obviously he is going to go after invasions of the sovereignty of his adopted country. Any of us would have happily written the story were the situation reversed.
Would we be so worked up about this if a Brazilian news outlet had figured this out on its own? It seems unlikely. Certainly, we’d be less worked up about Greenwald being an “activist” of some sort if the story had broken in another fashion.
Or better yet, what if a Canadian journalist had broken the story? There has been almost deafening silence on the part of Canadian reporters on the subject. Sure, the Globe and Mail has had a story here and there, but there has been nothing substantial about Canada in this story, beyond the knowledge that we are part of an information-sharing nexus involving the U.S., Britain, New Zealand and Australia.
The reality is that there isn’t a conceivable national security interest in knowing what Brazil’s energy ministry is up to. This is plainly economic espionage.
This may jeopardize corporate investment in some fashion. But, this is not a major, damaging revelation about Canada’s surveillance operations. Moreover, what exactly is the problem with Canadians knowing that this is what their government is up to? Or rather, what the security establishment is up to.
We — and politicians, for that matter — have little way of knowing what the intelligence community in this country is doing. Politicians are dependant on what intelligence officials tell them, and we — the ones paying salaries — are privy only to what politicians see fit to tell us. There is a quite natural exponential reduction in the knowledge transfer about intelligence.
It is much better that these things are out in the open, so both Canadians and politicians can make informed decisions about our intelligence gathering operations.
This is not spying on terrorist organizations, this is not wire-tapping domestic insurgents of some sort, or keeping tabs on foreign espionage operations in Canada. This is spying on an allied nation for gross economic purposes.
There is no conceivable security risk. There are no agents lives at risk. There is only national pride, and our image we have of ourselves as a squeaky-clean international actor.
Let’s call it comeuppance.
If we have less and less expectation of privacy, it is only fitting that our government should discover the same about itself.