The Dragnet at the Edge of Forever


Amidst the havoc surrounding the earth-shattering revelations being made about the massive catch-all surveillance being conducted by the US government against virtually everybody with an Internet connection, a set of relatively unremarkable letters arrived in our GMail inboxes on Tuesday evening, containing a series of attachments.

These attachments were scanned court orders, sealed and later unsealed, issued to Google by the United States District Court for the eastern district of Virginia. These orders demanded that Google hand over to the United States (yes, they were that specific), various information relating to accounts we hold with Google, including whom we communicated with, when, from where, and for how long.

The court orders were almost certainly related to the Grand Jury investigation of the unauthorized public disclosure of information showing considerable misconduct, including a number of probable cases of war crimes, by US military forces in Iraq and Afghanistan during their wars in these countries, a list of people being held without trial or legal recourse in Guantanamo Bay, and a trove of diplomatic cables detailing the ways the US government have conducted themselves – both good and bad – over many years.

This investigation, which appears to be winding down as Justice Liam O’Grady felt it safe to unseal the orders, appears to have been conducted not for the purpose of attributing criminal behavior to those guilty of conducting said war crimes and violations of fundamental human rights, but to punish those who performed the public service of making the world aware of them.

Over the last three years, Pfc. Bradley Manning, who exposed the warcrimes, has been subject to torture; kept in solitary confinement, pending what cannot be considered a speedy trial by any stretch of the imagination. What few rights of his that haven’t already been infringed no doubt soon will be, as his show trial continues.

Meanwhile, Julian Assange, the operator of Wikileaks, the whistleblowing organization that took upon itself to convey Manning’s messages to the world, has been effectively imprisoned for two years running – first house arrest, and now holed up in an embassy where he slowly and only sometimes silently rots away, as if the idea had any chance of rotting with him. Although we have not always seen eye-to-eye with him, it is entirely unacceptable that any human be put through such treatment.

And yet more get introduced to this saga all the time. Over the last several years we have seen many of our friends, colleagues and allies pestered – for lack of a better term – by overzealous law enforcement, prosecutorial overreach, and misapplication of laws which at one point may have been intended to protect democratic values. They have been hunted down, imprisoned, and sometimes killed directly or indirectly, all for nothing but their desire to uphold the values our societies hold dear.

No more.

It is perhaps telling of the nature of the lives we have been forced to lead that we met the information that our private communications had been searched with no shock at all. A further document, granting a search warrant to Herbert’s e-mail correspondence, did shed some light on the target of the encroachment. Thankfully, neither of us use our Google accounts for anything remotely sensitive.

This is not true of millions of people worldwide, who we now know to be subjects of virtually limitless surveillance by the NSA and its sister organizations, such as GCHQ. We have for a long time done what we could to draw attention to the severity and scale of the surveillance state, and recent revelations have bolstered our case significantly.

We view the documents which Google has finally provided us with, and which we are now making public, not as testament to our involvement or lack of involvement with the proceedings in Alexandria, but as evidence of the need to eliminate the surveillance state, in its entirety, before what democracy we do have is lost for good.

Smári McCarthy and Herbert Snorrason