Most of our friends and relatives back home aren't aware of it, but letters home from foreign correspondents often play a powerful role in domestic propaganda. What Western newspapers sell to us as open-minded exploration of alien cultures is sometimes--disturbingly often, in fact--a xenophobic exercise in fear-mongering and didacticism.
A Russia-based Western reporter recently provided us with a classic example of this kind of didactic reporting. It came in a May 29 article, entitled "Russian Internet Boss Stands Up to Spies", by Phil Reeves of the British national daily Independent.
The article was about the head of a Russian internet provider which refused to comply with a new FSB/FAPSI surveillance operation called SORM-2, which requires internet companies to give government security agencies access to their clients' accounts.
The language Reeves uses paints a picture of the FSB/FAPSI effort as a striking example of foreign police-state tyranny, describing it as "a chilling example of the Russian security services' intense efforts to bring internet activity under surveillance."
Reeves goes on to describe how one Nail Murzakhanov, who runs an Internet provider in Volgograd, refused to allow FSB access to his system. He then wastes no time in digging up an unused dissident halo left over from the cold-war period, planting it on Murzakhanov's head to draw attention to the deficiencies of the Russian way of life in contrast to our own. He quotes Murzakhanov as follows:
"'I am a family man with two children,'" [Murzakhanov] said. 'I want them to grow up in a free society.'"
It is not clear whether Mr Reeves had a similar concern for his own children.
In fact, the methods used by SORM-2 have been employed on a much grander scale by his own "free" country for at least nine years. Just last year, in fact, the European Union released a report announcing publicly the existence of a mind-bogglingly extensive surveillance project called ECHELON, which the EU parliament said was being employed jointly by Britain, the U.S., Canada, New Zealand, and Australia to spy on Europe and the rest of the world.
The program, founded by the American National Security Agency (NSA), uses listening posts all over the world to intercept over 100 million internationally-transmitted fax, telephone, e-mail and telex messages per day. It uses what are called ECHELON "dictionaries" to pick keywords out of transmissions, focusing on those communications which have potential intelligence value. If a terrorist in Kabul sends an e-mail to his brother in Tulsa with a recipe for an ammonium nitrate bomb and directions to the White House, ECHELON in theory is supposed to intercept, record, and display the message for agents of the NSA and its partners to read.
ECHELON's existence has been reported in the New York Times (February 28, 1998), the Baltimore Sun (September 19, 1998), the Associated Press (September 21, 1998), the Village Voice, the Times of London, and other reputable papers. On April 6 of this year, the American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter to Henry Waxman, chairman of the House Committee on Government Reform, demanding an end to ECHELON's surveillance practices.
American law prohibits the NSA from using its technology for purposes of domestic surveillance, but in practice ECHELON is very much a domestic spy system, and one which dwarfs the domestic surveillance effort of agencies like the FBI. All other electronic surveillance (i.e. wiretaps) in the U.S. requires at least a court order for approval, but ECHELON may intercept transmissions to and from any and all U.S. citizens... as long as, comfortingly enough, the Attorney General is willing to certify that the program is not being used as a domestic surveillance tool. Furthermore, the NSA can always simply call upon data culled by its British partners (who man an ECHELON listening post in Yakima, Washington) to circumvent the domestic surveillance laws.
That's not all. The Nikkei news agency reported last September that ECHELON has been used by the U.S. government since 1990 to assist American corporations in global trade. It cited as a specific example an incident in 1990, when, its sources said, the NSA monitored communications between the NEC corporation and the Indonesian government regarding the sale of telecommunications equipment. The U.S. government, Nikkei reported, subsequently used information from its surveillance to lobby Indonesia into giving half of the contract to AT&T.
So why didn't Reeves mention the issue? It's hard to say. It is possible, if he's been living in Moscow full-time, that he himself doesn't know about the UK/USA intelligence effort. But there can't be any question of excusing Reeves's editors, who must certainly have had to watch article after article on the subject appear after the EU excoriated last fall Britain for its participation in the program.
By allowing Reeves to publish an article condemning Russia for a similar program, the Independent is actually trying to assert a positive through a negative--i.e. reassure its readers, through tales of Russian barbarism, of their own civility and sophistication. The Reeves piece reads like a tale of third-world cannibalism, and contains the same suggestion that such a thing couldn't possibly happen at home.
Once enough hacks publish pieces like this from exotic foreign basket cases like Russia, Western readers become conditioned to believe in their own moral superiority. They become so conditioned, in fact, that they instantly reject stories like the one about the ECHELON program as wild conspiracy theories, which couldn't possibly be based on fact--even when dozens of reputable mainstream sources confirm the story. No way ECHELON is real, they think. Otherwise, why would the Independent be so shocked by SORM-2?
To its credit, the Moscow Times on March 16, 1999, published an editorial, "Beware FSB Surveillance Of Internet", which at least mentioned the existence of a parallel effort:
"The U.S. government already monitors international e-mail traffic through the National Security Administration, and the NSA's legal authority to do so seems equally dubious."
One sentence that size would have been enough to right all the ethical wrongs in Reeves's piece, but the Independent was reluctant to give its readers even that much information. Not that this should come as a surprise; assertion of domestic good via demonization of a foreign wrong is a technique used on almost a daily basis in the Western media. The Washington Post did it this weekend, in its editorial blasting Russia for its troop deployment in Kosovo:
"With its misleading and confusing series of statements and counter-statements, Russia's government cast doubt on its trustworthiness as a partner."
The Post's suggestion here is that the United States, a country which gave no less than five different explanations for its bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, is somehow more trustworthy and consistent than Russia. Read the Washington Post enough, and you start to believe things like this.
Whenever a Western reporter bashes Russia or any other foreign country for some morally questionable policy, make sure to check: did the reporter address the question of whether or not his own people are guilty of the same thing? If he hasn't, find out for yourself. You might be unpleasantly surprised.
To read selected news articles about ECHELON, look up the following sites:
Dr. Gregory Kozlovsky is a Zurich-based disinformation analyst and computer scientist.