PEACE PROBE by Gene Stoltzfus


Surveillance by peaceprobe
May 23, 2008, 5:48 pm
Filed under: Iraq, Militarism, Politics of Empire

Over the years I have tried to weave a responsible path among those who caution, sometimes with a touch of paranoia, that intelligence services monitor your every move in the work of international or domestic peacemaking.  To wall myself off from the influence of those who are inclined toward conspiracies I have boldly practised truth telling on phones and the internet in the hope that my perspective, if it is worth listening to, will tempt analysts and policy makers to the truth as I see it.  This elementary and direct form of truth telling keeps me from second guessing myself and the people with whom I work.  This strategy may be naive unless it is occasionally informed by prudent moments of not saying everything I know.    

Living by the Biblical dictum “The Truth Shall Make You Free” may have become even more stretching in our high tech world.. The explosion of surveillance capabilities in the wake of the era of Homeland Security and 9/11 reminds us that we need to know that our lives and work can be scrutinized as never before.  When state security is believed to be threatened the lines of respect for responsible civilian work may be transgressed with impunity. 

Last month was the fifth anniversary of the US military shelling of the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad.  The apartment complex out of which our team worked was several blocks from The Palestine.   I was not in Baghdad at the time of the shelling which killed two journalists, Reuters cameraman Taras Protsyuk and Jose Couso, a cameraman for the Spanish television network Telecinco.  Predictably the Pentagon explained the killings as accidental. Democracy Now recently interviewed Army Sgt. Adrienne Kinne (Ret.), who worked with a highly classified team that monitored telephone, and satellite communications in and out of Afghanistan and Iraq.   Kinne saw secret US military documents that listed the hotel as a possible target. Kinne also described how she was personally ordered to eavesdrop on US citizens working for news organizations and NGOs (non government organizations) in Iraq.   US  law forbids the monitoring of its citizens. 

Sgt. Kine described her memory of the work of NGOs as identified in the telephone intercepts. As she did so my mind was jogged by her reference to people in that international community who pled with US Forces to deactivate munitions and ordinance that appeared in random public places throughout Bagdad where children played and people frequented.  When asked by telephone what to do I advised our peacemaker team to find officers whose command included demolition capability to clean up these dangerous substances.  Our  team went to the newly installed occupation authorities to request intervention.  The team was told that the occupation forces did not have time to carry out such activities.  

I cannot now and may never be able to verify that my conversations were included in the massive monitoring effort.  But, I do not regret our efforts then and later on behalf of the safety and protection of Iraqi victims of these munition piles some of which ended up in the hands of insurgent groups.  We spoke openly and often by telephone about the unfolding crisis among more than 20,000 detainees who were taken into custody by the occupation forces. According to Sgt. Kine before Shock and Awe began, her work group was instructed to keep the law that forbade monitoring of US citizens.  When Shock and Awe began her group was given a “verbal waiver” to track NGOs regardless of national origin.  As the war unfolded she described everything as chaotic, with little oversight.  When she raised questions about law or content she was reminded, “You are not an analyst.”

In the interview Sgt.  Kinne spoke of her shock when she learned from an email that was circulated in her work group that the Palestine Hotel, home to hundreds of international journalists, was one among many of the targets identified for the invading US Forces.  Also on the list was the emerging and highly respected Arabic news network Al Jezeera which was later destroyed.  Within five months of the beginning of the occupation many of the NGOs were gone, frightened away by explosions at the International Committee of the Red Cross, The Jordanian Embassy, The United Nations, and the International Committee of the Red Cross.  In the future I believe we will learn more about the sources of these bombings too.  

On another occasion her unit received the intercept of a fax from the Iraqi National Congress, a key expatriate Iraqi political group with strong US government ties,  purporting to identify the locations of weapons of mass destruction (WMD).  When the fax was hastily translated, it was ordered immediately sent to the White House where it added to already shaky evidence of the WMD.  As Kine studied the document her initial positive impressions about WAD location and existence as outlined in the document turned to more doubts and questions.  

Kine left the military and after some soul searching because of her top secret clearance, has joined other Iraq veterans to go public with her experience.  This is a big decision for her.  When she breaks ranks to tell what she knows from top-secret assignments, she engages in a form of civil disobedience.  I believe she may be watched by people with even more advanced technology that she herself once used.  If and when colleagues with similar experiences join her there may be indictments because she broke the rules of confidentiality to tell the truth.

Her reward for coming out of the intelligence closet is a conscience free of the heavy ghosts of fear of the truth.  She chose not to live by the rules of paranoia. 

Kine’s story reminds us that the world has vast and new capability to watch us as we move about to live out our convictions, our ethics, and our faith.  She also reminds us that we are moving into a time of new countervailing pressures in the era of Homeland Security where intelligence cameras can pick us out of the crowd and distant computers can monitor every one of our keystrokes.  Our movements, our words and our bodies are recorded and then systematically integrated by still more advanced programs to warn the gate keepers of our nations and empires.

While we are wise to be informed of how these omnipresent systems work, we do ourselves no favour if we allow fantasies of conspiracy to guide our moral conduct and decision making.  Are the cameras hidden in light posts our enemies?  Are the people who design the systems the enemies of freedom and life?   Are the public security systems or military infrastructures who monitor us our enemies?  The witness of Kine is that we have friends all along the way if we have the eyes to see them and trained ears to recognize them.

The unfolding integrated systems that will be part of our lives, benign, legal, or illegal are probably here to stay.  It’s good to know how they work.  But ultimately we are responsible for our own lives.  Crossing the line into faithful obedience (what some call civil disobedience) will  be very different in the coming years.  The threat of punishment will continue to be real.  But each of us has a choice between living out our hope or being bound by our fears.  We have only begun this new phase of the journey on a path equipped with the engines of cyberspace and hidden landmarks.

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