Signifying Nothing 123



The image was the thing.  Those serried American flags beneath their burnished and distinctly imperial eagles.  Obama’s speech on the NSA was devoid of meaningful content.  The threats against Snowden and the references to America’s right to spy on its potential enemies – which seemed to mean everybody – were obviously heartfelt.  The “restrictions” on the NSA were devoid of intent, mumbled and hedged around.  Actually you don’t have to analyse what he said.  The picture says it all.

Reading the acres of media comment devoted to this exercise in changing nothing, it does seem that the task I face in explaining things is easier than I expected.  Nobody seems actually to be fooled.  You have the fascistic tendency – a majority – arguing that Obama is right, and the lesson of 9/11 is that safety can only lie in massive government intrusion into all human interaction all of the time.  Then you have the libertarian tendency, like me, who believe that nobody should be targeted until they have actually done something wrong, and the idea of continual surveillance of entirely innocent people just in case someone somewhere is contemplating doing something they shouldn’t, is terrifying.  What we don’t have much of is people pretending that Obama is actually doing something to curtail the surveillance state.

When Obama failed to close Guantanamo, failed to act against torture and extraordinary rendition, and sanctioned the killing of thousands through drone strikes, for a long time I kept meeting Americans who claimed he was not a neo-con really, but rather playing a subtle game for liberalism to win in the long term.  I don’t know anybody who believes that now, and nobody seems to be arguing it today. Obama is now an open vicious neo-con.  The picture says it all.

Some of it was almost amusing.  Obama plainly said that America would not spy on allied leaders, but reserved the right to spy on every other person in any foreign country.  I found the idea that every German may be spied on except Angela Merkel distinctly amusing.  Less amusing is the idea that the secret courts which are supposed to be a check on the NSA – with their entirely pro-government judges – would be “improved” by the appointment of a secret advocate to argue the case for privacy, without the subjects of the cases having any contact with their advocate or even being aware the case is going on.

Secret Courts are an increasing feature of life in the dog days of western world power.  In the UK we have already for many years had the situation where people may face criminal trials without being allowed to see the intelligence based “evidence” against them – often gained from torture of third parties abroad – and are “represented” by government appointed cleared – i.e. pro-security service – lawyers who are not allowed to tell their clients what the evidence is against them.  We recently have the institution of entirely secret criminal courts in which the entire proceedings are closed.  As Julian Assange pointed out on CNN, even the carefully selected secret court in the USA has found against the NSA on a number of occasions.  Obama’s extraordinary claim that their had been no abuse by the NSA was a straightforward example of the “Big lie” technique.  Again, that picture explains it all.

The suggestion that data be held not by the NSA but by a third party which will be another government institution is risible.  If they insist it is held, I vote Glenn Greenwald holds it.  After a crime has been committed, I have no difficulty with the authorities approaching the communications providers for targeted information which helps the investigation.  The deliberate conflation of that idea with permanent mass surveillance is dishonest – and the constant references to 9/11 to justify any intrusion are chilling.

Actually, what worried me most about the speech was the thought that the 9/11 excuse must be wearing thin, and that we are only seven years away from starting to have voters who weren’t even born at the time.  All those who make an extremely fat living from the security state, or who benefit in other ways economically from the docility of a population quiescent through the manipulation of fear, will start shortly to have need of a new and more urgent bogeyman.  That really will start to make the world a more dangerous place – and the danger comes from those claiming to protect us.

Look at the picture.

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123 thoughts on “Signifying Nothing

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  • Herbie

    Brilliant post, Craig.

    Our Western Empire is at the zenith of its power and yet those who have their hands on its levers are the least amongst us, and will in their stupidity and hubris destroy even themselves.

    We truly are seeing History acted out before our eyes.

    We can no longer look back upon accounts of the fall of past empires with intellectual, superior and distained detachment.

    We are they!

    We done it again!!

  • John Spencer-Davis

    Good morning, Craig. Welcome back, indeed. I have sorely missed you, and wonder why you have been away so long – have you been all right?

    Please, if you are going to be away, would you mind just posting something to let us all know you are alive and well? You could have been at death’s door for all most people who visit here probably knew.

    We worry about you, you know.

    This blog is an invaluable resource and I am certain many hearts will be gladdened by your return.

    Great observations as usual.

    Warm regards.


  • Jives

    Well said Craig,great post.

    Its strange,i dont watch TV so most of my visual info is from online editions of various newspapers of a week.I immediately noticed this image too,it really caught my eye and is the first thing in weeks where an image has really lodged.

    The flags in particular seem ..hmmmm…imposing?

    Good to have you back posting Craig.

    Best wishes to you and your family in 2014.

  • guano

    … it is a tale
    Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
    Signifying nothing.

    Naughty Craig.

    Andrew Green, former UK Ambassador to Syria and supporter of Assad, current idiot, was on Radio 4 this morning stating that in his opinion and in others’ in the US, Assad should remain in power.

    I agree with Craig that the time for reading clever political games into the statements of world leaders is over. They want Assad in the same way they previously wanted Mursi in Egypt, and they will lose Assad to the gallows by popular demand if they try to impose him.

    They are foolish enough to think that the Muslim world will accept a leader who controls them by universal spying and oppression combined with slogans of liberalisation. No human being will ever accept it. Our leaders are as doomed as Macbeth for this type of witchful thinking.

  • Resident Dissident

    I don’t actually think that this or previous announcements signify nothing. I agree that there are many holes in what he says and doubtless everything that he says will not be delivered in full. Despite what some people may think the President of the US is not all powerful and is not free to deliver everything that he might want overnight – and although some of the forces frustrating him are pretty much on the dark side, democracy is about there being checks and balances to those in power and you cannot be too picky that those with whom you disagree want to fulfil such a role as well as those who are clearly arguing for what they believe is right

    What the announcement does signify is a direction of travel and as such it should be welcomed and encouraged – and there should be pushing and shoving to get it back on track when the inevitable diversions occur. Is there anyone who seriously want to argue that although Obama has failed to deliver on Guantanamo, Iraq, Afghanistan and stopping US involvement in Syria and Iran – that the direction of travel hasn’t been the right one when compared with that of his predecessor. Yes there needs to be continued pressure to make sure things go faster and stay on track – but I would argue that this is achieved by engagement in the democratic process, rather than the approach we see here of ritual denunciation from the start.

    Of course other approaches are possible – but as we see they tend to end up with farcical positions where organisations such as Wikileaks which profess press and individual freedom end up tying their flag to the regime of Vladimir Putin.

  • Jay

    On the right track to Democracy!

    I thought Imperial America and Western society was a capitalist dictatorship.
    Corporate expansion – democratic?

  • Phil

    Exactly Jay. That is bang on the money.

    It looks like the NSA might be the fall guy here whilst the surveillance state is ever more privatised.

  • John Goss

    But of course they were spying on Angela Merkel. One of Henry Kissinger’s classmates described his sincerity as being a millimetre thick. About the same as Obama’s. It will be business as usual. What they say and what they do are two different things.

    Cameron has written to the wife of Shaker Aamer. Hague has written to Shaker in Gunatanamo saying what they are doing for him. But behind closed doors neither the UK nor the US want him back because of the torture in which UK secret services were complicit.

    It is what is being done in this secretive world by secret services, secret organisations and secret societies without public knowledge which makes this world worse than it ever has been for the rest of us. That and the anti-terrorist acts which allow people to be imprisoned indefinitely. It does not matter whether you think Martin Corey is a criminal or not. Nobody should be imprisoned without even the judge being able to see the alleged evidence.

  • Clark

    Surveillance vs Democracy

    “We need to reduce the level of general surveillance, but how far? Where exactly is the maximum tolerable level of surveillance, which we must ensure is not exceeded? It is level beyond which surveillance starts to interfere with the functioning of democracy, in that whistleblowers (such as Snowden) are likely to be caught.”

  • Clark

    Information, Once Collected, Will Be Misused

    “When people recognize that the level of general surveillance is too high, the first response is to propose limits on access to the accumulated data. That sounds nice, but it won’t fix the problem, not even slightly, even supposing that the government obeys the rules.
    Total surveillance plus vague law provides an opening for a massive fishing expedition against any desired target. To make journalism and democracy safe, we must limit the accumulation of data that is easily accessible to the state.”

  • Mary

    Very well said Craig. Every word you wrote is true.

    Nullius rei= signifying nothing! A relic of ‘O’ Level Latin 🙂

  • Mary

    and Glenn Greenwald

    Both Obama and Guardian prettify the ugly
    18 January 2014
    Jonathan Cook from Nazareth

    Glenn Greenwald makes a brief return today to the Guardian in a column exposing the sham “reforms” President Obama has promised in the wake of worldwide outrage at the NSA’s data mining of its own citizens (and lots of foreigners too). Greenwald elegantly explains why he doesn’t buy a word of Obama’s speech, and then argues that the rationale of Obama’s presidency is about creating a veil of democratic accountability over a fundamentally corrupt political system:

    ‘That,in general, has long been Obama’s primary role in our political system and his premiere, defining value to the permanent power factions that run Washington. He prettifies the ugly; he drapes the banner of change over systematic status quo perpetuation; he makes Americans feel better about policies they find repellent without the need to change any of them in meaningful ways. He’s not an agent of change but the soothing branding packaging for it.’


  • Tim

    As an ex secret intelligence observer in the late 60’s – I still maintain that it is every country’s survival right to see what others are doing in case it adversely affects their citizens health, safety and economic well-being.

    NSA, CIA, FBI, MI6, KGB, STAZI, – it does not matter what you call them – if you have nothing to hide you cannot object to being listened to if you decide to use ‘alert’ words.

    No one person on Earth is any better than any other – we are all puppets.

    Just get a life and get on with it and be nice to your neighbours.

  • doug scorgie

    Police officers lie in open court (and usually get away with it) and make their pocket notes up together to ensure they all have the same story to tell.

    How can any MP support secret courts where the police, MI5, MI6 and others give secret “evidence” which they have all conferred on prior to any trial in order to win the case?

    But the bill was passed by 174 peers of the realm and 297 MPs (50 of them LibDem) why on earth did so many vote for it?

    It was no surprise that Jack Straw (for obvious reasons) and Hazel Blears (former counter-terrorism minister, who now sits on the Intelligence and Security Committee) voted for the bill.

  • Tim

    If the flags look imposing it will be because the camera’s telephoto lens has created an optical illusion by foreshortening the image depth. Nothing sinister !!!

  • KingofWelshNoir

    This strikes me as a watershed moment in the history of the human race. Total mass surveillance of the whole planet. I’ve no doubt this is about controlling us in the new Matrix rather than protecting us. Amazing how most people don’t seem to care. Because it doesn’t affect them, or so they think. But that’s because ‘they’ haven’t started tightening the digital handcuffs yet. All those journalists who make it their job to find out about elite malfeasance and report it will be the first to feel the chill.

  • Tim

    Re photographic foreshortening – what size are the flags and what is the distance between Obama’s right elbow and the nearest flag?

  • Clark

    Tim, I agree that governments need to know what other governments are doing. There’s a lot I could argue with you about, too, and other ways in which I’d go much further. But in an ideal world, governments, voting populations and other entities would know what each other were doing through openness and transparency.

    This whole debate seems to beg for an international treaty, something like the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty, whereby countries and other entities win legal protection from being spied upon by demonstrating openness and accountability.

  • BrianFujisan

    Great Post Craig.

    “In the UK we have already for many years had the situation where people may face criminal trials without being allowed to see the intelligence based “evidence” against them – often gained from torture of third parties abroad”

    Here is a brave old dear… trying to do something about your words above…ans she is of course 100% correct about Shannon airport being used for war crimes… –
    Margaretta tried to make a citizen’s arrest of the judge for collaborating in war crimes

  • Phil

    Clark, how is that nuclear non-proliferation treaty stuff going? Not very well. Not very well at all. Why on earth would you call for more of such nonsense?

    The problem is not inter country. The real problem is the war between those with power and the rest of us.

  • Mary

    Here he is on video. There are actually SIX flags and they look pretty close to him. You can see his shadow on one to his left.

    Anyway as Craig says ‘The image is the thing’.

    Edward Bernays 1928 Propaganda

    The same flag wrapped the coffins of the bodies and body parts returned to the US from Iraq and now from Afghanistan. The image is a powerful weapon for wars and warmongers.

  • Clark

    Phil, I’m looking for an instrument. I can carp on all I like, but Obama etc. will make empty speeches and nothing will change. I’m looking for some way into the problem that can actually be used. At present, there’s no real debate, as Craig posted above. Some level of agreement has to be reached before a debate can begin about how to realise objectives.

    It’ll take an accountant to evaluate the cost-effectiveness of the US/UK surveillance programme, but I bet that’ll be another strong argument against it. But there are probably all sorts of gains for companies already part of the surveillance system, and they’re going to resist losing their advantages.

  • Herbie

    It’s clear that Snowden has forced the gangsters into a response. Obviously their response at this stage is more of the same bullshit.

    But, and this is the important point, everyone now knows what buttons to push in order to provoke a response.

    The key then is to continue pushing those buttons.

  • Clark

    Phil, openness, surveillance and whistle-blowing are all two-edged swords. We want to invade the privacy of the rich and powerful, in those areas that their communications affect others. We simultaneously want protection of “ordinary people’s” privacy from surveillance, commercial and governmental. But there’s no clear line between who is ordinary and who is rich and powerful. Who the hell was Werrity, for instance? No one, or so it seemed.

    Conversely, there’s the principle “you only get investigated if there’s reason to believe you’re doing something wrong”, but do we really want to apply this to the powerful?

    We need some sort of rational framework that establishes the degree to which each entity should have privacy or come under intrusive scrutiny, where “entity” covers individuals in their private, professional and public roles; groups, government departments, commercial organisations, etc. etc. etc.

  • AlcAnon/Squonk

    Those NSA ‘reforms’ in full: El Reg translates US Prez Obama’s pledges

    First, a history lesson from the President

    At the dawn of our Republic, a small, secret surveillance committee borne out of the “The Sons of Liberty” was established in Boston. And the group’s members included Paul Revere. At night, they would patrol the streets, reporting back any signs that the British were preparing raids against America’s early Patriots.

    It’s fair to say that if the British had the capabilities of the NSA today, there wouldn’t have been an American revolution and the citizens of the North American continent would be sipping warm beer and spelling color with a ‘u’ along with the rest of British society.

    More at link

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