"To me, mass surveillance is the definition of a fascist regime" - Talking with John Kiriakou


John Kiriakou was the first CIA officer to be convicted for passing classified information to a reporter, and was sentenced to 30 months in prison. At the CIA, John and his wife were both surveillance instructors and so he was acutely aware, when leaving prison, that he himself had become the target of heavy surveillance. Kiriakou talks to Tarquin Ramsay about the psychological and societal impact of being surveilled.



"[Surveillance] was very in your face. I always thought it was a form of intimidation. Then one day, it suddenly ended. The surveillance disappeared and has not been with me for about 8 months until recently. I went out to lunch with a friend and realised I was under heavy heavy surveillance for the whole lunch trip. This includes immediately leaving the house until actually getting back into the house. I have no idea why they would want to suddenly surveil me other than to send a message ‘We still have you, we are onto you, we are going to keep you guessing and thinking about why we are doing this’.

"It makes one very paranoid because you never know when the other shoe is going to drop. Are they watching me to make sure I am home when they come in and arrest me? You just never know why it's happening and surveillance takes so many forms. It's not just the six agents sitting in cars around your house, it's the FBI tapping your phones, tracking your emails, following your spouse and your children all the way to their school, all the way to work. It wears you down over a period of time because you are constantly questioning yourself: why is this happening to me? Why are they doing this to me? Have I done something? Have I said something I wasn't supposed to say? Are they going to break down the door and arrest me again? It wears you down psychologically to the point where you can't sleep, you're depressed, you gain weight, you just can't get past it."

"One of the things I hate to hear, is 'well, if I have nothing to hide, then why should I be worried?' I always say the same thing, that this rhetorical question was created and uttered by Joseph Goebbels."

Whilst Kiriakou's experience is very personal,  he also has grave concerns about the current trend for surveillance in society at large.


"To me, mass surveillance is the definition of a fascist regime. You would expect mass surveillance in an authoritarian regime. There are no consequences of the NSA.  One of the things I hate to here, is well if I have nothing to hide, then why should I be worried if the government is intercepting your communications. I always say the same thing, that this rhetorical question was created and uttered by Joseph Goebbels. This is not the lead we want to take. We are a constitutional government and we follow the rule of law and the NSA spying on you breaks the law. If they want to spy on you they have to go to a court of law and take out a warrant and get permission, but they can't just do it because they feel like doing it.”


Since revelations in 2013 of mass data collection on the part of the National Security Agency in the USA thanks to whistleblower Edward Snowden, concepts of privacy, security and secrecy have been debated regularly in the media, and large-scale public campaigns and protests have been mounted to voice the concerns of citizens. Young people have consistently proven to be among those most concerned by the erosion of privacy in the name of national security, perhaps because, being the highest proportion of digital media users, they are the most affected by online surveillance. But as the demands from western governments increase for greater surveillance powers, can young people maintain a sense of privacy in their lives?

"Since 9/11, the ability for individuals to be secure within their persons and within their communications has not been respected. I was even aware that before 9/11 the government was planning this destruction of our privacy. It's like the government doesn't want the American people to understand that their are much broader issues at play here, the most important being personal privacy. If we are not secure in our communications, we are not secure. If the government takes on this, just trust us attitude, that's fine, but what about others, what about foreign governments, what about organised crime, what about private hackers. If the government can have access to our secure communications, then surely others can have access too. I am not willing to allow anybody, government or not, to have access to my private communications, not without a warrant."

"Information can be easily abused. If the government had access to our data without a court order, look at what they had access to. They knew who our friends are, if you make a call to a doctor they know what kind of doctor. Are you calling an abortion provider? Are you calling a secret boyfriend/girlfriend? What sort of porn do you like? Governments have no right to that sort of information. Now, if someone has been accused of committing a crime, if someone is under investigation for allegedly committing a crime then fine, any judge will sign an order allowing the government to spy on that person's communications. But they can't do it just because they want to and they have access to. We have to stand up, because if we don't have that basic first line of defense, then we have nothing. Our whole lives are exposed to governmental abuse and misuse."



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