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OUTLOOK INDIA Interview on ‘Digital India’ & PM Narendra Modi

14 Sep

[Prefatory Note: I am posting here an interview with the magazine OUTLOOK INDIA associated with an open letter that was signed by more than 100 Indian scholars and intellectuals, as well as those such as myself with a long research and human interest in India, expressing concern about the forthcoming visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Silicon Valley to promote his vision of ‘Digital India.’ I feel strongly about these issues, especially in light of the Snowden disclosures and the general use of digital capabilities to encroach upon personal freedom and a climate of liberty in post-9/11 America. The link to the original text is <http://www.outlookindia.com/article/the-future-of-india-as-a-democratic-country-is-at-risk/295251&gt;  The quoted remark at the beginning of several questions are taken from the text of the letter, which is referred to in the interview as ‘a petition.’ FYI, the full text of the letter and a partial list of signatories is appended after the interview.]

 

 

[Editorial Preface of OUTLOOK]: Prime Minister Narendra Modi will visit Silicon Valley later this month. But over 137 US-based academics and intellectuals have already filed a petition to the Silicon Valley Enterprises expressing concern about Modi and his ‘Digital India’ campaign. It is not surprising that Richard A. Falk is one of the petitioners. The professor emeritus of law at Princeton University, a highly respected academic, has always been an outspoken critic of governments and policies that violate human rights and civil liberties. At 84, he has authored and co-edited more than 40 books and is a well-known commentator on his own. As former UN rapporteur on Palestine, Falk is also one of the few Jews who was denied a visa by Israel for his outspoken views about Israeli atrocities and occupation of Palestinian territory. He tells Pranay Sharma why he’s a signatory to the petition against Modi.] 

Q: What is the prime concern you have against Narendra Modi’s ‘Digital India’ campaign?

I and others on the list have questions about Narendra Modi’s record on religious tolerance, freedom of religion, and freedom of expression. Some of those who signed the letter have also been subject to a campaign of harassment from Hindu nationalist followers, which raises particular worries about academic freedom. “Digital India” as an initiative has enormous potential to affect positive social change, but it simultaneously poses dangers for abuse under the Modi administration that can make use of digitalization to target members of minority communities or those who are critical of its policies. It is my impression that the Modi government has been particularly sensitive to criticism and unfriendly to critics, making our concern more credible.

Q: Does this fear stem from the individual-Narendra Modi in this case -or the proposed campaign itself?

It’s not too clear at this stage exactly what “Digital India” will become programmatically, and this is precisely why we wrote to register our concerns-to influence the course the debate will take. Most of the media treatment that I and my colleagues have seen is so far more concerned with branding the campaign rather than focusing on its substance, The plan as outlined on the Government of India website, http://deity.gov.in/sites/upload_files/dit/files/Digital%20India.pdf is appropriately ambitious, and commendably has the “empowerment of citizens” at its core. But the potential for disempowerment is also present as the gap widens between those who have access to internet technology and those in India who still lack water and electricity. I believe that some of my colleagues have reasonable grounds to worry that the planned heavy investment in digital infrastructure will widen this gap, and along with it, socio-economic disparities.. There is no present indications that the Indian government is implementing policies designed to reduce, if not eliminate, the gap. And with respect to your underlying question it is impossible to disentangle the Modi Government or Modi as a political personality from the Digital India Campaign.

Q: Are there real reasons for such apprehensions given the fact that much of the proposed programme was actually undertaken by Modi’s predecessor, Manmohan Singh? “Digital India has great potential, but under the Modi government it poses dangers for abuse.”

Some of the same concerns would have surfaced in all likelihood under any Indian government.These concerns are magnified given Modi’s record on freedom of expression leading me and my colleagues to have apprehensions about a process of digital consolidation that can lead to further breaches not only of privacy but of individual security. A realization that the previous government in India has been working toward e-governance, and that these issues are ones faced by other governments in the world does not in any way make it irrelevant to raise issues associated with Modi’s specific record. As an American, with a deep commitment to the wellbeing and positive development of India, I have joined with Indian colleagues because I have seen what digital age abuses have occurred in my own country. The Snowden disclosures should serve as a reminder that citizens of all countries need to exert unprecedented vigilance in the defense of freedom and in support of societal equity given the contemporary interface between totalizing governmental security and technological capabilities.
Modi was a three-time elected chief minister of Gujarat and in 2014 successfully won an impressive mandate to become India’s Prime Minister. How do you see the obvious support he has among a sizeable section of Indians?

The fact that a policy or programme is popular or even that the majority of people at any moment in time is in favor does not make it right or suggest the inappropriateness of constructive criticism. We have witnessed this tension between what is popular and what is right numerous times in recent history, and speaking personally, perhaps most vividly with respect to the implementation of U.S. foreign policy on a global scale. We can recall with remorse a lone American Congress woman, Barbara Lee, who held out as the sole dissenting voice against authorizing the US president to go to war against Afghanistan-a policy that the entire US Congress and the rest of the country favored at the time, but produced disastrous consequences. Modi’s support appears to rest on several factors, but he and his administration have at times disturbingly invoked Hindu nationalist rhetoric to gain the enthusiastic backing of the Hindu majority in the country raising insecurities among minorities.

Q: Do you think democratic institutions in India have been weakened or seriously threatened since Modi became the Prime Minister?

My response to this question is shaped by the opinion of Indian colleagues and trusted friends, so I will not comment too much on internal dynamics. At the same time, we are living in a borderless world, not least because of the impact of the digital dimensions of modern life, and so as concerned citizens of the world we cannot shut our eyes to threatening developments even in distant countries, while at the same time being respectful of norms of non-intervention and of rights of self-determination. From this perspective, I have come to believe that democratic institutions have been weakened under Modi’s administration. It’s true that some of these anti-democratic tendencies were already evident in the behavior of prior Indian governments, but it is also the case that the last administration brought out the “Right to Information” package of reforms that has greatly increased government transparency and empowered people to hold the Indian government accountable. It’s not clear at this point whether “Digital India” in Modi’s hands will lead to increased transparency. The background of his record as the Chief Minister of Gujarat, and the experience of his first year as Prime Minister gives rise to a legitimate concern that the future of India as a democratic country is at sufficient risk to justify a petition raising questions that need to be discussed.

Q: The petition mentions Modi’s alleged role in the Gujarat riots. But given the fact that large number of world leaders including President, Barack Obama, now engage with him, do you think these charges are still relevant? “Modi’s background as CM and his first year as PM raises concern that India’s democracy is at risk.”

Yes, they are still relevant even legally: there is currently an undecided appeal in the Gujarat judicial system that raises serious questions about whether Modi took adequate steps to control the Gujurat violence in 2002, and whether he was actively implicated in its unfolding. Whether or not this unfinished legal process produces an adverse assessment of his conduct, Modi’s speeches at the time were themselves sufficient by themselves to validate continuing worries. They were inflammatory, and made no effort to restore calm and avoid violence. Such behavior signals the reasonableness of seeking clarifications and reassuring procedures. The fact that Obama and other world leaders engage Modi diplomatically is to be expected, especially when it is considered that he is the head of the world’s largest democracy and important actor in the world economy. We have seen many examples in history in which leaders lead people in a terrible direction, and yet are treated as normal and legitimate for purposes of international relations. The legacy of George W. Bush is a painful instance of a leader who did the US and the world a great deal of harm without undermining his legitimacy. Ariel Sharon when acting on behalf of Israel committed what many regarded as crimes against humanity, but when he was democratically elected in 2000 the world dealt with him without looking back. It is up to people of conscience to look back. When wrongs are done to people whether internationally or at home they do not fade from view with the passage of time. If there is to be democracy based on the rule of law then citizens and persons of conscience must treat equals equally, whether it be the poorest citizen or the most powerful politician. We are aware that there are many in India who are critical of Modi’s policies and whose right of dissent is being challenged, and their voices silenced or intimidated. Modi may be speaking on behalf of some kind of majority in India, but that does not invalidate opposition, even strenuous opposition. One crucial test of a true democracy is whether it protects the rights of minorities, especially when in tension with governing authorities. This is so whether the tension be with political minorities, religious minorities, ethnic minorities, or sexual minorities. A democracy only flourishes when divergent voices can be freely heard without fear of an official or populist backlash.

Q: You also mention the Silicon Valley Enterprises have a code of responsibility that they should be mindful of not being violated by Modi. Could you specify what this code of responsibility is?

I do not claim any special knowledge about this code of responsibility. Silicon Valley Enterprises have a great deal of influence and wealth, perhaps now in some respects greater than that possessed by any government. The New York Times Magazine did stories recently about Chinese factories making Apple products that were run as a sweat shops. Does Apple have the right or strength to insist on at least monitoring working conditions for those who make its products? The Saipan Sweat Shop case resulted in a settlement that required several clothing manufacturers to end the most egregious forms of labor abuse. Outsourcing labor is very convenient for many corporations, and not just for Silicon Valley Enterprises, but it is a prominent feature of Silicon Valley operations. So some of the questions we have about the “Digital India” initiative involve anticipated impacts on basic labor conditions in India that are presently poor and often abusive, but that do make labor costs of doing any kind of business in India more profitable. It is important that “Digital India” evolves in tandem with the protection and advancement of fundamental rights of all workers.

Q: How successful have these Silicon Valley Enterprises been so far in safeguarding their code of conduct while dealing with various governments?

So far, voluntary codes of conduct with respect to business practices, as has been promoted within the United Nations, have elicited pledges from corporations eager to uphold their reputations but the record of compliance ranges from mixed to poor.

Q: The US in general and the Obama administration in particular, have been accused of spying and abusing personal information of individuals by leaders and people of different countries. What has been your reaction to that? 

The pursuit of reasonable levels of state security has become indistinguishable with the Orwellian state.

This is a confusing area of governmental operations, not only for the United States, but for all countries. On the one side, especially given the current agenda of security threats, all governments engage in spying and espionage. On the other side, all states criminalize these activities that target its state’s secrets. This creates a situation of ethical and political confusion, making it difficult to distinguish heroes from villains. The United States as the world’s first global state with interests and involvements throughout the planet has the most extensive, sophisticated, and intrusive system of surveillance and espionage in all of history. As mentioned, the Snowden and Wikileaks disclosures, while viewed as criminal acts in the United States, divulged such excessive abuses that the U.S. Congress took some steps to curtail some of these intelligence operations. One of the reasons to be concerned about “Digital India” or “Digital America” is that the borderline between the pursuit of reasonable levels of state security has become almost indistinguishable from the Orwellian nightmare state of permanent war and total control over people. It is up to citizens within their own country and those with concern for the future of their region and the world to insist on scrutiny of intelligence operations to avoid their encroachment on individual and group rights.My colleagues who co-signed this petition are extremely concerned about this, and some of the signatories to the letter have expertise in this area. In criticizing India, we are not saying, nor do we believe, that the US record must not be scrutinized, protested, and reformed. Modi’s visit to the US provides an occasion for some of these shared issues to be discussed in a more global forum. But a focus on the severe dangers of US practices in the collection and use of digital information should never be interpreted to mean that scrutiny should be lessened in relation to what is, or may happen under Modi’s governmental authority.

Q: Most governments in the world today are committed to fight the “menace of terrorism.” In such a scenario do you think individual privacy and their fundamental rights are bound to be curtailed?

I think the evidence to date the answer worldwide is a resounding ‘yes.’ Partly this is the nature of threats posed by non-state actors that have no territorial address making everyone everywhere a potential suspect, which seems to serve as a rationalization for the expanded intelligence activities undertaken in the name of fighting against terrorism. This challenge of identifying and removing the threat before it materializes, also creates pressure for racial and ethnic profiling that gets translated in practice into arbitrary and discriminatory treatment of minorities, especially if perceived as anti-regime minorities.

A second level of explanation is associated with technological innovations that make the collection of meta-date feasible and economical. These capabilities are also enhanced by the development of drones and various forms of robotic activity, with even greater capabilities and intrusiveness on the technological horizon.

Because this transformed security and technological atmosphere endows the state with dangerous totalizing powers, it is more important than ever that the peoples of the world uphold freedom for themselves and others. It is only through the challenges of a petition such as ours that some hope exists for establishing a dynamic balance between state and society in the digital age. It is in this spirit that I joined with my Indian and other colleagues and friends as a signatory.

 

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Here is the full statement issued by the academicians, and a partial list of signatories:

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Silicon Valley highlights the role of a country that has contributed much to the growth and development of Silicon Valley industries, and builds on this legacy in extending American business collaboration and partnerships with India. However Indian entrepreneurial success also brings with it key responsibilities and obligations with regard to the forms of e-governance envisioned by ‘Digital India’.

We are concerned that the project’s potential for increased transparency in bureaucratic dealings with people is threatened by its lack of safeguards about privacy of information, and thus its potential for abuse. As it stands, ‘Digital India’ seems to ignore key questions raised in India by critics concerned about the collection of personal information and the near certainty that such digital systems will be used to enhance surveillance and repress the constitutionally-protected rights of citizens. These issues are being discussed energetically in public in India and abroad. Those who live and work in Silicon Valley have a particular responsibility to demand that the government of India factor these critical concerns into its planning for digital futures.

We acknowledge that Narendra Modi, as Prime Minister of a country that has contributed much to the growth and development of Silicon Valley industries, has the right to visit the United States, and to seek American business collaboration and partnerships with India. However, as educators who pay particular attention to history, we remind Mr. Modi’s audiences of the powerful reasons for him being denied the right to enter the US from 2005-2014, for there is still an active case in Indian courts that questions his role in the Gujarat violence of 2002 when 1,000 died. Modi’s first year in office as the Prime Minister of India includes well-publicized episodes of censorship and harassment of those critical of his policies, bans and restrictions on NGOs leading to a constriction of the space of civic engagement, ongoing violations of religious freedom, and a steady impingement on the independence of the judiciary.

Under Mr Modi’s tenure as prime minister, academic freedom is also at risk: foreign scholars have been denied entry to India to attend international conferences, there has been interference with the governance of top Indian universities and academic institutions such as the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, the Indian Institutes of Technology and Nalanda University; as well as underqualified or incompetent key appointments made to the Indian Council of Historical Research, the Film and Television Institute of India, and the National Book Trust. A proposed bill to bring the Indian Institutes of Management under direct control of government is also worrisome. These alarming trends require that we, as educators, remain vigilant not only about modes of e-governance in India but about the political future of the country.

We urge those who lead Silicon Valley technology enterprises to be mindful of not violating their own codes of corporate responsibility when conducting business with a government which has, on several occasions already, demonstrated its disregard for human rights and civil liberties, as well as the autonomy of educational and cultural institutions.

Signatories

Meena Alexander, Distinguished Professor of English, Hunter College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York

Arjun Appadurai, Paulette Goddard Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication, New York University

Anjali Arondekar, Associate Professor of Women’s Studies, UC Santa Cruz

Fredrick Asher, Professor of Art History and South Asian Studies, University of Minnesota

Paola Bacchetta, Associate Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies University of California, Berkeley

Sarada Balagopalan, Associate Professor of Childhood Studies, Rutgers University, Camden

Radhika Balakrishnan, Prof of Women’s and Gender Studies, Rutgers University

Shahzad Bashir, Professor of Religious Studies, Stanford University

Manu Bhagavan, Professor of History and Human Rights, Hunter College and the Graduate Center, The City University of New York

Mona Bhan Associate Professor of Sociology and Anthropology DePauw University

Srimati Basu, Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies, University of Kentucky

Prashant Bharadwaj, Associate Professor of Economics, University of California, San Diego

Nilanjana Bhattacharjya, Faculty Fellow, Barrett Honors College, Arizona State University

Nandini Bhattacharya, Professor of English, Texas A &M University, College- Station

Tithi Bhattacharya, Associate Professor of South Asian History, Purdue University

Amit R Baishya, Assistant Professor of English, University of Oklahoma

Akeel Bilgrami, Sidney Morgenbesser Professor of Philosophy and Director, South Asian Institute, Columbia University

Purnima Bose, Associate Professor, English and International Studies, Indiana University-Bloomington

Christopher Candland, Associate Professor of Political Science, Wellesley College

Paula Chakravartty, Associate Professor, Gallatin School, & Department of Media, Culture and Communication, New York University

Shefali Chandra, Associate Professor of South Asian History Washington University, St. Louis

S Charusheela, Associate Professor, School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, University of Washington, Bothell

Partha Chatterjee, Professor of Anthropology and South Asian Studies, Columbia University

Indrani Chatterjee Professor of History and South Asian Studies, University of Texas, Austin

Swati Chattopadhyay Professor History of Art and Architecture, University of California, Santa Barbara

Marty Chen, School of Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School and Affiliated Professor, Harvard Graduate School of Design

Rohit Chopra, Associate Professor of Communication, Santa Clara University

Elora Chowdhury Associate Professor & Chair, Women’s and Gender Studies, University of Massachusetts, Boston

E Valentine Daniel, Professor of Anthropology, Colombia University

Monisha Das Gupta, Associate Professor of Ethnic Studies and Women’s Studies, University of Hawaii, Manoa

Jigna Desai, Professor of Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies, University of Minnesota

Pawan Dhingra, Professor of Sociology, Tufts University

Wendy Doniger, Professor of the History of Religions, University of Chicago

Richard Falk, Professor of International Law Emeritus, Princeton University

Bishnupriya Ghosh, Professor of English University of California, Santa Barbara

Huma Ahmed-Ghosh, Professor and Chair of Women’s Studies, San Diego State University

Durba Ghosh, Associate Professor of History, Cornell University

Sumanth Gopinath, Associate Professor of Music Theory, School of Music, University of Minnesota

Nitin Govil, Associate Professor of Cinema & Media Studies, University of Southern California

Paul Greenough, Professor of History and Community and Behavioral Health and Director, South Asian Studies Program, University of Iowa

Inderpal Grewal, Professor of South Asian Studies, Yale University

Sumit Guha, Frances Higginbotham Nalle Centennial Professor of History, University of Texas, Austin

Thomas Blom Hansen, Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Center for South Asia, Stanford University

Syed Akbar Hyder, Associate Professor of South Asian Studies, University of Texas, Austin

Nalini Iyer, Professor of English, Seattle University

Priya Jaikumar, Associate Professor of Cinema and Media Studies, University of Southern California

Pranav Jani, Associate Professor of English, Ohio State University

Sheila Jasanoff, Professor of Science and Technology Studies, Harvard University, John F Kennedy School of Government

Arun W Jones, Associate Professor, Candler School of Theology, Emory University

May Joseph, Professor of Social Science, Pratt Institute

Priya Joshi, Associate Professor of English and Associate Director, Center for the Humanities, Temple University

Sampath Kannan, Henry Salvatore Professor of Computer and Information Science, University of Pennsylvania

Suvir Kaul, A M Rosenthal Professor of English, University of Pennsylvania Waqas Khwaja, Professor of English, Agnes Scott College

Naveeda Khan, Associate Professor of Anthropology, Johns Hopkins University

Nyla Ali Khan, Visiting Professor of Women’s Studies, University of Oklahoma, Norman

Satish Kolluri, Associate Professor of Communications, Pace University

Ruby Lal, Professor of Middle East and South Asian Studies, Emory University

Sarah Lamb, Professor of Anthropology and Head of the Division of Social Sciences, Brandeis University; Co-Chair of South Asian Studies

Karen Leonard, Professor of Anthropology, Emeritus, University of California, Irvine

David Lelyveld, Professor of History, Emeritus, William Paterson University

Jinee Lokaneeta, Associate Professor of Political Science and International Relations, Drew University

Ania Loomba, Catherine Bryson Professor of English, University of Pennsylvania

David Ludden, Professor of History, New York University

Ritty Lukose, Associate Professor of Anthropology, Gender and Sexuality Studies, and South Asian Studies, the Gallatin School, New York University

Sudhir Mahadevan Assistant Professor of Film Studies, Comparative Literature, Cinema and Media, University of Washington, Seattle

Tayyab Mahmud, Professor of Law and Director, Center for Global Justice Seattle University School of Law

Sunaina Maira, Professor of Asian American Studies, University of California, Davis

Bakirathi Mani, Associate Professor of English Literature, Swarthmore College

Rebecca J. Manring, Associate Professor of India Studies and Religious Studies Indiana University-Bloomington

Monika Mehta, Associate Professor, Department of English, Binghamton University

Jisha Menon, Assistant Professor of Theatre and Performance Studies, Stanford University

Kalyani Devaki Menon, Associate Professor of Religious Studies, DePaul University

Sally Engle Merry, Silver Professor of Anthropology, New York University

Raza Mir, Professor of Management, Cotsakos College of Business, William Paterson University

Deepti Misri, Associate Professor of Women and Gender Studies University of Colorado, Boulder

Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Chair and Distinguished Professor of Women’s & Gender Studies, and Dean’s Professor of Humanities, Syracuse University

Satya P Mohanty, Professor of English, Cornell University

Megan Moodie, Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of California, Santa Cruz

Projit B Mukharji, Martin Meyerson Assistant Professor in Interdisciplinary Studies, History & Sociology of Science, University of Pennsylvania

Madhavi Murty, Assistant Professor of Feminist Studies, University of California, Santa Cruz

Vijaya Nagarajan, Associate Professor of Theology & Religious Studies, Program in Environmental Studies, University of San Francisco

Gyanendra Pandey, Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor of History, Emory University

Carla Petievich, Visiting Professor of South Asian Studies, University of Texas, Austin

Sheldon Pollock, Professor of South Asian Studies, Columbia University Kavita Philip, Associate Professor of History, University of California, Irvine

Vijay Prashad, George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History, Trinity College

Jasbir K Puar, Associate Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies, Rutgers University

Balakrishnan Rajagopal, Professor of Law and Development, Department of Urban Studies and Planning, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

R Radhakrishnan, Chancellor’s Professor of English and Comparative Literature, University of California, Irvine

Gloria Raheja, Professor of Anthropology, University of Minnesota

Junaid Rana, Associate Professor of Asian American Studies, University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana

Anupama Rao, Professor of Anthropology, Barnard College

Velcheru Narayana Rao, Distinguished Visiting Professor of Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies, Emory University

Kasturi Ray, Associate Professor of Women and Gender Studies/Co-Director, South Asian Studies, San Francisco State University

M V Ramana, Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University Sumathi Ramaswamy, Professor of History, Duke University

Chandan Reddy, Associate Professor of English, University of Washington, Seattle

Gayatri Reddy, Associate Professor of Women’s Studies, University of Illinois, Chicago

Parama Roy, Professor of English, University of California, Davis

Sharmila Rudrappa, Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Texas at Austin

G S Sahota, Assistant Professor of Literature, University of California, Santa Cruz

Yasmin Saikia, Hardt-Nickachos Chair in Peace Studies & Professor of History, Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict, Arizona State University

Arun Saldanha, Associate Professor of Geography, Environment and Society University of Minnesota

Juned Shaikh, Assistant Professor of History, University of California, Santa Cruz

Nitasha Tamar Sharma, Charles Deering McCormick Professor of Teaching Excellence and Associate Professor of African American Studies and Asian American Studies, Northwestern University

Elora Shehabuddin, Associate Professor of Humanities and Political Science, Rice University

Bhaskar Sarkar, Associate Professor of Film and Media Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara

Priya Satia, Associate Professor of History, Stanford University

Aradhana Sharma, Associate Professor of Anthropology, Wesleyan University

Snehal Shinghavi, Associate Professor of English and South Asian Studies, University of Texas, Austin

Ajay Skaria, Professor of History, University of Minnesota

Shalini Shankar, Chair and Associate Professor of Asian American Studies, Northwestern University

S Shankar, Professor of English, University of Hawai’i at Mānoa Amritjit Singh, Langston Hughes Professor of English, Ohio University

Mytheli Sreenivas, Associate Professor of History and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, Ohio State University

Rajini Srikanth, Professor, English, University of Massachusetts Boston Nidhi Srinivas, Associate Professor of Nonprofit Management, The New School

Ajantha Subramanian, Professor of Anthropology and South Asian Studies, Harvard University

Banu Subramaniam, Professor, Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Kaushik Sunder Rajan, Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of Chicago

Raja Swamy, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, University of Tennessee Tariq Thachil, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Yale University

Ashwini Tambe, Associate Professor of Women’s Studies, University of Maryland, College-Park

Vamsi Vakulabharanam, Associate Professor of Economics, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Jyotnsa Vaid, Professor of Psychology, Texas A&M University

Sylvia Vatuk, Professor of Anthropology, Emeritus, University of Illinois, Chicago

Kamala Visweswaran, Professor of Ethnic Studies, University of California, San Diego

Kalindi Vora, Associate Professor of Ethnic Studies, University of California, San Diego

Bonnie Zare, Professor of Gender & Women’s Studies, University of Wyoming

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Pondering Jonathan Pollard’s Release

3 Aug

 

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No more confusing mind games are played by sovereign states than in the context of ‘espionage,’ ‘treason,’ and the work of the professional spy. All important governments seek secret knowledge of what other governments and their leaders are doing and planning, and it matters little whether these governments are allies or adversaries, especially with respect to espionage. Espionage is the unseemly twin of secrecy, and national security is becoming ever more dependent on a country keeping its own secrets while learning those of others. In the amoral world of global espionage there are shockingly surprising cooperative liaisons, and bargains worked out behind closest doors even with the direst of enemies. Treason (and patriotism) are closely related to the ethos of espionage, and exhibit the politically correct subservience of individual conscience to the security policies of the state.

 

Edward Snowden’s massive disclosures were confusing in this respect as he disclosed secrets about what amounted to acts of de facto espionage carried out by the government against American citizens, as well as others. In effect, the surveillance apparatus of the U.S. Government was abolishing the distinction between ‘self’ and ‘other’ or ‘friend’ and ‘enemy’ in world politics. For some, this made Snowden a traitor guilty of treason because he disclosed to the world some premium national security secrets of his own government. For others, Snowden was a hero as he acted benevolently, sacrificing his personal wellbeing, career, and safety to warn the publics of the world, but above all the American public, that the government was abusing its powers in fundamental ways, threatening to privacy and the very fabric of democracy. Snowden acted from the belief that expectations of trust and privacy should be the first principle of a functioning constitutional democracy as the United States purports to be. This does not mean that security claims can never be given precedence, but that their scope should be constrained by strong evidence justifying specific actions, and that meta-data consisting of indiscriminate and totalizing forms of surveillance are fundamental threats to republican commitments to constrain government in state/society relations.

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The latest example of this confusing and contradictory optic that pertains to the work of a spy is illustrated by the controversy swirling around the scheduled release on November 20th of Jonathan Pollard who has been in prison since being convicted of espionage on behalf of Israel 30 years ago. As with Snowden, there are many liberals, and even some on the left, in the intelligence community, and among anti-Israelis who view the decision to release Pollard as setting a horrible precedent. The argument being made is that if Pollard had not been a Jewish-American ardent Zionist with ties to Israel he would have been sentenced to death as a traitor, and such a punishment would be deserved given the secrets he passed to Israel. Others point out that Pollard had become a bargaining chip in relations between Israel and the United States, and that his release was an expression of cynical geopolitics, a way of softening the anger in Tel Aviv associated with the Iran Nuclear Agreement that is viewed by Israel, both its leaders and most of its public as a dangerously imprudent initiative.

 

James North and Philip Weiss question the release from the treason angle. They contend that Pollard’s release is dubious because he provided Israel with information during the Cold War that allegedly was then likely traded to the Soviet Union (reportedly in exchange for allowing Jews to emigrate) that might have disclosed information to Moscow that exposed American agents to death or capture.[“MSM avoids central Pollard question: Did Israel trade secrets with Soviets for emigres?” Mondoweiss, July 30, 2015] For this reason, the crimes of Pollard cannot be excused or mitigated as acts of conscience to protect Israel from threats associated with undisclosed activities in hostile Arab neighbors, and his parole is rendered as problematic. It is never made clear in this line of reasoning whether Pollard was privy to such secondary uses made of his work as a spy in the pay of Israel, and whether that should make any difference in assessing the case for parole. Parole should be granted or withheld based on the behavior of a convicted person during his time in prison and the degree to which his release might produce further harm to society.

 

There is a question underlying this debate about the relationship between conscience and national identity. Is obedience to the laws of the state of residence and nationality the highest claim on behavior? I believe that a principled and reasonable disregard for national law could morally and politically justify acts of espionage of the sort that Pollard was alleged to have committed, including a genuine dedication to the promotion of the opportunity for Soviet Jews to emigrate to Israel. Apparently, conscience was not the main motivator for Pollard, and for this reason alone, he does pose a threat to society more serious than being one among thousands of rogue espionage entrepreneurs that pass secrets back and forth around the world as a matter of profession or for the sake of adventure and material gain. As such, whether Pollard is released or not is more a matter of public empathy than a question of whether or not his crime was such as to make his release either overdue or unacceptable.

 

Those who endorse Pollard’s release most enthusiastically are mainly drawn from the ranks of those who identify unconditionally with Israel, contending that he has already suffered too much, considering that he was acting on the basis of his Zionist conscience to provide Israel with highly classified intelligence information that it was supposedly, in any event entitled to receive from the U.S. Government according to a memorandum of understanding between the two governments. Beyond this, the claim being made by supporters is that Pollard has served already a disproportionately long prison sentence considering that his acts of espionage were on behalf of a government that was a friend and ally of the United States, and besides, that he has serious health issues that make his release justifiable on humanitarian grounds alone, especially given his age and harmlessness. Whatever knowledge Pollard may have had about U.S. secrets is 30 years old, and presumably worthless, making it purely vindictive to continue his imprisonment or impose strong conditions on his release. For Israel, Pollard became over the years a high profile symbolic hero (second only to the captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit) whose release was avidly sought on a priority basis by a string of prominent leaders including Yitzhak Shamir, Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, and Benjamin Netanyahu. It seems that the Israeli government wanted to show the depth of its commitment to someone whose liberty was lost because he acted to uphold Israeli security interests.

 

As a matter of public relations, Pollard’s release is being portrayed as an act of good will by the U.S. Government and as a routine exercise of discretion by parole authorities in a context where no convincing rationale exists for extending Pollard’s time in jail. Such a stance is opposed by some former top-ranked security officials, including Donald Rumsfeld, who contend that Pollard still has information that could damage U.S. security interests. In this regard, such right-wing critics of Pollard’s release claim that he possesses ‘a photographic memory,’ and thus continues to pose a threat to American security interests, surely vindictiveness disguised as paranoid patriotism.

 

Behind this argument about espionage, treason, loyalty, and parole is the strange person of Jonathan Pollard whose life as a master spy remains an enigma of multiple dimensions. Pollard would be a good model for an inverted 20th century version of Dostoyeski’s ‘underground man,’ living a lavish life style by reliance on dark and devious undertakings. It seems a no-brainer that Pollard should never have been hired as an intelligence analyst. His application for employment had been rejected by the CIA, apparently because of the numerous instabilities uncovered in his private life. Yet he was later inexplicably hired by U.S. Naval Intelligence despite the organization having reliable information that Pollard was a drug-using loose cannon whose multiple lies distorting his past were detected by a polygraph test. Although the facts are contested, it is well established that Pollard was a Zionist true believer drawn to the Israeli experience since his childhood. As a young adult he became a mercenary and mercurial spy in Israel’s pay. He actively sought, in collaboration with his first wife, to sell secret information to South Africa and even Pakistan as well as to Israel, partly to deal with private financial troubles that included heavy indebtedness. His behavior while serving as a U.S. Government employee seemed altogether bizarre, including his undisguised and careless seizure for private use of large quantities of highly classified materials outside his area of responsibility. He even had trouble convincing Israel, at first, that he could be trusted to provide useful information without detection, but after finally succeeding in gaining Tel Aviv’s confidence, was paid significant sums during his rather short career as a spy.

Nevertheless, in 1985 when Pollard was on the verge of being apprehended in the United States on spying allegations, he sought refuge in Israel’s Embassy in Washington. Israel embassy guards turned Pollard away, evidently not wanting Israel to be tarnished by their association with him. After leaving the embassy he was immediately arrested by U.S. enforcement officers waiting on the periphery. In keeping with this posture, Israel at first denied any involvement with Pollard, then in 1987 issued an apology to the U.S. Government for receiving information from Pollard. Israel only conceded the professional espionage relationship with Pollard in 1998. Perhaps, this earlier failure to protect someone on their payroll as a spy, explains Israel’s later full court press to gain Pollard’s release.

 

In my view, releasing Pollard is the proper course of action, not because of Israeli pressures, but despite them. President Obama tried to portray the release as a law enforcement issue, nothing more, nothing less. Because of the suspicious timing given the tensions associated with the Iran diplomacy and the resulting inflamed domestic political context, this effort to downplay the release did not gain traction. Pollard served long enough for the crimes that he committed, poses no credible threat to the security of any country, and behaved well as a prisoner. To deny parole for another 15 years would be unconscionable given these conditions, or even to condition its grant on forcing Pollard to remain in the United States appears vindicative.

 

In my view, espionage has long been one way clever people make a living, assuming the risks of detection and hypocrisies associated with criminalization of the activity. It is certainly within the prerogatives of the sovereign state to criminalize the improper use of the knowledge acquired in the course of public employment in an espionage capacity. What Pollard did was surely a breach of contract and trust that breaks national criminal law. Yet espionage may be morally and politically justified (and may be even imperative) in exceptional circumstances where truth-telling and whistle blowing serves as a safety valve against abusive forms of state secrecy and a variety of political dangers posed by government policies.

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In this regard, it is illuminating to contrast Israel’s belated solidarity with Pollard to its determined hostility to Mordechai Vanunu, the Israeli employee at the Dimona nuclear facility who confirmed for the world that Israel had secretly developed nuclear weapons. Vanunu was made by Israel to pay a high price for his public service (compounded by his conversion to Christianity), spending 18 years in prison (11 in solitary confinement), and then upon release being put under a series of punitive constraints that have included several instance of brief reimprisonment for violating conditions of his release. In my view, Vanunu belongs on the same honor roll as Edward Snowden and Daniel Ellsberg who revealed state secrets that served the cause of national wellbeing and were also of benefit to humanity as a whole. Ellsberg has called Vanunu “the preeminent hero of the nuclear era.”

 

Pollard does not belong in this company. He seems more like an unstable and rogue opportunist than a self-sacrificing idealist even if his behavior is evaluated from an Israeli Zionist perspective. Perhaps, Pollard will partially redeem himself, and his legacy, by writing an honest memoir that unravels his mixed motives, tangled pre-prison life, and search for redemption. He seems to harbor no resentment against Israel for their refusal to give him sanctuary within their embassy back in 1985. On the contrary, while in prison he married an Israeli woman associated with the far right, seeks to be repatriated to Israel where he was awarded citizenship, and has expressed gratitude for those in the Israeli government who struggled for his release. Given Pollard’s past, it would not be surprising if he tells his story wrapped in an Israeli flag.

 

Those who criticize Pollard’s release on patriotic grounds, contending that his information helped an enemy (Soviet Union) or hurt the United States, are prioritizing loyalty to the state over competing considerations that could motivate such behavior. The ethos of treason as a high crime is the apotheosis of statist absolutism, overriding the exposure of the most extreme state crimes, for example, disclosing plans of a contemplated war of aggression initiated by a first strike with nuclear weapons. Calling Snowden or Vanunu ‘traitors’ is a perversion of moral principle, condemning those whose public acts deserve praise and protection given their nature. Not all disclosures of state secrets should be treated as expressions of civic virtue. Disclosures that violate the law to be justifiable must be deemed as sincere acts of public conscience that appear reasonable based on surrounding circumstances.

 

Loyalty to the state continues to be the north star of conventional patriotism. For the citizen pilgrim solidarity with an emergent eco-humanist insurgency is the keystone of 21st century political community and ethical responsibility deserving precedence when in conflict with nationalist and tribal affinities.