Mr Ladar Levison, the director of an American email service, Lavabit, that offers encrypted email to its users – including the information-leaker Edward Snowden, who is now in political asylum in Russia – has decided to shut down the service rather than, in his own words, “become complicit in crimes against the American people”, as reported by the UK’s Guardian newspaper.
At the same time, US President Barack Obama publicly announced that he would oversee “appropriate reforms” to the massive review of American citizens’ telephone records being conducted by the National Security Agency, as reported by the NY Daily News. That is, the President has agreed that the NSA program, which was revealed by the leaker Snowden, needs reform. But Snowden is still a traitor, who the US government says should be prosecuted and sent to jail, probably for the rest of his life.
What was Levison talking about when he referred to “crimes against the American people,” a rather dramatic turn of phrase? Well, apparently he isn’t at liberty to say. This is what he wrote on his website: “I wish that I could legally share with you the events that led to my decision. I cannot. I feel you deserve to know what’s going on–the first amendment is supposed to guarantee me the freedom to speak out in situations like this. Unfortunately, Congress has passed laws that say otherwise. As things currently stand, I cannot share my experiences…”
He also indicated he would be challenging a government decision in a court action. Various commentators have speculated about what Levison is talking about. The most obvious inference is that Levison has been barred from discussing some government action taken in respect of his business. But what was that action? One suggestion is that the US government has asked him to allow its intelligence agencies to access the secure communications passing through his email servers via a “backdoor”.
The operations of another encrypted email service, called SIlent Circle, have announced that they, too, will be shutting down rather than cooperate with the US Government spying system, as reported by Forbes.com. I find these events very Kafkaesque.
In 1948, Clinton Rossiter, an American academic, published his doctoral thesis as book called Constitutional Dictatorship, in which he discussed emergency powers adopted by governments to deal with crises. He started his analysis with the Roman Empire and worked his way forward to the time of writing, looking at various examples of this situation in Western history. He concluded that unless the use of such emergency powers is carefully controlled, the relevant government is likely to be destabilised, which could lead to a collapse of the government altogether.
Dr Rossiter was no stranger to emergency powers and their use. He served his country during World War 2 as a navy officer. He is also described as someone who has a deep respect for his country’s constitutional history.
I think that if Dr Rossiter were alive today he would be alarmed at the comments made by Ladar Levinson, worried about what Edward Snowden represents, and disturbed by the positive attitude of President Obama to the massive surveillance of its own citizens being conducted by the US Government. If we look beyond immediate concerns and examine, as Dr Rossiter did, what history teaches us about governments that misuse their emergency powers, we would see that sooner or later the story of an ever-expanding, secret surveillance apparatus must have a bad ending.
And there we have an irony. As President Obama has pointed out repeatedly, the point of the surveillance is to protect American citizens. The problem is, when a democratic government conducts its activities in total secret, it eventually stops being democratic. Where will the American people be when that happens?