Duane Jackson is a street vendor in New York City’s Times Square. He is also an American hero.
Four years ago, this Vietnam war veteran, along with two other street vendors, spotted a suspicious vehicle near his stand.
“The car came here and parked there and I turned around and walked over to the car,” he recalls of the incident that thrust him into the limelight.
“What stuck out to me was the fact that the keys were in it, the car was running, the blinking lights were on, nobody was inside and the fact that the windows were painted with black paint”.
Duane alerted the police. Times Square was evacuated and a bomb squad made the explosives safe.
A nation’s gratitude and even a phone call from President Obama followed, thanking Duane for helping to thwart what could have been one of the worst terrorist attacks on US soil since 9/11.
What he saw inside the vehicle remains as a graphic and shocking image.
“It was kerosene, propane, gasoline, a low grade fertiliser, what they call about a quarter stick of dynamite and some firecrackers and two timers. And actually the timers that he used were the same type of timers that the guys in Boston used,” he says.
Keeping America safe from terrorism has been the cornerstone of the National Security Agency or NSA’s policy since 9/11. But amid the ongoing surveillance spy scandal , which has made political waves on both sides of the Atlantic, there is a troubling irony.
Despite more than 52 billion dollars spent per year on surveillance it has been found that more terrorist threats over the last decade were foiled by old methods such as tip-offs from local citizens like Duane, than by NSA surveillance.
However, last summer, Edward Snowden's revelations fueled debates over mass surveillance and government secrecy.
They included allegations of spying and phone tapping on European leaders. There was particulary concern that despite some promised reforms, President Obama defended the NSA as necessary to protect the US and its allies from terrorism.
Thomas Drake is a former NSA employee and also a whistle blower. When he tried to reveal that US surveillance was violating the US constitution he was charged with espionage and faced 35 years in prison. The charges were later dropped.
Drake, who has testified to the European parliament, believes 9/11 has given US surveillance carte blanche.
“There clearly are obvious threats to the integrity of nation states, to the integrity of the international system and global order, but you don’t have to surveille the planet, you just don’t,” he says.
“They interviewed a former Stasi officer who said it’s naive to believe that this information is not going to be used for other purposes. When you’re using this as sort of guise to collect this all… and then on top of that we have have access to this..‘Oh yeah well, we could find out economic industrial espionage, political compromise, blackmail’, I mean the temptations are enormous. I just never imagined that the template, the Stasi playbook, would be used as the basis for this virtual surveillance state that’s now risen and metastasised since 9/11.”
Edward Lucas was Moscow bureau chief for the Economist for four years. He is also author of ‘The Snowden Operation’ in which he labels Snowden as the West’s greatest intelligence disaster. Lucas warns Snowden has done more harm than good to international security.
“I don’t think Obama should apologise to his Western allies and I think the Western allies should apologise for getting into a state of naive hypocrisy about things they do themselves,” he says.
“Big countries spy on each other and intelligence services – guess what? – they engage in espionage. And I think the public is outraged and politicians are reacting to this, but there’s an enormous amount of what I’d call phoney outrage. And I think Obama’s real short-coming is he didn’t defend the NSA vigorously and the NSA didn’t defend itself vigorously.”
Despite plans to attend the nuclear security summit in the Hague and EU-US trade talks in Brussels, Russia’s growing intervention in Ukraine has come to the forefront in US-EU relations.
Even the transatlantic fall-out over the Snowden spying revelations scandal will be pushed aside as pressure on Obama to stand up to Putin is growing both from within and outside the US.
Julianne Smith is a national security consultant and former advisor to Vice-President Joe Biden. She hopes that Obama’s European visit will lead to a stronger and more united transatlantic answer to Putin’s intervention in Ukraine.
“There is frustration here in Washington that our, quote, partner on the other side of the Atlantic can’t get its act together because you have these endless debates about what to do next,” Smith says
“Here though we also have dysfunction in our own capitol. We have disagreement with congress. So I think there is blame to go around on both sides but it’s a little bit of an unfair accusation from Washington. The United States and Europe have very different bilateral relationships with the Russians. Obviously the European Union and individual European member states have much deeper trade ties and a deeper trade relationhip with Russia than the United States does. So there is some hesitation on the other side of the Atlantic to use sanctions as a tool, as a punitive measure against the Russians. There’s much more eagerness here in the United States to turn to that right away.”
Both Washington and Brussels have responded with asset freezes and visa bans to Russia’s actions over Crimea. But there is concern that neither the US nor the EU are determined to hit Putin hard below the economic belt.
“We already know that Russia pushes back hard when it has sanctions imposed on it,” says Edward Lucas.
“America put visa bans and asset freezes on a small number of people involved in the death of a whistle blower in the fraud that he’d uncovered. That was the so called Magnitsky list. And Russia responded by banning adoptions by Americans of disabled kids from Russian orphanages. I think they (Russia) will do something similar, probably on the economic front. They’ll do something that will really hurt western companies, western banks and those companies and banks will go howling to their governments saying this is our profits, our dividends, jobs in the west, do something and back down. And my fear is that western governments will decide to make these sanctions against Russia pretty brief and toothless as a result.”
Joseph Ciricione heads an NGO focused on nuclear weapons policy. He will be at the Hague’s Nuclear Security summit.
He says that despite growing tensions with Russia, Obama and his western allies are committed to securing the world’s nuclear arsenal from any terrorist threat.
And if anything, he believes the transatlantic alliance will come out even stronger than before.
Putting past “disputes” aside, both Washington and Brussels say they still hope to solve the Ukrainian crisis through diplomatic channels – yet another test on the ties that bind on both sides of the Atlantic.
Thomas Drake – personal story about being a whistleblower
Thomas Drake – USA obsession with getting data
Thomas Drake on Snowden and Transatlantic relation damage
Joe Cirincione talks about nuclear security summit
Edward Lucas interview on Russian sanctions