Spying has a history almost as ancient as humanity itself, but every now and then the rules of the game change. This post-9/11 moment of surveillance is one of those game-changers and the National Security Agency (NSA) has been the deal-breaker and rule-maker. The new rules it brought into existence are simple enough: you — whoever you are and wherever you live on Planet Earth — are a potential target. Get used to it. The most basic ground rule of the new system: no one is exempt from surveillance.
But then there’s human nature to take into account. There’s the feeling of invulnerability that the powerful often have. If you need an example, look no further than what key officials around New Jersey Governor Chris Christie were willing to commit to emails, even in this day and age, when it came to their scheme to tie up traffic on the George Washington Bridge. Something similar has been true of the system NSA officials set up. Its rules of the road were that no one was to be exempt from surveillance. (Call me Angela Merkel.) They then plunged their creation into the deepest secrecy, in part because they couldn’t imagine a world without at least one categorical exemption: themselves.
As it happens, Edward Snowden’s revelations fit the logic of the system the NSA created to a T. What the former agency contractor revealed, above all, was that the surveillance of anyone and everyone was the essence of our new world, and that not even the NSA would be exempt. He made that agency his own object of surveillance and so opened it up to the scrutiny of the rest of the planet. He gave its officials a dose of their own medicine.
Much of the ensuing outrage from the U.S. intelligence community, including the calls for his head, the cries of “treason,” the demands to bring him to “justice,” and so on, reflect outrage over the fact that the agency had gotten a full-scale dose of its own rules. It turns out that you don’t have to be an ordinary citizen or a world leader to feel terrible when someone appropriates the right to surveil your life. When it happened to agency honchos, they undoubtedly felt just like Merkel or Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff or so many other figures who discovered that their lives and communications weren’t private and weren’t their own. In a perfectly human manner, reality being far too ugly for their taste, they wanted payback.
There’s humor in the fact that the key figures involved in creating the foundations of a new, all-encompassing global security state simply couldn’t imagine the obvious happening. Unfortunately, as TomDispatch regular and historian of U.S. surveillance practices Alfred McCoy points out, what the NSA set up, despite the blowback it’s now causing, is irresistible to Washington. Not surprisingly, as new information about the agency’s methods continues to ooze out, the president’s recent NSA speech makes it clear that genuine “change” or “reform” isn’t on the agenda, that little that matters will alter in the NSA’s methodology, and that nothing will be allowed to shake the system itself. Tom
Surveillance and Scandal
Time-Tested Weapons for U.S. Global Power
By Alfred McCoy
For more than six months, Edward Snowden’s revelations about the National Security Agency (NSA) have been pouring out from the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Guardian, Germany’s Der Spiegel, and Brazil’s O Globo, among other places. Yet no one has pointed out the combination of factors that made the NSA’s expanding programs to monitor the world seem like such a slam-dunk development in Washington. The answer is remarkably simple. For an imperial power losing its economic grip on the planet and heading into more austere times, the NSA’s latest technological breakthroughs look like a bargain basement deal when it comes to projecting power and keeping subordinate allies in line — like, in fact, the steal of the century. Even when disaster turned out to be attached to them, the NSA’s surveillance programs have come with such a discounted price tag that no Washington elite was going to reject them.
For well over a century, from the pacification of the Philippines in 1898 to trade negotiations with the European Union today, surveillance and its kissing cousins, scandal and scurrilous information, have been key weapons in Washington’s search for global dominion. Not surprisingly, in a post-9/11 bipartisan exercise of executive power, George W. Bush and Barack Obama have presided over building the NSA step by secret step into a digital panopticon designed to monitor the communications of every American and foreign leaders worldwide.
What exactly was the aim of such an unprecedented program of massive domestic and planetary spying, which clearly carried the risk of controversy at home and abroad? Here, an awareness of the more than century-long history of U.S. surveillance can guide us through the billions of bytes swept up by the NSA to the strategic significance of such a program for the planet’s last superpower. What the past reveals is a long-term relationship between American state surveillance and political scandal that helps illuminate the unacknowledged reason why the NSA monitors America’s closest allies.
Not only does such surveillance help gain intelligence advantageous to U.S. diplomacy, trade relations, and war-making, but it also scoops up intimate information that can provide leverage — akin to blackmail — in sensitive global dealings and negotiations of every sort. The NSA’s global panopticon thus fulfills an ancient dream of empire. With a few computer key strokes, the agency has solved the problem that has bedeviled world powers since at least the time of Caesar Augustus: how to control unruly local leaders, who are the foundation for imperial rule, by ferreting out crucial, often scurrilous, information to make them more malleable.
A Cost-Savings Bonanza With a Downside
Once upon a time, such surveillance was both expensive and labor intensive. Today, however, unlike the U.S. Army’s shoe-leather surveillance during World War I or the FBI’s break-ins and phone bugs in the Cold War years, the NSA can monitor the entire world and its leaders with only 100-plus probes into the Internet’s fiber optic cables.