[News] Surveillance and Scandal: Time-Tested Weapons for U.S. Global Power

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Mon Jan 20 11:13:56 EST 2014

    *Surveillance and Scandal*
    *Time-Tested Weapons for U.S. Global Power*

    By Alfred McCoy <http://www.tomdispatch.com/authors/alfredmccoy>

    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.

    This new technology is both omniscient and omnipresent beyond
    anything those lacking top-secret clearance could have imagined
    before the Edward Snowden revelations
    <http://www.theguardian.com/world/the-nsa-files> began.  Not only is
    it unimaginably pervasive, but NSA surveillance is also a
    particularly cost-effective strategy compared to just about any
    other form of global power projection. And better yet, it fulfills
    the greatest imperial dream of all: to be omniscient not just for a
    few islands, as in the Philippines a century ago, or a couple of
    countries, as in the Cold War era, but on a truly global scale.

    In a time of increasing imperial austerity and exceptional
    technological capability, everything about the NSA's surveillance
    told Washington to just "go for it."  This cut-rate mechanism for
    both projecting force and preserving U.S. global power surely looked
    like a no-brainer, a must-have bargain for any American president in
    the twenty-first century -- before new NSA documents started hitting
    front pages weekly
    thanks to Snowden, and the whole world began returning the favor.

    As the gap has grown between Washington's global reach and its
    shrinking mailed fist, as it struggles to maintain 40%
    <http://books.sipri.org/files/FS/SIPRIFS1304.pdf> of world armaments
    (the 2012 figure) with only 23%
    of global gross economic output, the U.S. will need to find new ways
    to exercise its power far more economically. As the Cold War took
    off, a heavy-metal U.S. military -- with 500 bases worldwide circa
    1950 -- was sustainable because the country controlled some 50% of
    the global gross product.

    But as its share of world output falls -- to an estimated 17%
    by 2016 -- and its social welfare costs climb relentlessly from 4%
    of gross domestic product in 2010 to a projected 18% by 2050,
    cost-cutting becomes imperative if Washington is to survive as
    anything like the planet's "sole superpower." Compared to the $3
    trillion cost
    of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, the NSA's 2012 budget
    of just $11 billion
    for worldwide surveillance and cyberwarfare looks like cost saving
    the Pentagon can ill-afford to forego.

    Yet this seeming "bargain" comes at what turns out to be an almost
    incalculable cost. The sheer scale of such surveillance leaves it
    open to countless points of penetration, whether by a handful of
    anti-war activists breaking into
    an FBI field office in Media, Pennsylvania, back in 1971 or Edward
    Snowden downloading NSA documents at a Hawaiian outpost in 2012.

    Once these secret programs are exposed, it turns out that nobody
    really likes being under surveillance. Proud national leaders refuse
    to tolerate foreign powers observing them like rats in a maze.
    Ordinary citizens recoil at the idea of Big Brother
    watching their private lives like so many microbes on a slide.

    *Cycles of Surveillance*

    Over the past century, the tension between state expansion and
    citizen-driven contraction has pushed U.S. surveillance through a
    recurring cycle. First comes the rapid development of stunning
    counterintelligence techniques under the pressure of fighting
    foreign wars; next, the unchecked, usually illegal application of
    those surveillance technologies back home behind a veil of secrecy;
    and finally, belated, grudging reforms as press and public discover
    the outrageous excesses of the FBI, the CIA, or now, the NSA. In
    this hundred-year span -- as modern communications advanced from the
    mail to the telephone to the Internet -- state surveillance has
    leapt forward in technology's ten-league boots, while civil
    liberties have crawled along behind at the snail's pace of law and

    The first and, until recently, most spectacular round of
    surveillance came during World War I and its aftermath. Fearing
    subversion by German-Americans after the declaration of war on
    Germany in 1917, the FBI and Military Intelligence swelled from
    bureaucratic nonentities into all-powerful agencies charged with
    extirpating any flicker of disloyalty anywhere in America, whether
    by word or deed. Since only 9% of the country's population then had
    telephones, monitoring the loyalties of some 10 million
    German-Americans proved incredibly labor-intensive, requiring
    legions of postal workers to physically examine some 30 million
    first-class letters and 350,000 badge-carrying vigilantes to perform
    shoe-leather snooping on immigrants, unions, and socialists of every
    sort.  During the 1920s, Republican conservatives, appalled by this
    threat to privacy, slowly began to curtail Washington's security
    apparatus. This change culminated in Secretary of State Henry
    Stimson's abolition of the government's cryptography unit in 1929
    with his memorable admonition
    "Gentlemen do not read each other's mail."

    In the next round of mass surveillance during World War II, the FBI
    discovered that the wiretapping of telephones produced an
    unanticipated byproduct with extraordinary potential for garnering
    political power: scandal. To block enemy espionage, President
    Franklin Roosevelt gave the FBI control over all U.S.
    counterintelligence and, in May 1940, authorized its director, J.
    Edgar Hoover, to engage in wiretapping.

    What made Hoover a Washington powerhouse was the telephone. With 20%
    of the country and the entire political elite by now owning phones,
    FBI wiretaps at local switchboards could readily monitor
    conversations by both suspected subversives and the president's
    domestic enemies, particularly leaders of the isolationist movement
    such as aviator Charles Lindbergh and Senator Burton Wheeler.

    Even with these centralized communications, however, the Bureau
    still needed massive manpower for its wartime counterintelligence.
    Its staff soared <http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/history/brief-history>
    from just 650 in 1924 to 13,000 by 1943. Upon taking office on
    Roosevelt's death in early 1945, Harry Truman soon learned the
    extraordinary extent of FBI surveillance. "We want no Gestapo or
    Secret Police," Truman wrote
    in his diary that May. "FBI is tending in that direction. They are
    dabbling in sex-life scandals and plain blackmail."

    After a quarter of a century of warrantless wiretaps, Hoover built
    up a veritable archive of sexual preferences among America's
    powerful and used it to shape the direction of U.S. politics.  He
    a dossier on Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson's
    alleged homosexuality to assure his defeat in the 1952 presidential
    elections, circulated
    audio tapes of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s philandering, and monitored
    President Kennedy's affair with mafia mistress Judith Exner. And
    these are just a small sampling of Hoover's uses of scandal to keep
    the Washington power elite under his influence.

    "The moment [Hoover] would get something on a senator," recalled
    William Sullivan, the FBI's chief of domestic intelligence during
    the 1960s, "he'd send one of the errand boys up and advise the
    senator that 'we're in the course of an investigation, and we by
    chance happened to come up with this data on your daughter...' From
    that time on, the senator's right in his pocket." After his death,
    an official tally
    found Hoover had 883 such files on senators and 722 more on congressmen.

    Armed with such sensitive information, Hoover gained the unchecked
    power to dictate the country's direction and launch programs of his
    choosing, including the FBI's notorious Counterintelligence Program
    (COINTELPRO) that illegally harassed the civil rights and
    anti-Vietnam War movements with black propaganda, break-ins, and
    /agent provocateur/

    At the end of the Vietnam War, Senator Frank Church headed a
    committee that investigated these excesses. "The intent of
    COINTELPRO," recalled
    one aide to the Church investigation, "was to destroy lives and ruin
    reputations." These findings prompted the formation, under the
    Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, of "FISA courts" to
    issue warrants for all future national security wiretaps.

    *Surveillance in the Age of the Internet*

    Looking for new weapons to fight terrorism after 9/11, Washington
    turned to electronic surveillance, which has since become integral
    to its strategy for exercising global power.

    In October 2001, not satisfied with the sweeping and extraordinary
    powers of the newly passed Patriot Act, President Bush ordered
    the National Security Agency to commence covert monitoring of
    private communications through the nation's telephone companies
    without the requisite FISA warrants. Somewhat later, the agency
    began sweeping
    the Internet for emails, financial data, and voice messaging on the
    tenuous theory that such "metadata" was "not constitutionally
    In effect, by penetrating the Internet for text and the parallel
    Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) for voice, the NSA had
    gained access to much of the world's telecommunications. By the end
    of Bush's term in 2008, Congress had enacted laws
    that not only retrospectively legalized these illegal programs, but
    also prepared the way for NSA surveillance to grow unchecked.

    Rather than restrain the agency, President Obama oversaw the
    expansion of its operations in ways remarkable for both the sheer
    scale of the billions of messages collected globally and for the
    selective monitoring of world leaders.

    What made the NSA so powerful was, of course, the Internet -- that
    global grid
    of fiber optic cables that now connects
    40% of all humanity. By the time Obama took office, the agency had
    finally harnessed the power of modern telecommunications for
    near-perfect surveillance.  It was capable of both blanketing the
    globe and targeting specific individuals.  It had assembled the
    requisite technological tool-kit -- specifically, access points to
    collect data, computer codes
    to break encryption, data farms
    <http://nsa.gov1.info/utah-data-center/> to store its massive
    digital harvest, and supercomputers
    <http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2012/03/ff_nsadatacenter/all/> for
    nanosecond processing of what it was engorging itself on.

    By 2012, the centralization via digitization of all voice, video,
    textual, and financial communications into a worldwide network of
    fiber optic cables allowed the NSA to monitor the globe by
    just 190 data hubs -- an extraordinary economy of force for both
    political surveillance and cyberwarfare.

    */Click here to see a larger version

    /In this Top Secret document dated 2012, the NSA shows the "Five
    Eyes" allies (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, United Kingdom) its
    190 "access programs" for penetrating the Internet's global grid of
    fiber optic cables for both surveillance and cyberwarfare.
    (Source: NRC Handelsblad, November 23, 2013)./

    With a few hundred cable probes and computerized decryption, the NSA
    can now capture the kind of gritty details of private life that J.
    Edgar Hoover so treasured and provide the sort of comprehensive
    coverage of populations once epitomized by secret police like East
    Germany's Stasi. And yet, such comparisons only go so far.

    After all, once FBI agents had tapped thousands of phones,
    stenographers had typed up countless transcripts, and clerks had
    stored this salacious paper harvest in floor-to-ceiling filing
    cabinets, J. Edgar Hoover still only knew about the inner-workings
    of the elite in one city: Washington, D.C.  To gain the same
    intimate detail for an entire country, the Stasi had to employ
    <http://www.nytimes.com/books/first/k/koehler-stasi.html> one police
    informer for every six East Germans -- an unsustainable allocation
    of human resources. By contrast, the marriage of the NSA's
    technology to the Internet's data hubs now allows the agency's
    employees a similarly close coverage of the entire globe with just
    one operative for every 200,000 people on the planet.

    *A Dream as Old as Ancient Rome*

    In the Obama years, the first signs have appeared that NSA
    surveillance will use the information gathered to traffic in
    scandal, much as Hoover's FBI once did. In September 2013, the /New
    York Times/ reported
    that the NSA has, since 2010, applied sophisticated software to
    create "social network diagrams..., unlock as many secrets about
    individuals as possible..., and pick up sensitive information like
    regular calls to a psychiatrist's office, late-night messages to an
    extramarital partner."

    Through the expenditure of $250 million annually under its Sigint
    Enabling Project, the NSA has stealthily penetrated all encryption
    designed to protect privacy. "In the future, superpowers will be
    made or broken based on the strength of their cryptanalytic
    programs," reads
    a 2007 NSA document. "It is the price of admission for the U.S. to
    maintain unrestricted access to and use of cyberspace."

    By collecting knowledge -- routine, intimate, or scandalous -- about
    foreign leaders, imperial proconsuls from ancient Rome to modern
    America have gained both the intelligence and aura of authority
    necessary for dominion over alien societies. The importance, and
    challenge, of controlling these local elites cannot be overstated.
    During its pacification of the Philippines after 1898, for instance,
    the U.S. colonial regime subdued contentious Filipino leaders via
    pervasive policing <http://www.tomdispatch.com/blog/175724/> that
    swept up both political intelligence and personal scandal. And that,
    of course, was just what J. Edgar Hoover was doing in Washington
    during the 1950s and 1960s.

    Indeed, the mighty British Empire, like all empires, was a global
    tapestry woven out of political ties to local leaders or
    "subordinate elites" -- from Malay sultans and Indian maharajas to
    Gulf sheiks and West African tribal chiefs. As historian Ronald
    Robinson once observed, the British Empire spread around the globe
    for two centuries through the collaboration of these local leaders
    and then unraveled, in just two decades, when that collaboration
    turned to "non-cooperation." After rapid decolonization during the
    1960s transformed half-a-dozen European empires into 100 new
    nations, their national leaders soon found themselves the
    subordinate elites of a spreading American global imperium.
    Washington suddenly needed the sort of private information that
    could keep such figures in line.

    Surveillance of foreign leaders provides world powers -- Britain
    then, America now -- with critical information for the exercise of
    global hegemony. Such spying gave special penetrating power to the
    imperial gaze, to that sense of superiority necessary for dominion
    over others.  It also provided operational information on dissidents
    who might need to be countered with covert action or military force;
    political and economic intelligence so useful for getting the jump
    on allies in negotiations of all sorts; and, perhaps most important
    of all, scurrilous information about the derelictions of leaders
    useful in coercing their compliance.

    In late 2013, the /New York Times/ reported
    that, when it came to spying on global elites, there were "more than
    1,000 targets of American and British surveillance in recent years,"
    reaching down to mid-level political actors in the international
    arena. Revelations from Edward Snowden's cache of leaked documents
    indicate that the NSA has monitored
    leaders in some 35 nations worldwide -- including Brazilian
    president Dilma Rousseff, Mexican presidents Felipe Calderón and
    Enrique Peña Nieto, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and Indonesia's
    president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.  Count in as well, among so many
    other operations, the monitoring
    of "French diplomatic interests" during the June 2010 U.N. vote on
    Iran sanctions and "widespread surveillance
    of world leaders during the Group 20 summit meeting at Ottawa in
    June 2010. Apparently, only members of the historic "Five Eyes"
    signals-intelligence alliance (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and
    Great Britain) remain exempt -- at least theoretically -- from NSA

    Such secret intelligence about allies can obviously give Washington
    a significant diplomatic advantage. During U.N. wrangling over the
    U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2002-2003, for example, the NSA intercepted
    Secretary-General Kofi Anan's conversations and monitored the
    "Middle Six" -- Third World nations on the Security Council --
    offering what were, in essence, well-timed bribes to win votes. The
    NSA's deputy chief for regional targets sent a memo
    to the agency's Five Eyes allies asking "for insights as to how
    membership is reacting to on-going debate regarding Iraq, plans to
    vote on any related resolutions [..., and] the whole gamut of
    information that could give U.S. policymakers an edge in obtaining
    results favorable to U.S. goals."

    Indicating Washington's need for incriminating information in
    bilateral negotiations, the State Department pressed its Bahrain
    embassy in 2009 for details, damaging in an Islamic society, on the
    crown princes, asking
    "Is there any derogatory information on either prince? Does either
    prince drink alcohol? Does either one use drugs?"

    Indeed, in October 2012, an NSA official identified as "DIRNSA," or
    Director General Keith Alexander, proposed
    the following for countering Muslim radicals: "[Their]
    vulnerabilities, if exposed, would likely call into question a
    radicalizer's devotion to the jihadist cause, leading to the
    degradation or loss of his authority." The agency suggested that
    such vulnerabilities could include "viewing sexually explicit
    material online" or "using a portion of the donations they are
    receiving... to defray personal expenses." The NSA document
    identified one potential target as a "respected academic" whose
    "vulnerabilities" are "online promiscuity."

    Just as the Internet has centralized communications, so it has moved
    most commercial sex into cyberspace. With an estimated 25 million
    salacious sites worldwide and a combined 10.6 billion/ /page views
    per month in 2013 at the five top sex sites, online pornography has
    become a global business; by 2006, in fact, it generated $97 billion
    <http://www.toptenreviews.com/3-12-07.html> in revenue. With
    countless Internet viewers visiting porn sites and almost nobody
    admitting it, the NSA has easy access to the embarrassing habits of
    targets worldwide, whether Muslim militants or European leaders.

    According to
    James Bamford, author of two authoritative books on the agency, "The
    NSA's operation is eerily similar to the FBI's operations under J.
    Edgar Hoover in the 1960s where the bureau used wiretapping to
    discover vulnerabilities, such as sexual activity, to 'neutralize'
    their targets."

    The ACLU's Jameel Jaffer has warned
    that a president might "ask the NSA to use the fruits of
    surveillance to discredit a political opponent, journalist, or human
    rights activist. The NSA has used its power that way in the past and
    it would be naïve to think it couldn't use its power that way in the
    future." Even President Obama's recently convened executive review
    of the NSA admitted
    "[I]n light of the lessons of our own history... at some point in
    the future, high-level government officials will decide that this
    massive database of extraordinarily sensitive private information is
    there for the plucking."

    Indeed, whistleblower Edward Snowden has accused the NSA of actually
    conducting such surveillance.  In a December 2013 letter to the
    Brazilian people, he wrote
    "They even keep track of who is having an affair or looking at
    pornography, in case they need to damage their target's reputation."
    If Snowden is right, then one key goal of NSA surveillance of world
    leaders is not U.S. national security but political blackmail -- as
    it has been since 1898.

    Such digital surveillance has tremendous potential for scandal, as
    anyone who remembers New York Governor Eliot Spitzer's forced
    resignation in 2008 after routine phone taps
    revealed his use of escort services; or, to take another obvious
    example, the ouster
    of France's budget minister Jérôme Cahuzac in 2013 following wire
    taps that exposed his secret Swiss bank account. As always, the
    source of political scandal remains sex or money, both of which the
    NSA can track with remarkable ease.

    Given the acute sensitivity of executive communications, world
    leaders have reacted sharply to reports of NSA surveillance -- with
    Chancellor Merkel demanding
    Five-Eyes-exempt status for Germany, the European Parliament voting
    to curtail the sharing of bank data with Washington, and Brazil's
    President Rousseff canceling a U.S. state visit and contracting
    a $560 million satellite communications system to free her country
    from the U.S.-controlled version of the Internet.

    *The Future of U.S. Global Power*

    By starting a swelling river of NSA documents flowing into public
    view, Edward Snowden has given us a glimpse of the changing
    architecture of U.S. global power. At the broadest level, Obama's
    digital "pivot" complements his overall defense strategy
    announced in 2012, of reducing conventional forces while expanding
    into the new, cost-effective domains of space and cyberspace.

    While cutting back modestly on costly armaments and the size of the
    military, President Obama has invested billions in the building of a
    new architecture for global information control. If we add the $791
    billion <http://www.tomdispatch.com/blog/175655/> expended to build
    the Department of Homeland Security bureaucracy to the $500 billion
    spent on an increasingly para-militarized version of global
    intelligence in the dozen years since 9/11, then Washington has made
    a $1.2 trillion investment in a new apparatus of world power.

    So formidable is this security bureaucracy that Obama's recent
    executive review recommended the regularization, not reform, of
    current NSA practices, allowing the agency to continue collecting
    American phone calls and monitoring foreign leaders into the
    foreseeable future. Cyberspace offers Washington an austerity-linked
    arena for the exercise of global power, albeit at the cost of trust
    by its closest allies -- a contradiction that will bedevil America's
    global leadership for years to come.

    To update Henry Stimson: in the age of the Internet, gentlemen don't
    just read each other's mail, they watch each other's porn. Even if
    we think we have nothing to hide, all of us, whether world leaders
    or ordinary citizens, have good reason to be concerned.

    /Alfred McCoy is the J.R.W. Smail Professor of History at the
    University of Wisconsin-Madison. A //TomDispatch regular/
    <http://www.tomdispatch.com/blog/175724/>/, he is the author of
    /Policing America's Empire: The United States, the Philippines, and
    the Rise of the Surveillance State
    <http://www.amazon.com/dp/0299234142/ref=nosim/?tag=tomdispatch-20>/, which
    is the source for much of the material in this essay./

    /Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook
    <http://www.facebook.com/tomdispatch> or Tumblr
    <http://tomdispatch.tumblr.com/>. Check out the newest Dispatch
    Book, Ann Jones's /They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return From
    America's Wars -- The Untold Story

    Copyright 2014 Alfred W. McCoy

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
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