[News] Surveillance and Scandal: Time-Tested Weapons for U.S. Global Power
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
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
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
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
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
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
At the end of the Vietnam War, Senator Frank Church headed a
committee that investigated these excesses. "The intent of
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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'
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
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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