The message about the U.S. surveillance state for some time has been one of cosmic, immoveable proportion. The anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss spoke of “cold societies” – those operating under unchanging assumptions about nature, about matters of immutable cosmic order. The intelligence community, under the guise of reform, functions under similar principles. Change the ordering of furniture, but never the furniture. The same assumptions operate. The staff, for better or for worse, are in place. And they will always get funding.
The green fields of espionage must be kept in immaculate order. Which is why, when the government shutdown in Washington began, the oversight team also went with it. Or at least the staffers connected with that task.
The NSA Review Panel, set up in August after Edward Snowden’s revelations, was something of a comic interlude in the business of American power. If you wanted the Triads or the Cosa Nostra to conduct a review of their own operations, this is what it would look like. The staffers on the five-member Review group are themselves so ensconced in the intelligence-White House establishment they have ossified. When one is getting former acting CIA director Michael Morell to be top heavy in the action, the power comedians have again taken over.
As for some comedic commentary, we have Morrell himself on the subject of halting the group’s work, claiming it was “no more important than – and quite frankly a lot less important – than a lot of the work being left undone by the government shutdown both in the intelligence community and outside the intelligence community.”
On Friday, the office of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, which is facilitating the window cleaning operation, argued that staff connected to the panellists would be subject to furlough. Now, in the pro bono spirit of public service, the panel members might still continue in their patriotic industry. But the spy business, and, it seems, those reviewing the spy business, don’t see it that way.
Clapper is himself edgy about the shut down and what impact it will have on the surveillance state. In theory, the NSA operates in the vacuum of exception. (It has since its foundations, operated in a state of legal exception.) It has been exempted, in large part, from the ravaging furlough, though Clapper takes issue with the assertion. According to the wise spook, 70 percent of civilian intelligence workers have been furloughed. The reason: they were not connected with tasks associated with imminent threats to life or property. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif) has suggested her own percentage – 72 percent of intelligence employees’ jobs, by her calculation, have been put on hold.
Add to this the unconvincing voice of NSA director, General Keith B. Alexander, who speaks of the furlough as a portent of doom. “We have over 960 PhDs over 4000 computer scientists, over a thousand mathematicians. They are furloughed” (The Washington Post, Oct 7).
The actual total of employees who are now out of the office is classified, and we are none the wiser about the effect Alexander is suggesting. Former deputy director Chris Inglis, in a rather humourless way, hazarded a joke about the numbers in the employ of the NSA: “somewhere between 37,000 and one billion.” This may be closer to the mark than first blush – after all, the security complex has been privatised, with the U.S. government effectively a huge commercial franchise. Security, both in its actual and fictional assertions, is big business.
Given Alexander’s own trenchant denials that the NSA has not scoured social networks for data (any deviations being attributed to personal rogue infractions), it is difficult to give any value to the numerical assertions. The math can always be fudged.
The government shut down has served a few purposes. It has shown the dangerous strategy played by the Tea Party elements of the GOP, one that may see them pay a heavy toll. But it is not without its benefits. When the funding dries up for government services, it is incumbent on the public to see what takes priority. To take one conspicuous example of where these priorities lie, the Department of Defense has recalled 90 percent of civilian employees.
Despite what the Clapper-Alexander narrative suggests, the spy business will always triumph over the task of oversight. Unaccountability remains the treasured goal of the surveillance state, elevating national security to the status of the sacred. The constitution of the Review panel, sans technologists and an interest in protecting encryption and secure technologies, suggests that. The NSA crew have a perfect excuse: in times when there are no funds, they are entitled to be beyond scrutiny. The agency has admitted as much: it is currently refusing to respond to Freedom of Information Act requests.
Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: email@example.com