The Neutering of the NSA Archives
1. Clancy Lives!
Take heart, you fans of slam-bang super-spy adventure stories! Tom Clancy is not dead; he lives on in the pages of the Washington Post, channeled through the airport-thriller prose of Barton Gellman — one of the small coterie of media custodians doling out dollops from the huge archive of secret NSA documents obtained by whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Drawing on that archive of what should be shocking, empire-undermining revelations, Gellman and his co-authors last week penned a story that is, in almost every respect, a glorification of state-ordered murder: a rousing tale of secret ops in exotic lands, awesome high-tech spy gear, flying missiles, deadly explosions, and dogged agents doing the grim but noble work of keeping us safe. No doubt Hollywood is already on the horn: it’s boffo box office!
The story describes how the NSA’s determined leg-work helped Barack Obama shred the sovereignty of a US ally in order to kill a man — in the usual cowardly fashion, by long-distance, remote-control missile — without the slightest pretense of judicial process. It’s really cool! Just watch our boys in action:
“In the search for targets, the NSA has draped a surveillance blanket over dozens of square miles of northwest Pakistan. In Ghul’s case, the agency deployed an arsenal of cyber-espionage tools, secretly seizing control of laptops, siphoning audio files and other messages, and tracking radio transmissions to determine where Ghul might “bed down.” …
“NSA threw the kitchen sink at the FATA,” said a former U.S. intelligence official with experience in Afghanistan and Pakistan, referring to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, the region in northwest Pakistan where al-Qaeda’s leadership is based. … Surveillance operations that required placing a device or sensor near an al-Qaeda compound were handled by the CIA’s Information Operations Center, which specializes in high-tech devices and “close-in” surveillance work. “But if you wanted huge coverage of the FATA, NSA had 10 times the manpower, 20 times the budget and 100 times the brainpower,” the former intelligence official said.”
I mean, get a load of these guys: 100 times the brainpower of ordinary mortals! Didn’t I say they were super-spies?
The target was Hassan Ghul, an al-Qaeda operative who was once in American custody but was released after giving his captors the tip that eventually led them to Osama bin Laden. (He was also tortured after giving the information — because, hey, why not? Even super-powerful brains need to let off steam once in a while, right?) Returned to his native Pakistan, Ghul evidently became a bad Injun again in eyes of the imperium, so, after snooping on his wife, they found out where he was and ordered some joystick jockey with his butt parked in a comfy chair somewhere to push a button and kill him.
There is not a single word in the entire story to suggest, even remotely, that there is anything wrong with the government of the United States running high-tech death squads and blanketing the globe with a level of invasive surveillance far beyond the dreams of Stalin or the Stasi. There is not even a single comment from some token ‘serious’ person objecting to the policy on realpolitik grounds: i.e., that such actions create more terrorists (as the Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai told Obama to his face last week), or engender hatred for the US, destabilize volatile regions, etc. etc. There is not a shred of even this very tepid, ‘loyal opposition’ type of tidbit that usually crops up in the 15th or 25th paragraph of such stories. But there was, of course, plenty of room for quotes like this:
“Ours is a noble cause,” NSA Director Keith B. Alexander said during a public event last month. “Our job is to defend this nation and to protect our civil liberties and privacy.”
Makes you want to puddle up with patriotic pride, don’t it? These noble, noble guardians of ours: peeping through our digital windows, rifling through our inboxes, listening to our personal conversations, reading our private thoughts, tracking our purchases (underwear, fishing gear, sex toys, books, movies, tampons, anything, everything), recording our dreams, our interests, our belief, our desires, skulking in the shadows, pushing buttons to kill people … yes, noble is certainly the first word that comes to mind.
2. Habituation Blues
It was once thought that the Snowden trove — which details the astonishingly pervasive and penetrative reach of America’s security apparatchiks into every nook and cranny of our private lives — might prove to be a stinging blow to our imperial overlords, rousing an angry populace to begin taking back some of the liberties that have been systematically stripped from them by the bipartisan elite. But instead of a powerful tsunami of truth — a relentless flood of revelations, coming at the overlords from every direction, keeping them off-balance — we have seen only a slow drip-feed of polite, lawyer-scrubbed pieces from a small portion of the trove, carefully filtered by a tiny circle of responsible journalists at a handful of respectable institutions to ensure, as the custodians constantly assure us, that the revelations will “do no harm” to the security apparat’s vital mission.
The perverse result of this process has been to slowly habituate the public to the idea of ubiquitous surveillance. The drawn-out spacing of the stories — and the small circle of well-known venues from which they come — has given the apparatchiks and their leaders plenty of time to prepare and launch counter-attacks, to confuse and diffuse the issues with barrages of carefully-wrought bullshit, and to mobilize their own allies in the compliant media to attack the high-profile producers of the stories — such as the angry assaults in recent days by Britain’s right-wing papers, accusing the Guardian of treason, etc., and, once again, diverting attention from the dark and heavy substance of the revelations to the juicier froth of a media cat-fight.
And so, as we have seen time and again over the years, an outbreak of “dissident” revelations are slowly being turned into a means of habituating people to the horrors they expose — such as the widespread use of torture, which became a widely accepted practice during the last decade. Remember the first Abu Ghraib stories, when even U.S. senators were shell-shocked as they came out of briefings on the horrors, and there was serious talk of criminal prosecutions shaking — perhaps breaking — the Bush administration? Outraged editorials rang across the land: “This is not what we are!” But most of the Abu Ghraib material was kept from the public, both by the government and by our respectable, carefully-filtering media outlets. We were told, my our masters and our media, that the facts and images were “too disturbing” for public viewing; their exposure would threaten our soldiers and agents with retaliation by outraged Muslims, etc., etc.
Within months, many of those same outraged papers were endorsing Bush for re-election. And even in “liberal” bastions, like the New York Times, torture had become a matter not for outright, automatic condemnation and rejection – as it would be in any civilized society — but instead was presented as an issue requiring “serious” debate. (Debate! About torture!). And so we had a series of serious players weighing in on the pros and cons of “strenuous interrogation” — with the emphasis largely on whether it was effective or not. This was the respectable, savvy “liberal” perspective on the question: not that torture was an unspeakable, untouchable evil, but that, hey, it doesn’t really work, you get too much garbage data, so it’s not really a useful tool for our noble security forces. Again, this was the standard “liberal” position.
And we all know what happened in the end: the initially shocked and outraged bipartisan elite agreed that no one should ever be prosecuted for these brazen war crimes (aside from a few bits of low-ranking trailer trash, of course), and that those who approved and perpetrated these acts should be protected, honored, and enriched by our society. By the time the smoke cleared, large percentages of the public voiced their support for the torture of imperial captives and the stripping of rights (constitutional rights, human rights) from anyone arbitrarily designated as a “terrorist” by our leaders.
The same thing happened — in a much quicker, more telescoped form — when the New York Times revealed the details of Barack Obama’s formal, official death squad program, run directly out of the White House in weekly meetings. Indeed, this entire “revelation” was stage-managed by the White House itself, which “leaked” the details and provided “top administrative figures” to paint the scene of thoughtful, even prayerful leaders doing the grim but noble work of keeping us safe. Of course, snippets about the White House murder program had been made public before, going back to 2001. (I wrote my first column on the subject in November 2001, based on laudatory stories about Bush’s self-proclaimed license to kill in the Washington Post.) And of course, Bush himself openly boasted of the assassination program on national television in his State-of-the-Union address in 2003. So the NYT story was more of a culmination of the habituation process.
Still, many people — perhaps most people — had never stitched together the horrendous reality behind these scattered snippets over the years; but the NYT story made it crystal clear, front and center. This time there was not even the brief spasm of outrage that followed the Abu Ghraib revelations. A nation that had already accustomed itself to systematic torture, to “indefinite detention” of captives in concentration camps, indeed to what was described at the Nuremberg Trials as the “supreme international crime” — aggressive war — was no longer a nation that would be troubled by news of a White House death squad. It was just part of the “new normal.”
Yet the Snowden revelations had the potential, at least, to cut through the murk of moral deadness that now envelops America. This is because — unlike distant wars and “black ops” and brutality against swarthy, meaningless foreigners with funny names — the NSA’s surveillance programs are also aimed at them, at real people, Americans! For once, they could see a direct impact of overweening empire on their own sweet lives. (Aside from the innumerable indirect impacts which have degraded national life for decades.) There was a chance — a chance — that this might have galvanized a critical mass across the ideological spectrum to some kind of substantial pushback, And the series of confused, panicky, self-contradictory lies that government officials and their sycophants told when the Snowden story first hit gave some indication that, for a moment at least, our noble (and Nobelled) overlords were on the back foot.
But then — well, not much happened. Stories based on the NSA documents appeared at intervals — sometimes rather lengthy intervals — and always from the same sources, in the same dry, dense, Establishment style, interspersed with relentless counterblasts from the power structure — and, always, mixed in with the million other bright, shiny things that pop and flash and draw the eye on the hyperactive screen that ‘mediate’ reality for us. And what if you were one of the billions of people on earth who — perish the thought! — didn’t read the Guardian, the Times and the Post? So the Snowden-based stories rumbled away on the sidelines, the momentum was lost, the power structure got its bootheels back firmly on the ground.
3. Debate, Reform and Rainy Weather
“Fine word, legitimate.”
Edmund, King Lear
But what a minute, you say! Hold on just a rootin’ tootin’ minute there, Mister Cynic! What about the debate? What about the fierce debate — in the press, on TV, even in the halls of legislatures around the world — that the finely filtered NSA stories have already brought about? After all, provoking debate was the point, wasn’t it? Over and over, the custodians of NSA trove have told us that this has been the raison d’etre behind publishing the stories. Not to “harm” the security apparatus in any way, but to spark a debate over surveillance policies. For according to the serious and the savvy, debate is an inherent good in itself.
Snowden himself underscored this point in his recent interview with the New York Times. In fact, in one extraordinary passage, he says point-blank that he believes the lack of debate is more egregious than the actual liberty-stripping, KGB wet-dream activities of the security apparat:
“[Snowden] added that he had been more concerned that Americans had not been told about the N.S.A.’s reach than he was about any specific surveillance operation.
“So long as there’s broad support amongst a people, it can be argued there’s a level of legitimacy even to the most invasive and morally wrong program, as it was an informed and willing decision,” he said. “However, programs that are implemented in secret, out of public oversight, lack that legitimacy, and that’s a problem. It also represents a dangerous normalization of ‘governing in the dark,’ where decisions with enormous public impact occur without any public input.”
Even “the most morally wrong program” can have a “level of legitimacy” if it has “broad support amongst a people.” Well, if I may quote Mel Brooks quoting Joe Schrank, I can hardly believe my hearing aid. Snowden apparently put his life and liberty at risk just to see if the American people supported blanket surveillance of themselves and the world. And if they do – well, that gives the whole sinister shebang “a level of legitimacy.” So if the polls show that most people are down with the invasive-pervasive spy program – because, after all, “if you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to hide” – then it’s all A-OK. Because there would have been a debate, you see, and that’s the main thing. That’s what gives even morally wrong programs their legitimacy. As long as, say, invasive surveillance, torture, aggressive war and hit squads have been given a sufficient modicum of ‘public input,’ of ‘transparency,’ then that’s all that matters. It would be too radical, too harmful, if one were to condemn such practices out of hand as sickening acts of depravity and state terror.
My word, we don’t want that kind of thing, do we? What we want – as our custodians have repeatedly declared – is to have our carefully vetted revelations provoke a debate that will lead to reform.
But “reform” of what? Reform of the very system that has produced these egregious abuses and capital crimes in the first place. ‘Reform’ which accepts the premises of imperial power, but simply wishes for a more tasteful, “transparent” application of them, with more “oversight” from the power structure. Such “reform” — which, as Arthur Silber notes, buys into the basic premises of authoritarianism — can never be anything other than cosmetic. The result will be what we have already seen with murder, torture and mass surveillance: a “legitimization” of state crimes, and their retrospective justification and entrenchment. For example, witness Candidate Obama’s vote to “legitimize” the Bush Regime’s unlawful surveillance programs (and to indemnify the powerful corporations suborned in these unconstitutional crimes) in 2008. And his zealous post-election assurances to the security apparat that they will never, ever face justice for their brutality, their murders and their abominable constitutional abuses.
Without making false equivalences, let us momentarily indulge in an assay of alternative history to put these remarkable assertions in some context. Entertain for conjecture this passage from some fictional Berlin newspaper in, say, 1943:
“A spokesman for the Berlin Herald said the paper is publishing the revelations of government whistleblower Dietrich Schmidt because it wants to ‘spark a debate’ about the Hitler administration’s systematic murder of Jews in the occupied territories. The spokesman said that the Herald is carefully screening the documents they’ve seen detailing the mass killings.
‘We would never simply dump the entire trove of documents on the general public,’ said the spokesman. ‘That could do a lot of harm to people in the national security apparatus. No, what we are doing is simply what journalists always do: select and edit material that we think the public has a right to know, without doing undue harm to the nation and those who serve it. There has been almost no debate on the policy of killing the Jews of Europe, and we think such a debate would be healthy. If the government believes it’s a good idea, then let them make their case to the public, let’s all weigh the pros and cons and have a serious discussion of these policies. Perhaps then we can get some real reform and more oversight of the mass murder program. That would give the operations a level of legitimacy they now lack and reduce the administration’s unfortunate propensity for ‘governing in the dark.’”
Of course Snowden and the custodians of his archive would vehemently reject any compromise, any “debate” or “reform” concerning Nazi-style genocide. The example is meant to set a moral question in the starkest relief. But let us be clear: we are talking about moral compromise here. What is at issue is not the levels of “legitimacy” that might or might not be produced by a broader “debate” or “reform” of the system. What is at issue is the actual moral content of actual policies being perpetrated by the government: the killing of human beings on the arbitrary order of the state, outside even the slightest pretense of judicial process; invasive surveillance, overturning even the slightest pretense of the integrity, autonomy and individual liberty of citizens; and all that falls between these two poles – such indefinite detention, black ops, and torture. (Obama’s early PR moves to ban some forms of torture by some government agencies have hardly ended government brutality in this regard, as – to take just one known example from this vast, secret world — the truly horrendous force-feeding of captives in the Guantanamo Bay concentration camp has recently shown.)
Yet we are to believe that an imperial, militaristic system which produces such crimes and abuses as naturally and inevitably as storm-clouds make rain can be “reformed” by a “debate” within the power structure itself.
But again, let’s not be cynical. For surely, the carefully controlled and filtered NSA revelations will doubtless produce a modicum of reform – perhaps along the lines of the Church Committee reforms of the 1970s, when truly horrendous abuses of invasive government surveillance produced … the secret FISA court which for decades has secretly approved secret government surveillance with a reliable diligence that would shame a rubber stamp. I’ll bet the “debate” provoked by the Snowden documents might possibly, eventually, expand the number of corporate-bought senators and representatives who sit on the committees overseeing, in secret, the government’s all-pervasive spy programs. Why, we might even get a new secret court to preside over the existing secret court that secretly approves the apparat’s operations. And maybe even a few more Hollywood movies out of it, like Zero Dark Thirty and The Fifth Estate. Now won’t that be something?
Meanwhile, we can divert ourselves with death-squad porn like the piece Gellman and the Post have wrought from the Snowden archive, complete with leaks from insiders and “former top intelligence officials” eager to turn Snowden’s dissident gold into self-serving imperial dross.
Chris Floyd is a columnist for the print edition of CounterPunch. His blog, Empire Burlesque, can be found at www.chris-floyd.com.