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NSA as Massa of the Global Sigint Plantation

by PETER LEE

Craig Murray caused quite a fuss in 2004 when, as UK ambassador to Uzbekistan, he openly criticized the systemic and severe human rights abuses of the Karimov regime. He was publicly and pointedly stomped on by the British government, with the full encouragement of the Bush administration, for complicating Western access to the Karshi-Khanabad airbase and queering the Global War on Terror pitch.

Murray subsequently wrote an extremely interesting and disarming memoir, Murder in Samarkand (published in the US as Dirty Diplomacy, so I’ll throw in a link to Dirty Wars as well so readers can savor the full dirty spectrum). In his book, Murray discusses his extensive travels inside Uzbekistan, his contacts with embattled activists, and what he saw and heard and said (and drank–see under index subject Craig Murray—personal life—alcohol, pages 90-2, 93, 236, 250, 251, 253, 256, 263, 265, 272, 282, 290, and 315–and lusted after—see under the index subject Craig Murray—personal life—women, attraction to, pages 18, 92, 118-19, 121, 128-9, 164-5, 250-1, 252, 253, 256, 263, 264-6, 268, 269, 305-6) in order to place in context the determined efforts of the UK government to smear his reputation.

Uzbekistan presents an interesting conundrum for liberal human rights activists, not because of its human rights violations, which are undeniably ghastly, but because of its rather bizarre status as a private, for-profit operation of the Karimov family and its allies.

Per my reading of Murray’s book, Uzbekistan looks like a slice of the antebellum US South, and not just because of its total commitment to the cotton culture that dominates the economy and lives of its people, and has also dried up the Aral Sea and otherwise devastated the ecology of Central Asia. There is so much money to be made off dominating the state-controlled cotton industry (and mining out the gigantic lump of gold that Uzbekistan is fortuitously perched upon) that there is little incentive for Karimov to cultivate the diversified, urbanized market-driven economy that nurtures feisty bourgeoisie and the contentious democratic forces beloved by liberal reformers.

Plantation systems are bad for integrated economies and immiserated citizenry, be they slaves in the South or Uzbeki citizens ordered into the fields for the harvest, but they can be very profitable for plantation owners. The key point is to foreclose employment alternatives and maintain access to an underpaid, immobile, and docile workforce. That was certainly the situation in the South, and not only in the pre-Civil War period. With property-rights conscious Northerners unwilling to attack the foundations of the plantation system through confiscation and redistribution of land to freemen to introduce competition into the market in land and labor, the ability to enforce a local employment monopoly was preserved and the captive-worker system immediately reconstituted itself, first with the Black Codes—which explicitly tied freedmen to the plantations through the implementation of restrictive labor contracts (and also mandated fines for landowners seeking to lure workers away from their existing employment with offers of higher wages)—and then the debt peonage of the sharecropping system, which persisted well into the 20th century.

Unless the Karimov family is interested in encouraging a revolutionary rumpus by aware, empowered, and aggrieved workers, I expect similar conditions to obtain in Uzbekistan and the local oligarchy will display little interest in market reforms or development of new economic sectors unless their revenues can be safely and ferociously extracted. And with Karimov trampling on local discontent quite ruthlessly and playing the “indispensable ally in battle against Islamicist terrorists” card rather effectively, don’t look for a new Lincoln to apply external pressure on behalf of the Uzbek masses.

Anyway, I was struck with a passage in Murray’s book in which he speculates on the reason why the Blair government attacked him so intemperately, and went to inordinate lengths to 86 his career.
Murray had complained that intel provided by the Uzbek government through the CIA to the UK was tainted by the fact that it was obtained through torture. Beyond the fact that tortured detainees often provide false information in order to stop their mistreatment, the UK is a signatory to the UN Convention Against Torture and, by the interpretation of Murray and others, was precluded from possessing (as well as using in a court of law) evidence obtained under torture.

The UK government begged to differ, for reasons that might have had little to do with the quality and morality of torture-extracted intel. In 2006, Murray wrote:

I now believe that in protesting about intelligence obtained by torture in Uzbekistan I had hit an even more sensitive point than I had realized…I had also been hitting at the foundations of the UK-US intelligence sharing agreement. This was put in place by Churchill and Roosevelt, and under it the CIA and MI6 exchange everything, as do the US National Security Agency (NSA) and UK General Communications Headquarters (GCHQ). As the US have four times the volume of intelligence that we do, our intelligence services view this agreement as of the highest importance and are particularly anxious that there should be no derogation from the principle that everything should always be shared…Therefore, if the CIA gets information from torture, we have to accept it in order to maintain the integrity of the agreement and the principle that everything is always shared…

Murray was, in Brit-speak, spot on concerning British anxieties about the US relationship, as the Snowden trove confirmed. In August of last year, the Guardian printed this account of GCHQ groveling to the NSA (undoubtedly amplified by the fact that the NSA had underwritten over $100 million of GCHQ projects over the last three years):

The leaked papers reveal that the UK’s biggest fear is that “US perceptions of the … partnership diminish, leading to loss of access, and/or reduction in investment … to the UK”…

GCHQ seems desperate to please its American benefactor and the NSA does not hold back when it fails to get what it wants. On one project, GCHQ feared if it failed to deliver it would “diminish NSA’s confidence in GCHQ’s ability to meet minimum NSA requirements”. Another document warned: “The NSA ask is not static and retaining ‘equability’ will remain a challenge for the near future…”

The overriding necessity to keep on the right side of the US was revealed in a UK government paper that set out the views of GCHQ in the wake of the 2010 strategic defence and security review. The document was called: “GCHQ’s international alliances and partnerships: helping to maintain Britain’s standing and influence in the world.” It said: “Our key partnership is with the US. We need to keep this relationship healthy. The relationship remains strong but is not sentimental. GCHQ must pull its weight and be seen to pull its weight.”

Astonishingly, the document admitted that 60% of the UK’s high-value intelligence “is based on either NSA end-product or derived from NSA collection”. End product means official reports that are distillations of the best raw intelligence.

One side of the story is the UK’s poodlicious commitment to serving as the US intelligence community’s most eager and able overseas partner. And the need to placate the US and buttress Britain’s standing as a meaningful player in the world power game goes a certain way to explaining why it would engage in a bizarre stunt like yanking Glenn Greenwald’s partner into temporary custody in order to rummage through his belongings while he was transiting London.

But I’m also struck by the implications for the senior partner in the process, the United States. The intimidating character of US demands are best backed up if the US is the indispensable superpower, the hegemon, if you will, in the global intelligence space. If the UK is reliant on US intel for the majority of its own intelligence product, that’s good for the US in terms of the cooperation it can elicit from the UK on a broad range of policy matters beyond intel sharing.

Massive surveillance isn’t just a question of catching the “bad guys”. It’s also a question of getting the “good guys” to do what we say. It’s a matter of power, not just security.

If, on the other hand, it looks like international outrage and public concern over the massive character of US data collection is going to put a crimp into the NSA’s style, the US loses a valuable weapon in its arsenal—for encouraging compliance by its state allies as well as adversaries.

And that’s why it is unsurprising that President Obama hesitates to impose any meaningful restrictions on the NSA’s activities. The idea that the US “gets it all”—and friendly governments are dependent upon the US for their own intelligence needs—is a useful strategic asset. That’s a case that the US security services have to make continuously, both in day to day clandestine performance and in occasional hegemonistic chest-thumping in the public sphere.

Just as Karimov wants to maintain control over the cotton business in Uzbekistan, President Obama wants to assert domination over the Western world’s intel production—and convince the world it has no alternative but to work on America’s digital plantation.

However, given the massive mission bloat, inefficiencies, and risks inherent in a commitment to maintaining the “getting it all” monopoly, it is an interesting and unanswerable question as to whether the genuine security needs of other nations in particular and the world in general—and the US itself—are well served under the system.

Peter Lee edits China Matters. His ground-breaking investigation into the NSA, The NSA and Its Enablers, appears in the October issue of CounterPunch magazine. He can be reached at: chinamatters (at) prlee. org.

Peter Lee edits China Matters and writes about Asia for CounterPunch.  

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