In a weekend interview with German ARD public television network, Edward Snowden revealed that the U.S. government uses its broad electronic surveillance capabilities to engage in industrial espionage. Snowden told ARD TV that, “I will say is there is no question that the U.S. is engaged in economic spying,” Snowden gave the example that, “If there is information at Siemens that they think would be beneficial to the national interests, not the national security, of the United States, they will go after that information and they’ll take it.” Snowden left hanging what exactly is done with such potentially useful economic intelligence, and he provided little additional information on this subject beyond indicated the news outlets holding copies of yet published NSA leaked documents could provide more specific information.
As we await further NSA documents, we should recall that such abuses of surveillance powers, and the powers deriving from the lawless swagger of intelligence operations have long existed in the United States and other nations. In some instances, national security intelligence operations have historically been corrupted to serve private, rather than national interests.
One such historical example involved famed CIA operative Kermit “Kim” Roosevelt Jr. Kim Roosevelt was a classic early Cold War CIA agent, who had come to the Middle East espionage during the Second World serving State Department, OSS, and US Army operations in Cairo, and his postwar CIA years included key roles in Egyptian and Syrian CIA operations but his most famous CIA actions involved his helping engineer the 1953 Operation TPAJAX CIA coup in Iran—deposing Mosaddegh and installing the Shah as an American client, and restoring British Petroleum’s domination over Iranian oil.
While Roosevelt enjoyed the adventure brought by these and other CIA exploits, eventually the financial realities of needing to live the life of a Roosevelt (with the growing expenses associated with four children heading off to attend college, and the demands of reciprocal entertaining) and the financial limits of what was then a paltry CIA salary weighed increasingly heavy, and Kim Roosevelt retired from CIA in 1958. Upon retirement Roosevelt undertook a series of private sector jobs, working for multinational firms including: Gulf Oil, Northrop, Raytheon, Tenneco, and in 1964 establishing his consulting firm, Kermit Roosevelt Associates, Inc. His firm became an important force connecting American corporate interests with several Arab governments in the Middle East, and he amassed a private fortune from this work.
The July 26 1975 issue of the New Republic reported that Kim Roosevelt could be called to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee investigating claims that Northrop had made illegal contributions to Richard Nixon’s 1972 reelection campaign. While investigating Nixon’s campaign finance irregularities, the Senate subcommittee stumbled upon other documents indicating that Northrop had made a $450,000 bribe to Saudi Arabian air force generals who Northrop hoped would help secure a $700-million dollar Northrop F-E5 jet contact with Saudi Arabia. Kim Roosevelt denied any involvement in the bribing of Saudi officials, but the investigation uncovered some compromising documents indicating Roosevelt had used his CIA connections for industrial espionage.
Benjamin Wells reported in The New Republic that the Senate subcommittee had identified private letters from Kim Roosevelt and Northrop officials with “repeated references to ‘my friends in the CIA’ who were keeping him posted about the moves of commercial rivals.” Further, Wells wrote that “there is no doubt that Roosevelt’s inside track was of enormous value to Northrop. In the ringing prose of T.V. Jones, the Northrop president, unearthed by Senate investigator, Roosevelt was ‘. . .perhaps the key figure in. . .contract values in this [Middle East] area in the past seven to eight years running close to a billion dollars.’ Roosevelt, when asked, grins and remarks, ‘By God, he’s probably right.‘”
In the end, this embarrassing episode faded from public view with no legal consequences for the American prince; his use of public resources for his private looting was easily forgotten in as the larger investigations of CIA impropriety disclosed other CIA abuses of public trust. The selfish filling of one man’s pockets with unguarded loot paled in comparison to news of CIA assassinations, kidnappings, coups, corrupted elections, and broad illegal domestic surveillance and harassment campaigns.
But with this history, and new Snowden revelations of national security apparatus being reportedly for industrial espionage stands in contrast to last month’s highly publicized closed-door meeting with American business leaders and President Obama reportedly complaining about the surveillance revealed in Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks. These corporate leader were not concerned with violations of civil liberties or rights of privacy, but instead focused on the potential damage these leaked NSA revelations could bring to their bottom line, as international clients increasingly come to distrust America, and questions remain unanswered about the NSA spying on the global economy.
I am sure these are real concerns facing these corporations, but I also wonder if these corporate bosses do not also see opportunities in such a massive espionage network that can so easily connect to the engine and network of international capital. I do not claim to understand how such connections could work in the present articulation linking capital with the global surveillance state; but we would do well to recall former CIA agent and whistleblower Philip Agee’s characterization of his former-agency’s subservient role in global economic relations, when he bluntly stated that “the CIA, after all, is nothing more than the secret police of American capitalism, plugging up leaks in the political dam night and day so that shareholders of US companies operating in poor countries can continue enjoying the rip-off.”
David Price a professor of anthropology at Saint Martin’s University in Lacey, Washington. He is the author of Weaponizing Anthropology: Social Science in Service of the Militarized State published by CounterPunch Books.