The Snowden Affair

Political Washington is in a fit over the Snowden affair. It is little disturbed by PRISM, Tempera and related abuses against the Republic. Therein lies the unhappy reality of American democracy today. The ferocity of the assault on Snowden and his sympathizers suggests more a collective nervous breakdown among our elites than it does any serious deliberation on what has happened and what we have learned. Indeed, the very purpose of these massive surveillance systems is obscure – other than the repeated reference to ‘securing’ America. From whom – exactly? Defanged terrorist organizations, the Zeta drug cartel (core leaders trained at Fort Bragg), international pedophilia networks of the non-Vatican variety? All we get as answers are fulminations.

With blood in their eyes, Senators Feinstein, Schumer, Graham et al demand a reckoning – by which they mean Snowden’s brutal incarceration a la Manning followed by a speedy conviction for treason.  A juridical lynching. The Obama administration joins in the angry tirade and directs its fury abroad, too – at Russia’s Vladimir Putin who is threatened with retaliation so dire as to be left to the imagination, at Hong Kong & the PRC.  On the latter, there is necessarily a measure of restraint since the world’s Numero Uno could not survive financially intact for an hour were Beijing to dump just a small fraction of the trillion + dollars it has stashed away.  Mutual Assured Destruction.

There is a touch of madness in all this. For the well-being of the United States is in no significant way jeopardized by the substance of Snowden’s revelations – mutterings about “irreversible damage” from General Clapper, General Alexander, Secretary Hagel, and the White House notwithstanding.  Let’s look beyond the storm of rhetoric at the far more temperate reality. First of all, the United States has no enemies out there who are in a position to do us grievous harm – other than by nuclear arsenals which we have lived with for 60 years and which are totally unaffected by NSA spying. That is one. Nobody with a smidgeon of sense conceives of a plot by any major power against the integrity of the country, with or without assistance from residents in the United States who are targeted by these surveillance programs.

As for terrorism, it is a diffuse danger long since degraded to a “disturbance” in the international weather with little potential to strengthen into something menacing. That is two. Besides, what is the logic of upending the Constitution out of the abstract fear of another Boston bomber when we managed to cope with Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union without resort to such extreme measures? There was a lot of huffing-and-puffing about “at least 50 plots” foiled thanks to PRISM by Alexander and others. All we got was the referencing of a couple of instances that were of such insignificance as to make the assertion appear ludicrous.*

FBI Director Robert Mueller, testifying before Congress, had the effrontery of presenting as an example of an alleged plot supposedly thwarted the instance of some Somalis in Los Angeles sending $8,500 to a group in Somalia allegedly associated with al-Shabaab – a rag-tag local outfit fighting its own internal civil war and little interested in the United States. This is what we get for $83 billion per annum and an assault on our constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties?

The most “sophisticated” response comes from dutiful backers of the Obama presidency who claim that the White House stands as the last bastion against the legions of Tea Partiers who will sweep away all restraint were there to be another 9/11. Geoffrey  Stone, former Dean at the University of Chicago and Obama confidant, has offered this scenario as grounds for keeping the surveillance state intact – with a very few minor modifications. He deserves to be quoted at length:

“what Snowden has revealed is information about ongoing programs, which, we’re told, are extremely important to the national security, and we’re told that the revelation of those programs makes them far less efficient. That’s a very serious—potentially very serious harm to the nation (Bold added)….

 You not only have to protect civil liberties, you also have to protect against terrorism, because what will destroy civil liberties in this country more effectively than anything else is another 9/11 attack. And if the government is not careful about that, and if we have more attacks like that, you can be sure that the kind of things the government is doing now are going to be regarded as small potatoes compared to what would happen in the future. So it’s very complicated, asking what’s the best way to protect civil liberties in the United States.” (Democracy Now June 12, 2013)

Stone makes these assertions as if it were uncontested truth when, in fact, he is parroting White House talking points that have no evidential basis. He is either unaware of these facts or blithely ignores them.

The Stone thesis rests on three highly dubious premises. First, it ascribes to al-Qaidi capabilities that simply do not exist – as all disinterested specialists agree. There simply is no 9/11 or any approximation of it lurking over the horizon. Second, there is no persuasive case to be made that PRISM and related programs are an effective means for identifying and countering a serious conjectured threat. That is not the way good counter-intelligence works.  Third, Stone expresses an attitude that plays fast and loose with constitutional guarantees. He, and his fellow self-styled “realists” – like the President himself, ascribe to the right-wing crackpots as embodied by the Tea Party a political clout which they do not possess. (Fact: A majority of Americans actually think that Snowden’s action was worthwhile). Moreover, to the extent that the American public is susceptible to demagogic exploitation of their fears, that condition is due in large measure to the Obama White House’s own campaign of stoking those fears with baseless claims of menacing threats against the United States. The efforts of people like Stone should be directed at persuading the President and his intimate counselors of the imperative need to convey two critical messages: America is not in grave danger; it is the weak and unpatriotic who are willing to sacrifice in a fit of panic the essence of the political compact that makes us who we are. Recommending that we curtail our liberties out of an expedient calculation that there is not the will to defend it is a craven approach that, sadly, bespeaks an attitude that pervades a large part of our political establishment.

Gross failures of probity, will and conviction are drastically weakening Washington’s grip on reality. Its denizens are participants in a theatre of the absurd that is beyond the emotional capacity of our political class to recognize. That is the tragedy. There are strong, legitimate grounds to conclude that these phenomena do not yield their full meaning to conventional political or organizational analysis. The dismaying truth is that we are in the realm of psychopathology.

This warped public discourse is most clearly seen in yet another program, to be executed government-wide, that the Obama White House has been pressing; it has been exposed in secret documents published by the McClatchy newspapers.  This Insider Threat Program calls for a draconian set of measures that foresees fellow employees as well as managers monitoring the behavior of personnel for signs that they might be inclined as some point in the future to leak material – classified or not – to unauthorized persons. The draft proposals go so far as to demand that managers punish those who balk at snitching on their co-workers. “Wreakers” we might call them – in line with the old Stalinist nomenclature for those who showing insufficient revolutionary zeal for “building Communism.”

Even the Social Security Administration and the Peace Corps are slated to be subject to this draconian control regime.  Leaks to the media are equated with espionage; “hammer this fact home . . . leaking is tantamount to aiding the enemies of the United States,” thunders a June 1, 2012 Defense Department strategy memo on the program. That sort of thinking is already manifest in Attorney General Eric Holder’s written statement that FOX reporter could be indicted as a co-conspirator because he wrote a story based on a conversation with a State Department officer that included nothing of a classified nature. By these standards, Edward Snowden indeed is a threat to the nation. If the program is implemented as planned, we will be heralding the arrival of 1984 – albeit a few decades behind schedule.

The move toward a establishing a Big Brother state alien to all American tradition and practice is a historic turning-point. Our ostrich-like hiding from this bleak truth is a crucial element in the equation that is making it possible. America’s supposed public servants are transforming themselves into self-proclaimed  guardians – with neither cause nor justification. Obviously, there are deep-seated insecurities at play – as well as raw political ambition and careerist aspirations. Secrecy – blanket secrecy, ruthlessly enforced – therefore becomes a compulsion. Snowden is a threat to those elements of our political class obsessed with acquiring the insignia of rank that come with success in lodging oneself in the upper echelons of officialdom. His very courage exposes their self-serving conformity. At the same time, it challenges the control that secrecy endows them with.  Control creates feelings of empowerment – the sense of power being more important to fragile personalities than its actual exercise.

What is being concealed is more than the domestic spy apparatus itself. Also concealed are the distortions and untruths about what these systems can and cannot do. As noted above, the value of Mass Data Mining for legitimate purposes of intelligence is greatly exaggerated. There are glaring discrepancies between what theoretically is possible and what we actually accomplish. Don’t we have enough examples of failure re OBL, the Taliban leader cum grocer who fooled Petraeus, Benghazi, etc. to raise doubts about these forecasts of governmental omniscience and latent omnipotence? From a civil liberties perspective, the best thing we have going for us is incompetence – some rooted in human frailties, some rooted in institutions, some rooted in the disconnect between technology and the limited minds that currently direct it.

The Clappers, Alexanders, Holders, etc. are small bore thinkers who possess a small capacity for major political enterprise. In this context, that is reassuring – on balance. By contrast, if there were a Markus Wolf among them, one should be far more worried – Wolf being the East German master spy who for twenty years pitched a perfect game against the West Germans, the U.S., Britain and everyone else in the West. Excited fascination with technology can distort our interpretation of the spying/surveillance question. Think of this: neither the Nazis nor the Bolsheviks needed more than rudimentary technology to put in place and to operate a totalitarian system. It was a fixed dogma, a draconian police apparatus and a remarkably disciplined corps of ruthless leaders that enabled Hitler and Stalin to achieve a level of total suppression.

Today, not only is it obvious that persons with such ambition and traits thankfully do not exist in the United States, but – beyond that obvious fact – grand schemes of any sort are alien to just about anyone among our political elites Those who will be in position to exploit the surveillance state that is taking shape are small minded men of petty ambition. Their gratification comes mainly from the sense of power of having all this capability and information at their disposal – not using it systematically to do something diabolical. Of course, they will continue to persecute and prosecute anyone who either exposes their secret project or who highlights the discomforting truth that it serves no important purpose whatsoever.

My main points are these. One, I see little evidence that MOST of the officials involved have any goal beyond creating and maintaining the system, i.e. no plans for its full exploitation for an enduring political purpose. Abuse, of course, is possible – and likely in individual cases – but nothing systematic. Two, the technical design may be worthy of a Markus Wolf but not the overall political plan – which, to my mind, simply does not now exist. Wolf was a dedicated Communist who used all his talent to advance the cause of the DDR/USSR/ & world Communism. He would have been single-minded and brutal in using PRISM etc toward these ends. What are our current officials aiming at? Supposedly. American security – whatever that means.  But they have neither a defined tangible enemy nor an embracing scheme.

Three, one way to understand these people’s psychology is to think of the Masons of yore coming to power and operating such an apparatus. Their goal? Exclusivity, status, secret rituals  – all with an overlay of dedication to preserving the sanctity of vague principles. Frankly, at the end of the day I sense that the thinking (such as it is – or, better, sentiment) of Clapper, Alexander. Holder, Obama, et al centers on deriving a deep satisfaction from being something special and doing something noble even as they can’t define with any precision what tangibly that actually is.

Of course, the Masons were much better at safeguarding their secrets of the Inner Sanctum. The NSA Guardians had one Secret so big that it takes one million persons with Top Secret security clearances to keep it oiled and lubed. That is akin to advertising access to the Ark of the Covenant on E-Bay.  So fixated were they on probing everyone else’s secrets that they ended up making exposure of their Holiest of Holies inevitable. That can be called hubris – or, we can use the less flattering ‘s’ word.

The very fact that the systems are being created with no ulterior purpose or even any definable concrete objectives in mind means that success or failure is immaterial. It’s playing the game and fondling the machinery that counts.

The key question is not how best to collect great masses of raw data; it is what you do with information once you have it. I cite in this regard: Operation Barbarossa, Crete, Iran 1979 and the Chinese moves across the Yalu into North Korea. In all those cases, the requisite information was available but ignored. The same holds for 9/11 where the FBI had two field reports of suspicious persons taking fly lessons which were shelved – the reports’ information was obtained the old-fashioned way.  The record suggests that most ‘intelligence’ failures are actually failures of intelligence.

Let’s also remind ourselves that the gravest threat to the well-being of the United States over the past decade came from “Wall Street.” Some people at least knew all the shenanigans that were going on and their implications. The Fed was warned of the housing bubble’s potential menace in 2006. The actual tapes of the Open Market Committee meeting at which these concerns were raised are available to the public. Governors, led by Ben Bernanke, can be heard laughing at the ‘ridiculous’ idea of a bubble.

Electronic Data Mining of communications is conceptually an enlarged version of network analysis employed to establish patterns of social interaction – that’s all. Only direct knowledge of the particulars enables purposeful action. We should have learned that lesson from Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen. Otherwise, you get the  counter-productive ‘signature strikes,’ mass detentions and a false presumption of actually accomplishing something other than shooting oneself in the foot.

Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.



Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.