Civilisation, claimed Mark Twain, involves the limitless multiplication of unnecessary necessaries. Intelligence gathering can be seen to be a byproduct of that fascination: bureaucratic necessity has become its own rationale; the need to protect civilisation by means of ever sophisticated, economically legal systems of protection, the great “unnecessary necessary”.
The latest metadata program to come out of the Edward Snowden digest via James Ball of The Guardian (Oct 1) is known as Marina, the sort of innocuous name one would give a cyclonic disturbance. But the better analogy would be to see Marina as a port of call, a storage facility that accumulates data that is stored for up to a year without apparent justification.
Such revelations keep putting the Obama administration, along with its still to be employed intelligence officials, at odds with the general argument that the NSA only records material of those it targets. Their main line is that such a gathering of information is authorised by Executive Order 12333 and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (FISA). No warrants are required under section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act provided the data exchange involves a non-American source outside the United States. “All data queries,” claimed an official from the NSA, “must include a foreign intelligence justification, period” (Russia Today, Sep 30).
The metadata documents, with their mass aggregating feature, suggest otherwise. In fact, as was revealed by James Ball and Spencer Ackerman (The Guardian, Aug 10), NSA operatives can bypass this “foreign” rule very simply, given that “purely domestic communications can be inadvertently swept into its databases,” a form of capture termed “incidental collection”.
An introductory guide for intelligence analysts that form the Snowden set also reveal that, “The Marina metadata application tracks a user’s browser experience, gathers contact information/content and develops summaries of target.” The Marina database stores computer metadata; phone metadata is routed to a different system.
The guide is full of praise for Marina the wonder beast, whose storage capacity is evidently cavernous in promise. “Of the more distinguishing features, Marina has the ability to look back on the last 365 days’ worth of DNI metadata seen by the Sigint collection system, regardless [regardless being highlighted] whether or not it was tasked for collection.”
The material keeps coming. And it will keep coming. We are only getting morsels hacked from the intelligence complex, one so colossal it has ceased to be manageable within any legal confines. On the one hand, the legal argument is peddled to show that warrants are obtained when necessary, that legal “partnerships” exist with internet providers to surrender content to NSA snoopers. Prism, along with its wicked cousins, is hideous for the very fact that it has the imprimatur of law.
The legal thrust is emphasised in an NSA document from August 9 this year, stating its “Missions, Authorities, Oversight and Partnerships.” The document indicates rather blandly that the organisation focuses on “central foreign intelligence and counterintelligence” when it comes to gathering signals intelligence. We know that to have been well refuted. That said, those at the organisation are confident that, “We do not need to sacrifice civil liberties for the sake of national security – both are integral to who we are as Americans.”
Besides, why the fuss, the signals spooks seem to be saying. The document goes on to provide an unconvincing reassurance – there is simply too much out there for the minders to tap, given that the internet carries some 1,826 petabytes of information per day. Only 1.6 per cent of daily internet traffic is actually caught. And of that, “only 0.025% is actually selected for review.” When intelligence organisations start playing the modesty card, something is amiss. The trick here is find out what the NSA is leaving out of the calculation – namely those means of sharing that are replete on the internet.
For all its self-promoting jargon on “oversight”, the NSA remains a creature that operates outside it. How could it not, given that its own creation is clouded by extra-legal dubiousness? Gore Vidal, that irascible man of American letters, put his finger on the point when he spoke about the emergence, in President Harry Truman’s time, of that “national security state” that grows with insatiable appetite, a behemoth without obvious limits.
The font from which that state sprung from was less the head of Zeus than the National Security Act, passed, as Vidal explained in March 1998 at the National Press Club, “without any national debate or the people’s consent”. Its effect was “to replace the old American republic with a national security state very much in the global empire business.” And so, that business continues, busier than ever.
Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. He ran for the Australian Senate with Julian Assange for the WikiLeaks Party. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org