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NSA’s Path to Totalitarianism

The New York Times, a recipient, along with the Guardian, of Snowden’s disclosures about the illegal activities of Obama and USG, is breaking out, as now, of its reticence about the nation’s profound disregard of constitutional principles AND its related policies of global hegemony at all costs—here Scott Shane’s lengthy article (3 Nov.), “No Morsel Too Miniscule for All-Consuming N.S.A.”  NSA to all intents and purposes appears as a “rogue” organization, extremism in the putative service of liberty, except that the designation is a way of distracting attention, and removing accountability, from its authorization and mission at the highest levels—call it, licensed roguery, official (with Obama’s eyes supposedly averted).  Or better, call it, stripped of all cosmetics, the unerring mark of a Police State, itself become identical  with Fortress America, the National-Security State.

Eavesdropping on foreign leaders speaks to an arrogance of power, in which the US claims for itself every right, unilaterally, to script both sides of the foreign dialogue as well as micromanage to its own advantage the rhythm and content of global events, from regional trade partnerships to the use of military force in shoring up alliance systems against a host of enemies, some terrorist groups to be sure, but, using that as pretext, mounting counterrevolution globally against alternative modes, notably, socialist, of modernization: autonomous national and/or radical aspirations seeking distance from US market penetration, the tarnished necklace of its worldwide military bases and CIA stations, and not least, the ideological saturation (assisted by IMF and World Bank applications of pressure) of market fundamentalism, the property right, unrestricted capital flows, and the honor of serving American industry with the lowest possible labor costs, as meanwhile we see the financialization of capitalism here and the gutting of the manufacturing base.

Eavesdropping, of course, is the polite term for control freak, which translates, in the realm of power politics, into societal desperation to employ any and all means for staying on top, cyber-strategies of disruption as well as information-gathering, campaigns of disinformation, CIA-JSOC paramilitary programs of regime change, and, upping the ante, as here, learning every move in advance of foreign leaders, the better—take no chances, take no prisoners—to orchestrate world politics in our favor.  E.g., Shane begins, Ban Ki-moon, UN Secretary General, meets with Obama last April to discuss “Syrian chemical weapons, Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and climate change,” all important issues—and in advance, NSA “intercepted Mr. Ban’s talking points for the meeting,” indeed, boasted of this in its “weekly internal brag sheet,” calling it an “operational highlight.”

Small potatoes? Not when it illustrates the basic pattern.  Obama needs his teleprompter (thank you, Axelrod); he also needs this heavy-handed spying (thank you, Clapper).  Not because he is a cipher, but because he obsesses over the minutia of power, careful from the outset to ingratiate himself with the intelligence and military communities, and, with Brennan (still around as DCIA), methodically going about the targeting of drone assassination.  Eavesdropping and assassination are indissoluble because emanating from the same hegemonic drive and amoral, nihilistic mindset, which Shane characterizes as, in essence, whatever can be done, should be done.  Given Obama’s near-paranoid fear of transparency, no-one will find out, a paradigm in microcosm for the commission of all manner of war crimes, drone murder a prime example.

Shane’s description, in a single sentence, nails down the menace: “From thousands of classified documents, the National Security Agency emerges as an electronic omnivore of staggering capabilities, eavesdropping and hacking its way around the world to strip governments and other targets of their secrets, all the while enforcing the utmost secrecy about its own operations.”  (Classified documents, be it said, and the practices detailed therein, that would never have been brought to light had it not been for Snowden’s revelations—the person presently under indictment as, presumably, America’s own bin Laden.)  Menace?  For starters, Shane: “It [NSA] spies routinely on friends as well as foes…[its] official mission list includes using its surveillance powers to achieve ‘diplomatic advantage’ over such allies as France and Germany and ‘economic advantage’ over Japan and Brazil, among other countries.”  The twofer here—diplomatic / economic—reveals the cynicism, a militarization of US capitalism, viewed as essential to systemic conservation.  That may be the underlying point, an impending if not already actual decline and senescence of American capitalism, intuitively or even consciously recognized by US political-economic-military elites, requiring a new scale of interventionism and military power to stave off certain loss of domestic well-being and world leadership.

The stakes are high, in ideological as well as all other terms, amounting to the remaking of the global framework, whereby multiple centers of power, none controlling, reduces US commercial and military suzerainty—its overlordship—to, if not just another player, then at least no longer the global architect of counterrevolution and capitalism-in-perpetuity.  So we find now NSA eavesdropping has backfired, to the point of allowing “friends and allies” from the EU to individual countries—Spain today, Germany and France days ago, Mexico, Brazil (the list will surely increase as some 35 countries and their leaders have been targeted)—to see America in its belligerent splendor, waging war less on “terrorism” than on social change itself.  Dear Clapper, director of national intelligence, denies all wrongdoing—everybody spies, what’s the fuss, as he grudgingly admits in public (in private he must boast to the heavens) that NSA has 35,000 employees and a budget of $10.8B.  Not bad, for a hitherto secret operation: a candid picture of why Obama abhors transparency, for it is in the bowels of government that war crimes are hatched.

Commentators have said the NSA is under siege, its legitimacy questioned, Congress now examining whether the agency has violated Americans’ privacy rights—yet, we can be sure that nothing will come of the scrutiny, just as another sacred cow has escaped deserved punishment, the CIA; how one nation which has spawned both the NSA and CIA—with their myriad and overlapping abuses of power—can affirm democratic principles, is an historical puzzle for the ages.  Shane makes a shrewd comparison, implying that of the two, NSA is the more dangerous: “The C.I.A. dispatches undercover officers overseas today to gather intelligence roughly the same way spies operated in biblical times.  But the N.S.A., born when the long-distance call was a bit exotic [1952], has seen its potential targets explode in number with the advent of personal computers, the Internet and cellphones.

Today’s N.S.A. is the Amazon of intelligence agencies….It sucks the contents from fiber-optic cables, sits on telephone switches and Internet hubs, digitally burglarizes laptops and plants bugs on smartphones around the globe.”  (Don’t feel sorry for the CIA, however, in this race toward infamy, because, although Shane neglects to say, the CIA in its now operational capacity works hand-in-glove with private contractors from Northwest Pakistan to Djibouti, launching drones from airstrips on their deadly missions.)  And he adds that while Obama defends the NSA’s “role in preventing terrorist attacks,” this counterterrorism-emphasis “is a misleadingly narrow sales pitch for an agency with an almost unlimited agenda.  Its scale and aggressiveness are breathtaking.”  Say what one will about NYT’s accommodating attitude toward the administration, reporting by Shane, Charlie Savage, and others make up for the Editorial Board’s circumspection.  (Shane writes at one point: “At the agency’s request, The Times is withholding some details that officials said could compromise intelligence operations.”  I should have preferred to let The Times, not the agency, make the judgment calls.)

That breathtaking scale and aggressiveness, as revealed by the documents, is evident all over the place: storing years of text messages from everywhere, accumulating “gigabytes of credit card purchases,” even, via Snacks (Social Network Analysis Collaboration Knowledge Services), figuring out “personnel hierarchies of organizations from texts.”  The world is the American oyster, to pry open and do with as we will.  Examples: eavesdropping equipment on a D. of D. plane 60,000 feet over Columbia, feeding “the location and plans of FARC rebels to the Columbian army”; setting up a “’honeypot’ computer on the web” attracting visits from foreign computers and planting spyware on those “the agency deemed of potential future interest”; and “mounting a major eavesdropping effort focused on a climate change conference in Bali.”  Throughout its activities, NSA claims the moral high ground.  Signet (i.e., Signals Intelligence)—states the agency’s five year plan, which was not to be officially declassified until 2032–   counters “adversaries [who] will say or do anything to advance their cause; we will not.”  Meanwhile, naval vessels snap up “radio transmissions as they cruise off the coast of China,” satellite dishes at Fort Meade take in “worldwide banking transactions,” and rooftop antennas at some 80 US embassies and consulates, via NSA’s Special Collection Service, perform due diligence, i.e., spying.

But today, given the prevalence of pc’s, laptops, tablets, etc., “in most homes and government offices in the developed world, hacking has become the agency’s growth area.”  There is T.A.O. (Tailored Access Operations) for breaking into computers worldwide and leaving “spy software behind,” especially important because “it allows the agency to bypass encryption by capturing messages” before they are encoded.  NSA’s special divisions, the Transgression Branch is another, divides up the work in the latest corporate modeling, acronyms beyond mention, suggesting to me a bureaucratic framework designed to sanitize operations as the normalization of espionage, cyberwarfare, repression, here and abroad, for surely, what NSA “accomplishes” in plan, method, technique, is equally useful in the furtherance of massive domestic surveillance.  The cancer is very real.  My question, is it becoming inoperable?

My New York Times Comment (Nov. 3) on the aforementioned article:

After all…who’s going to find out?” The NSA mindset, secretive, hubristic, acting with impunity and feeling invincible (as well as believing itself invisible), is a menace and disgrace to America, allowed to operate freely because government and people alike have entered the realm of totalitarianism. NSA’s very existence, tolerated by and–judging from its budget–encouraged by POTUS and Congress, proves as much.

NSA is a window into how far the US has slid from democratic principles, a unitary policy framework of Reaction that perfectly mirrors American foreign policy in general: Obama’s signature, targeted assassination, his enlarging role for the CIA, his Pacific-first geostrategic move to isolate and contain China, his CIA-JSOC paramilitary operations, all confirm and elaborate massive domestic surveillance, abrogation of civil liberties, eavesdropping on foreign leaders. Whence America’s direction, except to further baleful consequences?

Clapper deserves censure, but that will not happen because he is acting with Obama’s full approval. Dilma and Angela are heroines in the fight to preserve comity in international relations, with Obama and USG, hiding behind counterterrorism, the war criminals on the scene. The world knows this; the climate of international relations is chilling, in response to US unrestrained actions. Hegemony, given these actions, has become a dirty word, fit only for those committed to besting others through illegal means

Norman Pollack is the author of The Populist Response to Industrial America (Harvard) and The Just Polity (Illinois), The Humane EconomyThe Just Polity, ed. The Populist Mind, and co-ed. with Frank Freidel, Builders of American Institutions. Guggenheim Fellow. Prof. Emeritus, History, Michigan State.  He is currently writing The Fascistization of America: Liberalism, Militarism, Capitalism.  E-mail: pollackn@msu.edu.

More articles by:

Norman Pollack Ph.D. Harvard, Guggenheim Fellow, early writings on American Populism as a radical movement, prof., activist.. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at pollackn@msu.edu.

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