Cyberwarfare, American Style: Domestic Surveillance/Liberal Repression

Obama’s complaints of cyberattacks by China and Iran threatening US intellectual property and, presumably, national security, conveniently dodges the fact, for it is a fact, that America has used its National Security Agency and other intelligence sources (most of which, like NSA itself, outside the public’s knowledge and attention) to provide for massive surveillance at home and a worldwide coverage of spying abroad. Yet we complain of a one-sided onslaught against the Beloved Homeland, one of Obama’s talking points to obfuscate–the good old radical word that appears to have fallen into disuse—a global posture of counterrevolution by any and all means possible. Methinks he whines too much, steadily throughout his presidency as background static to intensify the Cold War, but in the last few days timed to coincide with the Xi visit to the US to ensure hostility toward China will continue and expand.

Cyberwarfare may be the wave of the future in international relations, but it seems to me the pretext for resort to conventional geopolitical strategy in establishing America’s hegemonic goals, as here in the burgeoning confrontation with China. Obama more than his predecessors is a control freak turning civil liberties on its head as well as, e.g., eavesdropping on Merkel, the respect for privacy. He knows no boundaries to the definition of national self-interest, which is for him made up of equal parts: capitalism and militarism. The synthesis of the two, under the rubric of liberalism, constitutes much of his legacy. Why liberalism? Under Obama it shows its true face, for liberalism, historically and philosophically, must be counterpoised to radicalism, not on the same continuum, nor even to absorb/coopt radicalism, but antithetical to it as translated into societal terms and the nature of the individual. For starters, consider C.B. Macpherson’s concept of “possessive individualism,” which captures the salience of liberalism.

Liberalism is the smiling face of capitalism, accentuating profit motivation under the name of individualism as meanwhile inexorable forces of structural integration (government-business interpenetration) and economic concentration of wealth and power continue unabated. The test of liberalism is its attachment to an ethos of property acquisition in the name of liberty, which in the US, as Louis Hartz’s “Liberal Tradition in America” shows, derives from its Lockean antecedents as a distilled form of purist capitalism modified by concessions to the rhetoric of the welfare responsibilities of the State (in contradistinction to an undiluted conservatism that rejects societal amelioration even if done to strengthen capitalism itself).

Even that is changing as the American political-economic spectrum shifts ever further rightward so that now it bumps up against the gates of fascism, its motive force the dependence on global hegemony all but eliminating the welfare dimension of a more sophisticated stage of capitalist development. At best, America is emerging from liberalism in its strict terms, exemplified by the New Deal, where a balance was struck between economic concentration (NRA fostered monopolization practically as an index of recovery) and the host of alphabet agencies like WPA and the Farm Security Administration which genuinely served the poor and unemployed, to what I would term liberal fascism, the appearance of the social safety net begrudging as well as demeaning to ensure the tightening of a hierarchical social system, combined with unrestrained capital accumulation by any means, fair or foul, the militarization of financial and commercial expansion instancing the latter.

What has this to do with cyberwarfare? The more hegemonic, the more America wants more and is running scared that its voracious appetite will not or cannot be satisfied. The nation is viewed by its ruling groups, a fairly unified stratum of economic, political, and military elites, as a captive market to be exploited without mercy, the service sector being a shining example of shoddiness, but extended in every direction as the norm—a condition in which the herd instinct must be operable if the surplus production, financial products, and consumerism in general are to be crammed down people’s throats. What better way to cultivate the herd instinct in the populace than to terrorize them, especially at one or two steps removed (in order to keep up the fiction of democracy), by a campaign of massive surveillance! Let’s be clear, that the chief practitioner of cyberwarfare is America, and that its chief practice is directed to—or should I say, against?—the American people. NSA is right out of the Nazi playbook, domestic spying to ensure conformity and heighten an awareness of national security as a life-and-death issue facing the country. This is not wartime (as in loose lips sink ships of World War II), but it might as well be, Obama taking over powers not seen before in American history.

In preparation for President Xi’s visit in ten days, Obama in preliminary discussions between the US and China has set the tone of belligerence already consistent with his efforts to identify it as America’s primary adversary, using the issue of cyberwarfare as a stalking horse for increasing pressure on China to submit to US plans for the economic reorganization of Asia (better known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership) to its consequent disadvantage—if not hoped-for isolation and ultimate dismemberment. Whatever hacking China is responsible for hardly matches America’s own domestic record, let alone worldwide operations. Remarkably, we project onto China the actions and motives characterizing our own position, a psychological trait, when one adds self-righteousness, perfectly at home in a framework of liberal fascism. And now Obama, rising on tippy-toes to express his anger, is ready for Xi, as on Ukraine he was ready for Putin. To get a sense of what is going on in the immediate context, I turn to New York Times reporter David Sanger’s article, “Cyberthreat Posed by China and Iran Confounds White House, (Sept. 15), an authoritative reading of administration thinking because Sanger is always dependable as NYT’s point man for supporting Obama’s policies, military, economic, political (of which cyberwarfare involves all three).

Under the heading we see Obama at Fort Meade, home of NSA and the US Cyber Command, speaking to the troops, a photo that speaks volumes about the weaponization of intelligence. Sanger writes, “A question from a member of the Pentagon’s new cyberwarfare unit [headed by Admiral Michael Rogers, who also heads the National Security Agency] the other day prompted President Obama to voice his frustration about America’s seeming inability to deter a growing wave of computer attacks, and to vow to confront the increasingly aggressive adversaries who are perpetrating them.” Frustrating; he’d like nothing better than to go to war with China and Iran (reference to “adversaries” plural) but feels his hands are presently tied, or rather, perhaps under the familiar heading of mission creep, he is working in that direction, or some decisive show of force short of war. His language is guarded yet suggestive: “’Offense is moving a lot faster than defense. The Russians are good. The Chinese are good. The Iranians are good. [The problem is, in tracking down the attacks] we can’t necessarily trace it directly to that state [making retaliation hard].’”

Suggestive? More like truculent. Still with the troops: “’There comes a point at which we consider this a core national security threat. [If China and the others cannot stick within acceptable boundaries], we can choose to make this an area of competition, which I guarantee you we’ll win if we have to.’” Sanger is invaluable, for he gives us evidence and analysis right from the horse’s mouth. He states: “If Mr. Obama sounded uncharacteristically [?] combative on the topic, it is because finding a way to deter computer attacks is one of the most urgent and confounding problems he faces in his last 16 months in office.” Especially so because Xi’s visit “merges with the challenge of containing Iran in the aftermath of the recently completed nuclear agreement with Tehran.” As expected China and Iran are perceived (along with Russia) as interrelated threats in Washington, and if Sanger is right, the Iran negotiations were not meant as a step toward peace but even with the accord Iran’s further containment. Never mind that the US hacked into its research facilities—we’re the good guys, they’re the bad guys.

Sanger points out that for the last six weeks, in anticipation of Xi’s visit, “mustering the leverage to deter attacks is exactly what Mr. Obama is struggling to accomplish,” which has taken the form of officials warning that “they are preparing sanctions against Chinese hackers,” and in private meetings linking up “intellectual property theft” with espionage as unacceptable, i.e., if “the theft of 22 million security dossiers from the Office of Personnel Management,” an unlikely repository for national-security matters, really compromises national security. (I say this because there have been numerous government prosecutions over alleged theft of intellectual property as though a form of espionage—the phrase “economic espionage” widely current, but in fact having nothing to do with national security and rather business affairs and trade secrets.)

James Clapper, national intelligence director, inadvertently confirms the trivialization of the US criticism of Chinese hacking operations when, at a congressional hearing the day before Obama spoke at Fort Meade, he said “he was far less concerned about a ‘large Armageddon strike’ that would take out America’s power systems than about the kind of smaller but persistent attacks that damaged Sony Pictures Entertainment.” The wonders of capitalism, so many bizarre turns to the episode, possibly in retaliation for Sony’s film “The Interview,” a fictional account of the assassination of Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea, in which files stolen were made public and there was no hint of involvement by China—I say wonders of capitalism because hacking a private corporation brought out the FBI in force as though Sony was the equivalent of the US government, America’s protective shield thrown around its business system.

An inflexible response treats all matters construed as involving national security (extended to capitalism itself). “With both Iran and China,” Sanger writes, “Mr. Obama is struggling with variants of the same problem: How do you contain a rising power that has discovered the benefits of an anonymous, havoc-creating weapon that can also yield vast troves of secret data?” Admiral Rogers: how “convince them actions for which ‘they have paid no price’…will no longer be cost-free?” The warning is out there. One writer says America has “’a deterrence deficit,’” implying the need for tougher action, and Sanger views cyberwarfare as inseparable from geopolitical strategy, as US policy makers perceive the issue: “Containing Iran’s growing influence in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and throughout the region is central to the administration’s post-accord challenge. And containing China’s effort to reclaim islands in the South China Sea, a bet by Beijing that neither Washington nor Asian nations will stop it from developing a new base of operations and exclusive claims to air and sea territory, is the subtext of much of the tension with Mr. Xi’s government.”

Yet cyberwarfare will be at the top of the agenda, from what I termed a stalking horse to, in reality, a red herring, a means of bloodying US-China relations over deeper issues than that, not reclaiming islands in the South China Sea, but the place of China in the global economy. The US has raised hypocrisy to an art form. Sanger readily admit, though missing its role, America’s own reluctance to be bound by international rules on cyberwarfare: In Clapper’s testimony he “correct[ed] members of Congress who called the personnel office episode an ‘attack,’ noting that it was espionage, something the United States does often to the Chinese. And the intelligence agencies do not want any agreements that would limit their own ability to use cyberweapons for covert purposes, as the United States did against Iran in an operation aimed at disabling parts of its nuclear program.” It depends on whose ox is gored, opportunism as the high policy pronouncements on the path to possible war.

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