How America’s Global Surveillance Empire made it a Helpless Giant (Engelhardt)

Tom Engelhardt writes at

Given how similar they sound and how easy it is to imagine one leading to the other, confusing omniscience (having total knowledge) with omnipotence (having total power) is easy enough.  It’s a reasonable supposition that, before the Snowden revelations hit, America’s spymasters had made just that mistake.  If the drip-drip-drip of Snowden’s mother of all leaks — which began in May and clearly won’t stop for months to come — has taught us anything, however, it should be this: omniscience is not omnipotence.  At least on the global political scene today, they may bear remarkably little relation to each other.  In fact, at the moment Washington seems to be operating in a world in which the more you know about the secret lives of others, the less powerful you turn out to be.

Let’s begin by positing this:  There’s never been anything quite like it.  The slow-tease pulling back of the National Security Agency curtain to reveal the skeletal surveillance structure embedded in our planet (what cheekbones!) has been an epochal event.  It’s minimally the political spectacle of 2013, and maybe 2014, too. It’s made a mockery of the 24/7 news cycle and the urge of the media to leave the last big deal for the next big deal as quickly as possible. 

It’s visibly changed attitudes around the world toward the U.S. — strikingly for the worse, even if this hasn’t fully sunk in here yet.  Domestically, the inability to put the issue to sleep or tuck it away somewhere or even outlast it has left the Obama administration, Congress, and the intelligence community increasingly at one another’s throats.  And somewhere in a system made for leaks, there are young techies inside a surveillance machine so viscerally appalling, so like the worst sci-fi scenarios they read while growing up, that — no matter the penalties — one of them, two of them, many of them are likely to become the next Edward Snowden(s).

So where to start, almost half a year into an unfolding crisis of surveillance that shows no signs of ending?  If you think of this as a scorecard, then the place to begin is, of course, with the line-up, which means starting with omniscience.  After all, that’s the NSA’s genuine success story — and what kid doesn’t enjoy hearing about the (not so) little engine that could?

Conceptually speaking, we’ve never seen anything like the National Security Agency’s urge to surveill, eavesdrop on, spy on, monitor, record, and save every communication of any sort on the planet — to keep track of humanity, all of humanity, from its major leaders to obscure figures in the backlands of the planet.  And the fact is that, within the scope of what might be technologically feasible in our era, they seem not to have missed an opportunity.

The NSA, we now know, is everywhere, gobbling up emails, phone calls, texts, tweets, Facebook posts, credit card sales, communications and transactions of every conceivable sort.  The NSA and British intelligence are feeding off the fiber optic cables that carry Internet and phone activity.  The agency stores records (“metadata”) of every phone call made in the United States.  In various ways, legal and otherwise, its operatives long ago slipped through the conveniently ajar backdoors of media giants like Yahoo, Verizon, and Google — and also in conjunction with British intelligence they have been secretly collecting “records” from the “clouds” or private networks of Yahoo and Google to the tune of 181 million communications in a single month, or more than two billion a year. 

Meanwhile, their privately hired corporate hackers have systems that, among other things, can slip inside your computer to count and see every keystroke you make.  Thanks to that mobile phone of yours (even when off), those same hackers can also locate you just about anywhere on the planet.  And that’s just to begin to summarize what we know of their still developing global surveillance state.

In other words, there’s my email and your phone metadata, and his tweets and her texts, and the swept up records of billions of cell phone calls and other communications by French and Nigerians, Italians and Pakistanis, Germans and Yemenis, Egyptians and Spaniards (thank you, Spanish intelligence, for lending the NSA such a hand!), and don’t forget the Chinese, Vietnamese, Indonesians, and Burmese, among others (thank you, Australian intelligence, for lending the NSA such a hand!), and it would be a reasonable bet to include just about any other nationality you care to mention.  Then there are the NSA listening posts at all those U.S. embassies and consulates around the world, and the reports on the way the NSA listened in on the U.N., bugged European Union offices “on both sides of the Atlantic,” accessed computers inside the Indian embassy in Washington D.C. and that country’s U.N. mission in New York, hacked into the computer network of and spied on Brazil’s largest oil company, hacked into the Brazilian president’s emails and the emails of two Mexican presidents, monitored the German Chancellor’s mobile phone, not to speak of those of dozens, possibly hundreds, of other German leaders, monitored the phone calls of at least 35 global leaders, as well as U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, and — if you’re keeping score — that’s just a partial list of what we’ve learned so far about the NSA’s surveillance programs, knowing that, given the Snowden documents still to come, there has to be so much more.

When it comes to the “success” part of the NSA story, you could also play a little numbers game: the NSA has at least 35,000 employees, possibly as many as 55,000, and an almost $11 billion budget.  With up to 70% of that budget possibly going to private contractors, we are undoubtedly talking about tens of thousands more “employees” indirectly on the agency’s payroll.  The Associated Press estimates that there are 500,000 employees of private contractors “who have access to the government’s most sensitive secrets.”  In Bluffdale, Utah, the NSA is spending $2 billion to build what may be one of the largest data-storage facilities on the planet (with its own bizarre fireworks), capable of storing almost inconceivable yottabytes of information.  And keep in mind that since 9/11, according to the New York Times, the agency has also built or expanded major data-storage facilities in Georgia, Texas, Colorado, Hawaii, Alaska, and Washington State. 

But success, too, can have its downside and there is a small catch when it comes to the NSA’s global omniscience.  For everything it can, at least theoretically, see, hear, and search, there’s one obvious thing the agency’s leaders and the rest of the intelligence community have proven remarkably un-omniscient about, one thing they clearly have been incapable of taking in — and that’s the most essential aspect of the system they are building.  Whatever they may have understood about the rest of us, they understood next to nothing about themselves or the real impact of what they were doing, which is why the revelations of Edward Snowden caught them so off-guard.

Along with the giant Internet corporations, they have been involved in a process aimed at taking away the very notion of a right to privacy in our world; yet they utterly failed to grasp the basic lesson they have taught the rest of us.  If we live in an era of no privacy, there are no exemptions; if, that is, it’s an age of no-privacy for us, then it’s an age of no-privacy for them, too.

The word “conspiracy” is an interesting one in this context.  It comes from the Latin conspirare for “breathe the same air.”  In order to do that, you need to be a small group in a small room.  Make yourself the largest surveillance outfit on the planet, hire tens of thousands of private contractors — young computer geeks plunged into a situation that would have boggled the mind of George Orwell — and organize a system of storage and electronic retrieval that puts much at an insider’s fingertips, and you’ve just kissed secrecy goodnight and put it to bed for the duration.

There was always going to be an Edward Snowden — or rather Edward Snowdens.  And no matter what the NSA and the Obama administration do, no matter what they threaten, no matter how fiercely they attack whistleblowers, or who they put away for how long, there will be more.  No matter the levels of classification and the desire to throw a penumbra of secrecy over government operations of all sorts, we will eventually know. 

They have constructed a system potentially riddled with what, in the Cold War days, used to be called “moles.”  In this case, however, those “moles” won’t be spying for a foreign power, but for us.  There is no privacy left.  That fact of life has been embedded, like so much institutional DNA, in the system they have so brilliantly constructed.  They will see us, but in the end, we will see them, too.


With our line-ups in place, let’s turn to the obvious question: How’s it going?  How’s the game of surveillance playing out at the global level?  How has success in building such a system translated into policy and power?  How useful has it been to have advance info on just what the U.N. general-secretary will have to say when he visits you at the White House?  How helpful is it to store endless tweets, social networking interactions, and phone calls from Egypt when it comes to controlling or influencing actors there, whether the Muslim Brotherhood or the generals?

We know that 1,477 “items” from the NSA’s PRISM program (which taps into the central servers of nine major American Internet companies) were cited in the president’s Daily Briefing in 2012 alone.  With all that help, with all that advanced notice, with all that insight into the workings of the world from but one of so many NSA programs, just how has Washington been getting along?

Though we have very little information about how intelligence insiders and top administration officials assess the effectiveness of the NSA’s surveillance programs in maintaining American global power, there’s really no need for such assessments.  All you have to do is look at the world.

Long before Snowden walked off with those documents, it was clear that things weren’t exactly going well.  Some breakthroughs in surveillance techniques were, for instance, developed in America’s war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan, where U.S. intelligence outfits and spies were clearly capable of locating and listening in on insurgencies in ways never before possible.  And yet, we all know what happened in Iraq and is happening in Afghanistan.  In both places, omniscience visibly didn’t translate into success.  And by the way, when the Arab Spring hit, how prepared was the Obama administration?  Don’t even bother to answer that one.

In fact, it’s reasonable to assume that, while U.S. spymasters and operators were working at the technological frontiers of surveillance and cryptography, their model for success was distinctly antiquated.  However unconsciously, they were still living with a World War II-style mindset.  Back then, in an all-out military conflict between two sides, listening in on enemy communications had been at least one key to winning the war.  Breaking the German Enigma codes meant knowing precisely where the enemy’s U-boats were, just as breaking Japan’s naval codes ensured victory in the Battle of Midway and elsewhere.

Unfortunately for the NSA and two administrations in Washington, our world isn’t so clear-cut any more.  Breaking the codes, whatever codes, isn’t going to do the trick.  You may be able to pick up every kind of communication in Pakistan or Egypt, but even if you could listen to or read them all (and the NSA doesn’t have the linguists or the time to do so), instead of simply drowning in useless data, what good would it do you? 

Given how Washington has fared since September 12, 2001, the answer would undoubtedly range from not much to none at all — and in the wake of Edward Snowden, it would have to be in the negative.  Today, the NSA formula might go something like this: the more communications the agency intercepts, the more it stores, the more it officially knows, the more information it gives those it calls its “external customers” (the White House, the State Department, the CIA, and others), the less omnipotent and the more impotent Washington turns out to be.

In scorecard terms, once the Edward Snowden revelations began and the vast conspiracy to capture a world of communications was revealed, things only went from bad to worse.  Here’s just a partial list of some of the casualties from Washington’s point of view:

*The first European near-revolt against American power in living memory (former French leader Charles de Gaulle aside), and a phenomenon that is still growing across that continent along with an upsurge in distaste for Washington.

*A shudder of horror in Brazil and across Latin America, emphasizing a growing distaste for the not-so-good neighbor to the North.

*China, which has its own sophisticated surveillance network and was being pounded for it by Washington, now looks like Mr. Clean.

*Russia, a country run by a former secret police agent, has in the post-Snowden era been miraculously transformed into a global peacemaker and a land that provided a haven for an important western dissident.

*The Internet giants of Silicon valley, a beacon of U.S. technological prowess, could in the end take a monstrous hit, losing billions of dollars and possibly their near monopoly status globally, thanks to the revelation that when you email, tweet, post to Facebook, or do anything else through any of them, you automatically put yourself in the hands of the NSA.  Their CEOs are shuddering with worry, as well they should be.

And the list of post-Snowden fallout only seems to be growing.  The NSA’s vast global security state is now visibly an edifice of negative value, yet it remains so deeply embedded in the post-9/11 American national security state that seriously paring it back, no less dismantling it, is probably inconceivable.  Of course, those running that state within a state claim success by focusing only on counterterrorism operations where, they swear, 54 potential terror attacks on or in the United States have been thwarted, thanks to NSA surveillance.  Based on the relatively minimal information available to us, this looks like a major case of threat and credit inflation, if not pure balderdash.  More important, it doesn’t faintly cover the ambitions of a system that was meant to give Washington a jump on every foreign power, offer an economic edge in just about every situation, and enhance U.S. power globally.

A First-Place Line-Up and a Last-Place Finish

What’s perhaps most striking about all this is the inability of the Obama administration and its intelligence bureaucrats to grasp the nature of what’s happening to them.  For that, they would need to skip those daily briefs from an intelligence community which, on the subject, seems blind, deaf, and dumb, and instead take a clear look at the world.

As a measuring stick for pure tone-deafness in Washington, consider that it took our secretary of state and so, implicitly, the president, five painful months to finally agree that the NSA had, in certain limited areas, “reached too far.” And even now, in response to a global uproar and changing attitudes toward the U.S. across the planet, their response has been laughably modest.  According to David Sanger of the New York Times, for instance, the administration believes that there is “no workable alternative to the bulk collection of huge quantities of ‘metadata,’ including records of all telephone calls made inside the United States.”

On the bright side, however, maybe, just maybe, they can store it all for a mere three years, rather than the present five.  And perhaps, just perhaps, they might consider giving up on listening in on some friendly world leaders, but only after a major rethink and reevaluation of the complete NSA surveillance system.  And in Washington, this sort of response to the Snowden debacle is considered a “balanced” approach to security versus privacy.

In fact, in this country each post-9/11 disaster has led, in the end, to more and worse of the same.  And that’s likely to be the result here, too, given a national security universe in which everyone assumes the value of an increasingly para-militarized, bureaucratized, heavily funded creature we continue to call “intelligence,” even though remarkably little of what would commonsensically be called intelligence is actually on view.

No one knows what a major state would be like if it radically cut back or even wiped out its intelligence services.  No one knows what the planet’s sole superpower would be like if it had only one or, for the sake of competition, two major intelligence outfits rather than 17 of them, or if those agencies essentially relied on open source material.  In other words, no one knows what the U.S. would be like if its intelligence agents stopped trying to collect the planet’s communications and mainly used their native intelligence to analyze the world.  Based on the recent American record, however, it’s hard to imagine we could be anything but better off.  Unfortunately, we’ll never find out.

In short, if the NSA’s surveillance lineup was classic New York Yankees, their season is shaping up as a last-place finish.

Here, then, is the bottom line of the scorecard for twenty-first century Washington: omniscience, maybe; omnipotence, forget it; intelligence, not a bit of it; and no end in sight.

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture (now also in a Kindle edition), runs the Nation Institute’s His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050.

[Note: A small bow of thanks to Adam Hochschild and John Cobb for helping spark this piece into existence.]

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Copyright 2013 Tom Engelhardt


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15 Responses

  1. We won the cold war, our military is more powerful that the next dozen countries combined; we stand astride the world! Why then are we like a paranoid gun nut holed up in his bunker engaged in “targeted killings” of those our fevered mind has inflated to the status of world menace?

    • Actually, we’ve always been a paranoid gun nut holed up in bunker. Took me a while and a bit of studying to understand this is not a new phenomenon.

      2-300 yrs ago, we came to a “wilderness” which it wasn’t, filled with “savages” which they weren’t and convinced ourselves that an angry, vengeful god had given all this to us due to our heaven given “goodness”.

      Underneath is a frightened people for whom a nation full of guns and more military than the rest of the world put together cannot make feel safe. Fear is deep, deep in our souls. We are, truly, a dangerous people.

  2. “Why then are we like a paranoid gun nut holed up in his bunker engaged in “targeted killings” of those our fevered mind has inflated to the status of world menace?”

    Speaking of a “fevered mind,” the above-cited quote is a good example of one at work. The United States engages in targeted killings, not because the targets have been “inflated to the status of world menace,” but because the targets have demonstrated time and again their intention and capacity to plan and execute attacks against the United States and its interests. Calmer minds call that self defense.

    • There’s that word again “interests”, that universal, vague justification for just about anything. The US has for 50 years engaged in … (I won’t recount that long miserable history). That era is coming to an end. Such ends are generally quite ugly. Ask the British about Kenya. Ask the French about Algeria. Now it is our turn.

      However, this need not be so. We can simply realize that times have changed. American domination of the middle east coming to an end and that we should leave. In time we can have respectful relations with the (reformed) countries in that region. We need to realize that they are not ours to remake.

      • To suggest that the British in Kenya and the French in Algeria parallel United States involvement in the Near East is to reveal an ahistorical mind. You are comparing imperial powers that governed those colonies with the US and Near Eastern countries cooperating out of mutual interest. The US did not, and does not, control Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Jordan, Libya, Tunisia, or any of a dozen others.

        I would be glad to suggest some good reading on British and French imperial history, as well as on United States foreign relations in the Near East. I think you would then be able to draw a clear distinction between British and French colonial policy on the one hand, and American foreign policy on the other.

        • I have done a bunch of that reading you suggest, and while those who still believe in “Ameircan exceptionalism” can make plausible-sounding arguments along the lines you lay out so very proficiently.

          However, the clean line you try to draw between “imperial powers that governed those colonies” and “the US and Near Eastern countries cooperating out of mutual interest” is laughably naive/propaganda. While the US was much more isolationist governmentally before World War II regarding European colonialism, economically and socially America was involved in the various colonial projects, sometimes by entrepreneurs getting in on the colonial project and sometimes by lobbyists protesting the colonial economic monopolies, and by various charities and missionaries trying to “civilize” or ameliorate the natives, and I remember George C Marshall’s experience included some well-intentioned warlord-type military campaigning in China in the 1920’s, plus we maintained our own privileges in ostensibly independent Latin America before 1945. And sure, there is indeed an independent center of actual geostrategic power in Saudi Arabia, however their “cooperation” with us — which could just as easily be cast as feudal relationship as an independent one — also reflects our own assertions of governmental, economic and social power. With regards to independent centers of government in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, etc., which do not share the Saudi’s oily legacy, our behavior towards them has hardly been one of “cooperation in mutual interests.”

          And in places like the Congo in the 1960’s, our policy was indeed one of near-complete colonialism, except with the convenience of a local dictator substituting for all that messy and bureaucratic colonial administration. By the time of Angola in the ’80’s it was even more simplified: the oil interests supported the central government dictators, the mineral interests supported the rebel warlords, and the CIA got to spy on/control/mess with both sides while the mass media kept the public from understanding anything.

        • Is it intentional misdirection or just “ahistorical blindness” that compels efforts to obscure MC’s point? So sensitive to any criticism of “the US,” so protective of the jingoist Narrative and the image of “our” Exceptionalism. Yes, it would be illuminating to have your syllabus and reading list on the subject…

          Seems to me MC was pointing out that rebound and blowback effects of Great Powers finally withdrawing, by force or other compulsions of actual “history,” their commercial and oppressive instrumentalities of colonial and imperial hegemony from various points on the globe, can be ugly and “uncontrolled.” Just like the results of “the US” and “its” clumsy, bullying extractions and “interventions,” overt and co-, that pretty clearly have been inconsistent with a truly NATIONAL interest in favor of parochial Gamesmanship and profit- and rent-seeking, and disingenuous hijacking of that potent phrase, “national interest.” Oh, and “nation-building” and “democratization.”

          And do Serious Historians all buy into the Great Game spoofery that the personified “US” has over all these decades just altruistically been acting, through various “Agencies,” to “cooperate” with your falsely reified National Entities to “advance mutual interests,” as opposed to “controlling” them? The oversimplification and obfuscation almost takes one’s breath away…

        • “I have done a bunch of that reading you suggest, and while those who still believe in “Ameircan exceptionalism” can make plausible-sounding arguments along the lines you lay out so very proficiently.”

          You obviously have either misread or do not understand my point. I am not making a case for American exceptionalism. I am drawing a distinction between British and French colonialism in Kenya and Algeria respectively, and American foreign policy that enters into relationships with other governments.

          What is “laughably naive propaganda,” to use your phrase, is your belief that there is little difference between ruling colonies and establishing settlers in places like Kenya and Algeria, and looking out after the national interest in relations with Near Eastern countries that have their own sovereign governments. If you have done a “bunch” of reading, as you say, perhaps you should widen your sources.

        • “The oversimplification and obfuscation almost takes one’s breath away…”

          I could not have picked a better description of your comment. If you cannot distinguish between direct, colonial rule while establishing an influx of settlers from bilateral relations with sovereign governments, I am afraid there is little more to be said. The first rule of a decent debate is to agree on basic definitions. Direct colonial rule vs. relations with sovereign governments? That’s an easy one.

    • In 2001, terrorists killed roughly 3000 Americans. I saw it happen first hand, so I don’t take that lightly. aLSO In 2001 roughly 30,000 people in America were killed by guns.
      That’s 10 to 1 ratio.

      Let’s get some perspective around how much of a problem terrorists really are: Terrorists killed 3000 people a decade ago. Around 30,000 people here are killed by guns every year. Every year around 45,000 people die in America due to lack of economic access to heathcare. Every year there are around 600,000 women who are forcibly raped in America. Maybe we need to spend less energy overseas fighting wars and more energy here at home fixing our real problems.

      • “Maybe we need to spend less energy overseas fighting wars and more energy here at home fixing our real problems.”

        I am talking about one aspect of counter-terrorism policy, targeting terrorists who plan and, if not pursued and neutralized, could execute attacks against the US and its interests. I’m not talking about “fighting wars,” such as Afghanistan and Iraq.

        I agree that there are problems here at home that need fixing. But fixing problems at home and engaging in counter-terrorism efforts are not mutually exclusive. We can do both.

        • “We can do both.”

          Pretty clearly, NOT. Thanks, in large part, to the significant fog generated by our “serious historians” and Politburo and Ministries of Truth…


        • You make “targeted killing” sound so clean and complete. Kill one guy and it is done. You forget that action produces reaction, violence produces blowback.

          These guys who are fighting to drive the US out of the middle east do not have drones; they cannot kill from easy chairs half a world away. But that does not mean that they are without resources.

          The blowback comes when they kill our stooges. The blowback comes when they bomb our embassies. Of course we cry “that is not fair”. Who dares to strike the emperor, we scream!

          Perhaps a trade is in order. From the film “The Battle of Algiers” comes the quote: “Give us your bombers [your aircraft] and you can have our baskets.” (The French claimed that delivering bombs in baskets was unfair.)

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