Way back in July 2000, the Wall Street Journal, reporting on revelations and rumors about NSA snooping, offered the following:
"The granddaddy of all bogus fears, though, is Echelon. If you believe some European Union parliamentarians, the United States and Britain operate an international network that monitors virtually all communications, and extracts choice nuggets with powerful computers that recognize key phrases in messages like 'assassination,' 'terrorist attack' or 'industrial secret.'"
The article also ridiculed the notion that the NSA was partnering with major technology companies to install a backdoor into their systems -- this after a programmer found reference to an "NSA Key" in a Microsoft software patch. The Journal reassured its readers that Microsoft had simply added the tag to signify "the software complied with the agency's security standards."
All in all, much ado about nothing; the NSA was not unilaterally scooping and scanning all Internet content and Microsoft was not part of a larger surveillance scheme. For those accustomed to believing what the Wall Street Journal said -- remember the bogus story of Saddam Hussein's agent meeting with one of the 9/11 attackers? -- everything was as it should be.
Definitively blowing the lid off such fairy tales, Glenn Greenwald, in his new book No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State, gives us the story of former NSA contractor, Edward Snowden. It is a stark account of the actuality of the situation, dispelling any illusions anyone cares to cling to about the NSA.
Greenwald gives a day by day account of his meeting with Snowden, his coming to grips with the secrets he had hold of and attempts to assess the implications of it all. It is a story taken on with a good deal of risk, to say nothing of the greater risk Snowden took, and is an act of no small amount of bravery. And while the book itself reads as a hastily assembled patchwork -- one part personal experience, one part description of the NSA's work, and one part rumination on the role of journalism -- its value is that it puts in a single place the Snowden story.
What we learn is not only does the NSA scoop up all electronic data that passes through the various choke points that the Internet ultimately converges into, they do so with the active collusion of key corporations. Thus we learn of Boundless Informant, an NSA initiative to quantify just how many communications it collects; for example, one 30-day period in 2013 saw, the collection of three billion pieces of information "from U.S. communication data alone." We learn of PRISM -- the initiative for collection of electronic data directly from the servers of US companies such as Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook and others.
Then there is something called CPA, Corporate Partner Access which has the NSA collaborating with companies such as ATT, CISCO and Intel. As program after program is revealed, any notion that the government has limits on what it has been apprehending from the information passing through the fiber optic cables and telephone lines that crisscross the globe -- the fundamental way in which people are communicating in these times -- disappears. The internet being something that is "wide-open," garnering a whole new meaning.
The NSA, as Greenwald tells us, employs 30,000 people, augmented by private contractors (of which Snowden was one) to the tune of another 60,000 people. This, however, is only the tip of the iceberg; the NSA's power is but a single component of the larger U.S. intelligence (i.e. spy) apparatus.
Indeed the U.S. has no less than 17 agencies in its "Intelligence Community" including a unit in every branch of the military (Air Force, Army, Navy, Marines and Coast Guard), the CIA, the FBI, the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security and others.
Which brings us to the limits of Greenwald's -- and many others who have inveighed on this issue -- analysis; the framework is too focused on matters of personal freedom and civil liberties, to the exclusion of the bigger picture. Thus we hear about the strictures of the U.S. Fourth Amendment to its Constitution and its limits on searches and seizures, and how it "was intended, above all, to abolish forever in America the power of the government to subject its citizens to generalized, suspicion-less surveillance."
True, Snowden revealed how the NSA was gathering information on American citizens neither accused or suspected of crimes -- and there is a point in calling out the U.S. violating its own laws -- but this focus gives too much weight to one aspect of things, and lets the bigger one pass, i.e. why is there an NSA in the first place?
And it is hard to look at this objectively and come to any other conclusion than that it is an instrument for protecting and projecting the geopolitical power of what is the world's largest empire -- one that in the last 13 years alone has been responsible for upending and ending of many thousands of lives; from Iraq, to Afghanistan, to Guantanamo. All of which helps explain why, as shocking as Snowden's revelations are, there is no call within official U.S. circles for the Agency to abandon its core mission of gaining "decision advantage for the Nation and our allies under all circumstances."
Indeed Snowden himself is instructive. Initially motivated to go into intelligence work because of 9/11, he became appalled by what he learned. In that respect he is the personification of 'blowback' -- the CIA term of art for their escapades coming back to haunt them -- in the Global War on Terror.
This in turn raises a larger question; one that Greenwald himself poses, albeit from his perspective:
Will the digital age usher in the individual liberation and political freedoms that the Internet is uniquely capable of unleashing? Or will it bring about a system of omnipresent monitoring and control, beyond the dreams of even the greatest tyrants of the past? Right now, either path is possible. Our actions will determine where we end up.
A couple years ago, this writer talked to the physicist Michiou Kaku about matters of technology and the future. When asked if he was optimistic, he explained that there are three basic types of civilization: Type I is where humans can do such things as control the weather and harness all the light from the sun, Type II is a civilization where it is possible to harness the power of an entire star and Type III is a galactic civilization that controls the output of 100 billion stars and "plays with black holes and zips around the galaxy." According to Kaku we are currently a Type 0 civilization getting "our energy from dead plants, oil and coal."
However, I see the birth pangs of Type I. For example, the Internet is the beginning of a Type I telephone system. We are privileged to be alive to witness the birth of a Type I technology -- a truly intelligent planetary communications system. Overall I'm pretty optimistic. I think we'll get to Type I. The danger point is between Type 0 and Type I; that's when you have the power to destroy all life on your planet.
All of which is to say the Internet represents something in potential that is very advanced and positive for humanity, but the paradox is that the world's most powerful governments will continually seek to use it as a tool of control and power. Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald's work in exposing such efforts is an important counter-tool, but one that underscores how far into the future we still need to travel.
Aaron Leonard is a writer and journalist. His book, Heavy Radicals - The FBI's Secret War Against America's Maoists: The Revolutionary Union/Revolutionary Communist Party 1968-1980, (with Conor Gallagher), will publish in the fall 2014, by Zer0 Books. He is a regular contributor to Truthout, rabble.ca, the History News Network, PhysicsWorld, and other publications. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.