Tom Engelhardt: Mistaking Omniscience for Omnipotence

Yves here. Engelhardt’s analysis of the ineffectiveness of America’s vaunted surveillance state in dealing with foreign threats is compelling and makes a powerful case as to why it therefore should be reined in. But Engelhardt is silent on what many now assume is increasingly the real reason for its use, which is perceived domestic threats, including ones that fall well short of what most people would regard as dangerous, such as prominent figures in Occupy or falsely labeled “hackers” like Aaron Swartz.

By 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. His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050. Cross posted from TomDispatch

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.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. gonzomarx

    Adam Curtis has a piece on British spooks and their effectiveness or not.


    “The recent revelations by the whistleblower Edward Snowden were fascinating. But they – and all the reactions to them – had one enormous assumption at their heart.

    That the spies know what they are doing.”

    1. Michael Fiorillo

      I agree that, for all the oceans of data the NSA and its kindred agencies amass, they can’t prevent the decline of the Empire.

      But the Security State seems to be doing a phenomenal job of replicating a passive, zombified, oblivious – we’ve all seen those fools walking into traffic with their heads buried in I-Whatevers – easily manipulated population here at home.

      Perhaps that’s all our overseers really care about: enabling the extraction of the patrimony (apologies for the sexism) of wealth, public and private, built up over the decades.

      Reading the international news, yes, the Empire is receding rapidly, but it seems that, as if to compensate, those of us here at home will pay dearly.

      1. Mansoor H. Khan

        That is right. No empire will work unless its citizens are productive and physically and mentally healthy to a sufficient degree. Social stability and rule of law are necessary conditions for material production to occur.

        Our current crises is much harder to solve than the great depression crises.

        The great depression was a crises of falling demand due to deflation but there were no true resource constraints (like labor or raw materials availability).

        The resolution to the great depression was simple: Get currency (money) in the hands of the consumer and get demand going. This was done via FED printed currency to pay for the War effort. The war effort created immense number of jobs.

        Today, Capitalism has finally arrived at true resource constraints (note the price of crude oil).

        Usury (affectionately called Fractional Reserve Banking) must be abandoned at this point. There is no other solution. Abandon Fractional Reserve Banking or Lose our Civilization. It is that simple:

        We need an alternate money distribution method:

        We now must solve this distribution problem and we must keep in mind the dwindling fossil fuel supplies which has powered our material production/modernity so far.

        I suggest the following:

        A) we should start a social credit/social dividend/guaranteed income program and give every U.S. citizen $500 per month regardless of income or regardless of any public assistance they currently receive.

        B) Increase taxation to keep inflation in check. Increased taxation should include stiff consumption tax to discourage too much consumption by the rich and upper middle classes.

        C) Start stringent energy conservation and run a low-grade industrial civilization with less yearly fossil fuel consumption.

        D) This will buy us time to develop another cheap energy source and possibly resume growth or if we don’t find another another cheap energy source we will have time to learn how to live without machines, fertilizers and pesticides.

      2. Nathanael

        “I agree that, for all the oceans of data the NSA and its kindred agencies amass, they can’t prevent the decline of the Empire.”

        Decline? Collapse.

        I’m not sure quite how the American government will collapse, but it seems to be on the fast track. Its survival *depends* on the dismantling of the NSA and the other insecurity agencies. As long as they are on this path, they are breeding revolution, and it will happen sooner rather than later — within 20 years, not 100.

        You don’t need to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

  2. Mcmike

    One possible outcome: a decentralized effort to come up with alternative secure communications, led by governments, corporations, and bad guys. A tech arms race back into the shadows.

    The us, by its overreach, ends up unable to listen in on anything (except its own citizens porn and shopping).

  3. Banger

    There are some advantages for the national security state that come from the NSA revelations. Now people know they are being watched and will behave themselves. It’s like the cops sitting in the media strip from time to time fully visible to most motorists who cause cars to slow down. Remember, the goal here is to institute global order and stability not to make mass arrests. As long as we act in an orderly and obedient way we’ll be fine.

    The danger for the state lies with this information gradually moving from the NSA to large corporate players which I believe is happening and will continue to happen.

    1. Mcmike

      I disagree, partially.

      You and I may think twice about ordering that presure cooker and a copy of anarchist cookbook from Amazon, but terrorists and mob bosses will keep finding ways to stay one step ahead.

      In fact, what really surprises me about this is how anyone who actualy depends on secure communications is the least bit surprised.

      I mean, it was obvious to me since about, oh, September 12 2001 that every single thing I did electronically was surely being captured by someone. Even a basic understanding of the internet reveals how cheap and easy it is to snoop. It is baked into the design of cell phones and computers. So, a basic understanding of the US government reveals that they are most certainly doing it.

      The one realm that is likely to be cowed is in fact the whistleblowers, peace movements, OWS, etc – those led by peaceful decent people who have families and day jobs. You are absolutely correct that these will be stifled.

      They too, though, will learn, and go back into the shadows. Learning to walk to meetings held under trees, communicate by flyers printed by ink press, and leave their cell phones at home.

      1. Banger

        I don’t much believe in terrorists–they are a minor problem blown out of proportion by propaganda and many of them, in my view, are associated with criminal gangs and various intel organizations.

        As for gangsters they have come to understand that it is a good idea to get close to public officials or large corporations–I believe crime is growing mainly in this nether world between corporations and criminal gangs. There has always been, for example, cooperation between organized crime and the state in many countries. I think there’s a good chance gangsters will get a hold of NSA info and sell it to corporations.

        1. Mcmike

          re terrorists. Well, indeed, they can’t even kill as many folks as a cigarette company can manage every month. And most of them, are of course, all tied up with the CIA, foreign governments, gun runners, and laundering banks. So, it’s really one big happy family. Albeit one whose thanksgiving dinner tends to be particularly dysfunctional.

          I agree that the line between criminal and the corporate has always been blurred and is starting to collapse. I speculated in a post above about what the consequence of the NSA meltdown might be, and it seems to me that new secure technologies and counter technologies (and a black market thereof) might be one foreseeable outcome.

    2. Andrew Watts

      I completely disagree. If people think they are specifically being targeted by the government they might unwisely and quite violently lash out in the future. Even worse possibilities exist than the already horrifying mass shooting at an airport that only targeted the TSA workers. The toxic combination of self-righteousness and violence is a rather common occurrence in the annals of American history.

      No amount of mass espionage can stop this either. The American revolution (an extreme example) was planned and organized from public taverns that the British were keenly aware of. That’s why we really need to place limitations upon the national security state. They have no idea what they’re doing or what could possibly be at stake in the future. They’re only ensuring that such an undesirable outcome becomes more likely as trust in the government wanes.

      It would also be nice if people thought the government really was trustworthy too.

  4. Mcmike

    Here’s a fun game: what’s left to disclose?

    We have been told that there are plenty of revelations left. Like what?

    We now know the NSA spies on everyone everywhere all the time. We now know it spies on foreign governments and peace protestors and enemies and allies. We know it shares this information with other cops and other spies and favored companies and politicos. We know it taps the transmission lines and the databases and the clouds and the cell phones calls and texts and the purchases and the searches and the web site vists and the emails. We know they hack into computers and providers. We know they hack corporations too, and perform corporate espionage. We know they have cracked codes and built backdoors into everything. We know they track GPS and face recognition. We know they track library check outs. We know they listen in on calls to mistresses and bug hotel rooms. We know they have a long list of search terms and purchases that raise red flags. We know they have infrared sensors and movement sensors and microphones in lamp posts. We know they have compouters analyzing all this data, and hundreds of thousands of humans looking at it too.

    In other words, if it has an electronic component or a face, they track it. It is involves a landline, cell phone, credit card, vehicle, digital camera, or a computer/pda, they track it.

    We know also that there are no limits, no firewalls, no warrants, and no selective targeting. They track everyone everywhere all the time.

    So… what’s left to disclose, except a growing list of the specific naming of who exactly is included in everyone?

    It’s going to become a sort of who’s who. Like 1960’s peace activists and folk singers learning they have an FBI file. Like, duh.

    We’ll start to grow suspicious of the ones who aren’t on the list.

    1. Sam Kanu

      “What’s left to disclose”?

      This is just beginning. Namely, what they’ve been doing with the information. They claim it is not targeted at the domestic citiizen, but its now being uncovered that this system is increasingly being used to initiate domestic police and legal action. Not “could be”, but “is”…

        1. James Levy

          The NSA might also have known that the global economy was about to implode in 2007 and done nothing to alert their “masters” about it. Or they may have had all the data and not read the tea leaves–the same may be true of 9/11, that in retrospect it was all there and they completely missed it. The list they must keep of who’s gay, who’s a transvestite, who likes sheep, and who is having sex with whose partner is also likely in the files. Not to mention who is taking bribes from which corporation.

          As an historian, the one piece of info I’ve always craved was a list of which international leaders were on Uncle Sam’s payroll since 1945. A great deal of history, I think, could be explained by that one list. And you can bet that the NSA has the most complete list of who was paying off whom on the planet.

    2. NotTimothyGeithner

      I don’t lets, but lets guess:

      -child predators at the NSA; congressional records have already demonstrated the private calls of soldiers to their spouses and families are routinely the source of entertainment, so how many teens are being monitored just for kicks? This is the kind of thing which would demand a shut down from the populace at large, or at least siginificant electoral problems.
      -Republican loyalists hired under the Homeland Security revisions
      -specific corporate spying which can’t be ignored; ex. Apple spying on vendors or anything which might start corporate warfare.
      -the scale of the payments to companies such as AT&T in this era of austerity. Specific kickbacks. Can these companies operate under their current structure with a hold on payments?

      1. Mcmike

        – evesdropping abuse for personal entertainment
        – patronage and cronyism
        – corporate espionage
        – contract fraud and abuse and scope

        These can’t be a surprise by now, can they? However, I do suppose that in this coutnry, nothing actually happens until we read in the NYT that it happened…

        Here’s one possible new item: freelance blackmail of ordinary citizens by rogue contractors.

        Here’s another: re-selling of NSA data BACK to online advertisers for ad targeting.

        1. NotTimothyGeithner

          Its not that they are surprises, but do you remember George Allen’s Macawitz moment from 2006?

          The difference between Allen’s “gaffe” and perhaps Joe Biden discussing Indians at convenience stores is every story that came out about Allen in the wake of Macacawitz was a widespread rumor. Every person with a modicum of involvement in Virginia politics from journalists to local partisans on both sides to people who knew Allen’s formers professors at UVA knew those stories, but they were always just rumors. When rumors are revealed as truth, they alter perceptions and demand action.

          These stories were including rumors about Allen’s divorce were widespread.

          Germany sort of suffers from this. Two months ago, spying on Merkel could be dismissed as the efforts of an overgrown bureacracy despite, but today that isn’t true. Merkel is demanding answers at least in public because now it was done with the personal approval of Obama.

          1. McMike

            Yes, that is a good explanation of what I meant by it doesn’t happen until the NYT says so. It does indeed free journalists to talk about it, and force people to play their hands.

            It remains a mystery to me though why Merkel was even using her cell phone, or that AL Queida ops go anywhere near anything electronic.

    3. fresno dan

      “We’ll start to grow suspicious of the ones who aren’t on the list.”

      Here Here!
      But be aware of the disinformation leaked list with people omitted to discredit them, and the real secret list of the people they really want to get. Of course, the people who file, sort, and collate the lists have no idea of what the criteria are to distinguish people on the lists – but as the people dropping the atom bombs say, just to be safe, vaporize them all…

      And finally, it all comes down to farce. When I was stationed at NSA, we used to joke that our work was so top secret that we weren’t allowed to know what we were doing…it is an amazing ability of humans at the top of organizations to suppose that the 19 year olds, hung over, in an organization (military) that has nothing but contempt for intellect or nuance, will generate “intelligence” that can say, distinguish snot from biochemical weapons.

      1. McMike

        Which leads me to wonder perhaps how much of the effort is actually spent checking up on old girlfriends and listening in on Paris Hilton’s cell phone….

  5. Andrew Watts

    Intelligence certainly enhances the understanding and power of those institutions who possess it. In effect this allows them to stay ahead of present events by providing insight into the target’s thought process and subsequential actions. Although it’s a stretch to say this bestows omniscience or omnipotence on any government. The country that knows how to best exploit the intelligence it gathers is supreme compared to it’s peers.

    The biggest mistake that American spies have made is their belief that technology has fundamentally altered how intelligence effectively works. From a non-legal perspective it doesn’t matter how intelligence is gathered. Intercepting the private communications of allied foreign leaders is a d— move. But it’s a particularly stupid one when alternative methods could provide the very same information without resorting to espionage.

    In the absence of any specific objective the mass collection of intelligence is pointless. The most important element of intelligence is marked by a clearly defined goal. When General Alexander gave his consent to sweeping up everything the NSA could get it’s hands on domestically did anyone think to ask “To what end?”. I’m sure the General or anybody else who was asked that question would’ve responded with something vague. Of course, a specific answer would’ve required real American intelligence…

    “…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.”

    It would be a boring world where people in our government would spend more of their time reading. They would also spend time talking with their counterparts on a regular basis instead of trying to snoop on them. There would also be fewer national security welfare queens collecting a government check. That wasn’t hard to imagine it’s just not as sexy as sweeping up the world’s internet traffic.

  6. TimR

    I would look at as wheels within wheels. There is the overall “dumb” NSA with its (degree of) rules and bureaucracy, hierarchy and masses of pawns within the system (with occasional rogues or canny operators like Snowden.)

    This level has its ostensible function (“fight the terrorists”) and its real functions: Replace some of that Keynsian Cold War military spending with spending on all this computer junk, and people to man it; Corporate cronyism money for govt contractors (and revolving door with govt employees); perhaps some psychologial outlet for paranoia of the elites, and to enforce their sense of control over the serfs; and such-like.

    Then there’s another level where “smart” intel types bypass all the bureaucracy, as Russ Tice (NSA whistleblower) has reported on. Big-time spies serving the most powerful can collect data on likely presidential candidates, supreme court justices, senators, etc. and use it in their power games.

  7. Fluffy

    “But Engelhardt is silent on what many now assume is increasingly the real reason for its use, which is perceived domestic threats, including ones that fall well short of what most people would regard as dangerous”

    I disagree with this assessment, although I don’t regard it as wholly ridiculous. The focus of our national security apparatus is still dominantly 1) nation-state adversaries, 2) sub-national adversaries, and 3) discrete economic interests — particularly energy interests.

    That is why so many people still regard the whole institutional edifice as “good”, patriotic and beneficial for the nation.

    The problem is turnkey tyranny is not a pipedream. Given the surveillance powers that now exist, it’s far too easy to envision……….. and implement.

    And the lack of oversight is simply wrong. We are either a democracy – or not. If oversight is not thorough, if the Legislature does not have complete ability to constrain every and any aspect of the security bureaucracy, then we do not have a democracy. Full stop.

    When you bring up domestic surveillance in a post like this one, there will be people who treat your assessment of risks as laughable because of it. However, your assessment of risks — of dangers posed by an oversight-free surveillance bureaucracy — is legitimate regardless of whether or not the focus is on us or not.

    1. James Levy

      Agreed, capability is everything. Give those in the dark the capability to spy on us all, and eventually they will.

      I’ve made this argument about military spending and foreign policy for years. It is not at all impossible, impractical, or even overly expensive to design and build weapons systems that are overwhelmingly defensive in their practical utilization. The best way to rein in the Imperial Presidency is to strip it of its offensive power-projection capacity. Make is capable of defending us and our military allies but incapable of cheap and easy force projection. So long as Obama et al. can kill cheaply, easily, and with impunity, he and those that follow him will. Strip them of this capacity and they can huff and puff, but they won’t dare try and blow somebody else’s house in.

  8. clarence swinney

    Obama Catcher Bush Pitcher—-

    CBO evidence continues to show the Great Recession, Bush huge Tax Cuts,
    two wars explain most of the deficits on Obama five years. The Obama efforts to stabilize thew economy increased budget deficits only briefly and will have no effect on long range deficits.

    Deficits in 2010-2012 topped one trillion. If current policies remain in place, deficits my range
    between $600 billion and $900 billion reaching a low point in 2015. Reining in long range deficits
    would be easier were it not for policies set during the Bush years. The tax cuts plus costs of two wars and American Taxpayer Relief Act will account for half the debt we will owe under current policies by 2019.

    The Great Recession hit the budget, driving down tax revenues and swelling outlays for employment insurance, food stamps and other safety net programs.

    It is estimated that the downturn has pushed up deficits by $2500 billion over the 2009-2018 period.

  9. Martin Elsbach

    “Yves here. Engelhardt’s analysis … But Engelhardt is silent on what many now assume is increasingly the real reason for its use, which is perceived domestic threats, including ones that fall well short of what most people would regard as dangerous, such as prominent figures in Occupy or falsely labeled “hackers” like Aaron Swartz.”

    I agree that “perceived domestic threats” is one reason. I think industrial espionage is the main one. Booz runs the NSA operation. The Carlyle Group owns Booz. I would love to see the communications between the two organizations.

    1. Nathanael

      The industrial espionage is what is going to bring the NSA down.

      The major corporations cannot tolerate this level of industrial espionage. And who’s more powerful than the government? Yeah….

  10. jfleni

    Prophetic Quote:

    “They too, though, will learn, and go back into the shadows. Learning to walk to meetings held under trees, communicate by flyers printed by ink press, and leave their cell phones at home.”

    Just as an example, I made about 100 bookmarks of various “security” applications and methods in just a few minutes.

    A small, even tiny sampling:

    Darknet (many & various);
    text messages over BitCoin-style network;
    peer-to-peer data store;
    peer-to-peer file sharing;
    IP anonymizing network;
    distributed hash table for peer-to-peer lookups;
    key/value transfer system based on Bitcoin;
    Nightweb;connects your device or PC to anonymous, peer-to-peer social network;
    decentralized portal, managed and shared via P2P between members;
    browser acts as a server for other browsers across WebRTC P-P data channels;
    Probabilistic methods are used, where no other peer can be trusted;
    Tavern: Uncensorable, Unblockable discussions;
    Friend-2-Friend and secure decentralised communication platform;

    and many, many more.

    If even half of them work as well as stated, the nerds are way ahead of the snoops, and will only get better as time passes.

  11. anon y'mouse

    in some ways, this article is hilarious. and yet those are the same ways that make me wonder what the unstated purpose of all of this is, really.

    this essay seems to indicate (and other articles I’ve read, about the copious amounts of reports no one would ever be able to read and how no one knows what each agency is covering, so duplication of efforts abound=chicken with their heads cut off running around the barnyard) that in order to do this level of spying on everyone, everywhere within the world we would have to take the total number of the unemployed, and probably some great percentage of the under-employed here in this country and put them to work on just this task alone in order to adequately analyze it all and be able to do anything with what has been collected.

    another thought is, perhaps the 54 unplausible terrorist plots they’ve foiled had to be cooked up because the stated intention is not the genuine intention. if the intention is not ‘terrorism’ per se, then what could be the genuine intention? just because they are doing the ‘stated job’ badly does not mean that they are not doing the unstated job well.

    think about reactivity in psych. tests. you sometimes have to carefully fabricate or manipulate a situation, or a survey in order to fool the participants into thinking that you are collecting a certain kind of data, when in fact your focus is on something else entirely. thus, when you want to hide the fact that you’re really interested in how much alcohol someone consumes in their bedroom alone late at night, you will ask a bazillion and one questions about their other activities (which might actually come in handy later after analysis) to hide this fact.

    in other words, we might consider what they are doing a failure and misguided, but perhaps they are doing a bang-up job at whatever it is they are really trying to pull off, here. perhaps even the workers do not really know what the true aims of their work are.

    simpler answer: some kind of crony capitalism needs to be justified. just like the MIC, this NSA contractor stuff allows them to get a ton of dough producing the next round of super-spy ware.

  12. Hugh

    This is not about intelligence but control. The powers that be have not constructed a vast surveillance state and accidentally aimed it at their fellow citizens among so many others. This is not about having “nothing to hide”. It is about having no privacy, and with no privacy, no rights, and with no rights, no power.

  13. Generalfeldmarschall von Hindenburg

    So who gets to be the Central Scrutinizer? Will rival intelligence agencies set up rival monitoring systems as they vie for political domination that goes along with being able to blackmail office holders? Will we start seeing political assassinations as the stakes keep getting higher?

    Carroll Quigley had a pretty good theory about technologies that democratize power (guns) vs technologies that concentrate it. I think the elites think they’ve got a tool that makes real rebellion utterly impossible, but it’s possible to see this thing turn around 180 degrees and explode the whole rotten edifice.

Comments are closed.