In the aftermath of the Snowden revelations President Obama made a big show of ordering changes to how American spies operate. Sadly, the reforms implemented by the US intelligence community reveal that White House officials have opted for a bunch of cosmetic gestures as the NSA adds 2,880,000 square feet of real estate and Obama openly boasts to Chinese leaders about tripling American cyber forces to 6,000 by 2016. On the whole not much has changed. Government spies are still bulk collecting telephone metadata and international communiqués.
Spies be spying, that’s what they do.
To see why this is the case, let’s dig into some details. Specifically, check out the reform scorecard written up by the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, an agency within the executive branch. The board recently published its evaluation of how the government instituted its recommendations regarding NSA spying. Over a year ago the board made a series of proposals for amending programs based on Section 215 of the Patriot Act and Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Section 215 covers telephone metadata collection and Section 702 deals with intercepting international communications that cross American borders.
The board provided a summary of its recommendations in table form detailing the measures that were instituted. While there have been modest steps taken to address issues like transparency and introduce so-called privacy “safeguards” what’s really interesting are the suggestions that were largely ignored. The oversight board reports that the recommendation to “End the NSA’s Bulk Telephone Records Program” hasn’t been implemented, and neither has the recommendation to “Develop a Methodology to Assess the Value of Counterterrorism Programs.”
What we’re witnessing is Reform Theater, a sort of kabuki act intended to provide the impression that, in the wake of Snowden’s revelations, something is being done. Officials create the perception of action by occupying themselves with narrow aspects of mass interception and this is intentional. They wouldn’t dare do anything substantial that would threaten the gears of the surveillance state. Instead they’ll leave Big Brother’s infrastructure in place and dither around the edges.
Nor would they dare establish metrics to quantify the usefulness of mass interception. Doing so would only expose US counter terrorism initiatives for the frauds that they are, leading the public to question the NSA’s global panopticon or the FBI’s habit of cultivating terrorism plots. Whose national security do these secret programs safeguard?
Remember J. Edgar Hoover’s “Do Not File” stash or Richard Nixon’s “Enemies” list? Recall how Truman wrote his wife about Hoover, lamenting that “all Congressmen and Senators are afraid of him.” Noam Chomsky spells it out: “Policy must assure the security of state authority and concentrations of domestic power, defending them from a frightening enemy: the domestic population, which can become a great danger if not controlled.”
Chomsky’s findings are in line with the conclusions of the NSA’s own Snowden: “These programs were never about terrorism: they’re about economic spying, social control, and diplomatic manipulation. They’re about power.”
The NSA is aiming for “global network dominance,” a term no doubt derived from the Pentagon’s notion of “full spectrum dominance.” The hyperbolic rhetoric of the Department of Defense in turn reflects the broader agenda described by Snowden and Chomsky, a pathological desire to maintain control both at home and abroad.
Who benefits? Profound sources of influence outside of government; corporate factions that transmit their wishes through the American “Deep State.” Anyone who doubts this should note how politicians eagerly lined up to audition for the Koch brothers’ network of some 300 donors, an organization that has budgeted close to a billion dollars for the 2016 election cycle. Why did Mitt Romney drop out of the 2016 presidential race? Because funders denied their support.
All told there are over 1,300 billionaires in the United States and the politically minded members of this demographic—both Democrats and Republicans—have essentially succeeded in state capture. The two-party system of the United States is actually a one-party system: the corporate party. And US spies are the Praetorian Guard of these “deciders.”
So if it seems like nothing on the whole is being done to rein in mass interception, that assessment would be accurate. The NSA’s all-seeing Eye of Providence, and the even larger corporate surveillance apparatus that supports it, are incredible tools of control. The easiest way for leaders to manage public outcry is to put on an elaborate performance of mock reform. It appeases Main Street without offending the deep sources of wealth and power that tread the corridors of the Deep State.