The Banal Justification for Directing the US Surveillance State at World Leaders

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The Banal Justification for Directing the US Surveillance State at World Leaders

All countries spy on each other. Countries like Brazil, France, Germany and Mexico would not be so upset that they had been spied on by the United States if it had not been made public by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. In fact, countries have learned to look the other way and accept that they are being spied on regularly by American intelligence agencies so there really is no reasonable justification for all this outrage from world leaders.

As The Washington Post’s David Ignatius declared on CNN, “Everybody does do this kind of thing. The US, through the NSA, does it more aggressively because it’s just better at it. It’s got more capabilities.”

The above has been the typical reaction in the US. It aims to suppress debate or conversation about the operations, which US intelligence is engaged in around the world. It seeks to paint outraged officials as simply jealous. If they could spy on all the world’s people at all levels of society, wouldn’t they be doing it, too?

The nature of this response from officials and commentators, from within a country that has built a massive surveillance state for spying on the entire world of which no other country has matched, is truly imperial.

Marc Ambinder, co-author of Deep State: Inside the Government Secrecy Industry and TheWeek.com’s editor-at-large, wrote what has been considered one of the more cogent defenses of the eavesdropping Snowden exposed.

Citing former NSA chief Michael Hayden, he suggested NSA’s job, “to collect foreign intelligence,” included the objective “to steal stuff, or purloin letters, real and digital, in order to provide policymakers with a decision advantage.” They are to provide “accurate information about what people” who interact with the United States say “in private about their intentions; that gap between saying and doing.”  He added that “ability to predict action from it allows the president of the United States to stay a step ahead.”

Ambinder acknowledged “legit targets,” which he listed as “global terrorist networks, criminal conspiracies, nations like China that are strategic competitors,” and “nations like Iran and North Korea that actively seek to damage U.S. interests and threaten the body of its people, spies, proliferators of weapons of mass destruction.” And noted there is another target—sources of “strategic intelligence,” which comes from America’s friends or allies.

“It must” collect this “strategic intelligence” because the “United States does not have the freedom to act without consequences, and without, in many cases, the aid and acquiescence of allies.” He continued, “In order to map out out the geopolitical space within which the president will act, he needs to have solid intelligence, a good guesstimate, on what other countries are going to do and how they will respond to whatever he decides to do. The president wages war, conducts diplomacy negotiates economic treaties, imposes sanctions, and works to promote US interests abroad. Strategic intelligence should inform all of these decisions, not simply those that involve the military.”

To preserve American hegemony over the world, the US must collect all the data or “strategic intelligence,” from world leaders, foreign governments and the United Nations and its associated foreign missions (which is a violation of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations).

Snowden’s disclosures show this is an objective, if not the objective, which the NSA works to maintain and achieve in its daily operations. It is the only reasonable argument for maintaining wiretaps and continuing spying programs, which target the communications of foreign governments.

The idea that everyone is doing it and others would do it if they could except we’re better so they hate us for our capabilities is a race to the bottom argument. It could be used to excuse just about any intrusive and objectionable conduct, such as flying surveillance drones in any country’s airspace or building secret prisons for interrogating prisoners in any country’s land.

Now, privately, the world’s most powerful countries and their leaders may have tolerated the US surveillance apparatus being turned on them. However, that operations have been taking place and were either expanded or discontinued has become public knowledge. This means the world faces a choice, one which Snowden thought citizens around the globe should be able make because governments engage in spy games without their consent.

Do we want a future where each and every country builds up surveillance apparatuses and turns them on one another to advance their agendas? Or do we want to discourage this and argue countries should not  act with such naked self-interest and instead be more open and cooperative with another?

It seems like a debate worth having. However, former intelligence agency employees like CIA veteran Paul Pillar believe so much in the inherent goodness of the national security state that they would rather put the focus on Snowden and “damage from the leaks.”

The damage from the leaks, to U.S. foreign policy and U.S. national interests, mounts with each dribble, and the amount and variety of the damage are sweeping. The most recent inflictions of damage concern relations between the United States and important foreign partners ranging from Brazil to Germany. The visible part of the damage includes public expressions of disapproval by foreign governments and consumption of the valuable time and attention of the president of the United States in efforts to smooth out the ruffles…

Pillar argues that no damage has been caused to diplomacy or foreign relations because of the NSA programs themselves, which authorize the spying on world leaders. He also contends:

…Even if a foreign government somehow were to learn through its own capabilities of U.S. collection of signals intelligence [eavesdropping] aimed at its agencies or leaders, its response would be quietly to intensify efforts to bolster its own communications security. To do otherwise and to raise a stink about the matter would risk further compromising its own counterintelligence capabilities and damaging a relationship it would not be in its own interests to damage. It is only when such collection activity is made public through a leaker, with all of the embarrassment and public pressures that are triggered by such a revelation, that leaders feel obliged to take conspicuous umbrage, with all of the further damage that entails…

Fortunately, one does not have to unpack this banal argument in its entirety. The reality is US hypocrisy has been exposed by Snowden. Surveillance that is not in line with publicly stated values and principles has been revealed to the world and, as Henry Farrell and Martha Finnemore write for Foreign Affairs, “The U.S. government, its friends, and its foes can no longer plausibly deny the dark side of US foreign policy and will have to address it head-on.”

It is only current and former US government employees, who are so blinded by this reality that they commit themselves to attacking the messenger and accusing the media of sensationalizing or seriously misunderstanding the content of Snowden’s disclosures.

The Los Angeles Times editorial board chose to constructively add to the discussion:

Is there any meaningful difference between bugging your own citizens and bugging someone else’s? (Under American law, the U.S. has more leeway to bug other countries’ citizens than its own.) Is there a difference between a spy stealing secrets from an ally — like Jonathan Pollard, who has spent more than 25 years in prison for stealing American secrets on behalf of Israel — and a surveillance program that targets the secrets of an entire nation? Is privacy a luxury of the past? Should we all assume our conversations are being overheard, if not by our government then by someone else’s?

USA Today similarly argued in an editorial that “spying on allied leaders carries big risks.”

…Imagine the reaction in this country to revelations that supposed allies were tapping into Obama’s conversations, or into millions of Americans’ phone calls. The latest disclosures are harmful to America’s standing in the world, and to its ability to form and lead coalitions on causes ranging from counterterrorism to fighting drug smuggling.

As with domestic surveillance, just because U.S. intelligence agencies have the ability to do something doesn’t mean they should…

The Washington Post editorial board suggested:

…There may be justification for some of this spying. Brazil, for example, has been a problematic partner in recent years, working at cross-purposes to U.S. policy on Iran and several Latin American countries. But the potential benefits of collecting intelligence on nominally friendly leaders has to be weighed against the potential blowback if the operations are exposed — which in the Internet era has become increasingly likely. It seems unlikely that anything gleaned from Ms. Rousseff’s e-mail is worth the trouble it has caused…

Even CNN host Becky Anderson said to former State Department spokesperson PJ Crowley, “So the US defense in the past has been, well everybody is doing it, is one thing, but that was when we were talking about terrorism. You’ve just alluded to the fact that you wouldn’t be surprised if other countries were spying on what was going on in Washington. I just wonder whether our viewers would be satisfied with your defense. Is it really OK to spy on the private communications of businesses and officials? These guys are supposed to be allies, PJ.”

If foreign leaders understand this mass surveillance is a feature of American hegemony, all intended to maintain dominance, will they forever tolerate it? Increasingly, it would seem they do not have to submit to this surveillance. They can turn to other countries and various non-American businesses instead.

Wiretapping and eavesdropping on world leaders may be required for American leaders to make the right decisions if one is solely concerned about private corporations with contracts whom rely on this snooping for profits. It may be required if one is a technocrat, who finds the software and hardware at their fingertips is an infallible solution to security. But if one recognizes that one can pay attention to news media in any country and ask people who are sympathetic to their questions for “strategic intelligence” and probably figure out what officials think they need to know without violating the privacy of anybody, it may be possible to not cling to this Anglo-centric notion that intelligence agencies are entitled to collect data on all the communications of every single person in the world, including world leaders.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is a journalist who writes The Dissenter blog at FireDogLake and co-host of the weekly Unauthorized Disclosure podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @kgosztola

 

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