Thursday, September 12, 2013

Edward Snowden and King Midas' Ears

"God, I hate extended lyre solos," said Midas, instantly regretting his words.
One of the myths about King Midas goes as follows: the gods Pan and Apollo held a contest one day to decide who was a better musician. Pan played his pipes, Apollo his lyre, and Midas, who was a witness to the contest, declared that Pan was the winner. An annoyed Apollo immediately turned Midas' ears into those of an ass. Midas, understandably mortified, hid his ears under a headdress, but had to take it off from time to time for his barber. The barber was sworn to secrecy on pain of death, but the secret was so juicy, so delightful he felt compelled to tell it somewhere. The barber's solution to telling the story and keeping his life was to dig a hole by a riverbank and tell the story into the hole. He filled in the hole, and shortly afterwards reeds grew on the spot. And now when the wind blows and the reeds brush together you can hear them telling the story of King Midas' ears.

Apparently even the ancient Greeks realized two things about secrecy: one; that no secret is safe if it's big enough or especially scandalous, and two; someone holding such a secret has an almost pathological need to reveal it. This brings us to the NSA's barber, Edward Snowden. The political, legal and diplomatic repercussions of Snowden's revelations are almost too numerous to mention, but here's a few things that have intrigued me about this carnival of disclosures.

In a recent Guardian article revealing details of how the NSA and the GCHQ (Britain's equivalent to the NSA) have worked to defeat any and all kinds of internet secrecy, it was mentioned in passing that Snowden was one of 850,000 in the US with clearance to view material classified as "top secret." WTF? How could the NSA not have expected to have one or more Snowden's pop out of the woodwork when the population equivalent of a mid-sized city has been given the OK to comb through top secret material? Put together a random group of 850k people, even with some security vetting, and you're bound to get a variety of personality traits inimical to keeping secrets: egoists, glory seekers, idealists, moralists, ethicists, mischief makers, not to mention those who might want to sell secrets. It wasn't a matter of would an Edward Snowden come along, but when. That mind-boggling number also shows how devalued the concept of "top secret" has become in the information age. The volume of information to be combed through is so vast, so fluid, it requires a large army to keep track of it, and all armies have deserters. When you give top secret clearance to that many people it's tantamount to saying that top secret is really only a guideline. And in our information age with its dozens of sleight-of-hand ways to access, store and transmit data, the concept of "secret" is becoming antiquated; and as individuals in this age we both demand and desire access to any and all kinds of information. Our insatiable desire to know everything, and to share that knowledge, is a stake through the heart for the concept of "top secret."

One of the "sensational" reveals from the Snowden files is the the US and UK have spied on their friends and allies. A quelle surprise this isn't. In 1848 Lord Palmerston, Britain's Foreign Secretary, said, "We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow." And in the 1950s John Foster Dulles, the American Secretary of State, paraphrased Palmerston when he said that "The United States of America does not have friends, it has interests." No one should be shocked or appalled that nations spy on their so-called friends; that is all part and parcel of Great Power politics and has been for a very long time. Commentators who profess to be shocked by this news end up sounding like another US Secretary of State, Henry L. Stimson, who sniffilly said on the subject of spying: "Gentlemen don't read other gentlemen's mail."

It should also be no great surprise that the NSA has been working feverishly to get its ears into every corner of the internet. The NSA's guiding philosophy of trying to listen in to anything relating to America's interests was revealed years ago in The Puzzle Palace (1982) by James Bamford. That book didn't divulge any top secret material, but it didn't take much imagination to realize that the NSA would exploit every opportunity to eavesdrop on its friends and enemies. Snowden's revelations have provided copious details on this eavesdropping, but the broader picture was clear more than thirty years ago.

The NSA's public relations counterattack to the anger over its Argus-like surveillance of the internet has taken the position that the NSA is protecting America from terrorist actions. Put another way, they're portraying themselves as honest cops walking the internet beat. What's becoming clearer and more alarming with every new NSA article in the Guardian is that the agency is simply being used, as Palmerston and Dulles would no doubt approve, to advance America's non-security interests. In the last 24 hours it's been revealed that the NSA was spying on a Brazilian oil company and has a special, but one-sided, relationship with Israeli Intelligence. The Supreme Court's decision in 2010 in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case (opening the door for unlimited political campaigning by big business)  turned the US from a flawed, ramshackle democracy into a corporate-run kleptocracy, so it therefore seems possible and probable that the NSA is now also the intelligence wing of the US Chamber of Commerce. If Boeing or Lockheed Martin or Exxon need some information about what their rivals are up to in other parts of the world, why wouldn't they turn to the NSA and ask for some help? After all, they pretty much own the agency already. And why stop there? What are union organizers up to? Is an environmental group about to launch a lawsuit? Are protestors planning another flotilla to take aid to Palestine? It would be foolish to disregard the possibility that corporate America is being given a helping hand by the NSA, and that Israel doesn't use its privileged access to NSA data to keep an eye on protestors.

What's really been exposed by Edward Snowden is that the US, like any Great Power throughout history armed with money and superior technology, is conditioned to advance and defend its interests against all comers, even those regarded as friendly. Unfortunately there's little hope that the NSA will curtail its activities. Those 850,000 people represent a huge and costly commitment to spying, and the money and jobs generated by the NSA and its private contractors means that the electronic eavesdropping "industry" now has tremendous clout in the halls of power. President Eisenhower warned about this situation when he described the "military-industrial complex." It looks like we're now living in the age of the military-industrial-surveillance complex.

No comments: