U.S. Government Espionage

Commentary No. 359, Aug. 15, 2013

Espionage is an eternal activity of governments. Once upon a time, governments spied primarily on other governments. Today, they spy on everybody, and I do mean everybody. We all have learned recently, thanks to whistle-blowers, Wikileaks, and the British newspaper, The Guardian, just how extensive has become the reach of the United States, which apparently has the most extensive espionage system of any government in the world, in particular, that of the National Security Agency (NSA).

Strange as it may seem to the spyers, many ordinary people who are not themselves spies or engaged in nefarious activity are both surprised to learn that their privacy has been massively invaded and do not appreciate the experience.

What the NSA has been doing is what is called mining metadata. That is, they arrange that the services that transmit emails and telephone calls turn over to the NSA whatever records they have for analysis by the NSA of “patterns” that are presumed to reveal actual or potential “terrorist” activity.

Presumably, the initial element to evoke suspicion is some communication between someone outside the United States and someone inside the United States. However, this then is expanded to include all communications between the person inside the United States and all others. And then, it includes all communications between these “others” and the others to whom they communicate. At this point we are talking of a network that includes virtually the entire population of the United States.

The legal justification for this activity is Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which allows the FBI to apply for an order to produce “tangible things” in order to protect against “international terrorism.” The order is adjudicated (virtually always successfully) by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (or FISA) Court. The criteria of judgment and the government’s arguments to the court are secret. This now very extensive activity is what was revealed by Edward Snowden, and what has caused an uproar. For some people, the revelations were a complete surprise. For others, they merely confirmed what they long suspected. For the government, they were a major embarrassment.

There were three major reactions to the revelations. The first was that of the U.S. government. While President Obama asserted that debate on these issues was desirable and promised some increased “transparency” of the decision-making process, he also has pursued Snowden in the fiercest possible way, seeking to bring him to a U.S. court for trial and severe punishment.

The second major reaction was that of other governments throughout the world, who discovered they were the active object of U.S. espionage (something they of course already knew). At the same time, the revelations of Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden together also revealed the degree of co-operation between western European governments and Japan with the NSA operations.

But the most interesting reaction occurred in the U.S. Congress. Hitherto, opposition to such activities by members of the U.S. Congress had been quite marginal. Suddenly, it became large-scale. Two members of the House of Representatives, Justin Amash and John Conyers, joined forces to propose a measure that would have curtailed the “indiscriminate collection” of such records.

There are two things to note about the Amash-Conyers amendment. Justin Amash is a far-right Republican, a so-called libertarian Republican. John Conyers is a prominent senior member of the “progressive” (or “left”) wing of the Democratic Party. The second thing to note is that they were combated by another unusual pair – President Obama and Speaker of the House John Boehner. It was the “establishment” against the “extremes.” The vote was 205 for (94 Republicans and 111 Democrats) to 217 against (134 Republicans and 83 Democrats) with 12 abstentions.

The defeat of the amendment was secured only by the most intensive lobbying by Obama and Boehner. Furthermore, most remarkably, the very author of Section 215, Rep. James Sensenbrenner (Republican of Wisconsin), angrily denounced the government for not carrying out the intent of what he wrote. He said the word about “relevant” records was meant to limit the government’s authority, not extend it. He also reminded the “establishment” that the clause expires in 2015 and said: “Unless you realize you’ve got a problem, this is not going to get renewed.”

So where are we? The government (whether Democrat or Republican) will attempt to mollify verbally the protestors while nonetheless continuing to invade everyone’s privacy. They will use (or manufacture) terrorist plots to justify this. But the whistle-blowers have undermined their legitimacy and this is what hurts, and why the government is being so vindictive with them.

Will something like the Amash-Conyers amendment pass next time? It is hard to say, but quite possibly. And if it does, what then? Well, it depends a bit on who is in power. Would Amash be as hard on a putative President Rand Paul? Possibly not. What we can say nonetheless is that the legitimacy and authority of the U.S. government, internally, has eroded severely. When you add this to the serious and continuing decline in geopolitical legitimacy and authority, the United States is beginning to look like one of the less stable countries in the world-system, not one of the bedrocks.