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I Only Regret That I Have But One Life to Give for My Country: Yours

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Posted on Aug 8, 2013
Tony Fischer Photography (CC BY 2.0)

By Tom Engelhardt, TomDispatch

This piece first appeared at TomDispatch.

Hey, let’s talk spying!  In Surveillance America, this land of spookery we all now inhabit, what else is there to talk about?

Was there anyone growing up like me in the 1950s who didn’t know Revolutionary War hero and spy Nathan Hale’s last words before the British hanged him: “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country”?  I doubt it.  Even today that line, whether historically accurate or not, gives me a chill.  Of course, it’s harder these days to imagine a use for such a heroically solitary statement—not in an America in which spying and surveillance are boom businesses, and our latest potential Nathan Hales are tens of thousands of corporately hired and trained private intelligence contractors, who often don’t get closer to the enemy than a computer terminal.

What would Nathan Hale think if you could tell him that the CIA, the preeminent spy agency in the country, has an estimated 20,000 employees (it won’t reveal the exact number, of course); or that the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which monitors the nation’s spy satellites, has a cast of 16,000 housed in a post-9/11, almost $2 billion headquarters in Washington’s suburbs; or that our modern Nathan Hales, multiplying like so many jackrabbits, lack the equivalent of a Britain to spy on.  In the old-fashioned sense, there really is no longer an enemy on the planet.   The modern analog to the British of 1776 would assumedly be… al-Qaeda?

It’s true that powers friendly and less friendly still spy on the U.S.  Who doesn’t remember that ring of suburban-couples-cum-spies the Russians planted here?  It was a sophisticated operation that only lacked access to state secrets of any sort and that the FBI rolled up in 2010.  But generally speaking, in a single-superpower world, the U.S., with no obvious enemy, has been building its own system of global spying and surveillance on a scale never before seen in an effort to keep track of just about everyone on the planet (as recently released NSA documents show).  In other words, Washington is now spy central.   It surveils not just potential future enemies, but also its closest allies as if they were enemies.  Increasingly, the structure built to do a significant part of that spying is aimed at Americans, too, and on a scale that is no less breathtaking.

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Today, for America’s spies, Nathan Hale’s job comes with health and retirement benefits.  Top officials in that world have access to a revolving door into guaranteed lucrative employment at the highest levels of the corporate-surveillance complex and, of course, for the spy in need of escape, a golden parachute.  So when I think about Nathan Hale’s famed line, among those hundreds of thousands of American spies and corporate spylings just two Americans come to mind, both charged and one convicted under the draconian World War I Espionage Act.

Only one tiny subset of Americans might still be able to cite Hale’s words and have them mean anything.  Even when Army Private First Class Bradley Manning wrote the former hacker who would turn him in about the possibility that he might find himself in jail for life or be executed, he didn’t use those words.  But if he had, they would have been appropriate.  Former Booz Allen employee Edward Snowden didn’t use them in Hong Kong when he discussed the harsh treatment he assumed he would get from his government for revealing the secrets of the National Security Agency, but had he, those words wouldn’t have sounded out of whack.

The recent conviction of Manning on six charges under the Espionage Act for releasing secret military and government documents should be a reminder that we Americans are in a rapidly transforming world.  It is, however, a world that’s increasingly hard to capture accurately because the changes are outpacing the language we have to describe them and so our ability to grasp what is happening. 

Take the words “spying” and “espionage.”  At a national level, you were once a spy who engaged in espionage when, by whatever subterfuge, you gathered the secrets of an enemy, ordinarily an enemy state, for the use of your own country.  In recent years, however, those being charged under the Espionage Act by the Bush and Obama administrations have not in any traditional sense been spies.  None were hired or trained by another power or entity to mine secrets.  All had, in fact, been trained either by the U.S. government or an allied corporate entity.  All, in their urge to reveal, were freelancers (a.k.a. whistleblowers) who might, in the American past, have gone under the label of “patriots.”


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