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Mistaking Omniscience for Omnipotence

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Posted on Nov 14, 2013
Navicore (CC BY 2.0)

By Tom Engelhardt, TomDispatch

(Page 3)

Long before Snowden walked off with those documents, it was clear that things weren’t exactly going well.  Some breakthroughs in surveillance techniques were, for instance, developed in America’s war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan, where U.S. intelligence outfits and spies were clearly capable of locating and listening in on insurgencies in ways never before possible.  And yet, we all know what happened in Iraq and is happening in Afghanistan.  In both places, omniscience visibly didn’t translate into success.  And by the way, when the Arab Spring hit, how prepared was the Obama administration?  Don’t even bother to answer that one.

In fact, it’s reasonable to assume that, while U.S. spymasters and operators were working at the technological frontiers of surveillance and cryptography, their model for success was distinctly antiquated.  However unconsciously, they were still living with a World War II-style mindset.  Back then, in an all-out military conflict between two sides, listening in on enemy communications had been at least one key to winning the war.  Breaking the German Enigma codes meant knowing precisely where the enemy’s U-boats were, just as breaking Japan’s naval codes ensured victory in the Battle of Midway and elsewhere.

Unfortunately for the NSA and two administrations in Washington, our world isn’t so clear-cut any more.  Breaking the codes, whatever codes, isn’t going to do the trick.  You may be able to pick up every kind of communication in Pakistan or Egypt, but even if you could listen to or read them all (and the NSA doesn’t have the linguists or the time to do so), instead of simply drowning in useless data, what good would it do you? 

Given how Washington has fared since September 12, 2001, the answer would undoubtedly range from not much to none at all—and in the wake of Edward Snowden, it would have to be in the negative.  Today, the NSA formula might go something like this: the more communications the agency intercepts, the more it stores, the more it officially knows, the more information it gives those it calls its “external customers” (the White House, the State Department, the CIA, and others), the less omnipotent and the more impotent Washington turns out to be.

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In scorecard terms, once the Edward Snowden revelations began and the vast conspiracy to capture a world of communications was revealed, things only went from bad to worse.  Here’s just a partial list of some of the casualties from Washington’s point of view:

*The first European near-revolt against American power in living memory (former French leader Charles de Gaulle aside), and a phenomenon that is still growing across that continent along with an upsurge in distaste for Washington.

*A shudder of horror in Brazil and across Latin America, emphasizing a growing distaste for the not-so-good neighbor to the North.

*China, which has its own sophisticated surveillance network and was being pounded for it by Washington, now looks like Mr. Clean.

*Russia, a country run by a former secret police agent, has in the post-Snowden era been miraculously transformed into a global peacemaker and a land that provided a haven for an important western dissident.

*The Internet giants of Silicon valley, a beacon of U.S. technological prowess, could in the end take a monstrous hit, losing billions of dollars and possibly their near monopoly status globally, thanks to the revelation that when you email, tweet, post to Facebook, or do anything else through any of them, you automatically put yourself in the hands of the NSA.  Their CEOs are shuddering with worry, as well they should be.

And the list of post-Snowden fallout only seems to be growing.  The NSA’s vast global security state is now visibly an edifice of negative value, yet it remains so deeply embedded in the post-9/11 American national security state that seriously paring it back, no less dismantling it, is probably inconceivable.  Of course, those running that state within a state claim success by focusing only on counterterrorism operations where, they swear, 54 potential terror attacks on or in the United States have been thwarted, thanks to NSA surveillance.  Based on the relatively minimal information available to us, this looks like a major case of threat and credit inflation, if not pure balderdash.  More important, it doesn’t faintly cover the ambitions of a system that was meant to give Washington a jump on every foreign power, offer an economic edge in just about every situation, and enhance U.S. power globally.

A First-Place Line-Up and a Last-Place Finish

What’s perhaps most striking about all this is the inability of the Obama administration and its intelligence bureaucrats to grasp the nature of what’s happening to them.  For that, they would need to skip those daily briefs from an intelligence community which, on the subject, seems blind, deaf, and dumb, and instead take a clear look at the world.


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