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Mistaking Omniscience for Omnipotence

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Posted on Nov 14, 2013
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By Tom Engelhardt, TomDispatch

(Page 4)

As a measuring stick for pure tone-deafness in Washington, consider that it took our secretary of state and so, implicitly, the president, five painful months to finally agree that the NSA had, in certain limited areas, “reached too far.” And even now, in response to a global uproar and changing attitudes toward the U.S. across the planet, their response has been laughably modest.  According to David Sanger of the New York Times, for instance, the administration believes that there is “no workable alternative to the bulk collection of huge quantities of ‘metadata,’ including records of all telephone calls made inside the United States.”

On the bright side, however, maybe, just maybe, they can store it all for a mere three years, rather than the present five.  And perhaps, just perhaps, they might consider giving up on listening in on some friendly world leaders, but only after a major rethink and reevaluation of the complete NSA surveillance system.  And in Washington, this sort of response to the Snowden debacle is considered a “balanced” approach to security versus privacy.

In fact, in this country each post-9/11 disaster has led, in the end, to more and worse of the same.  And that’s likely to be the result here, too, given a national security universe in which everyone assumes the value of an increasingly para-militarized, bureaucratized, heavily funded creature we continue to call “intelligence,” even though remarkably little of what would commonsensically be called intelligence is actually on view.

No one knows what a major state would be like if it radically cut back or even wiped out its intelligence services.  No one knows what the planet’s sole superpower would be like if it had only one or, for the sake of competition, two major intelligence outfits rather than 17 of them, or if those agencies essentially relied on open source material.  In other words, no one knows what the U.S. would be like if its intelligence agents stopped trying to collect the planet’s communications and mainly used their native intelligence to analyze the world.  Based on the recent American record, however, it’s hard to imagine we could be anything but better off.  Unfortunately, we’ll never find out.

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In short, if the NSA’s surveillance lineup was classic New York Yankees, their season is shaping up as a last-place finish.

Here, then, is the bottom line of the scorecard for twenty-first century Washington: omniscience, maybe; omnipotence, forget it; intelligence, not a bit of it; and no end in sight.

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture (now also in a Kindle edition), runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050.

[Note: A small bow of thanks to Adam Hochschild and John Cobb for helping spark this piece into existence.]

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook or Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Ann Jones’s They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return From America’s Wars—The Untold Story.

Copyright 2013 Tom Engelhardt


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