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Surveillance and Scandal

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Posted on Jan 20, 2014

By Alfred McCoy, TomDispatch

(Page 4)

In late 2013, the New York Times reported that, when it came to spying on global elites, there were “more than 1,000 targets of American and British surveillance in recent years,” reaching down to mid-level political actors in the international arena. Revelations from Edward Snowden’s cache of leaked documents indicate that the NSA has monitored leaders in some 35 nations worldwide—including Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff, Mexican presidents Felipe Calderón and Enrique Peña Nieto, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and Indonesia’s president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.  Count in as well, among so many other operations, the monitoring of “French diplomatic interests” during the June 2010 U.N. vote on Iran sanctions and “widespread surveillance” of world leaders during the Group 20 summit meeting at Ottawa in June 2010. Apparently, only members of the historic “Five Eyes” signals-intelligence alliance (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and Great Britain) remain exempt—at least theoretically—from NSA surveillance.

Such secret intelligence about allies can obviously give Washington a significant diplomatic advantage. During U.N. wrangling over the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2002-2003, for example, the NSA intercepted Secretary-General Kofi Anan’s conversations and monitored the “Middle Six”—Third World nations on the Security Council—offering what were, in essence, well-timed bribes to win votes. The NSA’s deputy chief for regional targets sent a memo to the agency’s Five Eyes allies asking “for insights as to how membership is reacting to on-going debate regarding Iraq, plans to vote on any related resolutions [..., and] the whole gamut of information that could give U.S. policymakers an edge in obtaining results favorable to U.S. goals.”

Indicating Washington’s need for incriminating information in bilateral negotiations, the State Department pressed its Bahrain embassy in 2009 for details, damaging in an Islamic society, on the crown princes, asking: “Is there any derogatory information on either prince? Does either prince drink alcohol? Does either one use drugs?”

Indeed, in October 2012, an NSA official identified as “DIRNSA,” or Director General Keith Alexander, proposed the following for countering Muslim radicals: “[Their] vulnerabilities, if exposed, would likely call into question a radicalizer’s devotion to the jihadist cause, leading to the degradation or loss of his authority.” The agency suggested that such vulnerabilities could include “viewing sexually explicit material online” or “using a portion of the donations they are receiving… to defray personal expenses.” The NSA document identified one potential target as a “respected academic” whose “vulnerabilities” are “online promiscuity.”

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Just as the Internet has centralized communications, so it has moved most commercial sex into cyberspace. With an estimated 25 million salacious sites worldwide and a combined 10.6 billion page views per month in 2013 at the five top sex sites, online pornography has become a global business; by 2006, in fact, it generated $97 billion in revenue. With countless Internet viewers visiting porn sites and almost nobody admitting it, the NSA has easy access to the embarrassing habits of targets worldwide, whether Muslim militants or European leaders.

According to James Bamford, author of two authoritative books on the agency, “The NSA’s operation is eerily similar to the FBI’s operations under J. Edgar Hoover in the 1960s where the bureau used wiretapping to discover vulnerabilities, such as sexual activity, to ‘neutralize’ their targets.”

The ACLU’s Jameel Jaffer has warned that a president might “ask the NSA to use the fruits of surveillance to discredit a political opponent, journalist, or human rights activist. The NSA has used its power that way in the past and it would be naïve to think it couldn’t use its power that way in the future.” Even President Obama’s recently convened executive review of the NSA admitted: “[I]n light of the lessons of our own history… at some point in the future, high-level government officials will decide that this massive database of extraordinarily sensitive private information is there for the plucking.”

Indeed, whistleblower Edward Snowden has accused the NSA of actually conducting such surveillance.  In a December 2013 letter to the Brazilian people, he wrote, “They even keep track of who is having an affair or looking at pornography, in case they need to damage their target’s reputation.” If Snowden is right, then one key goal of NSA surveillance of world leaders is not U.S. national security but political blackmail—as it has been since 1898.

Such digital surveillance has tremendous potential for scandal, as anyone who remembers New York Governor Eliot Spitzer’s forced resignation in 2008 after routine phone taps revealed his use of escort services; or, to take another obvious example, the ouster of France’s budget minister Jérôme Cahuzac in 2013 following wire taps that exposed his secret Swiss bank account. As always, the source of political scandal remains sex or money, both of which the NSA can track with remarkable ease.


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