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Posted on Jul 16, 2013
Nebulon5 (CC BY 2.0)

By Alfred W. McCoy, TomDispatch

(Page 4)

Obama’s Expanding Surveillance Universe

Instead of curtailing his predecessor’s wartime surveillance, as Republicans did in the 1920s and Democrats in the 1970s, President Obama has overseen the expansion of the NSA’s wartime digital operations into a permanent weapon for the exercise of U.S. global power.

The Obama administration continued a Bush-era NSA program of “bulk email records collection” until 2011 when two senators protested that the agency’s “statements to both Congress and the Court… significantly exaggerated this program’s effectiveness.”  Eventually, the administration was forced to curtail this particular operation. Nonetheless, the NSA has continued to collect the personal communications of Americans by the billions under its PRISM and other programs.

In the Obama years as well, the NSA began cooperating with its long-time British counterpart, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), to tap into the dense cluster of Trans-Atlantic Telecommunication fiber optic cables that transit the United Kingdom. During a visit to a GCHQ facility for high-altitude intercepts at Menwith Hill in June 2008, NSA Director General Keith Alexander asked, “Why can’t we collect all the signals all the time? Sounds like a good summer project for Menwith.”

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In the process, GCHQ’s Operation Tempora achieved the “biggest Internet access” of any partner in a “Five Eyes” signals-intercept coalition that, in addition to Great Britain and the U.S., includes Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. When the project went online in 2011, the GCHQ sank probes into 200 Internet cables and was soon collecting 600 million telephone messages daily, which were, in turn, made accessible to 850,000 NSA employees.

The historic alliance between the NSA and GCHQ dates back to the dawn of the Cold War.  In deference to it, the NSA has, since 2007, exempted its “2nd party” Five Eyes allies from surveillance under its “Boundless Informant” operation. According to another recently leaked NSA document, however, “we can, and often do, target the signals of most 3rd party foreign partners.”  This is clearly a reference to close allies like Germany, France, and Italy.

On a busy day in January 2013, for instance, the NSA collected 60 million phone calls and emails from Germany—some 500 million German messages are reportedly collected annually—with lesser but still hefty numbers from France, Italy, and non-European allies like Brazil. To gain operational intelligence on such allies, the NSA taps phones at the European Council headquarters in Brussels, bugs the European Union (EU) delegation at the U.N., has planted a “Dropmire” monitor “on the Cryptofax at the EU embassy DC,” and eavesdrops on 38 allied embassies worldwide.

Such secret intelligence about its allies gives Washington an immense diplomatic advantage, says NSA expert James Bamford. “It’s the equivalent of going to a poker game and wanting to know what everyone’s hand is before you place your bet.” And who knows what scurrilous bits of scandal about world leaders American surveillance systems might scoop up to strengthen Washington’s hand in that global poker game called diplomacy.

This sort of digital surveillance was soon supplemented by actual Internet warfare.  Between 2006 and 2010, Washington launched the planet’s first cyberwar, with Obama ordering devastating cyberattacks against Iran’s nuclear facilities. In 2009, the Pentagon formed the U.S. Cyber Command (CYBERCOM), with a cybercombat center at Lackland Air Base initially staffed by 7,000 Air Force employees. Over the next two years, by appointing NSA chief Alexander as CYBERCOM’s concurrent commander, it created an enormous concentration of power in the digital shadows.  The Pentagon has also declared cyberspace an “operational domain” for both offensive and defensive warfare.

Controlling the Future

By leaking a handful of NSA documents, Edward Snowden has given us a glimpse of future U.S. global policy and the changing architecture of power on this planet. At the broadest level, this digital shift complements Obama’s new defense strategy, announced in 2012, of reducing costs (cutting, for example, infantry troops by 14%), while conserving Washington’s overall power by developing a capacity for “a combined arms campaign across all domains—land, air, maritime, space, and cyberspace.”


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