It is the nature of bureaucracies to expand and accumulate prerogatives. The National Security Agency, a dusty post-Second World War institution of routine habits and outdated technology, focused on the remnants of the Soviet Union and its East European satellites, did not waste an opportunity when the 9/11 attacks occurred in New York and Washington.

Money, recruits and tasks poured in. War on Terror was declared. The money that flowed to the American intelligence agencies benefitted NSA more than any other non-Pentagon service. NSA, a bureaucracy in need, had no hesitation about boosting itself. The Snowden papers recount its pride in a 2007 letter of commendation the agency received for electronically locating a sniper inside the Green Zone in Baghdad. That’s what Global Surveillance was all about in those days.

Early in November of this year, The New York Times quoted an agency boast that when Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, visited President Barack Obama at the White House last April, the President found before him a secretly intercepted copy of the UN head’s talking points (as if Mr. Obama might not have guessed what they would be). The Agency on its internal broadsheet listed this as the week’s “operational highlight.”

Unlike in 2001, the NSA now has an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 employees worldwide (its assistant director, John C. Inglis, jokingly estimated in 2012 that the number of current employees was “between 37,000 and 1 billion.”)

But the question to be asked of any bureaucracy is what it actually does. We know now that the NSA purloins (presumably electronically, but who knows?) other people’s mail. It undoubtedly, with its billions, can employ some second-story men, as well as those who service its giant antennae — or read your e-mails or copy out your Facebook page. But why do they bother? That is the fascinating question.

Mr. Snowden has at some risk to his residential freedom given the international public a huge cache of documents listing NSA tasks, information on its bureaucratic structures and its code words for a variety of operations, as well as torrents of random information. He has told us about two vast hanger-like structures being built at a cost of untold billions of dollars in the emptiest zones of discreet Mormon territory in the American West. But who cares? Do you wish your taxes spent on gathering the numbers and addressees of every phone call made and every email sent in the United States (or Europe) during the next decade? This is madness.

These new buildings now under construction apparently are where NSA will file all the information it has been collecting since the United States went to war with a few hundred, or perhaps a few thousand, members of radical Islamic groups, who make their homes in remote places you are unlikely to visit, unless, alas, you are an American soldier (as they were called when I was one; I believe they now call themselves “Warriors” — capitalized, please).

The enemies live in Somalia or Yemen, the territorial fringes of the eastern Sahara, in Pakistan’s northwest tribal territories, in Sinai — and some in the immigrant neighborhoods of Germany, Britain and France, as well as even the United States. Their objectives are to convert the world to true religion, and to re-establish the political institutions of the great Arab Caliphates of the seventh to 12th centuries.

This ambitious project will require the military reconquest of most of the Mediterranean states of North Africa plus Spain, and must replicate the achievements of the Ottoman Turks, who controlled much of south-central Europe, from Istanbul to Budapest, and who once threatened Vienna. Neither the radicalized Muslim bands of al-Qaida nor their state sponsors are in any position to carry out such a military conquest. It can scarcely be conceivable to any even modestly educated or travelled Muslim leader that this is a rational undertaking. But it seems to be taken as a serious threat in certain Western circles.

Why should such a fantasy be taken so seriously by the Western powers, and particularly by the United States with its multitude of intelligence agencies, and army, navy and Marine Corps, and the fleets of bomb-loaded drones that have been placed at President Barack Obama’s personal disposal?

Added to that question is why the NSA has been commissioned (or taken upon itself) the effort to build electronically protected false floors or attics in its worldwide embassies for the purpose of installing equipment able to discover what threats might be hatching in the official circles of the governments to which these American embassies are accredited. This activity runs the obvious risk, if detected, of jeopardizing or ruining America’s relations with that government. Mr. Snowden apparently spent considerable time in such claustrophobic conditions when stationed in Geneva, listening for the CIA.

Did Chancellor Angela Merkel’s private conversations reward such surveillance? One of the more interesting German commentaries, by Heinrich Wefing at the end of October in the most important of the German weeklies, Die Zeit, was entitled “Goodbye, Friends.” Germany is not perhaps the most important of American allies, but is a friend worth having and keeping. He began by saying “The German-American friendship was the most powerful myth of the Federal Republic. Now, after the wiretap affair, it is over for good.”

He went on to say that spy programs directed at friendly foreign chiefs of government “are not a sign of strength but of weakness and fear.” He lists the American qualities Germans so admired after the second world war, saying that to suggest that in a decade from now Germany could be like America — as Germans often said in those years — today “would not be a promise anymore — it would sound like a threat.”

Visit William Pfaff’s Web site for more on his latest book, “The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy” (Walker & Co., $25), at

© 2013 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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