Surveillance and Scandal

Time-Tested Weapons for US Global Power

by Alfred McCoy

TomDispatch (January 19 2014)

For more than six months, Edward Snowden’s revelations about the National
Security Agency (NSA) have been pouring out from the Washington Post, the New
York Times, the Guardian, Germany’s Der Spiegel, and Brazil’s O Globo, among
other places. Yet no one has pointed out the combination of factors that made
the NSA’s expanding programs to monitor the world seem like such a slam-dunk
development in Washington. The answer is remarkably simple. For an imperial
power losing its economic grip on the planet and heading into more austere
times, the NSA’s latest technological breakthroughs look like a bargain
basement deal when it comes to projecting power and keeping subordinate allies
in line – like, in fact, the steal of the century. Even when disaster turned
out to be attached to them, the NSA’s surveillance programs have come with such
a discounted price tag that no Washington elite was going to reject them.

For well over a century, from the pacification of the Philippines in 1898 to
trade negotiations with the European Union today, surveillance and its kissing
cousins, scandal and scurrilous information, have been key weapons in
Washington’s search for global dominion. Not surprisingly, in a post-9/11
bipartisan exercise of executive power, George W Bush and Barack Obama have
presided over building the NSA step by secret step into a digital panopticon
designed to monitor the communications of every American and foreign leaders

What exactly was the aim of such an unprecedented program of massive domestic
and planetary spying, which clearly carried the risk of controversy at home and
abroad? Here, an awareness of the more than century-long history of US
surveillance can guide us through the billions of bytes swept up by the NSA to
the strategic significance of such a program for the planet’s last superpower.
What the past reveals is a long-term relationship between American state
surveillance and political scandal that helps illuminate the unacknowledged
reason why the NSA monitors America’s closest allies.

Not only does such surveillance help gain intelligence advantageous to US
diplomacy, trade relations, and war-making, but it also scoops up intimate
information that can provide leverage – akin to blackmail – in sensitive global
dealings and negotiations of every sort. The NSA’s global panopticon thus
fulfills an ancient dream of empire. With a few computer key strokes, the
agency has solved the problem that has bedeviled world powers since at least the
time of Caesar Augustus: how to control unruly local leaders, who are the
foundation for imperial rule, by ferreting out crucial, often scurrilous,
information to make them more malleable.

A Cost-Savings Bonanza With a Downside

Once upon a time, such surveillance was both expensive and labor intensive.
Today, however, unlike the US Army’s shoe-leather surveillance during World War
One or the FBI’s break-ins and phone bugs in the Cold War years, the NSA can
monitor the entire world and its leaders with only 100-plus probes into the
Internet’s fiber optic cables.

This new technology is both omniscient and omnipresent beyond anything those
lacking top-secret clearance could have imagined before the Edward Snowden
revelations began. Not only is it unimaginably pervasive, but NSA surveillance
is also a particularly cost-effective strategy compared to just about any other
form of global power projection. And better yet, it fulfills the greatest
imperial dream of all: to be omniscient not just for a few islands, as in the
Philippines a century ago, or a couple of countries, as in the Cold War era,
but on a truly global scale.

In a time of increasing imperial austerity and exceptional technological
capability, everything about the NSA’s surveillance told Washington to just
“go for it”. This cut-rate mechanism for both projecting force and
preserving US global power surely looked like a no-brainer, a must-have bargain
for any American president in the twenty-first century – before new NSA
documents started hitting front pages weekly, thanks to Snowden, and the whole
world began returning the favor.

As the gap has grown between Washington’s global reach and its shrinking mailed
fist, as it struggles to maintain forty percent of world armaments (the 2012
figure) with only 23% of global gross economic output, the US will need to find
new ways to exercise its power far more economically. As the Cold War took off,
a heavy-metal US military – with 500 bases worldwide circa 1950 – was
sustainable because the country controlled some fifty percent of the global
gross product.

But as its share of world output falls – to an estimated seventeen percent by
2016 – and its social welfare costs climb relentlessly from four percent of
gross domestic product in 2010 to a projected eighteen percent by 2050,
cost-cutting becomes imperative if Washington is to survive as anything like
the planet’s “sole superpower”. Compared to the $3 trillion cost of
the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, the NSA’s 2012 budget of just $11 billion
for worldwide surveillance and cyberwarfare looks like cost saving the Pentagon
can ill-afford to forego.

Yet this seeming “bargain” comes at what turns out to be an almost
incalculable cost. The sheer scale of such surveillance leaves it open to
countless points of penetration, whether by a handful of anti-war activists
breaking into an FBI field office in Media, Pennsylvania, back in 1971 or
Edward Snowden downloading NSA documents at a Hawaiian outpost in 2012.

Once these secret programs are exposed, it turns out that nobody really likes
being under surveillance. Proud national leaders refuse to tolerate foreign
powers observing them like rats in a maze. Ordinary citizens recoil at the idea
of Big Brother watching their private lives like so many microbes on a slide.

Cycles of Surveillance

Over the past century, the tension between state expansion and citizen-driven
contraction has pushed US surveillance through a recurring cycle. First comes
the rapid development of stunning counterintelligence techniques under the
pressure of fighting foreign wars; next, the unchecked, usually illegal
application of those surveillance technologies back home behind a veil of
secrecy; and finally, belated, grudging reforms as press and public discover
the outrageous excesses of the FBI, the CIA, or now, the NSA. In this
hundred-year span – as modern communications advanced from the mail to the
telephone to the Internet – state surveillance has leapt forward in
technology’s ten-league boots, while civil liberties have crawled along behind
at the snail’s pace of law and legislation.

The first and, until recently, most spectacular round of surveillance came
during World War One and its aftermath. Fearing subversion by German-Americans
after the declaration of war on Germany in 1917, the FBI and Military
Intelligence swelled from bureaucratic nonentities into all-powerful agencies
charged with extirpating any flicker of disloyalty anywhere in America, whether
by word or deed. Since only nine percent of the country’s population then had
telephones, monitoring the loyalties of some ten million German-Americans
proved incredibly labor-intensive, requiring legions of postal workers to
physically examine some thirty million first-class letters and 350,000
badge-carrying vigilantes to perform shoe-leather snooping on immigrants,
unions, and socialists of every sort. During the 1920s, Republican
conservatives, appalled by this threat to privacy, slowly began to curtail
Washington’s security apparatus. This change culminated in Secretary of State
Henry Stimson’s abolition of the government’s cryptography unit in 1929 with his memorable admonition, “Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail”.

In the next round of mass surveillance during World War Two, the FBI discovered
that the wiretapping of telephones produced an unanticipated byproduct with
extraordinary potential for garnering political power: scandal. To block enemy
espionage, President Franklin Roosevelt gave the FBI control over all US
counterintelligence and, in May 1940, authorized its director, J Edgar Hoover,
to engage in wiretapping.

What made Hoover a Washington powerhouse was the telephone. With twenty percent
of the country and the entire political elite by now owning phones, FBI
wiretaps at local switchboards could readily monitor conversations by both
suspected subversives and the president’s domestic enemies, particularly
leaders of the isolationist movement such as aviator Charles Lindbergh and
Senator Burton Wheeler.

Even with these centralized communications, however, the Bureau still needed
massive manpower for its wartime counterintelligence. Its staff soared from
just 650 in 1924 to 13,000 by 1943. Upon taking office on Roosevelt’s death in
early 1945, Harry Truman soon learned the extraordinary extent of FBI surveillance.
“We want no Gestapo or Secret Police”, Truman wrote in his diary that
May. “FBI is tending in that direction. They are dabbling in sex-life
scandals and plain blackmail.”

After a quarter of a century of warrantless wiretaps, Hoover built up a veritable
archive of sexual preferences among America’s powerful and used it to shape the
direction of US politics. He distributed a dossier on Democratic presidential
candidate Adlai Stevenson’s alleged homosexuality to assure his defeat in the
1952 presidential elections, circulated audio tapes of Martin Luther King,
Junior’s philandering, and monitored President Kennedy’s affair with mafia
mistress Judith Exner. And these are just a small sampling of Hoover’s uses of
scandal to keep the Washington power elite under his influence.

“The moment [Hoover] would get something on a senator”, recalled
William Sullivan, the FBI’s chief of domestic intelligence during the 1960s,
“he’d send one of the errand boys up and advise the senator that ‘we’re in
the course of an investigation, and we by chance happened to come up with this
data on your daughter …’ From that time on, the senator’s right in his
pocket”. After his death, an official tally found Hoover had 883 such
files on senators and 722 more on congressmen.

Armed with such sensitive information, Hoover gained the unchecked power to
dictate the country’s direction and launch programs of his choosing, including
the FBI’s notorious Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) that illegally
harassed the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements with black propaganda,
break-ins, and agent provocateur-style violence.

At the end of the Vietnam War, Senator Frank Church headed a committee that
investigated these excesses. “The intent of COINTELPRO”, recalled one
aide to the Church investigation, “was to destroy lives and ruin
reputations”. These findings prompted the formation, under the Foreign
Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, of “FISA courts” to issue
warrants for all future national security wiretaps.

Surveillance in the Age of the Internet

Looking for new weapons to fight terrorism after 9/11, Washington turned to
electronic surveillance, which has since become integral to its strategy for
exercising global power.

In October 2001, not satisfied with the sweeping and extraordinary powers of
the newly passed Patriot Act, President Bush ordered the National Security
Agency to commence covert monitoring of private communications through the
nation’s telephone companies without the requisite FISA warrants. Somewhat
later, the agency began sweeping the Internet for emails, financial data, and
voice messaging on the tenuous theory that such “metadata” was
“not constitutionally protected”. In effect, by penetrating the
Internet for text and the parallel Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) for
voice, the NSA had gained access to much of the world’s telecommunications. By
the end of Bush’s term in 2008, Congress had enacted laws that not only
retrospectively legalized these illegal programs, but also prepared the way for
NSA surveillance to grow unchecked.

Rather than restrain the agency, President Obama oversaw the expansion of its
operations in ways remarkable for both the sheer scale of the billions of
messages collected globally and for the selective monitoring of world leaders.

What made the NSA so powerful was, of course, the Internet – that global grid
of fiber optic cables that now connects forty percent of all humanity. By the
time Obama took office, the agency had finally harnessed the power of modern
telecommunications for near-perfect surveillance. It was capable of both
blanketing the globe and targeting specific individuals. It had assembled the
requisite technological tool-kit – specifically, access points to collect data,
computer codes to break encryption, data farms to store its massive digital
harvest, and supercomputers for nanosecond processing of what it was engorging
itself on.

By 2012, the centralization via digitization of all voice, video, textual, and
financial communications into a worldwide network of fiber optic cables allowed
the NSA to monitor the globe by penetrating just 190 data hubs – an
extraordinary economy of force for both political surveillance and

In this Top Secret document dated 2012, the NSA shows the “Five Eyes”
allies (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, United Kingdom) its 190 “access
programs” for penetrating the Internet’s global grid of fiber optic cables
for both surveillance and cyberwarfare. (Source: NRC Handelsblad, November 23,

Click here to see a larger version:

With a few hundred cable probes and computerized decryption, the NSA can now
capture the kind of gritty details of private life that J Edgar Hoover so
treasured and provide the sort of comprehensive coverage of populations once
epitomized by secret police like East Germany’s Stasi. And yet, such
comparisons only go so far.

After all, once FBI agents had tapped thousands of phones, stenographers had
typed up countless transcripts, and clerks had stored this salacious paper
harvest in floor-to-ceiling filing cabinets, J Edgar Hoover still only knew
about the inner-workings of the elite in one city: Washington, DC. To gain the
same intimate detail for an entire country, the Stasi had to employ one police
informer for every six East Germans – an unsustainable allocation of human
resources. By contrast, the marriage of the NSA’s technology to the Internet’s
data hubs now allows the agency’s 37,000 employees a similarly close coverage
of the entire globe with just one operative for every 200,000 people on the

A Dream as Old as Ancient Rome

In the Obama years, the first signs have appeared that NSA surveillance will
use the information gathered to traffic in scandal, much as Hoover’s FBI once
did. In September 2013, the New York Times reported that the NSA has, since
2010, applied sophisticated software to create social network diagrams unlock as many secrets about individuals as possible …, and pick up sensitive information like regular calls to a
psychiatrist’s office, late-night messages to an extramarital partner.

Through the expenditure of $250 million annually under its Sigint Enabling
Project, the NSA has stealthily penetrated all encryption designed to protect
privacy. “In the future, superpowers will be made or broken based on the
strength of their cryptanalytic programs”, reads a 2007 NSA document.
“It is the price of admission for the US to maintain unrestricted access
to and use of cyberspace”.

By collecting knowledge – routine, intimate, or scandalous – about foreign
leaders, imperial proconsuls from ancient Rome to modern America have gained
both the intelligence and aura of authority necessary for dominion over alien
societies. The importance, and challenge, of controlling these local elites
cannot be overstated. During its pacification of the Philippines after 1898,
for instance, the US colonial regime subdued contentious Filipino leaders via pervasive
policing that swept up both political intelligence and personal scandal. And
that, of course, was just what J Edgar Hoover was doing in Washington during
the 1950s and 1960s.

Indeed, the mighty British Empire, like all empires, was a global tapestry
woven out of political ties to local leaders or “subordinate elites”
– from Malay sultans and Indian maharajas to Gulf sheiks and West African
tribal chiefs. As historian Ronald Robinson once observed, the British Empire
spread around the globe for two centuries through the collaboration of these
local leaders and then unraveled, in just two decades, when that collaboration
turned to “non-cooperation”. After rapid decolonization during the
1960s transformed half-a-dozen European empires into 100 new nations, their
national leaders soon found themselves the subordinate elites of a spreading
American global imperium. Washington suddenly needed the sort of private
information that could keep such figures in line.

Surveillance of foreign leaders provides world powers – Britain then, America
now – with critical information for the exercise of global hegemony. Such
spying gave special penetrating power to the imperial gaze, to that sense of
superiority necessary for dominion over others. It also provided operational
information on dissidents who might need to be countered with covert action or
military force; political and economic intelligence so useful for getting the
jump on allies in negotiations of all sorts; and, perhaps most important of
all, scurrilous information about the derelictions of leaders useful in
coercing their compliance.

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 Calderon and Enrique Pena 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 UN 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 G
reat Britain) remain exempt – at least theoretically – from NSA surveillance.

Such secret intelligence about allies can obviously give Washington a
significant diplomatic advantage. During UN wrangling over the US invasion of
Iraq in 2002 and 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 US policymakers
an edge in obtaining results favorable to US 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

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 naive 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 US 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 Jerome 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.

Given the acute sensitivity of executive communications, world leaders have
reacted sharply to reports of NSA surveillance – with Chancellor Merkel
demanding Five-Eyes-exempt status for Germany, the European Parliament voting
to curtail the sharing of bank data with Washington, and Brazil’s President
Rousseff canceling a US state visit and contracting a $560 million satellite
communications system to free her country from the US-controlled version of the

The Future of US Global Power

By starting a swelling river of NSA documents flowing into public view, Edward
Snowden has given us a glimpse of the changing architecture of US global power.
At the broadest level, Obama’s digital “pivot” complements his
overall defense strategy, announced in 2012, of reducing conventional forces
while expanding into the new, cost-effective domains of space and cyberspace.

While cutting back modestly on costly armaments and the size of the military,
President Obama has invested billions in the building of a new architecture for
global information control. If we add the $791 billion expended to build the
Department of Homeland Security bureaucracy to the $500 billion spent on an
increasingly para-militarized version of global intelligence in the dozen years
since 9/11, then Washington has made a $1.2 trillion investment in a new
apparatus of world power.

So formidable is this security bureaucracy that Obama’s recent executive review
recommended the regularization, not reform, of current NSA practices, allowing
the agency to continue collecting American phone calls and monitoring foreign
leaders into the foreseeable future. Cyberspace offers Washington an
austerity-linked arena for the exercise of global power, albeit at the cost of
trust by its closest allies – a contradiction that will bedevil America’s
global leadership for years to come.

To update Henry Stimson: in the age of the Internet, gentlemen don’t just read
each other’s mail, they watch each other’s porn. Even if we think we have
nothing to hide, all of us, whether world leaders or ordinary citizens, have
good reason to be concerned.

Alfred McCoy is the J R W Smail Professor of History at the University of
Wisconsin-Madison. A TomDispatch regular, he is the author of Policing
America’s Empire: The United States, the Philippines, and the Rise of the
Surveillance State (2009), which is the source for much of the material in this

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 2014 Alfred W McCoy

(c) 2014 TomDispatch. All rights reserved.

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