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The NSA Knows Every Detail of Our Lives—So How Come It Misses the Big Picture?

Revelations on the extent of NSA spying should teach us not to conflate omniscience with omnipotence.

| Wed Nov. 13, 2013 3:41 PM EST

Omnipotence

With our line-ups in place, let's turn to the obvious question: How's it going? How's the game of surveillance playing out at the global level? How has success in building such a system translated into policy and power? How useful has it been to have advance info on just what the U.N. general-secretary will have to say when he visits you at the White House? How helpful is it to store endless tweets, social networking interactions, and phone calls from Egypt when it comes to controlling or influencing actors there, whether the Muslim Brotherhood or the generals?

We know that 1,477 "items" from the NSA's PRISM program (which taps into the central servers of nine major American Internet companies) were cited in the president's Daily Briefing in 2012 alone. With all that help, with all that advanced notice, with all that insight into the workings of the world from but one of so many NSA programs, just how has Washington been getting along?

Though we have very little information about how intelligence insiders and top administration officials assess the effectiveness of the NSA's surveillance programs in maintaining American global power, there's really no need for such assessments. All you have to do is look at the world.

Long before Snowden walked off with those documents, it was clear that things weren't exactly going well. Some breakthroughs in surveillance techniques were, for instance, developed in America's war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan, where US intelligence outfits and spies were clearly capable of locating and listening in on insurgencies in ways never before possible. And yet, we all know what happened in Iraq and is happening in Afghanistan. In both places, omniscience visibly didn't translate into success. And by the way, when the Arab Spring hit, how prepared was the Obama administration? Don't even bother to answer that one.

In fact, it's reasonable to assume that, while US spymasters and operators were working at the technological frontiers of surveillance and cryptography, their model for success was distinctly antiquated. However unconsciously, they were still living with a World War II-style mindset. Back then, in an all-out military conflict between two sides, listening in on enemy communications had been at least one key to winning the war. Breaking the German Enigma codes meant knowing precisely where the enemy's U-boats were, just as breaking Japan's naval codes ensured victory in the Battle of Midway and elsewhere.

Unfortunately for the NSA and two administrations in Washington, our world isn't so clear-cut any more. Breaking the codes, whatever codes, isn't going to do the trick. You may be able to pick up every kind of communication in Pakistan or Egypt, but even if you could listen to or read them all (and the NSA doesn't have the linguists or the time to do so), instead of simply drowning in useless data, what good would it do you?

Given how Washington has fared since September 12, 2001, the answer would undoubtedly range from not much to none at all—and in the wake of Edward Snowden, it would have to be in the negative. Today, the NSA formula might go something like this: the more communications the agency intercepts, the more it stores, the more it officially knows, the more information it gives those it calls its "external customers" (the White House, the State Department, the CIA, and others), the less omnipotent and the more impotent Washington turns out to be.

In scorecard terms, once the Edward Snowden revelations began and the vast conspiracy to capture a world of communications was revealed, things only went from bad to worse. Here's just a partial list of some of the casualties from Washington's point of view:

1. The first European near-revolt against American power in living memory (former French leader Charles de Gaulle aside), and a phenomenon that is still growing across that continent along with an upsurge in distaste for Washington.

2. A shudder of horror in Brazil and across Latin America, emphasizing a growing distaste for the not-so-good neighbor to the North.

3. China, which has its own sophisticated surveillance network and was being pounded for it by Washington, now looks like Mr. Clean.

4. Russia, a country run by a former secret police agent, has in the post-Snowden era been miraculously transformed into a global peacemaker and a land that provided a haven for an important western dissident.

5. The Internet giants of Silicon valley, a beacon of US technological prowess, could in the end take a monstrous hit, losing billions of dollars and possibly their near monopoly status globally, thanks to the revelation that when you email, tweet, post to Facebook, or do anything else through any of them, you automatically put yourself in the hands of the NSA. Their CEOs are shuddering with worry, as well they should be.

And the list of post-Snowden fallout only seems to be growing. The NSA's vast global security state is now visibly an edifice of negative value, yet it remains so deeply embedded in the post-9/11 American national security state that seriously paring it back, no less dismantling it, is probably inconceivable. Of course, those running that state within a state claim success by focusing only on counterterrorism operations where, they swear, 54 potential terror attacks on or in the United States have been thwarted, thanks to NSA surveillance. Based on the relatively minimal information available to us, this looks like a major case of threat and credit inflation, if not pure balderdash. More important, it doesn't faintly cover the ambitions of a system that was meant to give Washington a jump on every foreign power, offer an economic edge in just about every situation, and enhance US power globally.

A First-Place Line-Up and a Last-Place Finish

What's perhaps most striking about all this is the inability of the Obama administration and its intelligence bureaucrats to grasp the nature of what's happening to them. For that, they would need to skip those daily briefs from an intelligence community which, on the subject, seems blind, deaf, and dumb, and instead take a clear look at the world.

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 US 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 US 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.

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. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here...

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

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