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How NSA Surveillance Fits Into a Long History of American Global Political Strategy

| Fri Jan. 24, 2014 3:05 PM EST

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 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 US 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 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 promiscuity."

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 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 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.

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 Internet.

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, which is the source for much of the material in this essay.

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