What we are learning – or should be – from the spying scandal

Revelations about NSA spying on US communications should allow us to join the dots from previous disclosures.

Photos of Edward Snowden, a contractor at the National Security Agency (NSA), and U.S. President Barack Obama
Edward Snowden's whistleblowing has sparked fevered debate across the world's media [Reuters]

How ironic. The current NSA spying story broke just as President Obama was huddled on an out-of-the-way estate in California with China’s Xi Jinping to discuss US cyber-security concerns.

The administration had been claiming that a secret Bejing-based cyber military unit had been targeting US companies and government agencies. They insisted they had evidence and would confront the Chinese with it.

To most Americans, it seemed like an open and shut case. “China Bad; US Good,” was the conclusion most here reached – or already held, given years of coverage of how China used the internet to spy on and muzzle free expression.

In all the acres of that coverage, there were few reminders that it was a US company, the San Jose-based Cisco Systems, that helped the Chinese build their “Great Firewall”.

It was then reported that the NSA was also spying on China spying on us.

At the same time, in an unexpected moment of, shall we say, karmic justice, the gates of Washington’s national security top secret gulag were breached by an unlikely junior online tech specialist working for one just component of a small army of private contractors involved in a massive surveillance program on a global scale.

As whistleblower Edward Snowden’s identity and his treasure-trove of unauthorised documents poured into the public eye – thanks to the courage of the Guardian newspaper in Britain – but not a complicit American press, the storyline changed.

Suddenly it was the US, not China, that was seen as the world’s biggest security aggressor.

Before his two-day summit in the desert with Xi, Obama insisted that only “modest encroachments on privacy” by the NSA were needed to protect “the homeland” – a Bushian term still in use. Perhaps that explains a later report on the tech blog Slashdot that “the NSA spies more on America than China”.

With civil libertarians on the left and libertarians on the right praising Snowden’s courage – he himself was a supporter of conservative Ron Paul – newspaper mainstream pundits started blasting him, perhaps because their papers had failed to break the story.

Then, the US press came in for more criticism – echoing concerns raised by Snowden himself and related by filmmaker Laura Poitras, who has been producing videos with the world’s currently most famous whistleblower du jure.

She recounted: “I can say from conversations I had with [Snowden] after that, I think he had a suspicion of mainstream media. And particularly what happened with the New York Times and the warrantless wiretapping story, which as we know was shelved for a year.”

With Snowden now seemingly on the run – in Hong Kong or elsewhere – the US press has piled on for a rabbit hunt, featuring article after article quoting officials on why he is a traitor. There is a snotty elitism to the putdowns citing his unimpressive educational background.

Snowden quickly became the media focus – if only because, once again, an individual’s transgression is sexier to cover than an analysis of the institutional leviathan behind the chase.

And yet that institutional and interconnected infrastructure has emerged as well – a profile of scores of booming tech contractors such as Booz Allen Hamilton who reportedly hired this high school drop-out for more than $200,000 a year, funded by a fat government contract.

We also learned most of the big internet brands played along, without disclosing anything, silenced by secrecy or being complicit due to a simple desire to stay on Washington’s good side. Only Google seems to be fighting back, but after the fact. So much for all the sanctimonious privacy codes they all promote.

Clearly that old military-industrial complex, first condemned by President Eisenhower in 1960, now has expanded into a far larger behemoth, incorporating digital media, co-opting the internet, integrating the intelligence community, winning over Congress and the press, and giving the president even more power to launch cyber-wars and to target whomever he wants.

Colleen Rowley, the former FBI agent who made the cover of TIME Magazine for her 9/11 whistle-blowing revealed that this was another Obama-sanctioned initiative with deep roots in Cheney-Bush paranoia

“The recent disclosures… should make us realise that John Poindexter’s plan for ‘Total Information Awareness’ never died: It merely went underground and changed its name.

“When the TIA idea was first proposed by the Bush administration after 9/11, along with a ‘Big Brother’ all-seeing eye logo, it was widely considered a crazy notion, resulting in an outcry. That data collection plan, which involved indiscriminate spying on Americans, was quickly squelched – at least publicly.

“The truth, however, was that it was reborn under dozens of massive data collection and surveillance programs within each of our 16 highly secretive intelligence agencies, under a variety of cute acronyms.”

Alongside the escalation of surveillance and spying, the administration built its own paramilitary capacity and action army – reportedly run from the White House. Writer Fred Branfman who exposed Vietnam-era secret bombing, links all of this to:

  • A fleet of 700 drones, operating from a growing number of secret bases. worldwide
  • The top-secret Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) consisting of thousands of troops operating in dozens of nations
  • The first unit of American assassins in US history, who have illegally murdered many… and, according to Afghan President Karzai, helped strengthen the Taliban and destabilise his government

More whistle-blowers and journalists have reportedly been prosecuted under Obama than during the Bush-Cheney years, and, Branfman says, US executive branch agencies have “increased paramilitary training and equipment, and created secret police spying operations in thousands of states and cities around the nation”.

He also cites earlier reporting in the Washington Post by Priest and Arkin, who revealed that the executive branch had created “a jaw-dropping 1,074 federal government organisations, and nearly two thousand private companies involved with programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security, and intelligence, in at least 17,000 locations across the United States – all top secret”.

In short, this incident is an outgrowth of an industry with high-paying jobs while the nation’s economic growth remains static. The only stimulus is for the spooks.

This scandal should be a perfect “news peg” to help us connect the dots between what is being exposed today and how it relates to what we should have known, if we had been paying attention to earlier piecemeal disclosures.

Unfortunately, the dirty details of all this are downplayed by a public that has been conditioned by constantly reinforced fears of terrorism, coupled with a rationalisation of more powers for a government that is always pictured, whatever its frequent screw-ups, as interested only in protecting the public.

As Peter Hart wrote in the Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting blog: “So if media don’t pursue a given story, it’s because the public has decided it’s not interested, or tacitly approves of a government policy of indeterminate scope?

“That’s true, unless you think the public either already knows all of this – or that they shouldn’t.”

News Dissector Danny Schechter edits Mediachannel.org and blogs at Newsdissector.net. Comments to dissector@mediachannel.org.