Print Window   
 
The Independent Institute
Commentary

NSA Data Fuels the Administrative State


The past week’s events show what little use the US government’s massive electronic interceptions are for protecting the American people, and the credulity of Establishment Republicans. Most of all they show the real role that these programs will play in our lives: an enforcement mechanism for the modern Administrative state, politicized and partisan.

On August 2, President Obama locked down 21 US embassies and consulates in the Islamic world, and warned Americans abroad that they might be targets, subsequent to US intelligence’s interception of a conference call among terrorists which Obama took as a “specific” warning of a large scale coordinated attack. A week later, no such thing having occurred, he reopened all but three. Establishment Republicans such as John Boehner, Lindsay Graham, and Saxby Chambliss led our ruling class in characterizing Obama’s move as wise and in praising the intercept programs. Meanwhile, The New York Times was reporting that “Other Agencies Clamor For Data That NSA Compiles,” explaining that the FBI, the IRS, the EPA, and such are finding ever more ways of using universal access to Americans’ private communications to get the goods on transgressors against their ever growing regulations.

The specific warning of large-scale coordinated terror came from no less than a conference call between al Qaeda’s purported chief Ayman Zawahiri and some twenty supposed sub-chiefs in the Middle East and Africa. The conference’s existence and procedure—the boss even promoted a subordinate—confirmed the US government’s image of a corporate al Qaeda. The conferees’ agreement to strike Americans in their bailiwicks as well in Europe on August 4 was indeed “specific.” It was all so neat. No one in high places, it seems, said: “too neat,” and asked why professional terrorists whose success depends entirely on secrecy would discuss their worldwide network and specific plans on unencrypted phone connections they know that the US government is monitoring.

The various ways by which US electronic surveillance may be evaded are no secret. Besides encryption—easily purchased by persons financed by petrodollar “charities,”—the several participants could have used one-time, pre-paid cell phones or even Skype accounts used on a one-time basis. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that, not having done anything to keep from being overheard, the conference call’s participants wanted to be overheard. But the US government’s best and brightest praised their technology and hunkered down. The day of doom passed as uneventfully as had Y2K. A few realized that the terrorists had managed to embarrass America and would likely repeat the exercise. But President Obama held a press conference to tell Americans that the intelligence intercepts are very valuable.

The logical question is, valuable for what? Establishment Republicans, however do not ask it. House Speaker John Boehner issued a statement adjuring the President not to diminish these “vital national security” programs. But what is “vital” to national security about intercepting only those communications that the senders make no attempt to hide? How small and diminishing a category that is, may be seen in the announcement that German companies henceforth will encrypt all their electronic traffic to hide it from NSA surveillance. Within the US, the encryption business is booming, and ordinary consumers of internet connections are moving their business to companies that do not cooperate with the US government and that keep no histories of messages or searches. In sum, as even the innocent traffic available for the US government’s caption decreases, one may reasonably conclude that exploitable traffic by serious persons intent on harming national security approaches the limit of nullity.

But national security is not what today’s US government is about. Rather, it is about running the Administrative state for the benefit of those who run it and their partisan associates. As the Times reported, the executive order governing intelligence was modified in 2008 to allow sharing of intelligence data with Federal agencies that need it: “the agencies request that the N.S.A. target individuals or groups for surveillance, search its databases for information about them, or share raw intelligence.” Need is decided ad hoc among the agencies. No hard-and-fast rule limits what access the NSA might give to, say, the Internal Revenue Service. Apparently, according to a 2005 entry in the IRS Revenue Manual (classified since 2007), the Service has been using NSA data to make cases against suspected drug dealers.

Against who else this or any subsequent Administration might choose to use NSA intercept data is anyone’s guess. We know that, under this Administration, the FBI is infiltrating Tea Parties across America as potential threats to national security, even as the IRS has targeted them for harassment. The straightforward fact is that every agency of the US government, in addition to the Administration in power at any one time, has lists of persons it dislikes. Nothing is more pernicious, or more natural, than for those in power to confuse threats to themselves with treats to the general welfare. Universal collection of intelligence is a temptation to specific abuses that no regime may be able to resist—especially ours.


Angelo M. Codevilla is Professor Emeritus of International Relations at Boston University, and the author of the books, The Ruling Class: How They Corrupted America and What We Can Do About It, Informing Statecraft, War: Ends and Means (with Paul Seabury), The Character of Nations, and Between the Alps and a Hard Place: Switzerland in World War II and the Rewriting of History.