by Bernard Chazelle
Daniel Ellsberg, a man well versed in the matter, calls it “the most important leak in American history.” The scale of the National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance program is indeed staggering. Not to put too fine a point on it, if your phone records and Internet clicks are not already in federal custody, rest assured they soon will be. To add insult to injury, it might all be legal. A 29-year old Booz Allen employee, Edward Snowden, has risked his freedom to expose the mischief.
Not everyone was pleased. Ranting like a mad preacher, David Brooks called it a betrayal no fewer than ten times in one column. Wagging the mighty finger of pop psychology, the Times‘s self-anointed Mother Superior blamed Snowden’s betrayals on a life “unshaped by the mediating institutions of civil society,” ie, untutored in the Brooksian view of authority as a call to blind worship. To others, the episode was a discomfiting reminder that the mantle of heroism can make cruel demands on those willing to put it on—especially the young. Snowden has forced open a much-needed debate, one that President Obama openly welcomes. And what better way to echo the sentiment than to have his National Intelligence Director, James Clapper, lie under oath to preempt any such debate?
Not that Snowden’s revelation did more than turn suspicion into confirmation. Ordinary Americans might not have suspected the cosmic scope of the snoopery, but terrorists, a breed to whom suspicion comes naturally, surely did. Indeed, the Pentagon has made no secret of its plan to expand its Global Information Gridpast the “yottabyte” mark. How big is that? Think of a giant vacuum cleaner designed to hoover up the equivalent of one million DVDs for every human being on earth. Now ask yourself: why would anyone need so much storage if not for trawling every critter that swims the waterways of the Internet: emails, tweets, pics, vids, chats, etc? The NSA’s claim to be merely after your metadata (email addresses, phone numbers, durations, etc) is preposterous. Metadata alone could never use up more than one millionth of the storage capacity. The NSA has hopped on the Big-Data bandwagon or, as it were, the All-Data supertrain.
Any terrorist aware of the hazards of Big Data knows that spurious correlations increase faster than data size and so will pray that the NSA keeps a diary of all life forms on the planet. If you’re a needle hiding in a haystack, all you want is more hay, like, say, a yottabyte worth of it. Bad guys will love Big Data. Social activists not so much. If the next J. Edgar Hoover doesn’t fancy the cut of your jib, he’ll come after you, file servers blazing, with more details about your past than you’ll ever remember. No need to be unduly paranoid, though. The craven Chinese may have hacked into the Obama and Romney campaigns, but thank God no American president would ever break into the party headquarters of his rival. Thank God the FBI would never spread lies about a university administrator. Thank God it would never pressure a civil rights leader to commit suicide. Let’s not surrender to cynicism and imagine that anything like McCarthyism could ever happen in the United States. We don’t call it the land of the free for nothing.
But what’s freedom good for if you’re dead? Some say that global surveillance is the price to pay for staying alive. Senate Intelligence Committee chair, Dianne Feinstein, and her House counterpart, Mike Rogers, credit Big Brother for the capture of Najibullah Zazi and David Headley, two genuine nasties. Alas, if that’s the best our two NSA cheerleaders have to offer, they might as well pack up their pom-poms and go home. A former British foreign office minister dispatched their boast as an illusion: Zazi’s name was caught by British Intelligence the old-fashioned way; likewise, the arrest of David Headley, who was involved in the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, came in the wake of a British tip-off of the conventional kind. Former NSA surveillance huncho, William Binney, characterizes the entire spying dragnet as useless. Acting on a Russian tip, the NSA did record phone calls of the Tsarnaev brothers before the Boston bombings, and we all know how effective that was. Almost as helpful as the interceptions of the phone calls that bin Laden’s chief of operations made right before 9/11. The only attacks the Feds seem good at preventing are those it instigates. All-time favorites include the sting operation that netted the crackerjack squad of terrorists whose first step to Armageddon was to order al-Qaeda boots from an FBI informant. (Who would want to meet the 72 virgins with the wrong shoes on?)
Despite our best efforts to create new terrorists by vaporizing their children with our drones, they still remain a rare breed. Matthew Yglesias estimates the number of lives saved annually by airport security measures as approximately zero. Saving zero lives does not come cheap, mind you. Body scanning alone has cost the US taxpayer billions of dollars. No sooner was he done running Homeland Security than Michael Chertoff cashed in the big bucks at Rapiscan Systems by leading thecheers for full-body scans. This revolving-door pathology afflicting the Beltway can appear paradoxical. Ever wondered why the NSA outsources work that falls squarely within its core competencies? No surprise if the agency contracts out its catering, plumbing, and lawn mowing, but… information technology? The NSA employs thousands of IT experts, from seasoned sysadmins to world-class cryptographers. Whatever Snowden did for the agency as a Booz Allen employee, the NSA could do it in-house more cheaply. So why doesn’t it? The answer to this $75-billion question is money, gobs of it floating right under the nose of public servants cruelly kept by law from getting a piece of the action. The revolving door is there to release the tension. It is a legal mechanism for funneling billions of taxpayer dollars into a handful of private wallets. Contractors serve stints in government for the same reasons thieves case a bank before robbing it. There they learn to operate the moola pipeline and keep it flowing into the right pockets.
Booz Allen Hamilton revolves doors better than most. The aforementioned spook-in-chief, James Clapper, is a proud alum. One of his predecessors as National Intelligence director, Mike McConnell, is now vice-chairman of the company. Former CIA director, James Woolsey, was a Booz Allen VP. The company is majority-owned by the Carlyle Group, the private equity giant with long ties to the Bush family. Carlyle has syphoned a cool $2 billion from Booz Allen, which itself derives 98% of its revenues from the US taxpayer. This is crony capitalism at its finest. Being perhaps a bit too obvious, the scheme requires a bevy of propagandists to hide the true motives behind a veil of fear. To point out that lightning outkills terrorism will earn you a stern reminder that “we must kill them over there so they don’t kill us over here.” The propagandists keep at the ready a whole Ptolemaic jumble of rhetorical epicycles with at its center the winning slogan: “Be scared, be very scared!” And thus, with Monty-Pythonesque clarity, can Tom Friedman urge us to surrender our privacy now so a new terrorist attack does not force us to surrender it later.
Politicans play along with this charade for fear of being seen as soft on terrorism, some of them hoping that one day they too will hitch a ride on the gravy train. President Obama gives the spooks a blank check to buy himself an insurance policy: a means to deflect the blame if and when terror strikes. Don’t count on any pushback from the mainstream media. Terrorism makes good copy and, like a four-leaf clover, gets hyped in proportion to its rarity. Thriving on its incestuous relationship with power, the corporate media has blinded itself to the very idea of a conflict of interest. When someone hinted at a sweet deal between Chertoff and Rapiscan on Hardball, a “shocked, shocked” Chris Matthews called it slander.
No one disputes the need to keep secret tabs on terrorists and monitor their communications. What’s at issue is the existence of a cyber-panopticon handing over all details of everyone’s private life to government agencies with no meaningful oversight. The current outrage over the NSA is rightly focused on its Orwellian angle. Yet to sate the vengeful hunger of latter-day J. Edgar Hoovers doesn’t alone explain the rise of the Surveillance State. An important driver is the dominant social engineering project of our time: the upward redistribution of wealth to the one percent. In the case at hand, the project was given a boost by the co-occurrence of two trends: the commodification of Big-Data technology and the post-9/11 resurgence of American paranoia. When your enemy hates you for your freedoms, don’t you want a supersized Big Brother by your side? But here’s the twist: the attendant growth in defense spending ran smack against the neoliberal push for smaller government. The solution? The rise of a bloated industry of overpaid private contractors feeding off the public trough. Bravo, one percent, the maneuver was brilliant!
As his antsy critics swarm out to smear him, Edward Snowden faces a bleak future. He didn’t just expose the powerful: he humiliated them. For that unforgivable sin, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen called Snowden a “cross-dressing Little Red Riding Hood.” (As a hack cross-dressing as a journalist, he would know.) House Speaker John Boehner labeled the young whistleblower a traitor. Were he to be extradited to the US, Snowden would face a long prison sentence. Perhaps President Obama will indulge his forgotten love of whistleblowers and pardon him as penance for letting the DOJ prosecute more whistleblowers than all of his predecessors combined. Perhaps he will bestow the medal of freedom upon Glenn Greenwald for shining light on government scandals. Perhaps the NSA will turn its Fort Meade headquarters into a soup kitchen…
— Bernard Chazelle is Eugene Higgins Professor of Computer Science at Princeton University. He is currently on sabbatical at the College de France in Paris and the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. A fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the author of the book, “The Discrepancy Method,” an investigation into the power of randomness in computing, his current research focuses on “natural algorithms” and the algorithmic complexity of living matter. He has written extensively about politics and music.