Those who tell us to trust the US’s secret, privatised surveillance schemes should recall the criminality of J Edgar Hoover’s FBI
It’s a fine thing to see mainstream American media outlets finally sparing some of their attention toward the cyber-industrial complex – that unprecedented conglomeration of state, military and corporate interests that together exercise growing power over the flow of information. It would be even more heartening if so many of the nation’s most influential voices, from senator to pundits, were not clearly intent on killing off even this belated scrutiny into the invisible empire that so thoroughly scrutinizes us – at our own expense and to unknown ends.
Summing up the position of those who worry less over secret government powers than they do over the whistleblowers who reveal such things, we have New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who argues that we can trust small cadres of unaccountable spies with broad powers over our communications. We must all wish Friedman luck with this prediction. Other proclamations of his – including that Vladimir Putin would bring transparency and liberal democracy to Russia, and that the Chinese regime would not seek to limit its citizens’ free access to the internet – have not aged especially well.
An unkind person might dismiss Friedman as the incompetent harbinger of a dying republic. Being polite, I will merely suggest that Friedman’s faith in government is as misplaced as faith in the just and benevolent God that we know not to exist – Friedman having been the winner of several of the world’s most-coveted Pulitzer Prizes.
If Friedman is, indeed, too quick to trust the powerful, it’s a trait he shares with the just over half of Americans, who tell pollsters they’re fine with the NSA programs that were until recently hidden from their view. Why, our countrymen wonder, ought we to be disturbed by our state’s desire to know everything that everyone does? Given the possibility that this surveillance could perhaps prevent deaths in the form of terrorist attacks, most Americans are willing to forgo some abstract notion of privacy in favor of the more concrete benefits of security.
Besides, the government to which we’re ceding these broad new powers is a democracy, overseen by real, live Americans. And it’s hard to imagine American government officials abusing their powers – or at least, it would be, had such officials not already abused similar but more limited powers through repeated campaigns of disinformation, intimidation and airtight crimes directed at the American public over the last five decades. Cointelpro, Operation Mockingbird, Ultra and Chaos are among the now-acknowledged CIA, FBI and NSA programs by which those agencies managed to subvert American democracy with impunity. Supporters of mass surveillance conducted under the very same agencies have yet to address how such abuses can be insured against in the context of powers far greater than anything J Edgar Hoover could command.
Many have never heard of these programs; the sort of people who trust states with secret authority tend not to know what such things have led to in the recent past. Those who do know of such things may perhaps contend that these practices would never be repeated today. But it was just two years ago that the late Michael Hastings revealed that US army officials in Afghanistan were conducting psy-ops against visiting US senators in order to sway them towards continued funding for that unsuccessful war. If military and intelligence officials have so little respect for the civilian leadership, one can guess how they feel about mere civilians.
Not that anyone need merely guess. Discussing the desirability of such “information operations” in his 2001 book, retired USAF Lt Col George Crawford noted that voters tend to view these sorts of programs with suspicion. “Consequently,” he concludes, “these efforts must take place away from public eyes.”
And so they do. If we want to learn a thing or two about the latest round of such programs – that is, if we are willing to disregard the Thomas Friedmans of this world – we must look not just towards the three letter agencies that have routinely betrayed us in the past, but also to the untold number of private intelligence contracting firms that have sprung up lately in order to betray us in a more efficient and market-oriented manner. Our lieutenant colonel, scourge of “public eyes”, is among the many ex-military and intelligence officials who have left public service, or public obfuscation – or whatever we’re calling it now – to work in the expanding sphere of private spookery, to which is outsourced information operations by the Pentagon, spy agencies, and even other corporations who need an edge over some enemy (in Crawford’s case, the mysterious Archimedes Global).
So, how trustworthy is this privatized segment of the invisible empire? We would know almost nothing of their operations were it not for a chance turn of events that prompted Anonymous-affiliated hackers to seize 70,000 emails from one typical firm back in early 2011. From this more-or-less random sampling of contractor activity, we find a consortium of these firms plotting to intimidate, attack and discredit WikiLeaks and those identified as its key supporters, including the (then Salon, now Guardian) journalist Glenn Greenwald – a potentially illegal conspiracy concocted on behalf of corporate giant Bank of America, which feared exposure by WikiLeaks, and organized under the auspices of the Department of Justice itself.
We find several of the same firms – which collectively referred to themselves as Team Themis – involved in another scheme to deploy sophisticated software-based fake people across social networks in order to infiltrate and mislead. For instance, Themis proposes sending two of these “personas” to pose online as members of an organization opposed to the US Chamber of Commerce, another prospective Themis client, in order to discredit the group from within. Yet another revelation involves a massive cross-platform military program of disinformation and surveillance directed at the Arab world; still another relates how one NSA-inked firm can monitor and attack online infrastructure throughout the world, including western Europe, and will rent these capabilities out to those with a few million dollars to spend on such things.
And Booz Allen Hamilton, which has received some belated scrutiny as the eminently powerful employer of NSA leaker Edward Snowden, was apparently in talks with Themis participant HBGary Federal regarding its own still-secret “project” involving, again, WikiLeaks. These are simply a few of the revelations stemming from a portion of the email correspondence among a handful of major contracting firms – a tiny, serendipitous sampling of what such firms are doing for their government and corporate clients as they compete for contracts.
Hundred of these sorts of companies have come about in the last few years, operating in close partnerships with the state, yet existing beyond the view of Congress, the media and “public eyes”. Even in the unlikely instance when their activities come to light, potentially illegal behavior goes unpunished; even calls by congressmen to investigate the sordid Themis conspiracy were ignored by the Department of Justice, which, of course, set the whole thing in motion to begin with through its recommendation.
This, then, is the environment in which public officials and Beltway insiders like Friedman are asking us to trust the intelligence community and its private partner firms with increasing power over information. It’s an age in which even the limited rules in place can be broken with impunity by the powerful – even as journalists and activists who cross them are targeted for destruction by state-corporate alliances armed with increasingly sophisticated cyber weapons, propaganda techniques and surveillance authority.
This is the world we accept if we continue to avert our eyes. And it promises to get much worse.