The latest in the Snowden and NSA revelations show the reach of the military-information complex
On 17 January 1961, the outgoing US president, Dwight D Eisenhower, went on TV to deliver his valedictory address to the American people. Ike had been a relatively uncontroversial president. He had overseen a period of astonishing prosperity and economic growth. He had impeccable military credentials, having been supreme commander of allied forces in the second world war. So nobody could have accused him of being a radical.
Nevertheless, in his valedictory address Ike said this. "Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of ploughshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defence; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defence establishment. We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United States corporations.
"This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence – economic, political, even spiritual – is felt in every city, every state house, every office of the federal government. We recognise the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. ... In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist."
Rings some bells, doesn't it? Over the 10 presidencies since Ike's the United States has spent more on its military-industrial complex than all of the other countries in the world combined have spent on defence. But 50 years is a long time in technology, and over that period there has been a steady decline in the importance of dumb "kinetic" weaponry and a rapid increase in "smart" miniaturised weaponry, together with the rise of the internet, cyber-espionage and information warfare.
Like any good parasite, the military-industrial complex has evolved to match the changing nature of the organism on which it feeds. It still does the kinetic stuff, of course, but in recent decades it has moved into non-kinetic areas, notably surveillance and cyber "security". Which is how Edward Snowden came to be an employee not of the National Security Agency, but of a long-standing member of the military-industrial complex, Booz Allen Hamilton – a company that has 24,500 employees, a market capitalisation of $2.5bn and annual revenues of $5.8bn.
As they burgeoned, the big internet companies looked with disdain on the leviathans of the military-industrial complex. Kinetic warfare seemed so yesterday to those whose corporate mantras were about "not being evil" and adhering to "the hacker's way". So when Snowden revealed NSA claims that the spooks had untrammelled access to their servers the companies reacted like nuns accused of running a webcam porn site. It wasn't true, they protested, and even it if was they knew nothing about it. Of course they did comply with government requests approved by a secret court, but that was the extent of it. As the months rolled by, however, this reassuring narrative has unravelled. We discovered that the NSA and GCHQ had indeed covertly tapped the data-traffic that flows between the companies' server farms. But since Google and co were – they claimed – unaware of this, perhaps their protestations of innocence seemed justified. More embarrassing were the revelations about the astonishing lengths to which one company (Microsoft) went to facilitate NSA access to its users' private communications.
Last Wednesday, another piece of the jigsaw slotted into place. The NSA's top lawyer stated unequivocally that the technology firms were fully aware of the agency's widespread collection of data. Rajesh De, the NSA general counsel, said that all communications content and associated metadata harvested by the NSA occurred with the knowledge of the companies – both for the Prism system and the covert tapping of communications moving across the internet.
In one way, I suppose we shouldn't be surprised. The NSA and the internet companies ultimately share the same business model, namely intensive surveillance. The only difference is that the companies do it with the "consent" of their hapless users. What it means, though, is that we're witnessing the evolution of a military-information complex. And if you expect Obama to express regrets in his valedictory address, dream on.
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