Like many people around the world, I’ve spent the last 48 hours tracking, reading, watching, refreshing and barely sleeping, as a torrent of stories of total surveillance run by the National Security Agency have come to light through the US journalist Glenn Greenwald, published in The Guardian.
The leaks revealed total blanket phone call metadata (origin, length of calls, networks and connections) by the NSA, followed by the voluntary turning-over of mass amounts of data by private internet service providers and social media corporations — including Microsoft, Google, Skype and Twitter. Then came news that UK’s Government Communications Headquarters may have been illegal cribbing such data for its own ends. Finally, on the weekend, the leaker revealed himself, 29-year-old Edward Snowden, a systems operations operator for Booz Allen Hamilton and Dell, to whom the NSA subcontracted various tasks.
Snowden bobbed up three weeks after leaving Booz Allen Hamilton with 41 carefully chosen pages of dynamite memos. He holed up in Hong Kong, while releasing the memos to people he trusted. He initially approached The Washington Post, but they appear to have been furiously hedging their bets, as have all mainstream US media. He made the decision to reveal his own identity, in order that people could understand that a very ordinary — in the best sense of the word — person was behind it, and to make the intolerable nature of what was revealed to him clear.
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The facts are clear enough: while accessing the content of phone calls on old tech lines is protected by limiting laws, no such limit holds on the ISP/social media giants, if they choose to comply with the government. Clients of these services — i.e. everyone — have already signed away their rights, in those huge documents you click “accept” to without reading. The NSA’s mega-data collection centre in Bluffdale Utah has come on stream, and it can collect and store all communicated data for decades. The files are multi-dimensionally searchable by programmes that learn as they go. The idea that the process will be drowned in cat videos is consoling and fanciful.
The PRISM programme represents the most far-reaching extension of power into the very texture and fabric of everyday life in history. Those on the hacker/cypherpunk side of things have realised for some years, many years, that this process was under way. Some of us have been aware of it for a couple of years. Now it has become general knowledge.
The policy and the practice is an extension and expansion by the Obama administration of a process begun in the Bush years, and with various antecedents, from the days when the internet began to vastly expand, carried by the web, in the early 90s. Snowden, who has worked in the NSA purview since 2009, has said that his actions, and the delay in them, arose in part from waiting to see if Barack Obama would take some action on the matter — and then a decisive disappointment when he didn’t.
What appears to have been a passivity on the part of Obama with regard to a practice in place changes the meaning and character of his presidency substantially. In writing about him over the years, I’ve noted that any belief that he would substantially alter the projection of US power was an illusion; any candidate was applying for a dual position of President and emperor; supporting the former did not preclude attacking the latter’s policies.
But of course that has always been, to some degree, a false dichotomy. The empire reaches back into the Republic. With PRISM, that process is totalising; the space of the Republic has been squeezed to near-zero. To the surprise of many, that does not seem to have overly disconcerted the US public, with support for the NSA’s policies polling at 56% to 41%. Not too much should be made of that — the US has become such a news desert in many areas that many people are at this stage, simply not aware of the breadth of PRISM and other programmes.
But the revelation of these programmes has thrown the US state into disarray, and had the same effect on its institutional politics. The state elite’s determination to push into every area of life is driven not merely by a desire to avoid terror attacks of the latter type, but in response to challenges from states such as China, which highlight their vestigial constitutional limits, and the general expansion and extension of technical power and possibility, from standard high-tech to biological engineering.
What this historical process should prompt is a renegotiation of state and social power on a global scale. What it is prompting instead is a paradoxical attempt by states to extend their power further into everyday life than they hitherto been, just as that process becomes one that is unwinnable, save by explicit and visible tyranny. In the meantime, it is stretching state power to the point where its legitimacy cracks in the middle. Since that middle runs through the heart of decent people, loyal to their society and humanity, it produces whistleblowers willing to take the ultimate risk.
The ramifications of this are manifold, to be explored in these pages by many writers in the weeks to come. But for the moment one crucial point needs to be made: this process is ramrodding one of the most serious recombinations of politics in recent decades, or perhaps longer. This is happening most substantially in the imperial centre of the US — now little more than a contradiction with a flag — but it will spread elsewhere.
On the Left it is happening in reasonably orderly fashion, along old faultlines — between a core, statist Left which cleaves ever closer to an unlimited national security state, and a dissident Left which has always resisted it. Such centre-left support for the national security state draws, distortedly, on the communalist core of Leftism — the idea that standing for the nation is standing for the collective, no matter how distorted. Thus California leftists like Senator Dianne Feinstein have no problem finding themselves aligned with John McCain, Bill Kristol and a whole bunch of others, in what is basically a centrist, totalising, national security party. The dissident Left can detach from its partial attachment to that Left, without too much confusion.
Meanwhile on the Right, they’re going f-cking nuts. I say that with no more than a dash of schadenfreude — you take your pleasures where you find them — but more as an analysis of what’s likely to happen. That the Republican Party would split on this issue is unsurprising; that it would split down the middle of its Tea Party/libertarian Right is an extraordinary thing to behold.
Thus Rand Paul is now promoting a Supreme Court challenge to the NSA in such a way that would gain the support of the American Civil Liberties Union, the CounterPunch left, and hundreds of other groupings. The national security Right is now arguing that they will have to marshal a figure like Ted Cruz to challenge Rand Paul in the nominations.
Meanwhile Fox News is simultaneously calling for the assassination of Snowden, and defending their own reporter James Rosen, from Justice Department monstering. National Review keeps trying to get the discussion back to the IRS snooping on the Tea Party and Benghazi. But their fantasy politics that combines an empire with the bill of rights, simply can’t cope with revelations of a process whereby empire is maintained by abolishing the bill of rights entirely. What we are witnessing is the hollowing-out of America, and the shattering of its Right, the party of empire. There’s a lot more arising from these extraordinary events, but it is with these fissures that the most immediate responses will occur.
Where Snowden will be to see them is unknown; his Hong Kong move is either evidence he knows something we don’t — that the US won’t assassinate someone on Chinese soil — or a panicked response by a true innocent, who should have high-tailed it to Quito or Reykjavik. The man is a hero, and his sacrifice will not be in vain. There are many sleepless nights to come.