Totally Benign State Surveillance

I read a lot of thrillers, even more than science fiction, and the recent revelations about the the spy agency NSA’s constant surveillance of American citizens and the rest of us have been described in many of them for years.

There have been quite detailed descriptions of the sophistication and methods of such spying in this pulp fiction.  Previously, one might have ascribed the described excesses to novelistic licence rather than of the actual state of affairs which the whistleblower Edward Snowden has now forced the mainstream to consider.

There is a subset of these thrillers that are written by Americans of a jingoistic bent.  They are full of righteous fervor about patriotism and treason, with a worshipful attitude towards The President and the over-riding importance of “national security.”  (These are two words that will in a future time be abandoned for their association with oppression in favor of some other euphemism to cloak abuses of power.)

These are spy and political novels written by blustering proponents of the right wing of American politics, people like Tom Clancy, Vince Flynn, even that skilful self-marketer, Glenn Beck.

I picked up and read one of these thrillers recently, written in 2011-12 well before the recent NSA revelations.  It’s Black List by Brad Thor.  Mr. Thor is often a guest, apparently, on Glenn Beck’s show.

Secrecy, Spying and Technology

But I came to the novel with no preconceptions, and I picked it up because I was interested in how secrecy, spying, technology and “black lists” would be handled in his story.   What caught my attention was  his Author’s Note: “All of the technology contained in this novel is based on systems currently developed, or in the final stages of development, by the United States government and its partners.”

He begins with a quote in his preface:

“[America’s intelligence gathering] capability at any time could be turned around on the American people and no American would have any privacy left.  Such is the capability to monitor everything: telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter.  There would be no place to hide.

If this government ever became a tyrant, if a dictatorship ever took charge in this country, the technological capacity that the intelligence community has given the government could enable it to impose total tyranny….”

This is US Senator Frank Church appearing and making a deliberate warning on a TV news show in 1975!  (That reference to telegrams probably gives the era away.)

Counterterrorist as Hero

The novel’s hero is a “counterterrorist” which seems to be an euphemism for a profession of torturing and killing anyone labelled a terrorist.   He embodies cool killing expertise, with an impressive array of weapons, coupled with naive beliefs that those pasting the labels are always right and that due process is a quaint notion.  These appear to be beliefs also shared by the author.

Due to one shadowy and nasty arm of the government plotting against another shadowy and equally nasty appendage, our hero ends up on the Black List.   This list is the official killing list for the government death squads.  The President is involved so it’s all alright.

The author rails against the arbitrary and manipulated nature of this list, and all of the technology brought to bear to fulfill its mission, such as that of the NSA which we’ve all recently learned about.  They’ve got the wrong guy, our hero!

However, when the shadowy limb of the government our hero favors finally prevails, our hero gets promoted to carrying out the requirements of the new slightly edited Black List, and is proud to do so.  The President is involved so it’s all alright.

This is a sad story, on so many levels.

Many know of President Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell speech in 1961 about the dangers of the “military-industrial complex.”  Apparently, he earlier intended to make it the “military-industrial-Congressional complex.”

Here’s how it’s explained by professor Melvin Goodman, a man knowledgeable of the history of American policies:

“The actual drafter of the speech, Ralph E. Williams, relied on guidance from Professor [Malcolm] Moos.  Milton Eisenhower explained that one of the drafts of the speech referred to the “military-industrial-Congressional complex” and said that the president himself inserted the reference to the role of the Congress, an element that did not appear in the delivery of the farewell address.

When the president’s brother asked about the dropped reference to Congress, the president replied: ‘It was more than enough to take on the military and private industry. I couldn’t take on the Congress as well.’

In addition to the Congress reference, an entire section was dropped from the speech that dealt with the creation of a ‘permanent, war-based industry,’ with ‘flag and general officers retiring at an early age [to] take positions in the war-based industrial complex shaping its decisions and guiding the direction of its tremendous thrust.’

The president warned that steps needed to be taken to ‘insure that the ‘merchants of death’ do not come to dictate national policy.’ “

In line with this and coming back to more current events, I was taken by this comment on the Edward Snowden affair and its aftermath by “mallius62” on a Canadian news site:

I don’t know why people aren’t in the streets screaming, fists in the air and fighting for their rights.

Oh wait… I do know.

People have been cowed. You read/watch/listen to the news and think, wow, that sounds serious. Then you go about your business believing that some entity within the government apparatus will kick in and make things right. After all, that’s what the government is for… right.

Well the government has been co-opted by the intelligence community that’s reliant on public money to exist. This massive apparatus lobbies the government for more funding to continue to show better profits. The lobbying comes in the form of warnings and dire predictions about the future.

A good warning can put their stock up a quarter point.

This part of the military industrial complex enjoys a circular flow of money/control/manipulation of and by elected officials.

All to dial in the American mind to draw specific parallels that keep the money rolling.

The purity of the soldier.

The perfection of the flag.

The glory of the Constitution.

The American security.

And of course, American exceptionalism.

To hold these (truths) as closely to their profits as they can while denying complicity to the heinous actions that accompany them is a careful web of deceit.

Thus goes the empire.  As they continue to take your rights, they will expand the system of control.  And the public pays to build their cage.

Cone of Silence

I always develop a rueful smile when I hear well-meaning citizens and spineless politicians who should know better say something like:  “Well, if you’re not doing anything wrong, you don’t have to worry.  I hope it helps the guv’mint catch all them damn terrorists out there.”

On the one hand, it sounds like such folks would not object to having a government camera in the polling booth to record their actions at the next election, purely for their own safety of course.   On the other, there is the myth of the ubiquitous terror network, like KAOS on the old Get Smart TV show.  (I think I may need a Cone of Silence as an alternative to my head in the sand.)

There are obvious nuts and bad people with vendettas, religious obsessions and greed causing violent havoc from time to time in North America.  But if there was a real, substantive well-organized group beyond the Mafia and drug gangs, our society would be in tatters, depending as it does on fragile and vulnerable infrastructure around water, pipelines, transportation and electricity.  But terrorism is constantly being raised as a bogeyman justifying the cage.

Snowden himself outlines the danger:

“Even if you’re not doing anything wrong, you’re being watched and recorded. …it’s getting to the point where you don’t have to have done anything wrong, you simply have to eventually fall under suspicion from somebody, even by a wrong call, and then they can use this system to go back in time and scrutinize every decision you’ve ever made, every friend you’ve ever discussed something with, and attack you on that basis, to sort of derive suspicion from an innocent life.”

Given that the United States is willing to imprison its own citizens at a higher rate than anyplace else in the world and has created and expanded the secret functions of the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI (which now runs drones in the US), the CIA and JSOC to name only a few, what kind of place would you say it is now?

I’ve long thought this quote summarizes the issues well:

“In a free society, citizens are entitled to know more about the government than it knows about them; in authoritarian regimes the reverse is true.”

— JR Finlay



Additional notes:

I’ve written about some of this in a more general way before, in the post Subversive Fiction.

For more detail on the National Security Agency’s plans to make its surveillance even more penetrating, check out this article from Wired earlier this year:  Connecting the Dots on PRISM, Phone Surveillance, and the NSA’s Massive Spy Center.

This lengthy article outlines the development of the NSA’s new data centre in Utah and the history of deception by some of America’s top officials.

And finally, as another sad note, here is Barack Obama in 2007 about the Bush Administration:

“This Administration also puts forward a false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we demand… That means no more illegal wire-tapping of American citizens. No more national security letters to spy on citizens who are not suspected of a crime. No more tracking citizens who do nothing more than protest a misguided war. No more ignoring the law when it is inconvenient. That is not who we are. And it is not what is necessary to defeat the terrorists… We will again set an example for the world that the law is not subject to the whims of stubborn rulers, and that justice is not arbitrary.”


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2 Comments on “Totally Benign State Surveillance”

  1. MDW Says:

    hey fencer,

    Insightful post as usual. I think part of people’s privacy complacency comes from just not understanding the technology and feeling helpless against it. I’ve been working in the computer industry for many many years and the amount of data mining that goes on boggles even my mind.

    I do what I can to maintain my privacy while still being able to participate in a digital world, but I’m sure more information gets left sitting around than I care to believe.


  2. fencer Says:

    Thanks, Mark, for your thoughts… the double-edged sword of the digital age and the Internet.

    I probably don’t get rid of most of my tracks — not highly motivated, I guess — but there’s a few plugins for Firefox anyway that I like. In particular Ghostery seems to do a good job of squelching most of the ad tracking and who knows what else that takes place.


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