Gwynne Dyer: The downfall of the NSA

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      Politicians and government officials rarely tell outright lies; the cost of being caught out in a lie is too high. Instead, they make carefully worded statements that seem to address the issue, but avoid the truth. Like, for example, Caitlin Hayden, the White House spokesperson who replied on October 24 to German chancellor Angela Merkel’s angry protest at the tapping of her mobile phone by the U.S. National Security Agency.

      “The United States is not monitoring and will not monitor the communications of Chancellor Merkel,” she said. Yes, but has the U.S. been listening to Merkel’s mobile phone calls from 2002 until the day before yesterday? “Beyond that, I’m not in a position to comment publicly on every specific alleged intelligence activity.”

      By October 27, the argument had moved on. The question now was: did President Barack Obama know the Chancellor’s phone was bugged? (The German tabloid Bild am Sonntag reported that General Keith Alexander, head of the NSA, told Obama about it in 2010. Obama allegedly said that the surveillance should continue, as “he did not trust her”.)

      Now it was the turn of the NSA spokesperson, Vanee Vines, to deny the truth. “[General] Alexander did not discuss with President Obama in 2010 an alleged foreign intelligence operation involving German Chancellor Merkel, nor has he ever discussed alleged operations involving Chancellor Merkel,” she said. But she carefully avoided saying that Obama had not been told at all.

      The ridiculous thing about these meticulously crafted pseudo-denials is that they leave a truth-shaped hole for everyone to see. Of course the United States has been listening to Angela Merkel’s phone calls since 2002, and of course Obama knew about it. It would have been quite easy to deny those facts if they were not true.

      The NSA is completely out of control. Its German outpost was brazenly located on the fourth floor of the U.S. embassy in Berlin, and leaked documents published by Der Spiegel say that the NSA maintains similar operations in 80 other U.S. embassies and consulates around the world.

      The Guardian, also relying on documents provided by whistle blower Edward Snowden, reported recently that a total of 35 national leaders have been targeted by the NSA. We know that the German, Brazilian, and Mexican leaders were bugged, but it’s almost certain that the leaders of France, Spain, Italy, Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Japan, India, and Indonesia were also targeted. Not to mention Russia and China.

      The only one of the NSA’s high-level victims to speak out yet, apart from Angela Merkel, is President Dilma Roussef of Brazil. Last month she told the UN General Assembly: “Personal data of (Brazilian) citizens was intercepted indiscriminately. Corporate information— often of high economic and even strategic value— was at the centre of espionage activity....The office of the president itself had its communications intercepted.”

      “Friendly governments and societies that seek to build a true strategic partnership... cannot allow recurring illegal actions to take place as if they were normal,” Roussef concluded. “They are unacceptable.” And you wonder how the brilliant, power-drunk fools at the NSA could possibly have believed they could get away with this kind of behaviour indefinitely.

      The 4.9 million (!) Americans with access to classified information include 480,000 civilian contractors with the same “top secret” security clearance as Snowden. Even if all the military and public servants could be trusted to keep the NSA’s guilty secret forever (unlikely) and only one in a hundred of the contractors was outraged by it, then there were still 4,800 potential whistle blowers waiting to blow. If Snowden hadn’t, somebody else would have.

      When the astounding scale and scope of the agency’s operations finally came out, it was bound to create intense pressure on Washington to rein in the NSA. The agency can deflect the domestic pressure, to some extent, by insisting that it’s all being done to keep Americans safe from terrorism, but it can’t persuade the president of South Korea or the prime minister of Bangladesh that she was being bugged because she was a terrorist suspect.

      The NSA’s worst abuse has been its violation of the privacy of hundreds of millions of private citizens at home and abroad, but it’s the pressure from furious foreign leaders that will finally force the US government to act. “Trust in our ally the USA has been shattered,” said German interior minister Hans-Peter Friedrich on Sunday. “If the Americans have tapped mobile phones in Germany, then they have broken German law on German soil.”

      This will end up in the German courts, and probably in those of many other countries as well (and Snowden may well end up being granted asylum in Germany). To rebuild its relations with its key allies, the White House is going to have to radically curb the NSA’s powers. Good.

      We don’t have to listen to the spooks and their allies telling us that since the new communications technologies make total surveillance possible, it is therefore inevitable. “If it can be done, it will be done” is a counsel of despair. Most of the NSA’s ever-expanding activities over the past ten years have served no legitimate purpose, and it’s high time that it was forced to obey both the letter and the spirit of the law.



      Billy Bones

      Oct 28, 2013 at 10:53am

      Oh, what a tangled web we weave...


      Oct 28, 2013 at 12:13pm

      "Politicians and government officials rarely tell outright lies"

      Maybe not on Planet Krypton, but on Earth it's fairly common these days.

      And nobody is surprised when it happens; in fact it's almost expected. That's how far the public's trust in politicians has fallen in the last 50 years or so.

      Bill Brakt

      Oct 28, 2013 at 12:45pm

      Maybe to get things going, it is time for some NSA contractor to collect and publish private information on Senators and Congressmen to show that even they are being watched? There must be privateers who are sitting on crucial info right now and waiting to be safe to release it. Infuriating foreigners is one thing, but putting a spotlight on powerful Americans within the power grid is another. Do they think they are safe from exposure?


      Oct 28, 2013 at 2:59pm

      First of all, there is no downfall of the NSA. There is token political theatre going on to replace the heads with new directors and generals, who now can conveniently stall investigations claiming they have no idea what is going on while hoping said calls for investigations slowly disappear by the time they have settled in.

      Second, there isn't even an NSA anymore, there is a 5 country massive rogue spying alliance consisting of CSEC, ASIO, NZSIS, GCHQ and NSA. These 5 countries are openly sharing tools, intel, and spy for each other in order to circumvent laws. If it's forbidden for CSEC to spy on Canadians they will have Australia or US do it for them and hand them recorded phone calls and backbone network traffic. They do this on purpose so when there are public hearings they can deny they are spying on Canadians, which they aren't, Australia, UK, NZ and US are however and passing the intel to CSEC.

      This huge festering abomination of our democracies is not going to go quietly into the night. One can only imagine the kinds of democratic manipulation they can do with these kinds of powers for political blackmail. Any party claiming they will abolish CSEC better up their security, they will find themselves major targets of the NSA and other "5 eyes alliance" countries. I don't think they take this threat seriously at all either, in fact we almost never hear about it up here except for that retired ex NSA chief who showed up here a few months ago to warn us that democracy will disappear unless we reign in our intelligence and security agencies.


      Oct 28, 2013 at 5:12pm

      You know what? I think the Germans were monitoring the Americans. But the Yanks got caught. Canada does it too. Our snoopers snoop on countries like Ecuador and Bolivia to help our mining companies outsmart the governments there and undo their attempts at reform. And Ecuador and Bolivia do it too - out of self defence. They'd be fools not too. There are no innocents.


      Oct 28, 2013 at 6:11pm

      Mosby, Dyer means that they prefer evasion of the truth to outright lying. For example, if you were shagging your friends wife on Friday and he accuses you of doing so, saying "I did not have sex with your wife" would be a lie, but saying "I did not have sex with your wife between Monday and Thursday" would be technically true, if still misleading.

      Politicians favour the latter.


      Oct 28, 2013 at 8:27pm

      This has been exposed at a crucial time. Are not the Americans trying to make a trade deal with the European Union about now? What effect will this have on the deal? Maybe not good.


      Oct 28, 2013 at 8:41pm

      This may make it more difficult for the US to establish a trade deal with the European Union, which they are about to start.


      Oct 28, 2013 at 9:33pm

      'The NSA is completely out of control.'

      Says it all, I am afraid.


      Oct 28, 2013 at 10:02pm

      American SPYING on all and sundry is symptomatic of it's sociopathic inclinations, namely:failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors, deceitfulness, aggressiveness and a reckless disregard for the safety or privacy of others.
      No doubt they will justify it under the rubric of 'American Exceptualism' or ,in essence, national narcissism which is characterized by:a grandiose sense of self-importance, fantasies of unlimited success and power,believes that it is ‘special’ and unique, has a sense of entitlement,is internationally exploitative, lacks empathy, shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes toward other nations. So, simply, the American state is run by a bunch of sociopathic narcissists!