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NSA Blowback

The Edward Snowden files’ revelation that the United States has been tapping the phones of top French, Mexican, Brazilian, and German politicians should not really surprise anyone, but that is not the real story. The “everyone does it” argument is meant to mitigate the offense, but is wrong on two counts. It is incorrect technically, as no other country has our capabilities. It also fails to take into account the political damage that occurs when a nation initiates large scale espionage operations directed against allied countries, such as France and Germany. The German and French public will rightly assume that Washington will engage in reckless behavior whenever it believes—rightly or wrongly—that its own security is somehow at stake, indicating that the transatlantic relationship only runs in one direction.

One can only assume that German Chancellor Angela Merkel is genuinely furious at having her cell phone conversations intercepted by the National Security Agency (NSA). The president’s claim of ignorance may not hold up, as the German media is reporting [1] that Barack Obama was briefed on the operation three years ago. The Senate Intelligence Committee is likewise claiming [2] that it was not aware of the operation, while intelligence chiefs have spoken up to suggest [3] that the teltaps were done with the cooperation of European intelligence services. The White House has meanwhile circled its wagons, neglecting to include any apology for intelligence operations aimed at America’s allies in its damage control. Nor has it promised to cease and desist in the collection effort; quite the contrary, it is declaring only [4] that it will “reexamine” the program or consider “constraints” on it.

Intelligence agencies like the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and NSA have two core functions. The first is to collect essential information that is not available publicly or through open sources, and the second is to analyze that information so it can be understood and used by policy makers. As the collection of intelligence is itself an act of espionage, tapping phones and recruiting sources being illegal in most countries, such operations should normally be undertaken only after being subjected to a rigorous risk versus gain analysis. Unfortunately, however, careful consideration of the potential downside of intelligence collection operations has not been the rule since 9/11. When the covert collection efforts are either revealed or produce a bad result, the unfortunate consequences are referred to as “blowback.”

Blowback can irreparably damage the ability of the United States to obtain crucial information in foreign environments that are poorly understood in Washington. The cultural divide that exists when operating away from home means that CIA and NSA frequently work overseas through a network of liaison contacts. This in theory limits their activity, but it broadens their ability to collect information that can only be plausibly obtained by a local organization with local capabilities. Though nearly everyone also operates clandestinely outside the parameters of the established relationships insofar as it is possible or expedient to do so, there is an awareness that being caught can cause grave damage to the liaison relationship. Because being exposed is nearly always very painful, such operations are normally limited to collection of critical information that the liaison partner would be unwilling to reveal.

So while it might be comforting to claim that “everyone does it” at least some of the time, and it may even be true that local spy agencies sometimes collaborated with NSA, the United States has a great deal to lose by spying on its friends. This is particularly true as Washington, uniquely, spies on everyone, all the time, even when there is no good reason for doing so. It has always done so, often just because it can, which professor Michael Brenner refers to [5] as “technological determinism.” The technological juggernaut combined with bureaucratic inertia demanding that the intelligence agencies “do something” to validate their existence has driven the vast NSA operations that collect huge masses of largely indigestible and often contradictory information.

I am sure that there are some issues that Merkel might discuss on her phone that would be of interest to U.S. policy makers, but it is difficult to imagine that anyone rooted in reality would actually think the operation would be worth the potential risk of exposure. Moreover, aggressive efforts to learn what allies are doing is not limited to NSA. CIA likewise has a history of running operations that are highly risky for relatively little actual gain. In the 1970s and 1980s, a number of European heads of government and political party leaders had their phones and even their residences bugged by the Agency even though there was little actual need to do so. When certain heads of state and government would travel, the Agency would attempt to wire their hotel rooms. Nearly every large CIA station had a technical officer on hand and many had locally recruited telephone company employees on board as assets. Case Officers overseas routinely collect the phone numbers of foreign diplomats and officials. Many of the operations were run just because the technical resources existed to do the tapping. In some cases, a risky operation would be attempted just because it was challenging and would be viewed positively by Agency senior management. One foreign government conference room had microphones installed in it, but the information was found to be so high level and exclusive that actually using it would immediately expose the source, so it was switched off.

There are always arguments being made that the intelligence agencies should “do more.” The U.S. government justified CIA escapades prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union because it feared that secret maneuvers of European coalition governments had to be monitored lest fraternal communist parties in Western Europe obtain power and tilt dramatically towards Moscow, but that was a flawed argument from the start. Only in France did the Confederation Generale du Travail support introduction of a hard-line Soviet-style regime, while the parties in Italy, Spain, and Portugal were known to be wary of any strong identification with the Soviet Union. The threat of a communist takeover of Western Europe was essentially a fantasy spawned by the cold war.

CIA efforts to thwart communist participation in government were frequently successful, but, in retrospect, many of the schemes concocted on the fly to counter the red menace turned out to be counterproductive, actually eroding the development of stable democracies in postwar Europe. In Italy, for example, CIA interfered in elections through the 1970s. The U.S. government’s support of the various unstable coalitions propped up around the Christian Democrats ultimately had a negative effect by institutionalizing corruption at a level that continues to this day, a classic case of blowback. It ironically also empowered the communists, making them appear as genuine nationalists resisting American hegemony.

CIA continued to reflexively seek to penetrate friendly European governments after the fall of communism and even up until 9/11, long after there was any serious threat to disrupt Western European political solidarity with the United States. The operations were sometimes so ineptly run that every once in a while the normally quiescent local counterintelligence services would pick up on what was happening and play along before declaring the errant CIA officers persona non grata and sending them home. In 1995, a major scandal [6] involving French trade positions led to the public expulsion of four CIA officers. There have been similar cases in Italy and Germany that were handled more discreetly by the host countries.

In retrospect, I am sure that many of the more thoughtful managers in the NSA wish they could take back and reconsider their operations to penetrate the private communications of world leaders, but the much bigger problem is that organizations like NSA and CIA are no longer linked to their original raisons d’etre: to collect information to defend the United States and prevent a repeat of Pearl Harbor. The argument that this is all part of America’s necessary counter-terrorism effort post 9/11 is absolutely deficient of any merit. If anything, spying on foreign leaders will lessen cooperation on terrorism and increase concerns among friendly intelligence agencies that the United States lacks proper judgment about how it uses its considerable technical capabilities.

It should be conceded that the United States government now collects all sorts of information that has no plausible connection to national security, including the random accumulation of private information on United States citizens. The Snowden revelations about NSA in particular reveal a government that engages in massive spying and information collection worldwide, 24/7, just because it is capable of doing so. The United States has been embarrassed by the recent spying disclosures, rightly so, but the damage is much greater than that.

No one, friend or foe, can any longer believe that there is some rational process that guides United States national security initiatives. It is like an unthinking predatory beast that has been unchained, and now lashing out in all directions with little discrimination or sense of proportion. If important nations like Germany, France, and Brazil recalibrate their relationships with Washington, it can only damage America’s ability to exercise any foreign policy leadership in a situation where it actually matters. Though given the kind of decision making we have seen emanating from the White House over the past twelve years, it is perhaps just as well that that is the case.

Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.

25 Comments (Open | Close)

25 Comments To "NSA Blowback"

#1 Comment By William Dalton On November 8, 2013 @ 12:31 am

Granted that the U.S. has the technical capability of picking up the radio wave communications of anyone on Earth, I presume that no conversations or other communications of the leaders of other major countries are being sent and received without being strongly encrypted. Does the U.S. have the capability of breaking the best codes the rest of the world has at its disposal?

#2 Comment By T 4 2 On November 8, 2013 @ 12:45 am

What is so striking is the grotesque disproportionality of it all, begging obvious, Strangelovian questions of institutional sanity and function. Who the hell made these decisions? Why, until Snowden’s leaks, did no one say “Jesus Christ, what the hell are we doing???”

#3 Comment By spite On November 8, 2013 @ 5:47 am

T 4 2
There were cases of people trying to expose the insanity, they were all ultimately punished by the surveillance bureaucracy one way or the other. To ask “what the hell are we doing”, takes immense courage and the acceptance that your career at those spy agencies is over, I do not have high hopes that most people who willingly decide to take a job to spy (and worse) care about old fashioned concepts such as decency and justice. Reform has to come from the outside.

#4 Comment By German_reader On November 8, 2013 @ 7:04 am

Good to see that you’ve published this. Most Americans seem to be still unaware how damaging the revelations about spying on allies could turn out to be. The public in Germany certainly is furious and even if the political elites won’t take any counter-measures against the US (like shooting down the planned free trade agreement), this will have long-term consequences.
Maybe even worse than the spying itself is the arrogant response to the revelations, totally lacking any sort of acknowledgement that lines have been crossed. If Obama thinks he’s still seen as a Messiah in Europe and can come out of this unscathed simply by uttering the usual platitudes, he’s mistaken.

#5 Comment By Philip Giraldi On November 8, 2013 @ 8:25 am

William – NSA can indeed break most encryption systems but it is very time and computer-processing intensive to do so, which is why CIA’s top priority overseas is to recruit a foreign embassy code clerk who can provide you with the necessary information to access the system. NSA also likes to obtain information through hidden backdoors or deliberate flaws that provide access through the telecommunications provider’s software and enable you to circumvent the encryption.

#6 Comment By John On November 8, 2013 @ 8:32 am

@T 4 2:

NSA isn’t full of movie villains, any more than any other government agency. For the most part, they are just people who bought into the Great American Treadmill early on and did well by it: no misdemeanor convictions for marijuana possession or public intoxication, good grades at flagship state universities, hired into the federal government out of school or the military, married with 2.5 children and a slightly-to-really-underwater mortgage in the D.C. metro area. I can trust them to do their jobs as they know them. If I want to counterbalance this to ensure that it doesn’t turn into a threat to ordinary citizens, I would build a parallel bureaucracy that rewards its people for finding misuses of NSA’s capabilities and staff it with basically the same kinds of people.

#7 Comment By SteveM On November 8, 2013 @ 8:45 am

It seems to me that the “blowback” horse is out of the barn and long gone. The United States regime is held in universal contempt. Its only “friends” and “allies” are nations that it has intimidated and/or bought. It has a single diplomatic hammer – its War Machine. Its Panopticon intelligence Leviathan induces fear, not security. And it’s para-militarized Domestic Security State invites derision.

Stick a fork in World Cop America – because it’s cooked.

#8 Comment By spite On November 8, 2013 @ 1:57 pm

John
So the average NSA spy does not smoke weed, has a family, is loyal and has an education – that probably describes all domestic spy agency workers in the world (unless you believe they are full of movie villains). They are still wrong, spying on Merkel and US citizens is wrong, saying they go bowling on Fridays and love America does not make those actions in any way more acceptable.

#9 Comment By FatHappySouthernBoy On November 8, 2013 @ 1:57 pm

SteveM: “Stick a fork in World Cop America – because it’s cooked.”

I doubt it. Spain at least was not only aware of American snooping they helped with the collection, and asked for the information to be shared. If the rest of the story ever comes out I wouldn’t be at all shocked if most of our allies were in just as deep.

They have to act shocked and offended for the sake of their voters though, otherwise they might not get re-elected.

#10 Comment By Andrew On November 8, 2013 @ 3:14 pm

The threat of a communist takeover of Western Europe was essentially a fantasy spawned by the cold war.

The issue of the Soviet post WW II European strategy is a complex one. The fact that contingency planning, including notorious flank strategy, in USSR was essentially a defensive response to possible NATO offensive may not seat well with many here, in the US. I am not even talking about Sea Denial structure of the Soviet Navy, even when it was capable to be deployed globally.

#11 Comment By T. Sledge On November 8, 2013 @ 3:46 pm

So the NSA Snoops collect all this raw data — and do what with it exactly? And are the various intelligence agencies as completely out of touch with each other as they were before 9/11?

The Russian FSB warned the FBI about Tamerlan Tsarnaev months before the Boston Marathon bombings, and apparently the NSA never was told to “stop worrying about what Angela Merkel gossips about with her Finance Minister and focus on the little dipsticks that the Russians warned us about.”

If the terabytes of data aren’t going to help stop someone that intelligence agencies should DEFINITELY be on alert about, then what damn good is it? Or are the agencies just so enamored of their ability to vacuum up all this data that they lose sight of the fact that the ONLY data that matters are the data that will ACTUALLY help them prevent attacks?

If the NSAs voice and digital snooping ability can’t be focused at will on a pair of dangerous goofs like the Tsarnaev brothers and their little “cell” of abettors AFTER we have been forewarned of their bad intentions, then what good is sweeping up all that data from teenage girls talking about the high school quarterback, or grand moms bragging about their grand kids?

#12 Comment By Thomas O. Meehan On November 8, 2013 @ 5:54 pm

There are several thought provoking points in this excellent essay. My take away is the simple point that the Cold War is over. In an age of smaller threats more prudent measures are called for. One would think this is obvious.

I also wonder if our failure to get better human intelligence in the old fashion way didn’t create a temptation to want to vacuum up any and all information, even Angela’s M’s political gossip.

I also agree that the ability to do something via technical means creates a strong psychological impetus to use those means. I think this impulse is a particular trait among Americans. Ironically, the Germans share this with us.

#13 Comment By Adam On November 8, 2013 @ 5:54 pm

It all boils down to the ability to do something and the funding to make it happen. The danger with any large bureaucracy is never anything done with malicious intent. Too big to fail banks and financial institutions didn’t intend to blow up the world economy, but they had the ability to do so and the motivating factor was money, always more needed. These agencies need to justify their worth just like any other to keep and expand their budgets. This is the real “social safety net” that needs to be cut more than any other because it doesn’t produce anything of value. Or what it does produce of value is far outweighed by random crap. The fact we’re talking about it at all is a good first step.

#14 Comment By Fran Macadam On November 8, 2013 @ 6:07 pm

Please do not think that the Hoovered data is not extremely useful for political purposes for those who wield it. That it would not flies in the face of every prior instance of surveillance throughout both world and American history.

What I have termed “the technological imperative” and Professor Brenner calls “technological determinism” fulfill what a former Homeland Security director said was the unfortunate tendency in the American character to overreach, to never recognize any limits. It explains How The West Was Won wasn’t enough, Manifest Destiny and the historical fact of what both America’s friends and foes have insisted on calling American Imperialism. That is, that “in America, we have this belief that if something is worth doing, then it is worth overdoing.” What can be done, will be done.

Moreover, this overreach mindset pervades Eisenhower’s “military-industrial-congressional complex,” more realistically combined with the associated financial “bankster” elements that has only grown more pervasive and powerful as the civilian manufacturing base of the economy has atrophied. It becomes part of the imperative as well.

I do concur with Mr. Giraldi that certain foreign policy choices influenced by foreign powers who have extremely influential lobbying and support within the US have a great deal of influence in making choices as to how American power is deployed and for interests contrary to most US persons. However, this influences which particular wars will happen, not the technological imperative the complex has that some war, somewhere, must be encouraged for the considerable revenue streams – a racket nore profitable than any other, as per General Smedley Butler’s exposes and all that have followed.

In any case, the blowback is too often seen to be the result of democratic accountability, which can be sidestepped more effectively by ever more secrecy and ever more draconian laws and punishments for those who might seek to expose what really are depredations against civil society.

#15 Comment By A Zook On November 8, 2013 @ 9:59 pm

“It is like an unthinking predatory beast that has been unchained, and now lashing out in all directions with little discrimination or sense of proportion.”

It’s not “like”… It is a beast…

#16 Comment By Adam_Smith On November 9, 2013 @ 4:12 am

Since 9/11 madness took hold, the thinking among politicians and much of the public has been along the lines of “whatever it takes” and “take the gloves off”. There really hasn’t been any serious cost/risk versus benefits analysis at all — not just in surveillance matters but in military interventions abroad and maintaining the general rule of law at home. At one time, I had thought that candidate Obama understood how far into madness we had descended during the Bush-Cheney regime and would understand that it would be his job to reverse course, but I was obviously mistaken.

#17 Comment By carroll price On November 9, 2013 @ 10:16 am

The threat of a communist takeover of Western Europe was essentially a fantasy spawned by the cold war.

An analysis of the Cold War and the War on Terror would make it obvious to any honest observer that the Cold War was a hoax, much on the same order as the phony War On Terror is a hoax. And that both wars were contrived for essentially the same reasons, which was to create threats and enemies where none actually existed. The Soviet Union never posed a military or economic threat to this country, and in fact, never could not have fed their own people and survived as long as it did if Wall Street bankers had not provided regular bail-out funds to keep it afloat. And the gaping holes found throughout the official government 9/11 story makes it look like a piece of Swiss Cheese.

#18 Comment By Bill Jones On November 9, 2013 @ 10:50 pm

I recall seeing a brief article when the German Government moved its operations back to Berlin after reunification saying that they had had had American help installing the new hot-line from the Chancellor’s office to Washington .

I could not believe that the head Kraut (Kohl?) would do this?

#19 Comment By jimbobla On November 10, 2013 @ 5:49 am

It’s not so much that phone conversations are being compromised, it’s that the phone itself has been compromised and is being used as a listening device. It can be used to listen to all conversations whether it is turned on or off. The battery must be removed to defeat this capability. This is understood by those whom have had their devices captured. Chances are that they are now compromised to the point of being subject to blackmail and have lost control of their decision making. Seems like we (the U.S.)are the great and terrible OZ. Only now the curtain has been pulled back. Thanks, Snowden.

#20 Comment By Cold Wind On November 10, 2013 @ 3:39 pm

…and the result of all this ‘wonderful’, unaccountable spying is a home grown polcie state, an almost universal distrust of government anywhere in the West and an emergent moralless culture, in which it is every man for himelf.

#21 Comment By balconesfault On November 11, 2013 @ 5:43 pm

@John If I want to counterbalance this to ensure that it doesn’t turn into a threat to ordinary citizens, I would build a parallel bureaucracy that rewards its people for finding misuses of NSA’s capabilities and staff it with basically the same kinds of people.

That’s one way. The other would be for these revelations to seriously put a crimp in the careers of everyone along the approval chain, so that in the future there’s a perceived downside to intelligence overreach. Because right now it certainly appears to be no real downside for any bureaucrat approving greater intrusion.

#22 Comment By Tulsa Time On November 11, 2013 @ 8:56 pm

This may sound naive (I like to think I’m not), but what shocks me is how un-American this is. I find it very hard to understand how Americans could do this to their fellow citizens and long-time allies.

The scale and systematic character of this NSA crap dwarfs any of the known “excesses” of the ’50s and ’60s. It’s as though people with a sensibility utterly alien to America have somehow gotten into our governmental apparatus and begun to use it against us.

#23 Comment By DeepSouthPopulist On November 12, 2013 @ 8:45 am

1500+ words on the NSAs abuses Mr. Giraldi and just ONE is a name that begins with the letter O. Care to explain?

#24 Comment By DeepSouthPopulist On November 12, 2013 @ 9:00 am

Its Panopticon intelligence Leviathan induces fear, not security.- Steve M

Declining wages, wealth inequality, chronic high employment. Given the path that America is on, I believe the NSAs spy network is there to protect to the elite from civil unrest down the road, as assist with corporate espionage in the meantime. It certainly is not prevent “terrorism” against ordinary people.

The people who believe the latter are fools, dupes or both. In [7], Steven Pinker assembles data that shows terrorism is extremely rare to begin with compared to other forms of violence, and terrorism has also been declining for decades.

The War on Terror, like the “War” on Drugs, is a fraud and has been from the beginning. It’s amazing how many people can duped into shutting down their critical faculties the government or one of their press whore proxies invokes “terrorism,” or, “is is really surprise a spy agency spies, or “everyone does this.” If you really want to weep for America, just reflect for a moment on the number of our fellow citizens who are willing to accept those explanations.

#25 Comment By Fran Macadam On November 12, 2013 @ 3:52 pm

Information is power, and secret information unaccountable power. Think of how a form of blackmail subverted accountability and democracy in the recent past. Please do not think that the Hoovered data is not extremely useful for political purposes for those who wield it. That it would not flies in the face of every prior instance of surveillance throughout both world and American history.

What I have termed “the technological imperative” and Professor Brenner calls “technological determinism” fulfill what a former Homeland Security director said was the unfortunate tendency in the American character to overreach, to never recognize any limits. It explains How The West Was Won wasn’t enough, Manifest Destiny and the historical fact of what both America’s friends and foes have insisted on calling American Imperialism. That is, that “in America, we have this belief that if something is worth doing, then it is worth overdoing.” What can be done, will be done.

Moreover, this overreach mindset pervades Eisenhower’s “military-industrial-congressional complex,” more realistically combined with the associated financial “bankster” elements that has only grown more pervasive and powerful as the civilian manufacturing base of the economy has atrophied. It becomes part of the imperative as well.

I do concur with Mr. Giraldi that certain foreign policy choices influenced by foreign powers who have extremely influential lobbying and support within the US have a great deal of influence in making choices as to how American power is deployed and for interests contrary to most US persons. However, this influences which particular wars will happen, not the technological imperative the complex has that some war, somewhere, must be encouraged for the considerable revenue streams – a racket nore profitable than any other, as per General Smedley Butler’s exposes and all that have followed.

In any case, the blowback is too often seen to be the result of democratic accountability, which can be sidestepped more effectively by ever more secrecy and ever more draconian laws and punishments for those who might seek to expose what really are depredations against civil society.