The whistleblower and the national security robber barons

NSA is an out-of-control monster, Snowden contends. Top brass lie to Congress. Technocrats flout congressional authorization by conducting blanket searches when Congress okayed individual ones. Massive, intrusive surveillance of phone calls, email, web searches, Facebook accounts accompanied by secret orders of a secret court compromise and transform powerful American telecommunications network operators and Internet behemoths into spy engines.

“Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Amazon, Apple and Microsoft are all integral components of the US cyber-surveillance system,” John Naugthon writes in The Observer.  “Nothing… that is stored in their ‘cloud’ services can be guaranteed to be safe from surveillance or from illicit downloading by employees of the consultancies employed by the NSA. That means that if you're thinking of outsourcing your troublesome IT operations to, say, Google or Microsoft, then think again.”

Snowden’s disclosures disturb powerful individuals, institutions and enterprises. 

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The disparity between candidate Barack Obama’s rhetoric to change Bush policy and the extent of secret surveillance five years into President Obama’s administration jar and could expose the president in a trial.

“If [Snowden] could be out on bail - the way Daniel Ellsberg was 30 years ago…while…preparing his trial, and…tell a story, …build a legal team, and…have an open-court case with all the rights the defendants have, that means that he could have all sorts of officials involved with this case right up to the vice president and the president,”  historian Steven Cohen pointed out in an interview with Sophie Shevardnadze on July 17.

“I cannot imagine that the Obama administration or any US administration would permit that, therefore I doubt very seriously that Obama is sincere when he says that Snowden should come home and stand trial,” he observed.

Congressional inquiry will likely tease out, and news organizations may report, that  heretofore largely invisible national security robber barons are monopolizing national security. Booz Allen Hamilton, a publicly traded company majority owned by privately held Carlyle Group, a private equity firm with $25B income on $86B revenues, employed Snowden and garners virtually all its revenues from government contracts. NSA chief James R. Clapper, who has acknowledged misleading Congress, worked at Booz Allen between retiring from the Defense Information Agency and heading NSA. Providence Equity Partners with $28B assets owns USIS, the privately held firm which approved Snowden’s Booz Allen clearance.

It’s a revolving door with billions of dollars in play. NSA leadership is abusing its trust and overreaching its authority for its ends at the public’s expense. Citizens and elected officials should hold them accountable, so government can then implement policies and practices that preserve privacy and liberty while protecting security, enabling the national security system to self-correct, Snowden asserts.

However, unlike earlier spying against adversaries, Snowden blows the whistle that this elite, patronized by secret government bureaucracies, which it also staffs, and authorized by secret court, is spying on U.S. citizens and any enterprise or person outside the U.S. doing business with a U.S. telecommunications network or Internet service.
With rhetoric that it is protecting the homeland, an elite cartel is enriching itself at taxpayer expense creating and deploying sophisticated intercept and analysis algorithms through state of the art networking as electronic bells and whistles of British writs. Like colonists, authorities subject citizens to arbitrary surveillance, but unlike colonists, who resisted taxation, citizens are paying for these assaults on privacy and liberty through tax dollars. 

Binary takes on Snowden go only so far. It is as anemic to categorize Snowden as callow youth, naïve in empire, incautiously exposing the United States to grave risks from stateless, terrorist adversaries and nation state rivals like China or Russia, as it is to apotheosize him as cyber nerd championing constitutional freedoms. A public trial will clarify whether he’s more the former, latter or someone else.

Historically, Snowden’s disclosures highlight spying’s indelibility in national experience and character. Paul Revere got a tip to forewarn “every Middlesex village and farm” of impending British attack triggering revolution and independence. New York militia foiled Benedict Arnold’s plot by capturing and hanging British spy Major John Andre, and American spy Nathan Hale went to the gallows regretting “I have but one life to give for my country.” The greatest generation recalls “loose lips sink ships.”

In the end, Snowden’s distinctness turns on the extent to which his whistle blowing triggers the term’s initial meaning of a referee terminating play by blowing a whistle or conforms to contemporary use: a whistleblower goes outside an organization to journalists in hopes citizens and elected officials will achieve system self-correction.

Donahue is an adjunct professor of History at Rowan University in New Jersey.

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