Snowden's biggest revelation: We don't know what power is anymore, nor do we care

By Mark Ames , written on December 29, 2013

From The News Desk

 It’s been a busy end of 2013 for the Snowden/NSA story: a pair of conflicting judicial rulings on the legality or illegality of the NSA’s phone surveillance program; an Obama-appointed panel recommending mild NSA reforms, including scaling back the NSA’s phone metadata vacuuming program; a rare and remarkably unrevealing interview with Snowden in the Washington Post, in which Snowden declared "Mission Accomplished"; followed up by a rather sad "Snowden Xmas Message" aired on Britain’s Channel 4; and more sensational revelations about the NSA spying on our closest allies, published last Friday in the New York Times, Guardian, and Der Spiegel.

That the US and Britain spy on our allies (and on each other) is not in and of itself a shocking revelation, but this is more important than mere novelty. What matters most about the Snowden leaks is what will come of them, and what we’ll do with them, if anything. There is no guarantee that leaks lead to positive change, nothing inherently transformative about leaking, not without a larger political movement – what Joe Costello would call "a politics" -- pushing it. And right now, the only thing close to a politics around leaking is Libertarianism, the worst of all political worlds.

Even with a politics, there’s no guarantee leaks end up making things better without a long fight. The last time frightening NSA spying programs (SHAMROCK, MINARET) were leaked in the 1970s, the political reforms that followed turned out to be far worse than what we had before: namely the secret FISA courts. The FISA courts were supposed to provide judicial check on the NSA, but instead turned into a nightmarish secret court that not only rubber stamps nearly every surveillance warrant the NSA asks for, but worse, has been used to restrict Americans’ constitutional rights.

For now, the question is: How can revelations about the out-of-control NSA (and GCHQ) spying program lead to something better? How do we make sense of it given all the bewildering technologies, and how can it be transformed into a politics? How, in other words, can the Snowden files avoid simply adding to the sense of "diffuse malaise" that Adam Curtis recently wrote about?

Looking back at some previous examples where US intelligence was caught spying on our allies and meddling in their politics may offer some insight. Not very encouraging insight -- of the four most sensational examples from the past 50 years or so, only once did the revelations lead to real political reform -- but insight nonetheless.

One of the first spying-on-our-allies scandals occurred in 1960, when two young NSA analysts around Edward Snowden’s age defected to the Soviet Union. For the rest of the Cold War, these two NSA defectors were considered very important. "The two most important defectors in American history," is how "Body of Secrets" author James Bamford described them.

Bamford’s first book on the NSA, "Puzzle Palace," details the story of how the two analysts -- William Martin, 29, and Bernon Mitchell, 31 -- grew disillusioned and defected to America’s Cold War enemy at the height of the Eisenhower paranoia. Both were socially awkward math whizzes and sanctimonious agnostics who despised church-goers. Although they would be falsely smeared as homosexuals in the press, reflecting the military-industrial complex’s obsession with rooting out homosexuals, Martin and Mitchell were heterosexual. Bamford writes that during his security clearance examination, Mitchell disclosed that when he was between 13 and 19 he had engaged in "sexual experimentation" with dogs and chickens. Apparently to the homophobes running the NSA, chickenfuckers were a-okay -- the security threat came from gays.

Both Mitchell and Martin joined the NSA in 1958, at a particularly hot moment in the Cold War, when the US routinely flew electronics-loaded aircraft along the edges of Soviet airspace to test Soviet defenses, leading to scores of shoot-downs and dogfights. Dozens of Americans were killed in these "tests," and some, like Martin and Mitchell, worried that they could be used as a pretext to launch World War III.

In late 1958, the US launched an even more aggressive program called ELINT sending electronics-loaded US planes deep into Soviet airspace. Two US military planes were shot down over Soviet Armenia. One of the downed planes, whose crew of 17 either were killed or went missing, included electronics specialists monitoring Soviet radar stations. The Soviets publicly accused the US of violating their airspace, which we had, but lied claiming they hadn’t fired on the US plane, fearing if they admitted they had, it could spark American retaliation. The US counter-claimed with its own truth-and-lie: We claimed that the US plane had mistakenly flown into Soviet airspace with no hostile intent, and that the Soviets aggressively targeted and shot down a peaceful plane. And to prove we were right, the US selectively released a recording of the MiG pilots taken by the NSA proving that the MiG pilots targeted and shot down the US plane over Armenia.

The US used that selective recording to "prove" that the Soviets were liars, and the US were poor innocents. It was this lie that eventually prompted the two disillusioned middle-class NSA analysts to defect to the Soviet Union.

In 1959, the two friends, William and Bernon (who insisted on pronouncing his name with a Frenchified "Ber-NON"), were so bothered by the secret and dangerous ELINT spying program that they decided to blow the whistle on it, secretly visiting the Congressional office of Democrat Wayne Hays. But Hays was notoriously thick and mean, and so after promising to follow up on their revelations about ELINT, Hays decided that the two were actually part of a CIA test of Hays’ patriotism, to test if he could keep a secret or not. Rep. Hays kept his secret like a good American patriot. And so Mitchell and Martin’s attempt to blow the whistle on ELINT failed, and their disillusionment became total. They figured the whole country was rotten and crazy and full of god-fearing warmongers, a plausible critique, if only their solution to that problem -- the Soviet Union -- wasn’t itself so totally corrupt and deluded.

In the summer of 1960, the analysts took a vacation together, traveled to Mexico City, boarded a flight to Havana, and reappeared a couple of months later in Moscow, holding a press conference denouncing the dangerous NSA spying programs and exposing the NSA’s surveillance on America’s closest allies. The Russians granted the two defector-leakers citizenship, and ensured them big public platforms to explain the NSA spying programs and their reasons for leaking.

In their statement, Martin and Mitchell largely focused on calling out America’s hypocrisy:

Since going to work for the National Security Agency in the summer of 1957, we have learned that the United States Government knowingly makes false and deceptive statements both in defending its own actions and in condemning the actions of other nations. 
These activities indicate to us that the United States government is as unscrupulous as it has accused the Soviet Government of being.

Martin and Mitchell also revealed for the first time the NSA’s tight relationship with British GCHQ.

When asked by a reporter to name which other friendly countries the NSA regularly spied on, Martin answered,

Italy, Turkey, France, Yugoslavia, the United Arab Republic, Indonesia, Uruguay -- that's enough to give a general picture, I guess.

Bamford writes that Martin and Mitchell stole enough secrets from the NSA’s vaults between their first unreported trip to Cuba in 1959, and their defection to Soviet Russia in 1960, that they all but handed the Soviets the skeleton key to the NSA’s operations. And it led to nothing good for anyone, least of all Martin and Mitchell.

Their rebellion was hurried and removed from politics; and ultimately their disillusionment was a kind of chronic middle-class disillusionment which eventually led them a few years later to try to re-defect back to the USA, without success. Their KGB handlers, being smart and cynical Russian spooks, correctly anticipated that their NSA defectors would quickly become disillusioned with Soviet life, so they scared them out of thoughts of returning to the US by convincing them that the US Supreme Court had sentenced both in absentia, in a secret ruling, to 20 years hard labor. To prove it, they produced fake copies of a fake judgment. They also planted fake stories in the Soviet press claiming that US spies carrying vials of poison were hunting for the two defectors.

By the 1970s, Martin stopped believing the scare stories and tried several times to return to the US, applying for a new passport, citizenship, a visa, but failed. He moved to Mexico and died in a Tijuana hospital in 1987. His friend Mitchell died in 2001 in St. Petersburg, reportedly bloated from years on the bottle.

The US NatSec State learned even less. Congress took 13 months to issue its big report on how two NSA analysts were able to defect with so many secrets. The brilliant conclusion: it was all homosexuality’s fault. That sparked an internal NSA gay hunt resulting in dozens of firings of suspected homosexuals. Chickenfuckers, though, were spared.

As for the US allies who were spied on, if they were unhappy about what they’d learned, they didn’t make much noise about it.

The most sensational scandal involving US intelligence spying on and manipulating our allies’ political leaders — and enriching US private contractors — was the "Lockheed Bribery Scandal." In the 1970s, it was considered the Watergate of Corporate America. And the whole thing was blown open by Senator Frank Church’s other big investigative committee that he ran in the 1970s, the subcommittee on multinational corporations. (Most people have forgotten about that Church Committee on multinational corporate malfeasance, probably because these days we’re only interested in government baddies, not corporate baddies.)

It emerged that Lockheed representatives worked hand in hand with the CIA to funnel millions of bribery dollars to manipulate our Western allies’ democracies, ensuring pro-American politicians won, and that Lockheed was granted lucrative contracts. Often this meant empowering the very worst, anti-democratic forces in our allied nations’ politics, particularly in Japan, where CIA-Lockheed bribes were funneled through a fascist war criminal turned Yakuza don, Yoshio Kodama. When the Lockheed-CIA bribe scandal broke, it brought down governments in West Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Japan, where the Prime Minister and several others were arrested and frog-marched, and what remained of Japan’s democratic system nearly collapsed for good.

The scandal really stretched back to 1947, when Yoshio Kodama was in a US military prison, branded a "Class A" war criminal and awaiting his sentence. That's when the CIA swooped in, freed him, and made Kodama their top intelligence asset in post-war Japan. During the war years, Kodama had run Imperial Japan’s underworld operations in occupied China, and that meant intelligence knowledge and connections that the CIA needed, especially as China fell to Mao’s communists. Over the next few decades, under CIA protection, Yoshio Kodama became Japan’s most powerful Yakuza don, and corporate Japan’s most effective union buster.

Publicly, Kodama portrayed himself as the embodiment of the fiercely anti-American ultranationalist looking to restore Imperial Japan’s glory. Privately, behind the scenes, Kodama was the most powerful broker running the pro-American Liberal Democratic Party, using his money (and the CIA’s and Lockheed’s) to ensure that the ruling LDP was always dominated by pro-American conservatives with a hard-on for Lockheed jets.

In the late 1950s, this now-familiar alliance of interests — American intelligence, and for-profit US military contractors — made sure that Japan elected a pro-American prime minister, Nobusuke Kushio (another ex-war criminal), who in turn made sure that Japan bought 230 of the worst fighter jets in the postwar era: the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, nicknamed by the West Germans "The Widowmaker" for its appalling crash rate.

If that wasn’t shocking enough, the Japanese general who pushed hardest for the F-104 purchase, General Genda, was previously responsible for having planned Japan’s 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor which killed thousands of Americans. In 1959, the pro-American Gen. Genda was back as Japan’s chief of air staff. Lockheed and the US Air Force top brass invited Gen. Genda for a junket trip to Hawaii, where he test flew the F-104 Starfighters and immediately ordered 230 of them, a quarter of which crashed during routine flights.

Sen. Church’s subcommittee on multinational corporate malfeasance revealed that this power nexus -- US intelligence and military contractor profiteers -- continued operating through the mid-1970s. Slushed CIA and Lockheed funds were wired through what was then the world’s largest global foreign currency exchange network, Deak-Perera, headed by a former OSS spook, Nicholas Deak"the James Bond of the world of money" as Time Magazine called him. Back then, due to strict capital controls, it wasn’t so easy to move money around the world as it is today. These days, the NSA tracks financial flows through its surveillance programs and partnerships with banks and online outfits like PayPal.

Back in the early 1970s, when financial flows were heavily restricted, money movements were often less hi-tech, as the Lockheed Bribery Scandal showed. The CIA would deposit half a million in cash into Deak-Perera’s Los Angeles office, a Spanish-born priest with a Japanese passport would withdraw the cash, converted into yen, from Deak-Perera’s Hong Kong office, and stuff it under a basket of oranges that he’d carry aboard a puddle hopper to Tokyo. In Tokyo, the Spanish-born priest would hand  the basket of oranges with the cash to a Lockheed rep, who then passed it to Yakuza don/Liberal Democratic Party powerbroker Yoshio Kodama, who used the cash payments to control the ruling party’s politics and ensure pro-American, pro-Lockheed politicians dominated the key ministries. (According to the Church Committee hearings, some of that cash sloshing around made its way back into Nixon’s Committee to Re-Elect the President [CREEP] campaign coffers.)

Perhaps because this operation was so low-tech and so much simpler to grasp, this sort of intelligence-contractor operation against our allies led to one of the rare major political reforms of our time, the 1977 Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, the first law in the world criminalizing corporate bribes to foreign officials.

Just as this scandal involving American intelligence, private contractors, technology and spying on our allies was dying out, a newer, far more hi-tech scandal emerged, one that’s never quite been resolved: the infamous INSLAW Affair. It’s a convoluted story that’s been a favorite of conspiracy theorists, so I’ll spare you most of the details. But just to get a sense of how serious the INSLAW Affair was, Watergate hero Elliot Richardson wrote an op-ed in the New York Times calling it "A Hi-Tech Watergate" and Richardson was quoted in the Village Voice describing the INSLAW Affair as "far worse than Watergate."

The basic facts are these: A former NSA analyst and CIA contractor named Bill Hamilton went private in the 1970s, setting up a small database software firm called INSLAW, which contracted with the Department of Justice to develop a new hi-tech database collection-and-tracking software for law enforcement agencies. The database software program INSLAW developed was called PROMIS, and it turned out to be incredibly effective, and highly adaptable for other uses, namely, intelligence. So good, according to lawsuits and at least one federal judge, that the Reagan Administration essentially stole PROMIS from INSLAW, bankrupted the firm, and hawked its own versions of PROMIS to intelligence and law enforcement agencies both in the US and abroad to allied countries.

Within America, PROMIS was used by the NSA and CIA to track financial transactions to the Soviet bloc, terrorist organizations, and likely for other uses. Abroad, the hawked PROMIS software was reportedly outfitted with a backdoor to allow secret NSA and CIA access, and installed in many of our allies’ intelligence and law enforcement agencies’ systems, so that the NSA could spy on its allies by tapping into their databases. Proceeds from the sales were used to fund off-book operations, or to enrich cronies like the Meese family.

As Elliot Richardson wrote,

The reported sales allegedly had two aims. One was to generate revenue for covert operations not authorized by Congress. The second was to supply foreign intelligence agencies with a software system that would make it easier for U.S. eavesdroppers to read intercepted signals.

As late as 2000, Canada investigated reports that its intelligence had also been breached by the rigged PROMIS program. As the Toronto Star reported.

[T]he probe revolves around stunning claims that computer software used by the Mounties and Canada's spy service to co-ordinate secret investigations was rigged with a ‘trap door’ to allow American and Israeli agents to eavesdrop.

If this proves true, it would be the biggest ever breach of Canada's national security.

While Canada already shares a wealth of intelligence information with the U.S. and Israel, there are many elements of Canadian intelligence gathering that the government wouldn't be anxious to share with allies.

That could include economic intelligence on trading partners, detailed information on the whereabouts of terrorism suspects in Canada or strategic information on the positions Canada intends to take in international relations.

...sources close to the investigation say it revolves around Promis, a software program first developed to assist prosecutors in the United States Department of Justice. The case management software also has application for intelligence agencies keeping track of surveillance and investigation files.

But unlike with Watergate or the Lockheed Bribery Scandal, the INSLAW Affair would be relegated to the weird margins of the conspiracy theory world. The very nature of hi-tech software, database tracking systems, "back doors" and keystroke programs made the scandal harder to grasp, harder to convert into political reform, or any sort of intelligible narrative. And then there was the fact that the INSLAW Affair broke big in the late 1980s/early 90s, at the end of the Reagan era, when politics had all but died, giving way to markets and screaming on radio or cable news shows. It led to nothing. No reforms, no politics, no change. It survives in the conspiracy fringes as a kind of final humiliation on an authentically disturbing story.

One of the things that complicates the INSLAW story is that it grows out of a transformative period in politics and technology. INSLAW went from a nonprofit outfit serving the Dept of Justice on government grants in the 1970s, to a private contracting software firm serving the Reagan Administration in the early 1980s. INSLAW’s transformation took place as the US military-intelligence complex began its decades-long privatization drive. As journalist Tim Shorrock discovered, 70 percent of today’s intelligence budget flows to private contractors.

Privatization and public-private contracting, did more than funnel taxpayer billions into private hands. It also blurred legal accountability. It’s one of the main problems we’re still dealing with today, and it’s why the current monomaniacal fixation on NSA evils, without a proportionate focus on private sector surveillance, is another dead-end.

The last major spying-on-allies NSA scandal — ECHELON — broke in 2000, the same year that the PROMIS spy scandal broke in Canada. ECHELON, was exposed in Europe as a vast secret surveillance program involving an alliance between the NSA, GCHQ, and their counterparts in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Together these countries wiretapped Western European allies in order to gain commercial advantages for Anglo-American business interests.

But before the ECHELON revelations led to any sort of major political fights, Al Qaeda saved the NSA on 9/11 and ended any talk of accountability. Instead, the NSA and other spy agencies saw tens of billions more pouring into newer, and worse versions of ECHELON and PROMIS, stuffing the coffers of well-connected private contractors like Booz Allen, SAIC, and thousands of other profiteers.

And so now here we are, after four decades of change from the reform politics of the Watergate era to the anti-politics of markets, cable news propaganda, and rigged up Twitter fights.

The Snowden leaks are overwhelming us in their complexity and in their scope. So far, though, there is little sign of a new politics coming together as there is a high-pitched Twitter spat over personalities and hero-worshipping.

The Snowden leaks, which began by exposing the vast interlocking private-public Leviathan, has devolved into a pulp sci-fi story about government Big Brother versus heroic martyrs, the Death Star versus Luke Skywalker. And the more this NSA story is simplified into a mid-20th Century Orwell tale — rather than a complex narrative about the power of technology sweeping over everything from democracy to culture to business to media, a power that makes no distinction between the public and private — the more paralyzed we’ll be.

Meanwhile, the really important power-politics are taking place right in front of us, but we don't seem to give a damn. For example, what the hell were those tech heads from Apple, Google, Facebook, and other tech giants doing in the White House the day before Obama’s NSA report was released?

No one seemed to think anything was weird about that picture, the picture of corporate power nakedly dictating to a democratically elected President on the eve of a report that directly concerns those tech titans’ bottom lines. We were too busy cheering on Twitter when Mark Pincus -- the social gaming guy who once admitted, "I did every horrible thing in the book just to get revenues" -- ineffectually sass-mouthed the President over pardoning Edward Snowden.

Such a naked power-play at such a sensitive time recalls Obama’s shameful 2009 meeting with the heads of the big banks, just as he was about to unveil the rigged "stress tests" that saved the financial industry’s power and their bailout trillions. Or the famous meeting Boris Yeltsin held with Russia’s seven bankers in 1997, just before they tanked the entire economy and ran off with the loot.

This is supposed to be a republic. The contract says power resides in the people. But if the Snowden leaks are teaching us one thing, it’s that we don’t even know what power is anymore, nor do we care.

Illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando.