For more than six months, Edward Snowden's revelations about the National Security Agency (NSA) have been pouring out from the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Guardian, Germany's Der Spiegel, and Brazil's O Globo, among other places. Yet no one has pointed out the combination of factors that made the NSA's expanding programs to monitor the world seem like such a slam-dunk development in Washington. The answer is remarkably simple. For an imperial power losing its economic grip on the planet and heading into more austere times, the NSA's latest technological breakthroughs look like a bargain basement deal when it comes to projecting power and keeping subordinate allies in line -- like, in fact, the steal of the century. Even when disaster turned out to be attached to them, the NSA's surveillance programs have come with such a discounted price tag that no Washington elite was going to reject them.
For well over a century, from the pacification of the Philippines in 1898 to trade negotiations with the European Union today, surveillance and its kissing cousins, scandal and scurrilous information, have been key weapons in Washington's search for global dominion. Not surprisingly, in a post-9/11 bipartisan exercise of executive power, George W. Bush and Barack Obama have presided over building the NSA step by secret step into a digital panopticon designed to monitor the communications of every American and foreign leaders worldwide.
What exactly was the aim of such an unprecedented program of massive domestic and planetary spying, which clearly carried the risk of controversy at home and abroad? Here, an awareness of the more than century-long history of U.S. surveillance can guide us through the billions of bytes swept up by the NSA to the strategic significance of such a program for the planet's last superpower. What the past reveals is a long-term relationship between American state surveillance and political scandal that helps illuminate the unacknowledged reason why the NSA monitors America's closest allies.
Not only does such surveillance help gain intelligence advantageous to U.S. diplomacy, trade relations, and war-making, but it also scoops up intimate information that can provide leverage -- akin to blackmail -- in sensitive global dealings and negotiations of every sort. The NSA's global panopticon thus fulfills an ancient dream of empire. With a few computer key strokes, the agency has solved the problem that has bedeviled world powers since at least the time of Caesar Augustus: how to control unruly local leaders, who are the foundation for imperial rule, by ferreting out crucial, often scurrilous, information to make them more malleable.
A Cost-Savings Bonanza With a Downside
Once upon a time, such surveillance was both expensive and labor intensive. Today, however, unlike the U.S. Army's shoe-leather surveillance during World War I or the FBI's break-ins and phone bugs in the Cold War years, the NSA can monitor the entire world and its leaders with only 100-plus probes into the Internet's fiber optic cables.
This new technology is both omniscient and omnipresent beyond anything those lacking top-secret clearance could have imagined before the Edward Snowden revelations began. Not only is it unimaginably pervasive, but NSA surveillance is also a particularly cost-effective strategy compared to just about any other form of global power projection. And better yet, it fulfills the greatest imperial dream of all: to be omniscient not just for a few islands, as in the Philippines a century ago, or a couple of countries, as in the Cold War era, but on a truly global scale.
In a time of increasing imperial austerity and exceptional technological capability, everything about the NSA's surveillance told Washington to just "go for it." This cut-rate mechanism for both projecting force and preserving U.S. global power surely looked like a no-brainer, a must-have bargain for any American president in the twenty-first century -- before new NSA documents started hitting front pages weekly, thanks to Snowden, and the whole world began returning the favor.
As the gap has grown between Washington's global reach and its shrinking mailed fist, as it struggles to maintain 40% of world armaments (the 2012 figure) with only 23% of global gross economic output, the U.S. will need to find new ways to exercise its power far more economically. As the Cold War took off, a heavy-metal U.S. military -- with 500 bases worldwide circa 1950 -- was sustainable because the country controlled some 50% of the global gross product.
But as its share of world output falls -- to an estimated 17% by 2016 -- and its social welfare costs climb relentlessly from 4% of gross domestic product in 2010 to a projected 18% by 2050, cost-cutting becomes imperative if Washington is to survive as anything like the planet's "sole superpower." Compared to the $3 trillion cost of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, the NSA's 2012 budget of just $11 billion for worldwide surveillance and cyberwarfare looks like cost saving the Pentagon can ill-afford to forego.
Yet this seeming "bargain" comes at what turns out to be an almost incalculable cost. The sheer scale of such surveillance leaves it open to countless points of penetration, whether by a handful of anti-war activists breaking into an FBI field office in Media, Pennsylvania, back in 1971 or Edward Snowden downloading NSA documents at a Hawaiian outpost in 2012.
Once these secret programs are exposed, it turns out that nobody really likes being under surveillance. Proud national leaders refuse to tolerate foreign powers observing them like rats in a maze. Ordinary citizens recoil at the idea of Big Brother watching their private lives like so many microbes on a slide.
Cycles of Surveillance
Over the past century, the tension between state expansion and citizen-driven contraction has pushed U.S. surveillance through a recurring cycle. First comes the rapid development of stunning counterintelligence techniques under the pressure of fighting foreign wars; next, the unchecked, usually illegal application of those surveillance technologies back home behind a veil of secrecy; and finally, belated, grudging reforms as press and public discover the outrageous excesses of the FBI, the CIA, or now, the NSA. In this hundred-year span -- as modern communications advanced from the mail to the telephone to the Internet -- state surveillance has leapt forward in technology's ten-league boots, while civil liberties have crawled along behind at the snail's pace of law and legislation.