NSA: No Such Agency

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In June, 1942, the United States Navy achieved one of history’s greatest naval triumphs over the Imperial Japanese Navy, thanks to a combination of brilliant leadership, plain good luck, and code-breaking.

US carrier-based dive bombers led by the intrepid Commander Wade McClusky Jr. swiftly sank three Japanese carriers. A fourth Japanese carrier was sunk soon after.

Midway turned the course of the Pacific naval war and spelled inevitable defeat for Japan in World War II.

US Navy code breakers had secretly deciphered Japan’s naval codes, so US Admiral Nimitz knew the Japanese fleet’s movements and timing. Nimitz positioned three US carriers northwest of Hawaii and ambushed the oncoming Japanese fleet heading for Hawaii.

Code breaking played a key role in the Allied WWII victory. The British and Soviets also broke many German military codes. The decisive battle of Kursk and the U-boat war were primarily won thanks to code breaking. Ever since, the US has made signals intelligence (SIGINT) a key part of military operations.

Fast forward to last week’s furor over electronic snooping under the PRISM program by the US National Security Agency (NSA) into America’s nine big internet providers. We should not have been surprised. Surveillance and spying cannot be stopped unless forcefully constrained. Intelligence, like fire, to quote Ben Franklin, is “a useful servant; but a terrible master.”

The National Security Agency is America’s largest but least known spy agency. In the military, we used to jokingly call NSA, “No Such Agency.” I was invited to join NSA at the end of my US Army days, but declined.

Investigative author James Bamford has written fine books and articles about the top secret workings of NSA. Way back in the 1960’s, we knew that NSA could listen in to almost every foreign embassy in Washington and many military transmissions around the globe.

When I was covering Moscow, NSA managed to eves drop on the private phone of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. We also know that NSA’s secret “ECHELON” system was hovering up phone and fax messages around the globe.

That was fine – overseas. At home, the Supreme Court ruled that the government cannot listen to the private communications of Americans.

But 9/11 conveniently changed all that. President George Bush and his neoconservative advisors got a cowardly US Congress to enact the pernicious Patriot Act that tore down America’s constitutional safeguards and allowed the intelligence agencies to run amok under the guise of national security. Warrantless wiretaps became common. Unlimited electronic snooping spread like wildfire to Canada, Britain, Australia and New Zealand.

Most communications by phone, email, fax, Skype, Tweets are sucked up by NSA’s big ears and run through the world’s most powerful computers at NSA HQ at Fort Meade Maryland and its many branch locations.

President Obama asserted this week that the PRISM program only collected metadata – that is, patterns rather than reading mail. NSA’s chief claimed snooping in the US thwarted numerous terrorist attacks.

Both claims are hard to believe.

The US security state keeps growing. Any communications of possible interest are read under the impossibly vague anti-terrorism laws. If I am a subject of interest because I read Muslim religious sites on the internet, then anyone who emails me also becomes a suspect, and anyone who contacts them, and so ad infinitum.

The endless faux “war on terror” sanctions all violations of personal rights. Its is the magic lantern of the far right, a carte blanche pushing the US and its allies ever further to the right. Once bad laws like the Patriot Act are established, they rarely go away.

Americans will just have to get used to acting as if they live in old Communist East Germany or the Soviet Union. Anything sent electronically becomes government property. Privacy has been repealed by the 342-page Patriot Act. The big internet providers are becoming government accomplices.

Amazingly, polls show a third of Americans think all government surveillance is good if it protects them from “terrorism,” whatever that is. Many Germans thought similarly in the 1930’s.

As an American, I am hugely proud of our code breaker’s triumph at Midway. But dismayed and angry that today our SIGINT efforts are aimed at our citizens.

The Best of Eric Margolis

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