News that the National Security Agency spied on 35 world leaders, a fact revealed in data released by Edward Snowden, has focused on the damage to US foreign relations and the sheer scope of this outrageous behavior. But here's another take on what's really wrong at NSA:
The NSA's Signals Intelligence Directorate actively sought out phone numbers of political VIPs worldwide from other government officials. A NSA memo outlining this effort was entitled "Customers Can Help SID Obtain Targetable Phone Numbers". From UK's The Guardian:
"In one recent case," the memo notes, "a US official provided NSA with 200 phone numbers to 35 world leaders … Despite the fact that the majority is probably available via open source, the PCs [intelligence production centers] have noted 43 previously unknown phone numbers. These numbers plus several others have been tasked."Among the numbers: That of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, which revelation has created a fire storm of anti-US criticism across Europe.
But who were those NSA "customers"? Answer: Other US government entities that consumed the agency's intelligence, or at least interpretations of its intelligence. Outfits like, oh, you know, the State Department, the Pentagon and, last but not least, the White House.
Yes, that's right. Powerful government spy agencies regard other units of our national government not as purveyors of foreign policy or managers of the nation or protectors of our security or even partners in the process of national defense and foreign policy, but as ... customers. Well, there's the problem, right there.
And the NSA proselytized its "customers," the way your favorite hardware store chain might proselytize you as its customer by offering its affinity rewards card or asking you to help it by filling out a consumer survey.
It's true: The NSA is a business, and it's in the business of spying on important people around the world. Not just to provide critical national intelligence on military or terrorist threats, but to gauge possible trends in economic policy, trade issues, and more. To get a leg up, just like corporations fighting to the death as they try to gain an edge over one another in their product and service marketing. Which is why corporations increasingly engage in private spying.
The bigger picture: The NSA is using its "customers" -- important other units of the government some of which supposedly are in charge of the agency, to improve its product -- or at least improve the way the product looks, feels and smells. And why would it do that? To gain more "sales" of its product, which is secret information. And why sell more? To earn more profit. In this case, profits being gargantuan secret intelligence budgets funded with our tax dollars.
Yup, it's now clear: The National Security Agency and probably much of the rest of our shadow government is now operating on the for-profit corporate model that has lately proved so disastrous to our economy and the world economy.
Note one other thing: Laws and rules require that, in other arenas, the federal government has to be careful to protect privacy and personal information. Thus, your immigration status cannot be queried by a bank that might be considering giving you a loan. Likewise, by federal law your medical records are completely private (except that this privacy is being eroded by so-called "fetus protection act" laws in some states, crafted by conservatives and obliging medical staffs to turn you over to the cops if they think your lifestyle and its impact on your health might harm your pregnancy). Privacy laws are good precautions, in the main, against a national security state and in service to the Fourth Amendment.
But no such limits on spies, apparently. Spies can hit up individuals who work for, say, the State Department or White House, to turn over their Roladexes of private phone numbers, not because there's an identified threat but just because, hey, that info might come in handy -- especially handy for the NSA budget staff. This is totally out of line with how government should work, and apparently our intelligence community has been doing this going back almost to 9/11, if not longer.
Welcome to your crappy democracy.