As best as I can follow it, so far the revelations of Edward Snowden seem to be focused only on the technological capacity of the NSA to collect and store data and some information about procedures and information that has been collected. There seems to be little or no information about what the purpose of it is and what is being done with the information. The statements made by representatives of the administration generally attempt to justify it in the name of protection from terrorists.
Today's bombshell is about NSA spying activities aimed at the offices of the European Union.
The predictable reactions of the nationalistic defenders of the NSA have run along the lines of:
It's perfectly legal for them to spy of foreign governments.
If they weren't spying on foreign governments they wouldn't be doing their job.
Those justifications are of course derived from the cold war context in which the NSA was established. The US and the USSR were engaged in an ongoing military arms race and political competition for influence in third world countries. It was considered necessary to continue and expand the sort of intelligence activities that had been developed during WWII.
In 2013 we are in a different world than that which existed in 1947. The US is in the position of being the world's sole military super power. Maintaining that position likely does require continued collection of some military intelligence. The question I want to raise is just how far does that need to go in order to protect "national security".
The specific intelligence gathering activities in this disclosure were conducted in the Washington offices of the EU and in one of their offices buildings in Brussels. Is the EU engaged in activities that pose a military threat to the American homeland? Are the bureaucrats of the EU a hot bed of terrorist activity?
The EU has no military forces. All European military forces are under the control of national governments. As a matter of policy they have been kept limited and even if combined would be decidedly puny in comparison to those of the US. The only recent complaints by the US about European military activity have been about their reluctance to supply forces to participate in various military adventures.
If any employees or officials of the EU have been brought up on charges of terrorism, I've missed it.
What the European Union is all about is economic activity. In its earlier form it was known as the European Common Market. Coordination of economic activity among the various member states remains its predominant focus and reason for existence. I find it plausible that the NSA was expending its efforts in order to obtain information of an economic rather military nature. Is this the job of the NSA?
A few days ago I did a diary in which I explored the subject of national security.
Over the years various politicians have attempted to stretch the notion of national security in various directions. The issue here is to what extent do economic and financial issues play a legitimate role in national security. We now live in a globalized world where national boundaries and national interests become more fuzzy than they were 60 years ago. At the end of WWII foreign trade constituted a very small percentage of US economic activity. It is now at about 25%. A large number of what were once the major US corporations have become complex multi-national enterprises with complex relationships through out the world. They establish their operations strictly in terms of the best return on investment and pay taxes, if at all, where ever they can cut the best deal.
Anything that goes beyond the information about the acts of spying is by necessity confined to the realm of speculation. It does seem plausible that the information being sought likely had to do with trade and financial services. Was it information that US government agencies thought they required for the conduct of government policy? Does this provide sufficient concern for national security to justify covert intelligence?
Another possibility that comes to mind is that information collected by NSA is not limited to use by government agencies. We know that private corporations participate actively in providing information to NSA and that as contractors they have major responsibilities for operation of the system. It seems possible that they may also be beneficiaries of the information. The type of information that would likely be available from monitoring EU business could certainly be very useful to firms engaged in international competition.
I think that it is time to ask questions about the activities of the NSA. The mere fact that they are spying on foreigners is no longer an automatic justification
UPDATE 1:30 PM The Guardian has just published an updated version of this story, with more information about the details and what the purpose might have been.