The revelations of former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden about the massive surveillance activities of the National Security Agency (NSA) are in one sense no surprise. It figures that the prime spy agency of U.S. imperialism would use the vast resources and technology at its disposal for the most elaborate and pervasive eavesdropping in history. But the details and sheer scope of the operation that have been revealed are nonetheless chilling: it is a malicious intrusion into the lives of hundreds of millions of people. That said, it is merely one aspect of a repressive apparatus that aims to target and repress a wide variety of perceived opponents – ultimately the working and poor masses of the world. We salute Snowden’s courage and self-sacrifice as part of the fight against the power and viciousness of American capitalism and its state.
In early June, Snowden revealed himself as the source of documents sent to the Guardian and Washington Post newspapers, outlining a monumental surveillance effort by the NSA in the U.S. and internationally. It included operations with the goal of tracking the phone calls and monitoring the internet activity of virtually all Americans. One NSA document claims that its programs cover “nearly everything a typical user does on the internet,” including the content of emails, websites visited and searches. The international aspect included targeting 38 foreign embassies, including those of the U.S.’s imperialist friends, for eavesdropping; along the same lines, Snowden reported the bugging of European Union offices in Europe and the U.S. Importantly, these operations have been carried out with the cooperation of the largest American internet and telecommunications companies.
Barack Obama was elected president in large part as a softer face of American capitalism, compared to the war-mongering administration of Bush and Cheney. As a candidate, he hailed whistle-blowing as “acts of courage and patriotism, which can sometimes save lives and often saves taxpayer dollars” and said they “should be encouraged rather than stifled as they have been during the Bush administration.” But since his election he and his administration have been setting records for going after the very people he once praised – most prominently Chelsea Manning.*
Since its massive spying program was exposed, the Obama administration has done a rather clumsy job of political navigation and damage control. When the news of the leaks first broke in June but before the source was known, a White House spokesperson declared: “The President welcomes a discussion of the trade-offs between security and civil liberties.” This was obviously disingenuous, considering that this information would have remained secret to the public had Snowden not blown the lid. And James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, brazenly lied to Congress and the public, claiming that the intelligence collected “cannot be used to intentionally target any U.S. citizen, any other U.S. person, or anyone located within the United States.” He subsequently explained that such formulations were the “least most untruthful” he could make.
Once Snowden went public, the U.S. pursued an intensive squeeze on other countries to serve him up – including China, where he holed up briefly in Hong Kong, and Russia, where he has gained temporary asylum. It has also heavily pressured other governments suspected of offering him assistance, most provocatively when it induced Western European authorities to refuse air space to a plane carrying Bolivian President Morales home from a conference in Moscow on July 3, simply because Snowden was suspected of being on board! Contradictorily, the U.S. government and corporate media have sought to both demonize him and downplay the significance of his revelations.
Frustrated in its efforts, the administration toned down its rhetoric somewhat. At his August 9 press conference Obama said that “we can and must be more transparent” and backhandedly credited Snowden for the information that “initiated the debate in a very passionate but not always fully informed way.” But the U.S. still tried to apprehend him. Snowden faces charges of at least espionage and theft of government property, if not “aiding the enemy” – punishable by life imprisonment or execution.
The Obama administration’s support for the massive spying program complements its moves to disengage from direct conflicts in the Middle East and Africa. What Obama wants is not to end the dominant role of American imperialism but to preserve that status by shifting from mass land armies to high-tech means, including drones, special operations and cyber attacks. In this he has general agreement among the political and military establishment, and ramped-up surveillance fits into that vision.
After the revelations and hurried briefings on Capitol Hill, there were expressions of shock and indignation in Congress. The Amash-Conyers amendment in the House aimed at curbing some NSA powers but was narrowly voted down, 205-217. Some Congressional complaints were simply about not being informed. Other complaints came from a variety of sources, including the get-Obama-for-anything Tea Party racists, libertarian conservatives concerned about the expanding powers of the Federal government and liberals concerned about civil liberties.
But none of the protests coming out of Congress can change the fact that it passed the laws that allow intensified surveillance, among other attacks on civil liberties. These were not just those enacted in the political hysteria following September 11, 2001. The re-authorization of the Patriot Act in 2005, the Protect America Act of 2007 and the Foreign Intelligence Security Act of 2008 were all passed long afterward and have been legal buttresses for the NSA’s far-flung spying. Neither Democrats nor Republicans are for dropping such programs; they only want them carried out to a less embarrassing extent. And many from both parties, particularly those closer to the reins of power, defend the programs as they are.
Congress also created the “Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court,” which rubber-stamps all kinds of government requests for spying. This court’s proceedings are non-adversarial (that is, there is no counter-presentation against the government side) and secret; indeed, anyone who is subject to them is barred by law from discussing even that fact in public. This is truly reminiscent of George Orwell’s Big Brother. It is noteworthy that the act creating this Orwellian court was adopted in 1978, under Democratic President Jimmy Carter and with strong Democratic majorities in both House and Senate.
Thus, with the backing of both major capitalist parties, Congress and the courts, the Obama administration can truthfully insist that it is following the law of the land. This reflects a consensus at the highest levels of the ruling class and its general staff over the need for such operations.
Congress’s display of opposition was in part a reflection of the reaction of the American public. In the immediate aftermath of the revelations there was widespread alarm and anger at what people learned about government intrusions into their lives. A Gallup Poll in early June found more Americans (53%) disapproving than approving (37%) of the spy programs Snowden uncovered; a Reuters Poll in the same time period found that more Americans saw Snowden as a “patriot” than a “traitor.”
Under the barrage of propaganda about national security being breached, the numbers sympathetic to Snowden started to go down. Snowden’s need to accept asylum in a rival imperialist power with an unsavory reputation for repression will likely be used to bring down his approval ratings further. But it is still impressive that even under pressure only a minority thought that Snowden was wrong on such a sensitive issue over which the government wants him severely punished.
Moreover, the sizeable minority of Americans willing to support Snowden’s exposure of some of their government’s most closely guarded secrets is further confirmation that the “9/11 syndrome” is not all-powerful. A Pew research poll of late July indicated that for the first time since the question was asked in 2004, more (47%) thought the government has gone too far in restricting the average person’s civil liberties than thought it hasn’t gone far enough (35%). As post-9/11 fears fade and disaffection with foreign military adventures grows, the revelations of the government’s intrusions have deepened distrust of the government.
Interestingly, a good section of the conservative electorate has joined the opposition to the spy programs, despite its national security theme. A good many are simply hardened racists who will seize any opportunity to oppose a Black Democratic president. But for other conservative white workers and middle-class people, there is genuine alarm at the unannounced government intrusion into privacy that is still held precious. This sentiment reflects the package of individually-oriented democratic rights in this country that remain genuine gains, even though they are in part enabled by American imperialism’s exploitation and oppression of much of the world. They are also to an extent trade-offs for the lack of specific working-class rights. And these gains are being seriously threatened. On this issue, conservatives’ concerns intersect with those of masses of Blacks and Latinos, militant workers, liberal middle-class people and others who are more disposed towards strong government action in other areas – like providing jobs and services for the masses of the population.
The reactions of other countries to the efforts to nail Snowden reflect their respective relationships to U.S. imperialism. Most cooperative have been the governments in Western Europe, as shown by the incident with Bolivian President Morales. It is tempting to see as mere subservience the extent to which they will go to please American efforts, even after the reports of the NSA’s spying on them. There is certainly an element of truth in that, but it is a bit more complicated, as spy games usually are.
Snowden himself asserted that NSA spies are “in bed together with the Germans and most other Western states,” in an effort coordinated by the NSA’s Foreign Affairs Directorate, and that this partnership is organized so that authorities in other countries “can insulate their political leaders from the backlash.” This makes sense. Despite national rivalries and some chafing at U.S. dominance, European countries have shared in imperialist plunder with the U.S. for decades, and benefited from American geopolitical dominance. Their business and political leaders gain from acquiring information from the U.S., and so much the better if they have a certain political shield that even Obama doesn’t have.
Less cooperative have been China and Russia, both of whom have rebuffed American efforts to turn over Snowden while on their soil. Their refusal reflects their sense of independence from American foreign policy and in the background the growing geopolitical rivalry with the U.S. – but none of the players want to go too far. The recent meeting between Obama and Chinese leader Xi Jinping must have been interesting when the subject of Chinese cyber attacks on U.S. firms was pressed by the American side. Snowden’s leaks were just coming out, and the leaker was quoted anonymously as saying: “We hack everyone everywhere. We like to make a distinction between us and the others. But we are in almost every country in the world. We are not at war in these countries.” This did not, however, get in the way of important discussions on economic investments.
As for Russia, President Vladimir Putin has granted Snowden asylum. The Russian government’s supposed concern for Snowden’s human rights is downright ironic, given its own record of jailing and assassinating dissidents and human rights advocates. Putin obviously has no principled objection to spying, especially given his own background as a high-ranking KGB officer in the Soviet Union. Nor does he have any problem with collaborating with the U.S.’s spying and repression, especially when dealing with common enemies like Islamists. Putin indicated that he does not want a matter of the security services to affect overall political relations; indeed, that is how the U.S. and Russia have conducted business since the early days of the Cold War. Still, he is happy to have control over Snowden and his information, even though his asylum decision has become a significant sore point in increasingly contentious relations with the U.S.
Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua seemed eager to grant Snowden asylum, though the U.S.’s obvious intent to interdict his transfer did not make such an outcome likely. It is a high-profile opportunity for the leaders of these countries to embellish their anti-imperialist credentials and thus partially obscure the poverty and oppression suffered by their own people. Whatever their motivations, we defend the rejection of U.S. pressure by the leaders of any of these oppressed countries and we welcome any protection of Snowden.
Capitalist governments have traditionally harnessed the power of technological development to feed their repressive apparatuses; today’s high-tech is no exception. Given the revolving door that has traditionally characterized the connection of the U.S. government with other sectors of private business, military and political officials increasingly populate high-tech industry, while the industry itself is asserting its importance at the White House, Capitol Hill and the Pentagon. Some of these links have taken a while to develop. With their casual, geeky, enlightened image, internet-related companies in particular stayed relatively aloof from Washington in their early years; but cooperation has become far more pervasive and open in recent times.
Now, in the face of these exposures, and worried with good reason about their overseas business interests, companies like Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo and Apple have tried to distance themselves from the government by protesting the extent of the eavesdropping. But their supporting role is clear, and their silence until recently has been significant. A couple of small U.S.-based internet firms, including one (Lavabit) used by Snowden for anonymity and encryption, have chosen to shut down in the face of current and anticipated court orders that they hand over their clients’ data. Their small size and particular functions suggest that they are exceptions that prove the rule of high-tech complicity.
The major telecommunications companies have not even gone along with the feeble protests of the internet firms. Cast more in the tradition of big industry, and with generally a far longer history of nurturing the two-way ties with the capitalist state on various levels, Verizon, et al have no interest in crossing government agencies.
The Snowden affair highlights the continued farming out of government functions to private outfits that are less subject to public pressure. In such sensitive areas as security and general military affairs, one might expect the government to keep its operations under its direct control. But the neo-liberal privatization trend has had its impact. Neo-liberalism is primarily aimed at boosting profits by using “the market,” an allegedly neutral and disinterested force, to reduce wages and services to workers and the poor. But the ideology has become so pervasive in ruling-class circles that it has reached even the sensitive but growing national security industry. Like pigs at a gilded trough, well-connected firms gorge on lucrative government contracts while government programs for the working class shrivel under the watchword of “fiscal austerity.”
The company Snowden worked for before going public, Booz Allen Hamilton, is a shining example of the privatization trend and the chummy, blurred relationship between private capital and the capitalist state. John McConnell, vice chairman of the firm, was previously Director of National Intelligence; and the current Director, Clapper, was a former Booz Allen official. The company depends almost totally on government contracts, much of which cover functions previously reserved for government bodies.
Often enough the general arrangement has led some operators in private companies to pursue reactionary aims with their own psychopathic agendas: witness the atrocities perpetrated by members of private security firms like Blackwater in Iraq that made them more feared and loathed than even the regular army. In the specific case of Snowden, however, a person of some conscience, who grew disillusioned with the U.S. government nearly a decade ago, was able to slip through the cracks; through employment by Booz Allen Hamilton and other outside contractors he gained security clearance and access to top secret data. (It is also noteworthy that Snowden’s security clearance was conducted by an outside contractor as well.)
The obsessive use of surveillance today is reminiscent of former FBI head J. Edgar Hoover and his wiretaps, break-ins, agent provocateurs, etc. That sort of thing has by no means disappeared, but it was modified in the wake of Watergate and the decline of the radical movements of the 60s and early 70s (as the government felt less threatened by domestic protest movements). But with the impetus of the 9/11 attacks, the availability of new technology and a general ruling-class concern with social order, dirty tricks are back in vogue and on a far wider scale.
As in earlier times, there can be bureaucratic bungling. But the Snowden affair is no Keystone Kops farce. The technical advances, including the distribution of information over the wide swath of the repressive apparatus, make the current and future operations of repression far more effective and pervasive than was the case even towards the end of the last century. The information provided by Snowden is by itself evidence of a massive assault on the privacy of people in and out of this country. The collection of phone records and e-mails involves a far wider sweep than the NSA has been willing to let on. It has kept its secrets and when exposed has chosen to lie and distort the range of its practices, even to Congress.
So much internet data is collected, in fact, that most of it can only be stored for a limited time. To deal with this problem, the NSA has developed systems to store “interesting” material for longer. The stated reasons, of course, are the familiar refrains of fighting terrorism and defending national security. The NSA insisted to the Guardian that its activities “are focused and specifically deployed against – and only against – legitimate foreign intelligence targets in response to requirements that our leaders need for information necessary to protect our nation and its interests.”
Sure. We wouldn’t believe such claims in any case, and on this matter at least revolutionists share the opinion of the bulk of the American population. The Pew Research poll cited above also found that 70% of Americans interviewed felt the government was collecting data for purposes other than investigating terrorism. Indeed, the NSA has passed along data it has swept up to other government agencies. In particular, a unit of the Drug Enforcement Administration is said to have obtained information from the NSA to target Americans for drug offenses – a far cry from the “national security” refrain used for the spying program. The Department of Homeland Security has notoriously inserted agents and provocateurs into the Occupy and anti-fracking movements. One account says:
In the latest post-Snowden bombshell about the extent and consequences of government spying, we learned from Reuters reporters this week that a secret branch of the DEA called the Special Operations Division – so secret that nearly everything about it is classified, including the size of its budget and the location of its office – has been using the immense pools of data collected by the NSA, CIA, FBI and other intelligence agencies to go after American citizens for ordinary drug crimes. Law enforcement agencies, meanwhile, have been coached to conceal the existence of the program and the source of the information by creating what’s called a “parallel construction,” a fake or misleading trail of evidence. So no one in the court system – not the defendant or the defense attorney, not even the prosecutor or the judge – can ever trace the case back to its true origins.
Ultimately the government’s eavesdropping is dedicated to targeting the system’s political opponents – real and imagined, immediate and longer-term – for intimidation, repression and, if need be, elimination. It is part of a wider employment of “national security,” a taste of which we saw this year in the reaction to the Boston terror attacks. The lockdown of a major city in the name of fighting terrorism (an effort that in the end did not aid in the capture of the surviving suspect) was accompanied by a wave of anti-Muslim attacks and sentiments fueled in part by the media and politicians. The citizenry was bluntly warned on the night of the bombing by the “voice of reason” of NBC’s Tom Brokaw that “beginning tomorrow morning early, there are going to be much tougher security considerations all across the country, and however exhausted we may be by that, we’re going to have to learn to live with them.”
For now, the more obvious and immediate targets of the surveillance programs will be radical Islamists and others suspected of terrorism. But the net is already being cast incredibly wide, and as the capitalist crisis deepens further and class and other social struggles sharpen, leftists, union activists, immigrant workers, Black militants, foreign rivals etc., will be set up and placed in the crosshairs of surveillance. It is not much of a leap for intelligence agencies to, say, tell a company like Wal-Mart of workers’ organizing, or to find and distribute information about protesters against police brutality.
As we stated at the top of this article, revolutionaries are not taken aback by the extent of the government’s internal spying. We know the state is run by and for the capitalist class, and that that class will defend its exploitative interests by any means necessary. Therefore defending Edward Snowden from imperialist persecution, as well as defending other whistle-blowers like Chelsea Manning* and Julian Assange, is a necessary part of our revolutionary perspective. Any relief of their plight is welcome, particularly as a result of popular pressure. We can support legal means to contain the government’s spying power. But we must say that any temporary or tactical victories will not stop the ruling class’s employment of high-tech repression that the surveillance programs are part of.
The blowing open of the spy effort has brought a fresh dose of reality to those who thought Obama’s election and re-election might mean a real change in the way the U.S. government conducts business. And Snowden’s revelations are a wake-up call to anyone who wants a better country and world but has not yet realized that the governors of this country, Democratic or Republican, will not hesitate to go to virtually any length to protect the profits, power and privileges of the capitalist class.
Even in today’s relatively quiet domestic political scene, the capitalist state has no problem with violating the privacy and rights of even its most enthusiastic supporters. When that state and capitalist class is really threatened, their capacity for violence, coercion and general disregard for the niceties of democracy will be far greater. Yes, “Big Brother” is real. But it is not exactly like the omnipotent, totalitarian state depicted by Orwell in the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (which among other things had cameras monitoring every home). Rather, it is an increasingly centralized and authoritarian state but one in closely locked interests and control with the large private banks and corporations. These forces must be met with the collective power of workers, the oppressed and their allies. In Orwell’s fictional case and in the real one, the solution is political: the overthrow of the capitalist state and the construction of a new state, and through it a new economy, ruled by the working class.
Even in decay, capitalism maintains a certain dynamism to develop technology. But not only are such advances chained to otherwise backward systems of production and social use; they are also intertwined with blatant violations of the individual and collective rights promised by the bourgeois-democratic revolutions. But there is another side to the revelations about the state of communications technology. It is not hard, for example, to imagine how the ability to distribute data and other information could be used to develop an economy that is planned and yet flexible, run in the interests of the great majority of the world’s population. Such an economy will only be possible by taking political and economic power out of the hands of the bloodsuckers who now rule and putting it in the hands of those who really make the system run.
* On August 22, 2013, the day after sentencing, Manning announced that she was transgender. "As I transition into this next phase of my life, I want everyone to know the real me. I am Chelsea Manning. I am a female..."
1. Guardian, July 31, 2013.
2. New York Times, June 7, 2013.
3. See The Hill, June 12, 2013;
4. Spiegel Onlne, July 8, 2013;
5. Sinocism China Newsletter, June 2, 2013.
6. On Bolivia, see “Bolivian Workers’ Struggle Exposes Morales Government”; on Venezuela, see for example “Venezuela: Support Dwindling for Chávez’s Fake Socialism”.
7. Greenwald, Guardian, July 31,2013.
8. See for example, “FBI Surveillance Of Occupy Wall Street Detailed,”, Huffington; and “Anti-Fracking Group Adds Claims to Surveillance Suit”, The Legal Intelligencer (www.law.com).
9. The NSA-DEA police state tango, Salon.
10. Quoted in “Anti-Muslim Bigotry & the War on Civil Liberties; After the Boston Bombing”, LRP Bulletin, Summer 2013.