9:30 AM EDT, September 30, 2013
PARIS -- There is no reverse gear on the machine of governmental power. If power exists, it will be seized and exploited. To do what? That will be revealed in the course of this power's employment. Its potential uses will automatically be discovered by those who have it or seize it and may provide surprises.
Nearly everyone concerned with international public affairs agrees that this Snowden affair simply revealed the already insatiable official appetite for access to and control of all accessible information (not that this whistleblower revealed anything but bizarre details, merely confirming the scale of what was already widely assumed to be true at the NSA and among its contractors).
The quest for every aspect of information that can be seized from everyone in the United States, as well as everyone wired-in abroad, is not motivated by this information's immediate security utility or contribution to long-term government policymaking. That would be rational and unsurprising, although in many ways outrageous and politically dangerous.
To loot everything findable in today's digital clouds is born of the power to do it, and to transfer it to the vast information hangers being constructed in the American West, owned by the National Security Agency, where algorithms can produce information on anything and everything about everyone in the world -- including, as international opinion now recognizes, the individuals an American president might now or one day want to have killed -- it's all potentially useful information.
Since an unknown and incalculable population of the world's politically conscious population, and their governments, are increasingly being turned against the U.S. by its exercise of overreaching power, an unarticulated defensive dread is inspired by these ever-extending searches to force-stuff the craw of American government -- like those force-fed prisoners at Guantanamo -- with the raw material of power enhancement. The demand for more and more comes from the instinct or calculation of presidents and their staffs and seconds, the ambitions of generals, and the avarice of business corporations for whom the wealth and resources of the most powerful government on earth now are all but totally allied and integrated with their own, including the most intimate and sensitive echelons of government.
An incidental aspect of this has been the contrasting levels of classified information and power demonstrated or claimed by Edward Snowden in his interview with Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, from the banal to the highest ("I, sitting at my desk, certainly had the authorities to wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant, to a federal judge or even the president, if I had a personal email"), and thus the practical meaninglessness of the classification system.
The lowly Bradley Manning, victim of conscience at his computer in Iraq, was routinely reading and eventually downloading to Wikileaks the party gossip, chit-chat and potentially embarrassing personal judgments of American diplomats in foreign embassies.
His work at the same time included evidence of unacknowledged and unprosecuted U.S. war crimes, as in the video he made public of the casual murder by a helicopter machine-gunner of Iraqi civilians trying to help people he already had shot, including Reuters journalists, as well as children of the rescuers ("they shouldn't have brought them along"). According to the Washington Post, there are some 500,000 employees of private consultancies who today have access to top secret information.
You would think this undisciplined distribution of information a security scandal, but the scandal actually revealed is its evidence of the degree to which private businesses have become integral to the state system. Booz Allen Hamilton, where Snowden worked, is only one of the most prominent (eighth on the list of the 100 top government contractors), a multi-billion-dollar company which made incredible profit in the two years preceding a recent Washington Post report, 98 percent of which comes from consultancy or other tasks for the U.S. government which in the past would have been performed by (non-profit-making) military or civilian government staff.
As by now is widely known, Booz Allen is owned by the Carlyle Group, a leveraged-buyout firm which purchases companies with borrowed money, passing the debt onto its acquisitions, keeping the surplus for itself and notably for its members, who in recent years have included George H.W. Bush, James Baker, Frank Carlucci, Arthur Levitt and other former officials. According to the 2010 Washington Post report by Dana Priest and William Arkin, "Top Secret America," there are at least 1,931 private companies working mostly on classified matters in some 10,000 locations in the U.S. alone. Nearly all of them were created or presently are run by former officials with staff that, like Snowden, were formed in government work.
The influence of this profitable federal-private partnership is multiplied when the work is, as in the NSA case, largely secret, which means that it can make offers to American companies in the "Big Data" or "metadata" field that they can't refuse, which is why, despite denials, it is generally assumed -- certainly outside the U.S. -- that all of the American data, computer and Internet companies have backdoors through which the government passes.
Thus on Monday, the EU commissioner for justice, Viviane Reding, demanded that 12 detailed questions get answered about U.S. collection of data in Europe and what use is made of it before several currently scheduled negotiations proceed, implying that this should include President Obama's proposed new transatlantic trade alliance. Even France's rightist National Front Party leader, Marine Le Pen, has described American electronic surveillance as "a very grave menace to democracy and our public liberties" and proposed that Europe give Snowden political asylum.
How is this system to be checked and reversed? It is a form of state capitalism practiced by a government that, rather than controlling it, is controlled by it, because of the development in the past 20 years of an electoral system dominated by money and commercial television. Both parties must conform to their exigencies. Historically, such systems have fallen only to wars or revolution. A highly un-American thought.
(Visit William Pfaff's Web site for more on his latest book, "The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America's Foreign Policy" (Walker & Co., $25), at http://www.williampfaff.com.)
Copyright © 2014, Tribune Media Services