Tom Engelhardt writes today:
"Given how similar they sound and how easy it is to imagine one leading to the other, confusing omniscience (having total knowledge) with omnipotence (having total power) is easy enough. It’s a reasonable supposition that, before the Snowden revelations hit, America’s spymasters had made just that mistake. If the drip-drip-drip of Snowden’s mother of all leaks -- which began in May and clearly won’t stop for months to come -- has taught us anything, however, it should be this: omniscience is not omnipotence. At least on the global political scene today, they may bear remarkably little relation to each other. In fact, at the moment Washington seems to be operating in a world in which the more you know about the secret lives of others, the less powerful you turn out to be....
"Conceptually speaking, we’ve never seen anything like the National Security Agency’s urge to surveill, eavesdrop on, spy on, monitor, record, and save every communication of any sort on the planet -- to keep track of humanity, all of humanity, from its major leaders to obscure figures in the backlands of the planet. And the fact is that, within the scope of what might be technologically feasible in our era, they seem not to have missed an opportunity.
"[T]he NSA has at least 35,000 employees, possibly as many as 55,000, and an almost $11 billion budget....
"Along with the giant Internet corporations, they have been involved in a process aimed at taking away the very notion of a right to privacy in our world; yet they utterly failed to grasp the basic lesson they have taught the rest of us. If we live in an era of no privacy, there are no exemptions; if, that is, it’s an age of no-privacy for us, then it’s an age of no-privacy for them, too.
"The word 'conspiracy' is an interesting one in this context. It comes from the Latin conspirare for 'breathe the same air.' In order to do that, you need to be a small group in a small room. Make yourself the largest surveillance outfit on the planet, hire tens of thousands of private contractors — young computer geeks plunged into a situation that would have boggled the mind of George Orwell — and organize a system of storage and electronic retrieval that puts much at an insider’s fingertips, and you’ve just kissed secrecy goodnight and put it to bed for the duration.
"[I]t’s reasonable to assume that, while U.S. spymasters and operators were working at the technological frontiers of surveillance and cryptography, their model for success was distinctly antiquated. However unconsciously, they were still living with a World War II-style mindset. Back then, in an all-out military conflict between two sides, listening in on enemy communications had been at least one key to winning the war. Breaking the German Enigma codes meant knowing precisely where the enemy’s U-boats were, just as breaking Japan’s naval codes ensured victory in the Battle of Midway and elsewhere.
"Unfortunately for the NSA and two administrations in Washington, our world isn’t so clear-cut any more. Breaking the codes, whatever codes, isn’t going to do the trick. You may be able to pick up every kind of communication in Pakistan or Egypt, but even if you could listen to or read them all (and the NSA doesn’t have the linguists or the time to do so), instead of simply drowning in useless data, what good would it do you?
"What’s perhaps most striking ... is the inability of the Obama administration and its intelligence bureaucrats to grasp the nature of what’s happening to them. For that, they would need to skip those daily briefs from an intelligence community which, on the subject, seems blind, deaf, and dumb, and instead take a clear look at the world.
"In short, if the NSA’s surveillance lineup was classic New York Yankees, their season is shaping up as a last-place finish.
"Here, then, is the bottom line of the scorecard for twenty-first century Washington: omniscience, maybe; omnipotence, forget it; intelligence, not a bit of it; and no end in sight.
"[Note: A small bow of thanks to Adam Hochschild and John Cobb for helping spark this piece into existence.]"
Reckonings Editor's note: Tom Engelhardt is rarely responsible for slipping up, and this one is a minor, puzzling and forgivable overstatement —not omnipotence and not omniscience either, unless one counts sheer dead weight as the sum of knowledge. Also, it can and should be clear from reading Tom's account that intelligence is not intrinsically intelligent. This is downright Orwellian. More is less. Strength is weakness. So perhaps less Orwell's 1984, more Alice in Wonderland. No wonder (he said) I spent only one summer in Washington. It was not the heat or humidity that drove me out, not even the weighty responsibility of being the State Department's desk officer for Outer Space. In fact, that was not my title. I was a desk officer in the State Department, but even the State Department was not so crazy as to imagine the US owned outer space. My responsibility was to know the Communications Satellite Corporation, then a plublic-private enterprise. The best part was flying weekly to the United Nations to brief our ambassador, Adlai Stevenson, one of my heros. He was a fine man, if not a successful candidate for president, having the misfortune to be running against Dwight D. Eisenhower (not one of my heros, but a decent man, a good president, a fine general. I think my grandmother was in love with Adlai Stevenson, and he with her. He inscribed a biography about his life, Stuart Brown's Adlai Stevenson: Conscience in Politics, "To Eleanor Roosevelt, my conscience."
Another small bow of thanks to Tom Engelhardt for his astute analysis. Interested readers should go to www.tomdispatch.com, for diverse and consistently intelligent voices on public affairs from foreign and military policy to environmental issues, including Rebecca Solnit, Adam Hochschild, Ann Jones, Peter Van Buren, Jeremy Scahill, Bill McKibben, Andrew Bacevich, and in the old days, Chalmers Johnson. TomDispatch is invaluable. So is Tom.