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Weissman writes: "The hornets' nest that Ed Snowden stirred up has already cost the US economy an estimated $180 billion, and the damage will likely become a full-fledged disaster."

Edward Snowden. (illustration: Jason Seiler/TIME Magazine)
Edward Snowden. (illustration: Jason Seiler/TIME Magazine)

US Intelligence? Not Even Close

By Steve Weissman, Reader Supported News

23 May 14


emember oxymorons, those incongruous, paradoxical, and seemingly self-contradicting terms like jumbo shrimp, military justice, and Congressional ethics? Add one to your list: US Intelligence.

Whatever one thinks of Edward Snowden – and I admit to being a fan from the start – his ability to walk away with the National Security Agency’s family jewels hardly makes the US intelligence community look intelligent.

Nor does the stunning failure of US spooks to foresee how Vladimir Putin would react to Washington and its European allies stage-managing an anti-Russian coup in Kiev (Part I and Part II) and openly challenging Moscow for control of the Eurasian heartland.

To avoid confusing readers still mired in the Cold War, I am not siding with Putin or jumping from one side to the other. In annexing Crimea, Putin broke international law and Russia's treaty commitments to Ukraine. By placing his troops near Ukraine's border, he heightened the threat level much too high, including the threat of a nuclear accident. But the greater blame goes to Washington and its European allies for provoking the crisis – and for doing it with such rotten intelligence.

Back in September, when Bill and Hillary Clinton graced the Ukrainian oligarch Victor Pinchuk's Yalta European Strategy (YES) conference in Crimea, they joined with other global leaders to encourage then-president Viktor Yanukovych and other Ukrainian leaders to press ahead with the country’s turn toward Brussels and away from Moscow. They thought it was a done deal, and Hillary even gave a public political blessing to the oligarch Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s “chocolate king,” who is widely expected to become the country’s next president in the election this Sunday.

If they were listening, the Clintons also heard Vladimir Putin’s man on Ukraine – the economist Sergey Glazyev – warn that Moscow would never accept Ukraine's moving so deeply into the Western orbit. Glazyev pointedly asked whether Europe was prepared to pay the billions of dollars Ukraine owed Russia’s Gazprom for past purchases of natural gas. He also threatened that Russian-speaking separatist groups in Ukraine’s south and east could cause Russia to consider current borders void. Rupert Murdoch's Times of London even reported on Glazyev’s views under the headline “Russia threatens to back Ukraine split.”

Where was US Intelligence? Not the spooks who were helping US Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt organize and fund the “civil society” opposition that took to the Maidan, first to pressure Yanukovych and then to overthrow him. But the eyes and ears and analysts whose surveillance state is supposed to know everybody’s secrets. Where was their understanding of what Washington and its European allies would provoke Putin to do?

The costs of their failure are now obvious. Putin has Crimea with its naval bases, submarine pens, and vast undersea oil and gas deposits, and will not have to spend a single kopeck trying to rebuild the desolate rust-belt economy of the Ukrainian south and east. Ukraine’s likely new president, Poroshenko – a master of the oligarchic corruption that plagues his country – has spoken out against a referendum on joining NATO and seems likely to find a negotiated settlement with Putin. Billions of dollars from Europe and the International Monetary Fund will go to Moscow to pay off Ukraine’s past debts. German industrialists, London bankers, and other European business people have rebelled against any serious sanctions that would hurt their thriving business with Russia. Gazprom has just signed a 30-year, $400 billion deal to provide China with natural gas, making Russia Beijing’s junior partner and seriously setting back Washington’s grab for Eurasia. And, unless Washington and its NATO allies do something else really stupid, Putin will pull his troops back from the Ukrainian border and walk away the winner.

US Intelligence? Not even close.

But wait. Step away from Ukraine and US Intelligence looks even more oxymoronic. The hornets’ nest that Ed Snowden stirred up has already cost the US economy an estimated $180 billion, and the damage will likely become a full-fledged disaster.

A dramatic new twist on the story appeared last week after Glenn Greenwald published his wonderfully readable “No Place to Hide.” Glenn also released a new batch of Snowden’s NSA documents. As most of you probably know, one of those documents contains NSA photographs of technicians from their Tailored Access Operations (TAO) unit intercepting packages of servers, routers, and other network gear from Cisco Systems, and implanting a beacon into the device, which allowed NSA to monitor the transmission of information. The NSA technicians then repackaged the device and sent it on to the customer.

Seeing the widely circulated photographs, Cisco was horrified. According to the Financial Times , Cisco’s CEO John Chambers wrote to President Obama demanding “‘standards of conduct’ to rein in government surveillance so that national security objectives do not interfere with the US’s leading position in the global technology market.”

Marc Andreessen, a venture capitalist and one of Silicon Valley’s legendary figures, voiced similar sentiments this week. “The level of trust in U.S. companies has been seriously damaged, especially but not exclusively outside the U.S.,” he said. “Every time a new shoe drops — and there are 10,000 of them — it serves a blow to the U.S.”

No one should expect Cisco, Microsoft, Google, Facebook and other digital giants to stand up against the NSA or lead a serious movement against the surveillance state. As “No Place to Hide” and Snowden’s NSA documents show in gruesome detail, these folks have been too much part of the problem for much too long, and they simply want the controversy and the whistleblowers to go away. A far better bet is that individual scientists and technicians will create spy-free alternatives, and many of their efforts will find homes beyond US borders.

“Already, a number of European tech companies are promoting their emails and chat services as an alternative to offerings from Google and Facebook, trumpeting the fact that they do not – and will not – provide user data to the NSA,” Greenwald writes in the epilogue to “No Place to Hide.”

Snowden himself has gone even further. Speaking by videoconference to the South by Southwest conference in March, he urged developers, cryptographers, and privacy activists to make mass surveillance significantly more expensive for government agencies – if not impossible.

According to The New York Times, one of the audience twittered a question. Could any data ever be truly safe from a malicious hacker or the NSA?

“Let’s put it this way,” Snowden said with a bit of a laugh. “The United States government has assembled a massive investigation team into me personally, into my work with journalists, and they still have no idea you know what documents were provided to the journalists, what they have, what they don’t have, because encryption works.”

In other words, the surveillance state is neither inevitable nor unbeatable, and it’s oxymoronic to think that it is.

A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New Left monthly Ramparts, Steve Weissman lived for many years in London, working as a magazine writer and television producer. He now lives and works in France, where he is researching a new book, "Big Money and the Corporate State: How Global Banks, Corporations, and Speculators Rule and How to Nonviolently Break Their Hold."

Reader Supported News is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to Reader Supported News. your social media marketing partner
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