The American agency directed to collect foreign intelligence for the United States government is currently collecting foreign intelligence for the United States government. If that doesn’t sound like much of a bombshell, it’s because it isn’t. Or, conversely, it’s because you are just a government “tool,” as Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg would describe you. That duality of extremes is ever-present in the world of the transparency activists trying to take down American spy networks.
In the New York Times Magazine profile of Laura Poitras, the activist working with Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald, the author describes Greenwald as being “hailed as either a fearless defender of individual rights or a nefarious traitor, depending on your perspective.” In the world of the Times–and certainly that of Greenwald, Poitras, and Snowden–there is no other choice, just as to the self-aggrandizing Ellsberg you either believe he is the hero in his own saga and that Snowden is the hero in his, or you are giving up on the battle to keep your inner totalitarian at bay.
Pollsters fall into this trap too. As I wrote in July, Quinnipiac polled respondents on the following question: “Do you regard Edward Snowden, the national security consultant who released information to the media about the phone scanning program, as more of a traitor, or more of a whistle-blower?” Traitor or hero, traitor or hero–lather, rinse, repeat. But the truth, as always, is more complicated than that: in fact, Snowden most likely qualifies as neither a whistle blower nor a traitor. And sometimes the truth is downright mundane, as in the item with which I led off this post. This “revelation,” that spies spy, comes to us via Poitras, writing in Der Spiegel:
The internal NSA documents correspond to instructions from the State Department, which then-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signed off on in July 2009. With the 29-page report called “Reporting and Collection Needs: The United Nations,” the State Department called on its diplomats to collect information on key players of the UN.
According to this document, the diplomats were asked to gather numbers for phones, mobiles, pagers and fax machines. They were called on to amass phone and email directories, credit card and frequent-flier customer numbers, duty rosters, passwords and even biometric data.
When SPIEGEL reported on the confidential cable back in 2010, the State Department tried to deflect the criticism by saying that it was merely helping out other agencies. In reality, though, as the NSA documents now clearly show, they served as the basis for various clandestine operations targeting the UN and other countries.
Experts on the UN have long suspected that the organization has become a hotbed of activity for various intelligence agencies. After leaving Prime Minister Tony Blair’s cabinet, former British Secretary of State for International Development Clare Short admitted that in the run-up to the Iraq War in 2003 she had seen transcripts of conversations by then-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
The article details Poitras’s claim that the U.S. conducts surveillance on the EU and the United Nations. The UN is a dictator’s playground through which Western interests are relentlessly targeted and undermined and genocidal maniacs the world over are shielded from the consequences of their murderous depravity. This is all done while furthering anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and weakening sanctions regimes. The UN does this largely from its perch on American territory and with the help of billions of dollars of American taxpayer money. Of course the U.S. collects intelligence there.
But to those who are instinctively suspicious of the American government, even basic practices of modern statecraft take on a nefarious frame. There’s an interesting nugget along these lines in the Times Magazine profile of Poitras, when the author relayed a question to Snowden about Poitras:
In response to a question about when he realized he could trust Poitras, he wrote: “We came to a point in the verification and vetting process where I discovered Laura was more suspicious of me than I was of her, and I’m famously paranoid.”
Snowden was surprised to encounter someone more paranoid than he is. Together, these birds of a feather joined Greenwald.
There is another point worth making here. The American public has been fairly sensible throughout this NSA saga, uncomfortable with the sense that the NSA’s broad power has been abused (NSA employees spying on love interests would–and should–make most readers squirm) but unwilling to jettison the program. A poll late last month found, for example, that 70 percent thought the NSA data was being used for purposes other than combating terrorism, yet 50 percent still approved of the surveillance program.
Revelations about spying on the UN is unlikely to change that. Americans seem to be broadly comfortable with spy agencies conducting foreign surveillance. And they don’t tend to think too highly of the UN’s problem-solving capability. The idea that the U.S. spied on the UN’s nuclear watchdog, for example, will probably be encouraging to most Americans as the U.S. works to stop Iran and others (like Syria) from obtaining nuclear weapons. If Poitras, Snowden, and Greenwald want to turn public opinion against the American government, defending the UN’s sullied honor is probably not the best way to do so.