America as Economic Spy: NSA's Mission Is Self-Aggrandizement, Not Fighting Terrorism

From left, National Security Agency Deputy Director Chris Inglis, National Security Agency Director Gen. Keith Alexander, Dir
From left, National Security Agency Deputy Director Chris Inglis, National Security Agency Director Gen. Keith Alexander, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Deputy Attorney General James Cole, testify on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2013, before the House Intelligence Committee hearing on potential changes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). Faced with anger over revelations about U.S. spying at home and abroad, members of Congress suggested Tuesday that programs the Obama administration says are needed to combat terrorism may have gone too far. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

The government justifies the National Security Agency's expansive domestic and foreign surveillance with essentially one argument: security.

As we learned from FOIA documents published recently, the NSA's official talking points encouraged officials to use the threat of another 9/11 to justify the surveillance programs leaked by Edward Snowden.

But this has always been a disingenuous and thinly veiled attempt to shut out legitimate criticism of programs that collect the call records of all Americans in bulk or that suck up internet communications of millions of Americans. Back in June, Gen. Keith Alexander claimed that NSA's bulk collection of call records and internet activity disrupted 54 "terror plots." In October, the Senate Judiciary Committee got Alexander to admit that this claim was wrong and misleading.

Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Mark Udall (D-CO) said the NSA dragnet call data program "played little or no role" in these 54 cases.

It's not just the lies about this spying having foiled terror plots. NSA conducts surveillance that could not conceivably have anything to do with fighting terrorists. Take, for example, the tapping of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's personal cell phone for 10 years. Or the fact that NSA has been spying on the Brazilian oil company Petrobras. In the latest news, President Obama ordered the NSA to halt surveillance of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

These have led to accusations that the U.S. is engaged in industrial espionage, using the spying capacities of intelligence agencies to gain an economic edge, instead of fighting terrorists.

European Union Commissioner for Justice Viviane Reding this week expressed outrage over revelations that NSA was sucking up the communications of tens of millions of European citizens as well as heads of state like Merkel. "This has nothing to do with fighting terrorism," she said. "Maybe it has to do with getting commercial secrets to be sucked out."

The White House explicitly denied that the NSA spies for economic warfare. "We do not use our intelligence capabilities for that purpose. We use it for security purposes," spokesman Jay Carney insisted.

Dick Cheney, on the other hand, was more honest when asked about it, saying our "intelligence capability is enormously important to the United States, to our conduct in foreign policy, to defense matters, economic matters."

In 1995, the New York Times ran an article headlined "Emerging role for the CIA: Economic Spy." It explained that industrial espionage was increasingly important in a post-Cold War world.

Spying on allies for economic advantage is a crucial new assignment for the C.I.A. now that American foreign policy is focused on commercial interests abroad. President Clinton made economic intelligence a high priority of his Administration, specifically information to protect and defend American competitiveness, technology and financial security in a world where an economic crisis can spread across global markets in minutes.

"The national security review highlighted the dramatic[ally] increased importance of international economic affairs as an intelligence issue," Robert Gates, then-director of the Central Intelligence Agency, stated in a speech in 1992. "Nearly 40 percent of the new requirements are economic in nature. The most senior policymakers of the government clearly see that many of the most important challenges and opportunities through and beyond the end of this decade are in the international economic arena."

In this sense, the NSA is an instrument intended to serve the interests of centralized political and economic power in Washington. The corporate interests that are and always have been colluding with the state to rig the game in their favor are especially benefitted, as is the power and repute of self-serving politicians.

"Terrorism" is currently government's favorite excuse for abridging the rights of millions of people and usurping more and more power for itself. Indeed, that's just about all we've heard from the NSA since Snowden's disclosures. That excuse is profoundly undermined by the facts, which reveal that the NSA, like the rest of the government's national security apparatus, is primarily interested in self-aggrandizement, not protecting Americans from foreign threats.

As Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union, explained, "national security is the justification for our security establishment's existence and powers, but self-preservation, defense of prerogatives and reputation, and expansion of powers is truly mission number one."

The national security state should no longer be able to get away with exploiting public fears about monsters from abroad to justify repression at home. There is no "balance" to be struck between liberty and security when the security justification is so obviously counterfeit. Our Fourth Amendment rights are absolute and the NSA needs to be reined in.