Imperialism has its costs

Note, November 26, 2013: This entry has been updated with a parenthetical note in line at the end of the second paragaph. This has disrupted footnote numbering.

“The agencies insist that the ability to defeat encryption is vital to their core missions of counter-terrorism and foreign intelligence gathering,” reports a Guardian story breaking the latest National Security Agency domestic spying revelations. “But security experts accused them of attacking the internet itself and the privacy of all users.”[1]

I run my own servers and it is inconceivable that I have been alone in watching the NSA revelations emerge without some sense of foreboding and a very large question: Which of the technologies I routinely rely upon is secure? That question has now been answered. A New York Times graphic makes clear that nearly every encryption technology I use has been compromised.[2] Even some technologies I use that aren’t specifically listed are implicated. (Update, November 26, 2013: Further revelations have offered both a more nuanced understanding of the the NSA’s decryption capabilities and an even more damning view of three-letter agencies’ ambitions.[fn]David Benfell, “N.S.A. scandal timeline,” November 7, 2013,[/fn] My own security situation is better than I thought at the time I originally wrote this post and I am taking steps to improve it further.)

“By subverting the internet at every level to make it a vast, multi-layered and robust surveillance platform,” Bruce Schneier writes, “the NSA has undermined a fundamental social contract.”[3]

I suppose it is impertinent to ask why the NSA has this mission. After all, while a majority of the countries in the world may not be as prosperous as the United States, it strains credibility, probably past the breaking point, to attribute their relative poverty (in most, but not all, cases) to the absence of an NSA, all this domestic spying, and—importantly—an endless series of wars.

To ask this question is, really, to place oneself in the same category as Ward Churchill and Jeremiah Wright. Having been quoted “in a sermon shortly after 9/11” that “America’s chickens are coming home to roost,” Wright first attributed the sentence to the Iraqi ambassador—the moderator at the National Press Club had not, it seems, heard the entire sermon—and second, went on to quote the Bible and then to paraphrase, saying, “You cannot do terrorism on other people and expect it never to come back on you. Those are biblical principles, not Jeremiah Wright bombastic, divisive principles.”[4] Churchill committed the similar sin by beginning an essay on the 9/11 attacks by quoting Malcolm X who had, in response to a question about John F. Kennedy’s assassination, responded that “it was merely a case of ‘chickens coming home to roost.'”[5]

To ask this question is also to recall the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, soon after then-President Lyndon B. Johnson disregarded the advice of the State Department in announcing support for Israel, a policy which Kennedy supported.[6] And that, in turn, brings us back to the 9/11 attacks, as Osama bin Laden attributes them in part to U.S. support for Israel.[7] This question is thus an intolerable challenge, in addition to those other challenges that have been posed, to Obama administration policy that would likely lead us into yet another dubious war, even if it is denied that this is a war, after disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, this time in Syria.[8]

This is a question we are not supposed to ask. For to ask it is to challenge our entire history, a history that began with a genocide of the American Indians, continued with enslavement of Africans,[9] and persists through imprisonment,[10] impoverishment,[11] and a nearly continuous condition of belligerence toward and war upon other nations.[12]

Indeed, to ask that question, that question we are not supposed to ask, is to acknowledge that we—that is, nearly all of us who are not among the wealthy—have been colonized.[13] This should be clear enough in our treatment in the financial crisis, especially as it has been twisted to support policies of austerity.[14] Indeed, the question is merely rhetorical. The massive domestic spying effort[15] leaves no room for doubt among any who recall police state antecedents: We are the enemy.

I have already noted how much of this is appallingly bad policy, that it is consistent with a view of an elite that has lost any legitimacy and now rules exclusively through coercion.[16] The proposed attack on Syria, lacking any coherent rationale whatsoever, might, in this context, be seen as an attempt to regain that legitimacy by diversion—some call it “the tail wagging the dog.” Instead, it has only raised further certainty that this administration seeks to cover misguided policies with more misguided policies, that in some sense, the insanity of Dr. Strangelove really does rule the roost.

Note, September 6, 2013: Some references have been added to this posting since it was initially published. Footnote numbering has changed accordingly.

  1. [1]James Ball, Julian Borger and Glenn Greenwald, “US and UK spy agencies defeat privacy and security on the internet,” Guardian, September 5, 2013,
  2. [2]New York Times, “Unlocking Private Communications,” September 5, 2013,
  3. [3]Bruce Schneier, “The US government has betrayed the internet. We need to take it back,” Guardian, September 5, 2013,
  4. [4]Lynn Sweet, “Wright at the National Press Club, April 28, 2008. Transcript,” Chicago Sun-Times, April 28, 2008,
  5. [5]Ward Churchill, “‘Some People Push Back’: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens,” Kersplebedeb, n.d.
  6. [6]Thaddeus Russell, “Does Israel Maek Us Safer?” Daily Beast, July 4, 2010,
  7. [7]CNN, “Transcript of Bin Laden’s October interview,” February 5, 2002,
  8. [8]Peter Baker and Jonathan Weisman, “Obama Seeks Approval by Congress for Strike in Syria,” New York Times, August 31, 2013,; Democracy Now!, “Syria Debate: Does U.S. Have the Evidence and Authority to Hit Assad for Alleged Chemical Attack?” August 29, 2013,; Deutschewelle, “Obama: ‘International credibility on the line’ over Syria,” September 4, 2013,; Mark Mazzetti and Michael R. Gordon, “Support Slipping, U.S. Defends Plan for Syria Attack,” New York Times, August 30, 2013,; Robert Pastor, “Syria Reader Part 3: Robert Pastor,” Atlantic, September 4, 2013,; William Polk, “Your Labor Day Syria Reader, Part 2: William Polk,” Atlantic, September 2, 2013,; Norman Solomon, “Obama Will Launch a Huge Propaganda Blitz — and May Attack Syria Even If He Loses the Vote in Congress,” Huffington Post, September 1, 2013,; Charles Stevenson and Mike Lofgren, “Your Labor Day Syria Reader, Part 1: Stevenson and Lofgren,” Atlantic, September 2, 2013,
  9. [9]Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present (New York: HarperPerennial, 2005).
  10. [10]David Benfell, “Threats to public safety,” July 9, 2013,
  11. [11]Herbert J. Gans, “The Uses of Undeservingness,” in Great Divides: Readings in Social Inequality in the United States, ed. Thomas M. Shapiro, 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2005), 85-94; Jeffrey Reiman, The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison, 7th ed. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2004).
  12. [12]David Benfell, “United States history of War,” February 18, 2013,
  13. [13]Norman K. Denzin, Yvonna S. Lincoln, and Linda Tuhiwai Smith, eds., Handbook of Critical and Indigenous Methodologies (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2008).
  14. [14]Neil Barofsky, Bailout: An Inside Account of How Washington Abandoned Main Street While Rescuing Wall Street (New York: Free Press, 2012); David Benfell, “Dickens Redux,” August 3, 2011,; J. Andrew Felkerson, “Bail-out Bombshell: Fed ‘Emergency’ Bank Rescue Totaled $29 Trillion Over Three Years,” Alternet, December 15, 2011, Krugman, “The Forgotten Millions,” New York Times, December 6, 2012, Hacker and Paul Pierson, “What Krugman & Stiglitz Can Tell Us,” review of End This Depression Now!, by Paul Krugman, andThe Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future, by Joseph E. Stiglitz, New York Review of Books, September 27, 2012, Krugman, “The Excel Depression,” New York Times, April 18, 2013, Krugman, “The Big Shrug,” New York Times, June 9, 2013,; Paul Krugman, “Defining Prsoperity Down,” New York Times, July 7, 2013,; Paul Krugman and Robin Wells, “Getting Away With It,” review of The Escape Artists: How Obama’s Team Fumbled the Recovery, by Noam Scheiber, Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right, by Thomas Frank, and The Age of Austerity: How Scarcity Will Remake American Politics, by Thomas Byrne Edsall, New York Review of Books, July 12, 2012,; Bob Ivry, Bradley Keoun and Phil Kuntz, “Secret Fed Loans Gave Banks $13 Billion Undisclosed to Congress,” Bloomberg, November 28, 2011,; Gretchen Morgenson, “Questions From a Bailout Eyewitness,” New York Times, October 13, 2012,; Gretchen Morgenson, “One Safety Net That Needs To Shrink,” New York Times, November 3, 2012,; Gretchen Morgenson and Louise Story, “In Financial Crisis, No Prosecutions of Top Figures,” New York Times, April 14, 2011,; Michael Powell and Andrew Martin, “Foreclosure Aid Fell Short, and Is Fading,” New York Times, March 29, 2011,; Yves Smith, “Quelle Surprise! San Francisco Assessor Finds Pervasive Fraud in Foreclosure Exam (and Paul Jackson Defends His Meal Tickets Yet Again),” Naked Capitalism, February 16, 2012,; Matt Taibbi, “Why Obama’s JOBS Act Couldn’t Suck Worse,” Rolling Stone, April 9, 2012, Tankersley, “As rich gain optimism, lawmakers lose economic urgency,” Washington Post, May 20, 2013, Yglesias, “Statistical Discrimination Against the Long-Term Unemployed,” Slate, April 23, 2013, Yglesias, “Amy Klobuchar Asks Bernanke a Great Question and the Fed Chairman Has No Good Answer,” Slate, May 22, 2013,
  15. [15]James Ball and Spencer Ackerman, “NSA loophole allows warrantless search for US citizens’ emails and phone calls,” Guardian, August 9, 2013,; James Ball, Julian Borger and Glenn Greenwald, “US and UK spy agencies defeat privacy and security on the internet,” Guardian, September 5, 2013,; James Bamford, “The NSA Is Building the Country’s Biggest Spy Center (Watch What You Say),” Wired, March 15, 2012,; James Bamford, “They Know Much More Than You Think,” New York Review of Books, August 15, 2013,; Dashiell Bennett, “Obama Administration Defends Its Right to Take All Your Phone Records,” Atlantic Wire, June 6, 2013,; Max Blumenthal, “Obama and His Allies Say the Govt Doesn’t Listen to Your Phone Calls — But the FBI Begs to Differ,” Alternet, June 16, 2013,; Alexander Bolton, “Senators: NSA phone sweeping has been going on since 2007,” Hill, June 6, 2013,; Stephen Braun, Anne Flaherty, Jack Gillum, and Matt Apuzzo, “Secret to Prism program: Even bigger data seizure,” Associated Press, June 15, 2013,; Philip Bump, “The NSA Admits It Analyzes More People’s Data Than Previously Revealed,” Atlantic Wire, July 17, 2013,; Democracy Now!, “Exposed: Inside the NSA’s Largest and Most Expansive Secret Domestic Spy Center in Bluffdale, Utah,” March 21, 2012,; Democracy Now!, “National Security Agency Whistleblower William Binney on Growing State Surveillance,” April 20, 2012,; Democracy Now!, “Whistleblower: The NSA Is Lying–U.S. Government Has Copies of Most of Your Emails,” April 20, 2012,; Democracy Now!, “NSA Whistleblowers: “All U.S. Citizens” Targeted by Surveillance Program, Not Just Verizon Customers,” June 6, 2013,; Democracy Now!, “Glenn Greenwald on How NSA Leaker Edward Snowden Helped Expose a ‘Massive Surveillance Apparatus’,” June 10, 2013,; Democracy Now!, “‘On a Slippery Slope to a Totalitarian State’: NSA Whistleblower Rejects Gov’t Defense of Spying,” June 10, 2013,; Democracy Now!, “‘You’re Being Watched’: Edward Snowden Emerges as Source Behind Explosive Revelations of NSA Spying,” June 10, 2013,; Democracy Now!, “More Intrusive Than Eavesdropping? NSA Collection of Metadata Hands Gov’t Sweeping Personal Info,” June 12, 2013,; “Edward Snowden Q&A: Dick Cheney traitor charge is ‘the highest honor’,” Guardian, June 17, 2013,; “Edward Snowden Interview: The NSA and Its Willing Helpers,” by Jacob Appelbaum and Laura Poitras, Spiegel, July 8, 2013,; Peter Eisler and Susan Page, “3 NSA veterans speak out on whistle-blower: We told you so,” USA Today, June 16, 2013,; Conor Friedersdorf, “3 Former NSA Employees Praise Edward Snowden, Corroborate Key Claims,” Atlantic, June 18, 2013,; Ryan Gallagher, “Details Revealed on Secret U.S. ‘Ragtime’ Domestic Surveillance Program,” Slate, February 28, 2013,; Barton Gellman, “NSA broke privacy rules thousands of times per year, audit finds,” Washington Post, August 15, 2013,; Barton Gellman and Laura Poitras, “U.S. intelligence mining data from nine U.S. Internet companies in broad secret program,” Washington Post, June 6, 2013,; Greg Gordon, “Hints surface that NSA building massive, pervasive surveillance capability,” McClatchy, July 2, 2013,; Siobhan Gorman and Jennifer Valentino-DeVries, “New Details Show Broader NSA Surveillance Reach,” Wall Street Journal, August 20, 2013,; Glenn Greenwald, “Are all telephone calls recorded and accessible to the US government?” Guardian, March 4, 2013,; Glenn Greenwald and Spencer Ackerman, “NSA collected US email records in bulk for more than two years under Obama,” Guardian, June 27, 2013,; Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Ewen MacAskill, “Edward Snowden: US surveillance ‘not something I’m willing to live under’,”Guardian, July 8, 2013,; Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill, “NSA Prism program taps in to user data of Apple, Google and others,” Guardian, June 6, 2013,; Glenn Greenwald, Ewen MacAskill, Laura Poitras, Spencer Ackerman and Dominic Rushe, “Revealed: how Microsoft handed the NSA access to encrypted messages,” Guardian, July 11, 2013,; Mark Hosenball and Susan Heavey, “Obama administration defends phone record collection,” Reuters, June 6, 2013,; Natasha Lennard, “‘Now we are all persons of interest’,” Salon, June 6, 2013,; Natasha Lennard, “Revealed: “Boundless Informant,” NSA’s powerful datamining tool,” Salon, June 9, 2013,; Niels Lesniewski, “Durbin Predicted NSA, Verizon Controversy in 2009,” Congressional Quarterly Roll Call, June 6, 2013,; Eric Lichtblau, “In Secret, Court Vastly Broadens Powers of N.S.A.,” New York Times, July 6, 2013,; Ewen MacAskill, Julian Borger, Nick Hopkins, Nick Davies and James Ball, “GCHQ taps fibre-optic cables for secret access to world’s communications,” Guardian, June 21, 2013,; Declan McCullagh, “DOJ: We don’t need warrants for e-mail, Facebook chats,” CNET News, May 8, 2013,; Declan McCullagh, “NSA spying flap extends to contents of U.S. phone calls,” CNet News, June 16, 2013,; Declan McCullagh, “Feds tell Web firms to turn over user account passwords,” CNet, July 25, 2013,; Declan McCullagh, “FBI pressures Internet providers to install surveillance software,” CNet, August 2, 2013,; Claire Cain Miller, “Tech Companies Concede to Surveillance Program,” New York Times, June 7, 2013,; Ron Nixon, “U.S. Postal Service Logging All Mail for Law Enforcement,” New York Times, July 3, 2013,; Alex Pareene, “The government has all your info,” Salon, June 6, 2013, Perlroth, Jeff Larson, and Scott Shane, “N.S.A. Foils Much Internet Encryption,” New York Times, September 5, 2013,; Bill Quigley, “Twenty Examples of the Obama Administration’s Assault on Domestic Civil Liberties,” Truthout, December 7, 2011,; Dan Roberts and Spencer Ackerman, “US intelligence outlines checks it says validate surveillance,” Guardian, June 15, 2013,; Steven Rosenfeld, “How Obama Became a Civil Libertarian’s Nightmare,” Alternet, April 18, 2012,; Charlie Savage, “N.S.A. Said to Search Content of Messages to and From U.S.,” New York Times, August 7, 2013,; Charlie Savage and Edward Wyatt, “U.S. Is Secretly Collecting Records of Verizon Calls,” New York Times, June 5, 2013,; Charlie Savage, Edward Wyatt, Peter Baker, and Michael D. Shear, “Obama Calls Surveillance Programs Legal and Limited,” New York Times, June 7, 2013,; Bruce Schneier, “What We Don’t Know About Spying on Citizens: Scarier Than What We Know,” Atlantic< June 6, 2013,; Falguni A. Sheth, “Q&A with Glenn Greenwald: Americans’ reaction ‘surprising and gratifying’,” Salon, July 13, 2013,; David Sirota, “What if the president lied to us?” Salon, August 16, 2013,; Christian Stöcker, “The Power of Britain’s Data Vacuum,” Spiegel, July 7, 2013,; WashingtonsBlog, “Americans Are The Most Spied On People In World History,” December 5, 2012,; Shaun Waterman, “Whistleblower’s NSA warning: ‘Just the tip of the iceberg’,” Washington Times, June 7, 2013,; Rachel Weiner, “Mark Udall: I tried to expose NSA program,” Washington Post, June 6, 2013,; Pete Yost, “NSA Spying Under Fire: ‘You’ve Got a Problem’,”, July 18, 2013,
  16. [16]David Benfell, “Big Brother wants you to be afraid,” August 19, 2013,; David Benfell, “Apparently, the U.S. needs a war,” August 30, 2013,; David Benfell, “The horse has left the barn,” September 1, 2013,

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