Finding Justifications: The NSA and Global Terror Alerts

Let us not get too worked up. Let us not even feel too conspiratorial. But is it coincidence that, after a series of exposures of such programs as PRISM, that a “global terror alert” has been announced? Taxpayers want bang for their buck; even more so, they want to see their hulks of security justified. The fact that the Obama administration has been presiding over the world’s most extensive regime of unwarranted global surveillance, both of its citizens and of others, suggests that some retort was bound to come in the face of Edward Snowden’s revelations.

In the game of espionage and counter-espionage, timing is everything. The players must be deft stroke makers, capable judges of tempo, momentum and strength. In the game of propaganda, appearance is everything. The lie assumes currency as quickly as it is discounted. The skill here is identifying the right price, and when to sell it.

In recent days, Snowden has been occupying the high ground. The acceptance of his application for sanctuary in Russia was a coup. His further release of the existence of more NSA intelligence programs spiced the achievement. His detractors had to pull one up on him – and now, enter the unspecified, limitless nature of a “global terror alert”, as vapid an expression as it is dangerous.

Back in 2006, Alex Koppelman was examining the nature of such threats in a piece for Salon, in which he pondered the smorgasbord of “bogus terror threats” that populate the language of security. Washington is certainly at the forefront of these orchestrated jabs; when the people get complacent, it is the duty of those on the Hill to get them hysterical about safety. When it comes to such matters, hysteria is often pensioned off as some crude form of vigilance.

Mind you, the suits of the establishment are not the only ones dabbling in such affairs. The faux terrorist threat is irresistible staple. It is spectral, it is contingent, and it resists authentic clarity. It can be planted by groups, as Koppelman notes, more akin to adapting the humour of The Onion than of any genuinely dangerous outfit. While the counter-terrorist regards humour with anathema, his or her disposition is often the one that should be laughed at, mocked with precision.

Enter then, the weird and speculative world of Senator Saxby Chambliss, firmly ensconced as he is on the Senate Intelligence Committee, who told NBC’s Meet the Press about busy “chatter” taking place of a possible attack. “This is the most serious threat that I’ve seen in the last several years.” Such language is frustratingly dense: a “serious threat” is impossible to picture, let alone measure.

On Friday, National Security Adviser Susan Rice convened and led a meeting including the secretaries of state for defence and homeland security and the heads of the CIA, National Security Agency, and the FBI. “The president has received frequent briefings over the last week on all aspects of the potential threat and our preparedness measures.” U.S. Representative Adam Schiff, member of the House Intelligence Committee, attempted to ennoble the status of the “chatter”. “It had to be corroborated or come from very reliable sources to take this kind of action.”

The impact was immediate: the swift closure of U.S. embassies in the Middle East and Africa, and a blanket warning that will stay in place all of August. European countries had also taken heed, closing embassies in Yemen, where al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is beavering away with theocratic enthusiasm. Interpol, not always the sharpest tack in the business, issued a global security alert on Saturday, singing the same Washington-based tune.

Chambliss was quick to note that the NSA had been using surveillance programs – the sort revealed by Snowden – to collect an assortment of communications. “If we did not have these programs then we simply wouldn’t be able to listen in on the bad guys.” The first flare was thereby fired, less to illuminate unspecified threats than it was to point the finger at Snowden’s unpatriotic naughtiness. The Bad Boy of Sheremetyevo had not done Chambliss and company any favours by being so forthright.

Such is the political will in Washington at the moment that firm denials are followed by anaemic retractions made over collapsible chairs – no, we were not spying on citizens, and, if we are caught with our pants down, it was all for the public, and greater good – summum bonum, and we can all sleep tight. The very point of this is that, far from sleeping tight, getting decent, peaceful shut-eye will become increasingly difficult. The peeping toms of the security establishment are ever curious.

The greatest threats to peace of mind and security remain, not stateless agents fumbling over dirty bombs and vicious rhetoric, but States and State agencies. Being mindful of their errors, and being concerned over their infractions, should be at the forefront of our minds. Besides, the idea of a terrorist threat is like Freudian subconsciousness: almost always unprovable.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and can be reached at: bkampmark@gmail.com. Read other articles by Binoy.