Scott Noble is an extraordinarily productive filmmaker who has built up an impressive treasure trove of documentaries at Metanoia Films. The films deal with topics such as the plutocracy’s determination to entrench and maintain its power and wealth through myriad means — among them psychological ops, black ops, propaganda, disinformation, and more. Last year, after watching Counter-Intelligence which relates how the tentacles of espionage agencies have permeated governments and societies, domestically and abroad, I began an email interview exchange with Noble to flesh out further points raised in the film.
Kim Petersen: What was your goal in making Counter-Intelligence?
Scott Noble: My basic goal was to help people understand intelligence agencies and the techniques they use to advance policy. Most documentaries dealing with e.g. the CIA attempt to prove or disprove a particular theory about a controversial event. There is little in the way of structural analysis. In making the film I set out to explore how these agencies function in the real world. How do they keep secrets? What are some common m.o.’s? What is their ultimate purpose? In a broader sense I wanted to ask whether democracy is even possible when organizations like the CIA exist. We are currently living under a hybrid of plutocracy (from plouto, “wealth”) and cryptocracy (from krypton, “hidden”) that benefits about 1 percent of the human population. It’s no secret we’re ruled by the rich, but there is a relative lack of understanding about just how much information is kept hidden from the public. A 2004 study by Peter Galison at Harvard concluded that “the classified universe is certainly not smaller, and very probably much larger than this unclassified one.”
KP: Does the American government control the shadow government or vice versa?
SN: This is not an easy question to answer. In the 70’s, Congressman Otis Pike investigated the CIA and determined that it was an obedient arm of the executive branch. For the most part this is probably true. On the other hand there are historical examples of the CIA disobeying the President. CIA director Allen Dulles continued U-2 flights over the Soviet Union in defiance of Eisenhower’s express orders banning such operations before his summit with Khrushchev in May 1960. In Australia and Britain during the 70’s, the labour governments of Gough Whitlam and Harold Wilson were attacked not only by CIA (Counter-Intelligence head James Jesus Angleton wrongly considered both men to be agents of the Soviet Union) but their own intelligence agencies. I won’t get into the Kennedy assassination; suffice it to say I consider the official story hogwash. In analyzing these events I think the network model is more useful than a binary “shadow government vs. visible government.” Networks of power cooperate in suppressing the majority, but also compete amongst each other, often viciously.
Our rulers play a dangerous game when they grant significant influence to spy agencies. The danger of secrecy in government has been understood since as far back as Herodotus in Ancient Greece (and presumably well before); secretive spy agencies can pose a threat not only to the professed goals of a government (freedom, democracy, honour, safety etc.) but to rulers themselves. In Counter-Intelligence Pt. 1 (“The Company”) I showcase a quote from an American Congressman circa 1800, two decades after the Constitutional convention, in which he colourfully warned, “If a system of espionage is established, the country will swarm with informers, spies, and all the odious reptile tribe that breeds in the sunshine of despotic power.” Or consider Machiavelli’s writings on mercenaries. In The Prince, Machiavelli sensibly argues that mercenaries, who rely on war for their livelihoods, have an understandable tendency to create conflict even where none is necessary:
“Does not history tell us that once there were many soldiers in Italy, who, failing for pay because the wars had at length come to an end, formed themselves in Companies and exerted money from the city-states, plundered the countryside, and were a plague upon the nation?”
Machiavelli was also concerned about mercenaries usurping power from “legitimate” authorities. One month to the day after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, former President Truman wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post (retracted in later editions) in which he expressed similar concerns about the CIA, aka The Company:
“[CIA] has been diverted from its original assignment. It has become an operational and at times a policy-making arm of the Government.”
The CIA cannot be reduced to the status of a mercenary organization, though there are some similarities. Peter Dale Scott has noted of the Office of Policy Coordination – the original “black ops” arm inside CIA – that it served as “Wall Street’s special play thing” in the early years of the Cold War. Indeed, the initial advisory group set up by Allen Dulles, himself a lawyer for Sullivan and Cromwell, consisted almost entirely of Wall Street investment bankers and lawyers. The 1954 coup in Guatemala is instructive in this regard. It was essentially performed on behalf of the United Fruit Company. However, this does not necessarily imply a conflict with the American state. CIA Director Allen Dulles belonged to United Fruit’s law firm and held shares in the company; John Moors Cabot, Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs, was the brother of a former United Fruit president; and President Eisenhower’s personal secretary was married to the head of United Fruit’s Public Relations Department. If, as Mussolini wrote, the defining characteristic of fascism is the “merger of state and corporate power,” then the US has long had fascistic tendencies.
Today the situation is much more complex. Even if we put aside the rapidly growing field of corporate espionage it is difficult to keep track of the number and scope of intelligence organizations operating in the US. When I began making Counter-Intelligence the official number stood at 16; now it is 17. By the time this interview goes to publication there may well be 18. The insidious growth of these agencies is obviously problematic, if for no other reason than bureaucracies have a tendency to become self-perpetuating; they find ways to justify their existence. In the film I quote William Burroughs from Naked Lunch:
“A bureau takes root anywhere in the state, turns malignant like the Narcotic Bureau, and grows and grows, always reproducing more of its own kind, until it chokes the host if not controlled or excised.”
When it comes to the Military Industrial Intelligence Complex, a better analogy than that of the mercenary organization is the Praetorian Guard of Ancient Rome. Former CIA officer John Stockwell made the comparison after he blew the whistle on CIA atrocities in Africa, noting that “the Praetorian Guard came to exercise great power, making and unmaking emperors and allowing political and military action outside of the law.”
The United States was never intended to be a Democracy – it was designed as a Plutocracy – but even the limited forms of representation allotted to people by the “Founding Fathers” are impossible when you have a massive and largely unaccountable shadow government.
It is fascinating to look back at the history of internecine warfare within the American ruling class, especially during the Cold War, but that was not my goal in making the film. There are more than enough documentaries on the assassination of JFK, for example. I basically set out to analyze in a very broad sense these semi-hidden elements in the American power structure, and to explain the sorts of techniques they employ in service of elites. Ultimately that is their function – to serve power – even if they involve themselves in factional struggles, and even if they have become an important and semi-autonomous component of the power structure itself.
KP: Part 1 of Counter-Intelligence, “The Company”, discusses “plausible deniability” — how high-ranking officials elude responsibility by being kept outside the loop. One would assume that a decision-maker would demand to be kept informed…
SN: It seems counter-intuitive but it also makes a certain amount of sense.
In the film I show a clip of Kermit Roosevelt, one of the first CIA black operators, discussing Operation Ajax – the plot to overthrow Mossadegh in Iran (1951). Apart from the election tampering in Italy, Ajax was the first major coup by CIA, providing a model for future interventions.
Roosevelt describes a meeting attended by various state department officials, including Secretary of State John Foster Dulles (brother of CIA head Allen Dulles). The consensus was that the coup should go ahead but that they “wanted to know as little about it as possible.” So right from the beginning you had a desire by decision-makers to use the new agency to conduct illegal operations while also trying to keep their hands clean.
In his AMA (“Ask me Anything”) on the popular website Reddit, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange stated, “secrecy was never intended to enable criminality in the highest offices of state.” He was being diplomatic. The truth is that the OPC was explicitly designed for this very purpose. National Security Council document 10/2 states that illegal CIA operations (including “sabotage… demolition… and subversion against hostile states”) should be conducted in a manner by which the US government can “plausibly disclaim any responsibility.”
In some cases plausible deniability is not so plausible. George H.W. Bush (and to a lesser extent Ronald Reagan, who was only semi-lucid at the time) were deeply involved in the Iran Contra affair but claimed to be out of the loop. Their cover story – that they were the victims of an overzealous cadre of super-patriots – was obvious nonsense, but the media and most Democrats played along. The super-patriots also took part in the charade, knowing that their “punishment” would be either meagre or non-existent. Ollie North fell on an illusory sword, and eventually took up a job at Fox News as a political pundit.
Plausible deniability is also used by people within intelligence agencies, going right down the line to the contractors and sub-contractors. We can see it today with mercenary organizations like Blackwater/Academi, which are closely affiliated with CIA, but are portrayed as “independent.”
In effect, everyone is trying to create a disjuncture between the initial order and the operation. We get the impression from Hollywood that CIA officers have 9th degree black belts and go around killing people with their bare hands a la Jason Bourne. That’s not how it works. Excepting a small number of individuals like Dan Mitrione (a sadist who gave live torture demonstrations to military officials in Uruguay during the Cold War) intelligence officers try very hard not to get their hands dirty. They are happy to partner with the most despicable people on Earth – drug kingpins, fascists, death squads etc., but as Stockwell put it, it’s “a civilized kind of relationship.”
One of the reasons we don’t often see extensive “smoking gun” paper trails for the really controversial ops is that “orders” may literally amount to a wink and a nod. Historian William Blum described an episode from the 50’s when a statement by Eisenhower that “the Nasser problem could be eliminated” (referring to Gamal Abdel Nasser, then President of Egypt) was misinterpreted by CIA head Allen Dulles to be an order for his assassination. The mistake was discovered and the hit called off, but the example gives us an idea how these sorts of things are done in the real world. There’s an absurd sort of propriety and formality between top officials in orchestrating the most savage acts imaginable.
KP: In “The Company” you also discuss “need to know.” …What does it say of a subaltern who carries out orders ignorant of why and what the ramifications of compliance are? Some would argue that humans have a right to be informed.
SN: Compartmentalization and “need to know” are crucial concepts in understanding intelligence agencies, yet they remain virtually unknown amongst the broader public. One could even argue that this lack of knowledge is itself an example of compartmentalization, with “ordinary people” being the single most compartmented group. Whenever someone argues in favour of an especially controversial “conspiracy theory” they are met with the cry that “everyone would have had to be in on it!” To borrow a term from psychology, we might call this naive realism or common sense realism. We regard our own day-to-day experiences as commensurate with those of people employed in the highly atypical world of the modern intelligence bureaucracy. What history actually shows is that there are, in fact, mechanisms of keeping individuals in the dark, even those who participate in an operation.
A famous example is the Manhattan Project, the gargantuan construction effort responsible for producing the atomic bomb. 130,000 people worked on the program but only a handful were aware of the end goal. Not even then Vice-President Harry Truman became privy to the details until the death of FDR. You had people in Richland working on engineering, you had the radiation laboratory in Berkeley, you had Ordinance works in Morgantown and so on. Yet practically everyone was kept out of the loop. The left hand had no idea what the right hand was doing.
The BBC’s documentary on Operation Gladio provides an interesting first hand account of how – through compartmentalization – a well-intentioned person can become an unwitting party to atrocity. Gladio is the umbrella name given to a false flag terrorist campaign run by CIA, MI6 and NATO intelligence during the Cold War, focussing primarily on Western Europe.
During the 80’s a series of massacres were carried out at supermarkets in Brabant, Belgium. Masked men began strolling into markets and opening fire with machine guns, killing men, women and children. No one was spared. This led to a climate of terror. The purpose, according to a participant in the Italian arm of Gladio, was to create a “strategy of tension” by which the public would “turn to the state… to ask for greater security.” Leftists and communists were usually blamed for the attacks.
One of the men interviewed for the BBC claimed that his role in the Brabant massacres was reconnaissance. He was told to go to various supermarkets, take photos, prepare schematics and so forth. He had no idea to what end. But he was a patriot fighting the Godless communists so he did his duty. It was only when he read the newspapers that he realized he had unwittingly helped orchestrate a series of massacres. Despite pangs of conscience he didn’t speak out until after the operation was (partly) revealed in parliamentary investigations. Why didn’t he blow the whistle sooner? I think the answer is obvious: he had been made complicit in a terrible crime, and speaking out may well have landed him in the grave.
Like the Manhattan Project, Operation Gladio is an excellent example of compartmentalization on a huge scale. There were dozens of cells in dozens of countries conducting terrorist attacks over the course of decades, yet only a handful of men at the top were privy to the overall scheme. Not even the elected leaders of the various European nations were in the loop, though typically there was some overlap with select defence/intelligence department officials.
There is a disturbing conclusion to be reached, which many are reluctant to accept: we are not governed solely by visible instruments of the state or even the corporation. There exists what Gladio participant Vincent Vinceguerra called “parallel structures” of power. Peter Dale Scott describes these networks, collectively, as the “deep state.” Undemocratic institutions like the Federal Reserve and the Council on Foreign Relations are included in Scott’s definition, but so are groups that act completely outside of the law – ironically in partnership with the law – to advance an elite agenda.
KP: Daniel Ellsberg believes that “the overwhelming majority of secrets do not leak to the American public…” Could you contrast Ellsberg’s informed view with the traditional myth that very few secrets can be kept hidden in a “democracy”?
SN: Noam Chomsky and other media analysts have argued that propaganda becomes more necessary, not less, in “democratic” societies for the simple reason that it matters to a greater extent what people think.
The importance of public opinion in “liberal democracies” also helps to explain why the CIA rose to such prominence, and why black ops became a mainstay of American foreign policy. The myth of the United States as a beacon of liberty and democracy is obviously incompatible with overthrowing democratic governments around the world. Hence the need to do it in secret. It’s a remarkably simple concept that seems to have eluded much of academia. Black ops are much more PR friendly and cost-effective than outright military aggression. This is not to say that military aggression isn’t important; it becomes crucially important when other mechanisms fail, and it is also vital for projecting raw power and securing control of resources and important geo-strategic locations on the “grand chessboard.”
If you like to read the news papers you may notice that every few months or so some long-buried secret of the national security state is unceremoniously revealed. A personal favourite, revealed in 1995, is that the CIA helped fund and promote abstract expressionist painters like Jackson Pollock to combat “social realist” art during the Cold War. That’s a whimsical example. Others are considerably more disturbing.
Operation Mockingbird, a successful attempt by CIA to infiltrate and influence American media organizations, began in 1948 but wasn’t exposed until 1975 – 27 years later. The CIA’s mind control experiments, which began under Operation Artichoke in 1951, were not revealed for 24 years (even then, according to former CIA officer Victor Marchetti, we saw only the “barest glimpse” of what actually transpired). Biological and Chemical warfare testing on the American people began in earnest during the late 40’s but were not revealed until the Church and Rockefeller Committees in 1975 and the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments in 1994 – so about 30-50 years. Some of the documents on these experiments remain classified; others have simply been shredded, as acknowledged by former CIA chief Richard Helms in regards to MKULTRA.
In 2006, documents concerning a 1947 joint US-British campaign conducted in Albania were finally released under the terms of the Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act. The op was variously known as BGFIEND and OBOPUS, and involved a deliberate attempt to foment civil war in Albania. 59 years passed before the public was made aware of the operation.
It is comforting to believe that illegal acts committed by Western governments are immediately exposed by an adversarial watchdog press, but the historical record does not support this view. Indeed Ellsberg notes that the myth of transparency is widely accepted because it is a way of “flattering and misleading journalists and their readers.”
There has never been a “free press” in the United States, at least not in the popular sense of the term. There have been many excellent journalists and publications – mostly labor newspapers and underground/alternative media, and the occasional outlier in the mainstream – but the dominant media institutions (the New York Times, Washington Post, etc.) have always represented the wealthy, they have always engaged in self-censorship, and they have always had an incestuous relationship with the military.
Walter Lippman, the “Father of modern Journalism,” worked with the Creel Commission during WWI to propagandize the American public into war. Ditto Ivy Lee and Edward Bernays, the founders of the modern Public Relations industry.
After WWII we see a similar pattern. Fresh from the OWI (Office of War Information) and other psywar outfits you had the publishers of Time, Look, and Fortune; the editors of Holiday, Coronet, Parade, and the Saturday Review; the heads of Viking Press, Harper & Brothers, Strauss and Young; the board chairman of CBS; the editor of Reader’s Digest and so on (see Christopher Simpson, The Science of Coercion). Mockingbird is often portrayed as the “infiltration” of the media by intelligence agencies, but that’s only part of the story; the truth is that these institutions didn’t require much arm-twisting. The media barons and the war lords were of the same class, shared the same general worldview, and regarded each other as comrades, not adversaries.
Consider the following quote from Katherine Graham, who led the Washington Post for over two decades: “We live in a dirty and dangerous world. There are some things the general public does not need to know, and shouldn’t. I believe democracy flourishes when the government can take legitimate steps to keep its secrets and when the press can decide whether to print what it does.”
Today the situation approaches farce. Media concentration has all but eliminated adversarial journalism in the mainstream, and we now have situations where individual plutocrats simultaneously sit on the boards of major media companies and major weapons manufacturers. CNN was caught working with US army “psywarriors” during the assault on Serbia. During “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” the “Pentagon Pundit” program saw scores of “ex” US army generals with direct financial ties to weapons contractors hired as “impartial analysts” for the nightly news. Reportage of recent events in Ukraine reveals the continued downward trajectory of the “Fourth Estate.”
Assange is right to call these propaganda organs “old media.” The new media is to be found online via alternative news sites like Dissident Voice, Information Clearing House, Project Censored, PR Watch, Global Research, Counterpunch, Who What Why and so on.
Returning to Ellsberg, it is noteworthy that when he describes the issue of secrecy in “democratic” societies he uses the phrase “overwhelming majority”: “the overwhelming majority of secrets do not leak to the American public.” This isn’t some whack job on AM radio – this is the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers.
KP: In your film, former CIA officer Robert Steele states that the “national interest” is a political tool for keeping the public ignorant. Keeping the public in the dark is apparently government policy. Comment?
SN: The very idea of a “national interest” is fundamentally flawed. We all like to cheer for our countries at the Olympics but we also happen to be living in class societies. The primary function of the state is to defend the interests of the people at the top of society’s pyramid. Everything else is secondary. This is natural and predictable and shouldn’t surprise anyone. James Madison, the primary architect of the American Constitution, explicitly argued in the Federalist papers that “[we must] protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.” The same philosophy lay at the core of the primary states (which, like the US, were slave states).
The problem, of course, is that the perceived interests of a ruling class are often diametrically opposed to the rest of society. We frequently hear liberals and conservatives lament that corporate globalization has been a “total failure” or a “disaster,” but a disaster for whom? Certainly not the people who have vastly increased their wealth due to various “free trade” agreements. Competition is a zero sum game: my “success” depends on another’s “failure.”
We don’t need to rely on political and economic theory to demonstrate that the interests of a ruling class are often completely dissimilar to those of their subjects. Just look at the documented history of the CIA. The first two coups were in Iran and Guatemala. Neither “enemy” government was in any danger of being taken over by the Soviet Union; neither was being overrun by “communists”; neither posed any threat to the United States. They did, however, pose a threat to Western corporate interests. So they were overthrown.
It’s not always a question of direct economic benefit, direct control of resources or even geo-strategy. The mere act of a state asserting independence in some form (“the danger of a good example”) is usually sufficient to bring down the hammer of the empire. During the assault against the tiny island nation of Grenada by the Reagan administration – the most lopsided “war” in human history – the Gipper actually said, “It’s not just about nutmeg, it’s about American national security.”
We hear the term “national interest” less and less often these days, probably because it has become so painfully obvious that bombing some country half way around the world has nothing to do with the interests of the average working Joe/Jane. So it has been replaced by “national security.” The latter term is more effective because it appeals to our most primal instinct – fear. It’s also a wonderful catch-all phrase for keeping material classified that might expose the perfidy of those who govern us. As George H.W. Bush is reported to have quipped during the Iran Contra scandal, “If the American people find out what we have done, they would chase us down the street and lynch us.”
KP: Part II of Counter-Intelligence, “The Deep State,” examines incarceration for profit and the burgeoning prison populations in the US, much of it attributable to the so-called drug war. What is organized crime’s role in drug trafficking, and given that writers like Gary Webb exposed CIA involvement in drug trafficking, just what role do intelligence agencies play in the drug war?
Moreover, in a system that promotes rugged individualism, is not denying the right of an individual to ingest substances of his choice paternalistic and hypocritical? Instead police use extraordinary resources to apprehend people who are self-administering instead of focusing more on person-on-person crimes. Would not legalization be a better solution (with taxes going to treatment of addiction and education on drugs)?
SN: Absolutely. In the film I point out that this has long been understood by policy makers. Politicians have an irresistible urge to pose as “tough on crime” (even as they coddle white collar criminals and war criminals) but most of them probably know the drug war is bullshit.
Several decades ago a study by the Rand corporation determined that the “war on drugs” was completely ineffective in meeting its stated goals. Emphasis on the word stated. While the drug war clearly fails to stop people from consuming illicit substances, it does meet other goals: it allows for politicians to grand-stand on the subject of crime; it provides huge amounts of liquid capital for banks; it creates enormous profits for arms manufacturers (who supply both sides of the conflict); it justifies the police state; it adds money to the black budgets of CIA and other intelligence agencies; and perhaps most importantly, it allows for a mechanism to imprison the “superfluous population,” poor people who might otherwise start organizing for their rights. We are finally seeing real pushback on the issue of Marijuana prohibition, but we have a long way to go in terms of drug prohibition as a whole. David Simon, the creator of the acclaimed television show The Wire, has actually argued that the trend towards decriminalization of Marijuana is a step backwards:
“I want the thing to fall as one complete edifice. If they manage to let a few white middle-class people off the hook, that’s very dangerous. If they can find a way for white kids in middle-class suburbia to get high without them going to jail and getting them to think that what they do is a million miles away from black kids taking crack, that is what politicians would do.”
I understand Simon’s sentiments but I have to disagree. Apart from the fact that millions of people are suffering due to anti-cannibas laws, I regard the trend toward legalization as a rare victory for ordinary people – white, black, yellow, red, or otherwise.
Drug prohibition and “moral” laws in general are a boon to both law enforcement and organized crime. The relationship between these alleged “arch-enemies” is actually more symbiotic than antagonistic, and the people at the top understand this. If you watch popular gangster movies or TV programs you may come away with the impression that there is a relentless war going on between the Tony Sopranos of the world and the J. Edgar Hoovers. In fact, the US government has always had a rather cushy relationship with the mafia and organized crime.
During WWII, the Office of Naval Intelligence partnered with Lucky Luciano to provide cover for the invasion of Italy via Don Calogero Vizzini. In the process the Allies essentially resurrected the mob, which had been hamstrung by Mussolini (he didn’t like the competition). After WWII, ONI, OSS-CIA partnered with the mob in Corsica, Marseilles and other strategic shipping locales, using organized crime to corrupt and undermine labor unions. This, in turn, led to the “French Connection,” which flooded the US with heroin.
Virtually every region in the world that has become a major exporter of illicit drugs has been heavily influenced by CIA activity. The correlation is dramatic, whether in Indochina, Central Asia or Latin America. A few DEA agents have blown the whistle, only to be completely ignored (former DEA officer Dennis Dayle stated, “In my 30-year history in the Drug Enforcement Administration and related agencies, the major targets of my investigations almost invariably turned out to be working for the CIA.”) I shouldn’t say completely. In the film I showcase a remarkable CBS news clip from 1982 that plainly discusses CIA drug trafficking in the context of the Nugan Hand Bank and the CIA soft coup against Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. The problem is that these exposes are exceedingly rare and quickly disappear down the memory hole.
The “war on drugs,” like the “war on terror,” is an entirely cynical enterprise. Bill Clinton’s Plan Colombia is a particularly grotesque example of how these campaigns affect people in the “Third World.” The American mercenary group Dyncorp, best known for trafficking child sex slaves in Eastern Europe (and headquartered in Reston, Virginia right next to CIA), was contracted to dump huge quantities of the toxic Monsanto product Roundup Ultra on forests and villages throughout Colombia. The kicker: it was only sprayed on areas controlled by the Marxist guerrilla group FARC. Regions controlled by the state-sponsored paramilitaries – the primary drug traffickers – were spared. What was the effect? Contamination of the environment, the destruction of vital crops (not only coca plants but everything from papaya to tomatoes), the killing of livestock, and ultimately the poisoning of everyone living in the targeted areas, including children. Studies have linked Glyphosate, the main ingredient in Roundup, with cancer.
What was the effect on the drug trade? Little to none. In fact, the drug war on Colombia actually increased cocaine exports to the United States. Whenever the US government declares a “war” on something it is a safe bet that their efforts will compound the problem. This is not just because political leaders are incompetent (which they are), it is because their stated goals are usually propaganda.
KP: You released the film just a few weeks before the Edward Snowden revelations. What do you make of Snowden’s leaks on the NSA?
SN: Like Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning and other whistleblowers, and unlike the countless foot soldiers who follow orders right up into their graves, Snowden will be remembered by history as a brave and honourable person. Snowden confirmed through official documents what other NSA whistleblowers like Russ Tice and William Binney had already stated, namely that the NSA is spying on Americans (and pretty much everyone else) in direct violation of its official mandate. Snowden also revealed the almost unbelievable scope of these programs. The NSA is literally trying to “collect it all,” in the words of former NSA director Gen. Keith Alexander, and to store this (our) personal data indefinitely.
When I read James Bamford’s book Body of Secrets (2001) I was shocked by the sheer enormity of the NSA as an institution. Their headquarters, nicknamed “crypto-city,” uses about the same amount of electricity as Maryland’s capitol, Annapolis. They have six acres of computers. They have 17,000 parking spaces. They have their own film festival, yacht club and ski club, with yearly trips to posh vacation locales in Austria and Switzerland. General Alexander built himself a 10,000 square foot “command centre” resembling the bridge of the Star Trek Enterprise, complete with whooshing doors. All of this on the taxpayer’s dime. Apparently not even a near-city-size home-base was enough. The US government is now building another huge NSA complex in Utah, presumably to store all that juicy data they are mining.
The response to Snowden’s leaks has arguably been more revealing than the leaks themselves. Turning reality on its head, politicians and pundits have labeled Snowden a traitor. Why? Because he revealed traitorous activities. This is straight out of Orwell. Meanwhile, large segments of the population have evinced a shocking lack of concern for their own privacy.
The mantra of the safety fetishists is that they “have nothing to hide.” What they really mean is that they regard the state as their benevolent overseer, protector and overall father-figure. Given the history I document in Counter-Intelligence, such beliefs are not only naive but profoundly dangerous. If you live in the “First World” it is highly unlikely you will meet your demise at the hands of a “terrorist.” The Atlantic reported in 2012 that the number of US citizens who die from terrorist attacks is “comparable… to the number of Americans crushed to death by their televisions or furniture each year.”
Your own state is more likely to oppress or kill you than any foreign enemy. Consider NSA’s Project MINARET (1967-1973). It entailed the creation of “watch lists” of 5,925 non-Americans and 1,690 organizations and US citizens. Among the names were Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Jane Fonda, and Dr. Benjamin Spock.
Glenn Greenwald has suggested that he will be publishing documents revealing that NSA spying on activists continues. We already know that the FBI, in conjunction with local PD’s and “fusion centres,” surveilled and ultimately attacked the peaceful Occupy Wall Street movement. For the gritty details see my film Rise Like Lions.
Even if we put aside issues like privacy, personal dignity, the targeting of activists, corporate espionage, and the effects of intrusive spying on international relations, we are still left with the problem of blackmail.
The CIA and presumably every other major spy agency in the history of the world has engaged in blackmail as a matter of routine, often through “honey pot” operations. An example of a honey pot would be a trap designed to compromise a VIP due to his or her sexual proclivities. When you add the fact that so much of the intelligence bureaucracy has been outsourced to for-profit corporations and mercenary groups (Snowden himself worked for Booz Allen Hamilton) the risks become more dramatic still.
NSA whistleblower Russ Tice, who had a higher security clearance than Snowden, has stated that the agency does, in fact, spy on domestic VIPs. Again, this would not be a new development. Documents published in response to the National Security Classification Appeals Panel revealed that NSA spied on at least two Senators during the Church Committee Investigations (1975), Senator Howard Baker and Senator Frank Church himself.
According to Tice, more recent targets have included Hillary Clinton, Senators John McCain and Diane Feinstein, Colin Powell, Gen. David Petraeus, and Barack Obama when he was Senator for Illinois. Obama previously worked for Business International Corporation, a known CIA front company (only a few respected journalists such as John Pilger have commented on Obama’s peculiar stint with BIC). These spying programs purportedly fall under ECI, “Exceptionally Controlled Information,” and “VRK,” “Very Restricted Knowledge.” In Tice’s words:
“It’s very compartmentalized… you might have something at NSA, where there’s literally 40 people that know that it’s going on in the entire agency.”
People who insist that they have “nothing to hide” may want to stop and consider whether the same can be said of your average politician. I would go so far as to say that NSA’s spying program makes “representative democracy” impossible. The most trusted politician you can think of probably has, at best, a few metaphorical skeletons in their closet, or at worst, literally skeletons in their closet.
Internationally, the Snowden documents re-affirm that the surveillance agencies of the “Anglosphere” (US, Canada, UK, Australia, New Zealand), otherwise known as the “Five Eyes,” are highly incestuous. In 2013, the Brisbane Times reported that the Australian government is building a new “state-of-the-art high-security facility” at the HMAS Harman communications base known as “the black vault,” which will “enable intelligence agencies to deal with a ‘data deluge’ siphoned from the internet and global telecommunications networks.”
KP: You documented startling CIA machinations against the Australian government that I was unaware of. This revelation really goes to the heart of deterring democracy.
SN: Yes, in Counter-Intelligence I explore the little-known yet incredible soft coup conducted against Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam during the early 70’s. The CIA’s charter demands that agents do not engage in espionage within the Five Eyes without the explicit prior approval of the host government. As it turns out, what they actually meant was the explicit prior approval of the intelligence agencies of the host government. Whitlam’s cardinal sin was threatening to close down the US military base at Pine Gap. He was essentially forced out of office. The coup, conducted by CIA in liaison with Britain’s MI6 and Australia’s own ASIO, was highly sophisticated; it involved everything from forged documents to union infiltration to “Mockingbird”-style smear campaigns conducted by a young Rupert Murdoch.
One low-ranking American intelligence officer, a clerk at McDonnell Douglas named Christopher Boyce, became so outraged at the CIA’s activities in Australia that he began passing on classified information to the Soviets. The Boyce saga was dramatized in John Schlesinger’s 1985 film The Falcon and the Snowman.
New documents published by Greenwald suggest that the traditional Five Eyes alliance is expanding to include a number of other countries. RAMPART-A “enables the NSA to tap into three terabits of data every second as the data flows across the compromised cable [in 13 secret locations] around the world.” The program is consistent with the new economic realities of corporate globalization.
The world is not only divided up into states but classes, and elites within each nation have an obvious incentive to work together to protect their class interests. We can see this not only with institutions like the IMF and World Bank, or elite confabs like Bilderberg, but also military networks like NATO and intelligence groupings like the Berne Club, an “intelligence sharing forum” between the intelligence services of the 28 states of the EU, Norway, and Switzerland. An offshoot of Berne is the Counter Terrorist Group, “created after 9/11 to further intelligence sharing cooperation between European intelligence structures.” CTG is described as “existing outside of EU’s institutions” but “communicating” with visible government structures through the EU Intelligence Analysis Centre. Peter Dale Scott has referred to a new “supranational deep state, whose organic links to the CIA may have helped consolidate it.”
When we look at intelligence agencies globally we can perhaps be forgiven for finding the subject so Byzantine that we throw up our hands in despair. How many acronyms can we even remember, let alone analyze in depth?
The important point to stress is that these institutions are not working for you but against you. The concept of chain of command is critical in this respect, because military-intelligence officers are never, ever given the command to help working people; they are given the command to perform X operation in order to further the “national interest.” Unfortunately, the national interest almost always translates into the exclusive interests of the ruling class.
It’s not that everyone working for these agencies is an evil person, it’s just that they mostly do what they’re told. And therein lies the problem: obedience to unjust authority. I interviewed 25-year CIA veteran Bill Christison shortly before his death, and included some of the footage in the film. Christison was a proud cold warrior for most of his career but began questioning US policy during Vietnam. During our interview Christison made a remarkable mea culpa; he said, “I am now ashamed that I ever worked” for CIA and “wish that I had not.” It takes real character and honour to acknowledge one’s past mistakes and attempt to make amends for the harm one has inflicted on other people. If more military/intelligence officers were willing to come clean, we might finally see real reform.
The sad truth is that we are not “all in this together,” to quote a propaganda poster from Terry Gilliam’s dystopian classic Brazil. Rather, as George Carlin said, “It’s one big club, and you ain’t in it.”
In Counter-Intelligence I draw a parallel between NSA blanket surveillance and a prison design known as the Panopticon. It was created by English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham in the late 18th Century. The idea was that authorities would be hidden while prisoners would have zero privacy. As a result, prisoners would come to police themselves. In the words of French philosopher Michel Foucault:
“He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection.”
The mere fact that people perceive that they are being watched has the potential to alter their behaviour. There’s a term for this in psychology known as reactivity, “a phenomenon that occurs when individuals alter their performance or behaviour due to the awareness that they are being observed.”
There is a memorable passage from one of the declassified COINTELRPO documents revealing that the FBI, during the civil rights era, attempted to foment a belief amongst activists that there was an “agent behind every mailbox.” If you were an activist in the 60’s and heard clicks on your phone that was probably intentional. Paranoia is considered desirable by those in power. The more afraid you are the less likely you will be to stand up for your rights.
Though there are obvious dangers associated with being a high-profile activist who threatens to upset the status quo, we are still comparatively privileged if we happen to live in the “First World.” People in Colombia are tortured and murdered just for trying to unionize. The worst possible thing we can do is to stay silent or conform to the demands of power. “Keeping your head down” will not help you or your children in the long run. Nazi Germany is a testament. These issues need to be confronted while there is still time.
End of Part 1.