How NSA Invites Totalitarianism

President Obama has unveiled some modest “reforms” of U.S. intelligence gathering, noting that just because NSA can vacuum up nearly all electronic data doesn’t mean it should. But the bigger issue is the future and how these powers may be unleashed, says Dutch tech expert Arjen Kamphuis.

By Arjen Kamphuis

After more than six months of revelations about the global surveillance infrastructure built by the U.S. government and its “allies” (i.e. smaller countries that believe smiling-at-the-crocodile-in-the-hope-he-eats-you-last is a good long-term strategy), many people and politicians still tout the “I have nothing to hide” attitude toward the most over-armed, hyper-intrusive super-power in human history.

In a recent New Yorker article, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, was quoted as saying: “My phone numbers, I assume, are collected like everybody else’s, but so what? It does not bother me. By the Supreme Court decision in 1979, the data is not personal data. There’s a Google Map that allows somebody to burgle my house, it’s so clear and defined, and I can’t do anything about it.”

NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden speaking in Moscow on Oct. 9, 2013. (From a video posted by WikiLeaks)

NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden speaking in Moscow on Oct. 9, 2013. (From a video posted by WikiLeaks)

For an elected U.S. senator to state the above is quite astonishing. Apparently a 35-year-old court decision, Smith v. Maryland, from a technologically different era is considered unalterable scripture (by a lawmaker!) and the power of the Google Corporation is simply accepted as a law of nature. Like the speed of light or the boiling point of water. What did that influential Italian political thinker from the 1920s say about the merger of state and corporate power? Wasn’t that the (political) F-word?

Europeans look on in dismay at how the world’s once-leading democracy has utterly lost the plot and slides in accelerating fashion toward societal models that we tried in the 1930s and 1940s and found seriously wanting. We’ve seen this movie and know how it ends; with way too many people in scary uniforms and lots of barbed wire everywhere.

The Dutch Example

Those lessons are particularly instructive for us Dutch. Since the mid-1600s, Amsterdam was a refuge for ethnic and religious groups from all over Europe who fled various forms of repression and persecution. This freedom and societal diversity was one reason why the Dutch trading empire flourished with technological advances (such as wind-powered sawmills for fast boat-building) and economic (corporate and stock) innovations.

The tolerance and diversity helped the Netherlands develop into a conflict-avoiding nation of traders who got along with everyone so they could sell them stuff. We kept out of World War I and sold a lot of planes to Germany. Municipalities registered people’s religion and ethnicity for a range of practical (and mostly benign) purposes such as allowing the local civil servants to operate in a culturally sensitive way.

The Dutch government kept this fantasy of remaining neutral going for a long time, right up to the early morning of May 10, 1940, when the German Wehrmacht rolled into the country and swept away our poor excuse for an army in barely four days. After the Dutch surrender, the vast majority of the German army was pulled out of the Netherlands and put to work in other places.

For the vast majority of Dutch people life went on pretty much as before. Resistance to the occupation was almost non-existent and many Dutch were happy to work for the government (the number of civil servants almost doubled during the occupation) or in industries that boomed because of orders from the German army.

It was not until 1942 that the enthusiastic data collection by the Dutch government turned into a human catastrophe. Over 100,000 people who thought they “had nothing to hide” had provided accurate data on their Jewish identity and listed their addresses, enabling the most complete persecution of Jewish people in any country during World War II (with the exception of Poland where the Nazis had more time and fewer logistical challenges).

The other problem was the pro-authority attitude of most Dutch (even if that authority was a brutal military occupation by a foreign army). The famous Dutch “tolerance” often expressed itself as “I don’t care what you do as long as you don’t bother me.” That included shoving fellow citizens into cattle-cars on their way to death-camps.

There was no occupied country where Pastor Martin Niemoller’s famous poem “first they came for the Socialists” was more applicable than the Netherlands.

Troubling Comparisons

Though comparisons with the Nazi era are always problematic, aspects of that time and U.S. society today are eerily similar. The United States seems under the de facto control of a consortium of banksters and a military-industrial-security complex, all feeding off each other and feeding into a political/media system that controls the national agenda and marginalizes people who dissent.

This structure has made many citizens afraid of their own shadows and lacking the information to ask meaningful questions even if they so desired. There are two political parties, the minimum number to have at least the pretense of a democracy, but on issues relating to “national security” and the “surveillance state” the Republicans and Democrats offer little that is significantly different, except at the fringes of the two parties.

Sen. Feinstein’s blasé acceptance of the National Security Agency’s collection of electronic metadata on virtually everyone and President Barack Obama’s mild “reforms” of the NSA — announced on Friday — fit with what you can expect from many “security-conscious” Republicans, too.

Yet, the unpleasant reality is that the U.S. government has built a turnkey infrastructure for a level of totalitarian control that repressive leaders of past eras could only dream about. The NSA’s metadata lets the government chart a spider’s web of your associations with multiple “hops” to draw in the networks of other people whom you have never met. The scheme takes guilt-by-association to a whole new level.

The U.S. government also reserves to itself the right to kill anyone, anywhere who supposedly represents a “terrorist” threat to the United States and to do so on the say-so of some unaccountable and essentially anonymous intelligence officials. The blood lust even extends to whistleblowers like former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

A Political Excuse

The only missing element for a full-scale tyranny is a political excuse to flip the switch and turn this machine to full-power. Perhaps the excuse could come from another “terrorist attack” or from another financial meltdown as the government seeks to control social unrest. Or a thoroughly unscrupulous President might just rev it up to go after his enemies. But the point is the equipment is now in place and ready to go.

Many people still find it hard to accept that the U.S. government could take such a monstrous turn. But its modern history from Hiroshima through the Vietnam War to support for death-squad regimes in Latin America and the invasion of Iraq shows a callous disregard of human life and an acceptance of mass slaughter, even genocide, as a policy choice.

I realize that these concerns that I’ve raised violate what’s known as “Godwin’s Law,” i.e. the avoidance of comparing current events to the Nazis, but regrettably these comparisons are increasingly unavoidable. One could even revise Niemoller’s famous poem for the present:

“First they came for the Muslims in a dozen countries

but most of us did not share that faith so we said nothing

Then they came for union leaders and social activists

but we did not want to be labeled as lefties and so we said nothing

Then they came for the journalists

but we long stopped reading political news and so we said nothing

Then finally, when the government came for us

there was no one left to say anything”

Arjen Kamphuis is co-founder and Chief Technology Officer of Gendo. He studied Science and Policy at Utrecht University and worked for IBM and Twynstra Gudde as IT architect, trainer and IT strategy adviser. Since late 2001, Arjen has advised clients on the strategic impact of new technological developments. More than five years ago, he left his native Netherlands (an active participant in the war crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq) for Germany, the one country that has learned deep lessons from trying out various forms of totalitarian regimes.

5 comments for “How NSA Invites Totalitarianism

  1. January 25, 2014 at 12:55

    Arguments that the USA is a totalitarian dystopia—”unavoidably” inviting comparisons to Nazi Germany (responsible for murdering millions of its own citizens)—would be more persuasive if you could cite even a single documented example of an innocent American being harmed by NSA domestic surveillance. Or perhaps I missed it? Thank you.

  2. Paul G.
    January 18, 2014 at 05:07

    Appropo to the mention of an “unscrupulous” president’s use for such a surveillance system; there is an article in the Independent about Bill and Hillary’s grudge list; which they will use for payback or rewards if Herself becomes POTUS,

    The point being motive is established; even greater means would be available to the resident of the White House courtesy NSA.

  3. delia ruhe
    January 17, 2014 at 23:42

    I don’t find the 1940s European politics inappropriate. The state of affairs — and the affairs of state — on Capitol Hill since Obama took office can’t help but remind one of the Weimar Republic. Enough Germans gave up on democracy to give the Nazis their chance. And it should be remembered that almost half of all eligible voters in the US have given up on democracy and show it by not showing up at the polls. The way is open for any ambitious presidential candidate to run on an anti-Congressonal platform and win.

  4. John
    January 17, 2014 at 21:39

    Very well said, Arjen, and indeed these are the very observations I have made (except for the interesting Dutch context and the poem). We do have “turnkey tyranny” now in the US, and there is no moral obstacle to its use here, only the will to use it, which exists for commercial and small scale political abuse, and for automatically marginalizing progressives.

    But reform efforts here in the US appear to be hopeless.

    The minority concerned with protecting democracy cannot do so where the mass media and elections are controlled by economic concentrations, so moral leadership has long been lost. Even internet freedom will be lost gradually over the next ten years. The public will to protect those institutions was insufficient in the exuberant emergence of the middle class, and now internal reform is precluded. The plutocracy which digested the democratic organism within this empty suit of armor will stand until toppled by external economic power.

    The science of reform within intricately corrupted and elaborately self-defended institutions is not begun, and would only be turned against itself. Immoral oligarchies have been deposed, sometimes by economic disaster or unrelated wars, but I find no precedent for reconstruction of the spirit of democracy in the people. It can be preserved as a seed within the universities and the dreams of idealists, but many winters will pass before it finds a fertile soil. And even then, the right wing mechanisms of tyranny described in Plato’s Republic, now advanced far beyond the public comprehension, will flourish and bring about its downfall. Perhaps the tree of democracy can flourish only at the periphery of this struggle of the most powerful state with the disease of tyranny, in the small dependent states.

  5. January 17, 2014 at 18:30

    Thanks for this article Arjen, a very good one indeed. A very powerful article, and the comparison with Nazi Germany of the 30s and 40s is sadly more and more appropriate. It only takes one more political excuse to flip the switch, as you say, to turn on this machine of death and destruction.

    At least the Bush administration had the “decency”, if we can call it that, to put people in Gitmo without trial. The Obama administration has such callous and utter disregard for human rights that they claim for themselves the right to murder innocent people in countries like Yemen and Pakistan without a shred of evidence or their day in court, people just going about their daily life, attending wedding parties and whatnot. Drone pilots safely tucked away in their bases in on U.S. soil are playing out these horrific snuff movies, murdering people, without scruples, on the mere say-so of others.

    I wish that “We, the people” wouldn’t let history repeat itself here, because when it does, it will be on a scale and with a ferocity that in unseen in the history of the world. We are almost there at total and utter tyranny. It only takes one political excuse, one excuse to flip the switch. And then the jackboots will rise high in U.S. streets.

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