Sunday, November 24, 2013

NSA spying and the national security priesthood

Digby makes an important point in The political perils of the security state Hullabaloo 11/20/2013 about NSA spying, one so obvious that of course the Beltway Village normally cheerfully ignores it. She's refers to legendary FBI Director and cross-dresser J. Edgar Hoover's using information he had obtained to blackmail lawmakers, and notes:

The reason I bring this up is not to talk about politicians getting blow jobs, although that's always fun. It's because this story about the foibles of powerful people in Washington points up the fact that all this information "collection" can serve a very useful purpose for people inside the secret government if they choose to use it such ways. It's been done before and it can be done again. I don't care about the inner lives of politicians or their sexual proclivities. But no humans can live like humans under a microscope and I think it's quite clear that politicians are human. The ability to spy on people in powerful positions and use that information to manipulate the government has always been a problem. This "metadata collection" puts that danger on steroids.

The big question I have is why the politicians who so vociferously support these programs do so. It might be that they do it on principle. It might not be. [my emphasis]
If anyone thinks that a Liz Cheney wouldn't use NSA domestic spying information for reasons that have nothing at all to do with national security or preventing terrorism probably needs to spend some time searching the Internet on the name "Cheney."

Foreign policy über-Realist Stephen Walt raises another skeptical question about the current Bid Data version of massive spying - Big Spying? - in NSA Spying: Where's the Beef? Foreign Policy 11/04/2013:

As a realist, I'm neither surprised nor horrified to learn that governments spy on each other, or that a wealthy, powerful, self-important, and slightly paranoid country like the United States might ... ahem ... do a bit more of it than others. But this unthinking, unstrategic Hoovering of data, megadata, and actual conversations is obviously out of control, and the diplomatic and other costs could easily outstrip any putative benefits.

In particular, given our capacity and willingness to spy on virtually everyone, you'd think that American diplomats would be entering foreign policy contests and diplomatic negotiations with an enormous advantage over their counterparts. If we're as good at extracting private information from other countries' networks, cell phones, emails, and the like, you'd think U.S. officials would usually have a good idea of our antagonists' bottom line and would be really skilled at manipulating them to our advantage. We now know that the Allies in World War II got big strategic benefits from cracking German and Japanese codes; I want to know if we're getting similar benefits today.

It is hard to believe we are, given that America's foreign policy record since the end of the Cold War is mostly one of failure. And that leads me to suspect that one of two things is true. Either 1) the NSA is good at collecting gazilla-bytes of stuff but not very good at deciding what to collect or figuring out what it means, or 2) the rest of our foreign policy establishment is not very good at taking advantage of the information the NSA has worked so hard to acquire. In other words, either the NSA is not worth the money we're paying for it, or the rest of our foreign policy establishment is less competent than we thought. To be frank, I'm not sure which possibility I prefer.
But why don't we see more of our media establishment, even the liberal ones at MSNBC, actively questioning the lawlessness and the usefulness of the mass information dragnets the federal government is conducting?

One big reason is quasi-religious. Or maybe idolatrous in the Christian theological sense. Fred Kaplan did an excellent book years ago called The Wizards of Armageddon (1991), which told the story of the top nuclear strategists. Andrew Bacevich relying on Kaplan's book in The New American Militarism (2005), when he describes the historically important connection between the first-strike nuclear war advocates and the neocons of the 2000s who advocated preventive war against countries like Iraq and Iran. "Wizards" is an apt label because they conjured abstract ideas about nuclear war strategy as part of a select group of initiates with occult knowledge (occult=hidden).

Yanis Varoufakis in Being Greek and an Economist While Greece Burns: An intimate account – MGSA Keynote 2013 (blog link 11/16/2013) gets in touch with his inner Veblen and explains how this works in the case of economists:

Allow me to enlist Evans-Pritchard, the renowned British anthropologist, to explain more graphically how it is that economists lose not a smidgeon of their discursive power despite their pathetic incapacity to predict economic crises or, indeed, to say anything useful about really existing capitalism. In his study of the social dominance of the Azande priesthood, Evans-Pritchard asked a fascinating question: How did the priests and oracles retain their hold over the tribe’s imagination given that they consistently failed to predict or avert disasters? His explanation of the Azande's unshakeable belief in their oracles goes like this:

"Azande see as well as we that the failure of their oracle to prophesy truly calls for explanation, but so entangled are they in mystical notions that they must make use of them to account for failure. The contradiction between experience and one mystical notion is explained by reference to other mystical notions." [Evans-Pritchard, Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande, 1937]
Possessing the occult knowledge of their profession with its arcane mathematical models, they get to be the ones who give the expert opinion on their own failures resulting from their own lack of understanding and, far too frequently, their lack of integrity:

Economics is not much different. Lacking a macroeconomics laboratory, when economists fail to predict some pivotal economic moment, which is always, for instance the Crash of 2008, that failure is accounted for by appealing to the same mystical economic notions which failed in the first place. Occasionally new notions are created in order to account for the failure of the earlier ones. And so predictive failure leads to more, not less, social power for the economists who are entrusted by society to offer scientific explanations of their ... failures.
A similar priesthood presides over national security matters, with a much greater claim to secret knowledge - bugging and recording a huge portion of the communications in the world - with all the aura of patriotism and their claims to protect us from The Terrorists and all other threats.

The fact that the national security priesthood fails repeatedly to detect threats typically has only limited effect on the prestige they enjoy, especially among the Very Serious People but also among the general public. But ordinary people are not quite so willing to accept endless wars and government lying as those who are well-compensated for doing so.

But there is a ceremonial and magical aspect to the rituals associated with the conventional economists and the theologians of national security that gives them credibility and authority far beyond rational evaluations of their actual accomplishments.

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