unlawful detention, torture-- the state as in Orwell's
"Politics today --and there are
honorable men and women in it-- but politics today is little more
than money laundering in the trafficking of power and policy, fewer
than six degrees of separation from the spirit and tactics
of Tony Soprano."
"Eric Holder has been the nation's
top censorship officer, not the top law enforcement officer. [He] has done the bidding of the intelligence
community and the White House to damage press freedom in the United
States." --James Risen
"The concentration of mass media is in the
hands of a very few, very large international corporations who have
a lot of different businesses, defense businesses, theme parks...,
and news became a smaller and smaller part of ever larger corporations."
"Every empire...tells itself and
the world that it is unlike all other empires, that its mission
is not to plunder and control but to educate and liberate." --Edward Said (Los Angeles Times, July
"We're now at a stage where every journalist
who isn't asleep understands that corporate power has made it impossible
for them to do the job as it needs to be done." --Norman Soloman, Journalist, Founder
of Institute for Public Accuracy
"The media's the most powerful entity on earth. They
have the power to make the innocent guilt and to make the guilty
innocent, and that's power. Because they control the minds of the
" In the summer of 2010, a foreign intelligence
officer offered me cash in exchange for classified
information. I turned down the pitch and I immediately reported
it to the FBI. So, the FBI asked me to take the guy out
to lunch and to ask him what information he wanted and how
much information he was willing to give me for it. They
were going to put two agents at a nearby table. They ended
up canceling the two agents but they asked me to go ahead
with the lunch so I did. After the lunch, I wrote a long
memo to the FBI — and I did this four or five times.
It turns out – and we only learned this
three or four weeks ago – there never was a foreign
intelligence officer. It was an FBI agent pretending to
be an intelligence officer and they were trying to set me
up on an Espionage Act charge but I repeatedly reported
the contact so I foiled them in their effort to set me up."--
"The power of journalism is that it is rooted in
verifiable fact. You go out as a reporter, you seek to find out
what is factually correct. You cross-check it with other sources.
It's sent to an editor. It's fact-checked. You put it out. That's
"Then the face of Big Brother faded away again,
and instead the three slogans of the Party stood out in bold
capitals: 'WAR IS PEACE' 'FREEDOM IS SLAVERY' and 'IGNORANCE IS
George Orwell's 1984
The NSA has the ability to eavesdrop on your communications--
landlines, cell phones, e-mails, BlackBerry messages, Internet
searches, and more--with ease. What happens when the technology
of espionage outstrips the law?s ability to protect ordinary citizens
By James Bamford
03/12/06 "The Atlantic" -- On the first Saturday in
April of 2002, the temperature in Washington, D.C., had taken
a dive. Tourists were bundled up against the cold, and the cherry
trees along the Tidal Basin were fast losing their blossoms to
the biting winds. But a few miles to the south, in the Dowden
Terrace neighborhood of Alexandria, Virginia, the chilly weather
was not deterring Royce C. Lamberth, a bald and burly Texan, from
mowing his lawn. He stopped only when four cars filled with FBI
agents suddenly pulled up in front of his house. The agents were
there not to arrest him but to request an emergency court hearing
to obtain seven top-secret warrants to eavesdrop on Americans.
As the presiding justice of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance
Court, known as the FISA court, Lamberth had become accustomed
to holding the secret hearings in his living room. "My wife,
Janis, has to go upstairs because she doesn't have a top-secret
clearance," he noted in a speech to a group of Texas lawyers.
"My beloved cocker spaniel, Taffy, however, remains at my
side on the assumption that the surveillance targets cannot make
her talk. The FBI knows Taffy well. They frequently play with
her while I read some of those voluminous tomes at home."
FBI agents will even knock on the judge's door in the middle of
the night. "On the night of the bombings of the U.S. embassies
in Africa, I started the first emergency hearings in my living
room at 3:00 a.m.," recalled Lamberth. "From the outset,
the FBI suspected bin Laden, and the surveillances I approved
that night and in the ensuing days and weeks all ended up being
critical evidence at the trial in New York."
"The FISA court is probably the least-known court in Washington,"
added Lamberth, who stepped down from it in 2002, at the end of
his seven-year term, "but it has become one of the most important."
Conceived in the aftermath of Watergate, the FISA court traces
its origins to the mid-1970s, when the Senate's Church Committee
investigated the intelligence community and the Nixon White House.
The panel, chaired by Idaho Democrat Frank Church, exposed a long
pattern of abuse, and its work led to bipartisan legislation aimed
at preventing a president from unilaterally directing the National
Security Agency or the FBI to spy on American citizens. This legislation,
the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, established the
FISA court--made up of eleven judges handpicked by the chief justice
of the United States--as a secret part of the federal judiciary.
The court's job is to decide whether to grant warrants requested
by the NSA or the FBI to monitor communications of American citizens
and legal residents. The law allows the government up to three
days after it starts eavesdropping to ask for a warrant; every
violation of FISA carries a penalty of up to five years in prison.
Between May 18, 1979, when the court opened for business, until
the end of 2004, it granted 18,742 NSA and FBI applications; it
turned down only four outright.
Such facts worry Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University
law professor who worked for the NSA as an intern while in law
school in the 1980s. The FISA "courtroom", hidden away
on the top floor of the Justice Department building (because even
its location is supposed to be secret), is actually a heavily
protected, windowless, bug-proof installation known as a Sensitive
Compartmented Information Facility, or SCIF. "When I first
went into the FISA court as a lowly intern at the NSA, frankly,
it started a lifetime of opposition for me to that court,"
Turley recently told a group of House Democrats looking into the
NSA's domestic spying. "I was shocked with what I saw. I
was convinced that the judge in that SCIF would have signed anything
that we put in front of him. And I wasn't entirely sure that he
had actually read what we put in front of him. But I remember
going back to my supervisor at NSA and saying, 'That place scares
the daylights out of me.'"
Lamberth bristles at any suggestion that his court routinely
did the administration's bidding. "Those who know me know
the chief justice did not put me on this court because I would
be a rubber stamp for whatever the executive branch was wanting
to do," he said in his speech. "I ask questions. I get
into the nitty-gritty. I know exactly what is going to be done
and why. And my questions are answered, in every case, before
I approve an application."
It is true that the court has been getting tougher. From 1979
through 2000, it modified only two out of 13,087 warrant requests.
But from the start of the Bush administration, in 2001, the number
of modifications increased to 179 out of 5,645 requests. Most
of those--173--involved what the court terms "substantive
This friction--and especially the requirement that the government
show "probable cause" that the American whose communications
they are seeking to target is connected in some way to a terrorist
group-- induced the administration to begin circumventing the
court. Concerned about preventing future 9/11-style attacks, President
Bush secretly decided in the fall of 2001 that the NSA would no
longer be bound by FISA. Although Judge Lamberth was informed
of the president's decision, he was ordered to tell no one about
it--not even his clerks or his fellow FISA-court judges.
Why the NSA Might be Listening to YOU
Contrary to popular perception, the NSA does not engage in "wiretapping";
it collects signals intelligence, or "sigint." In contrast
to the image we have from movies and television of an FBI agent
placing a listening device on a target's phone line, the NSA intercepts
entire streams of electronic communications containing millions
of telephone calls and e-mails. It runs the intercepts through
very powerful computers that screen them for particular names,
telephone numbers, Internet addresses, and trigger words or phrases.
Any communications containing flagged information are forwarded
by the computer for further analysis.
The NSA's task is to listen in on the world outside American
shores. During the Cold War, the principal targets were the communications
lines used by the Soviet government and military-- navy captains
calling their ports, fighter pilots getting landing instructions,
army commanders out on maneuvers, and diplomats relaying messages
to the Kremlin. But now the enemy is one that communicates very
little and, when it does, uses the same telecommunications network
as everyone else: a complex system of wires, radio signals, and
light pulses encircling and crisscrossing the globe like yarn.
Picking up just the right thread, and tracing it through the maze
of strands, is difficult. Sometimes a thread leads back inside
the United States. An internal agency report predicted a few years
ago that the NSA?s worldwide sigint operation would demand a "powerful
and permanent presence" on the global telecommunica- tions
networks that carry "protected American communications."
The prediction has come true, and the NSA now monitors not only
purely "foreign" communications but also ?international?
ones, where one end of the conversation might be in the United
States. As a result, the issue at hand since the revelation last
December of the NSA's warrantless spying on American citizens
is not the agency's access to the country's communications network--it
already has access--but whether the NSA must take legal steps
in preparing to target the communications of an American citizen.
It used to be that before the NSA could place the name of an
American on its watch list, it had to go before a FISA-court judge
and show that it had probable cause "that the facts and circumstances
were such that a prudent person would think the individual was
somehow connected to terrorism" in order to get a warrant.
But under the new procedures put into effect by Bush's 2001 order,
warrants do not always have to be obtained, and the critical decision
about whether to put an American on a watch list is left to the
vague and subjective "reasonable belief" of an NSA shift
supervisor. In charge of hundreds of people, the supervisor manages
a wide range of sigint specialists, including signals-conversion
analysts separating HBO television programs from cell-phone calls,
traffic analysts sifting through massive telephone data streams
looking for suspicious patterns, cryptanalysts attempting to read
e-mail obscured by complex encryption algorithms, voice-language
analysts translating the gist of a phone call from Dari into English,
and cryptolinguists trying to unscramble a call on a secure telephone.
Bypassing the FISA court has meant that the number of Americans
targeted by the NSA has increased since 2001 from perhaps a dozen
per year to as many as 5,000 over the last four years, knowledgeable
sources told The Washington Post in February. If telephone records
indicate that one of the NSA's targets regularly dials a given
telephone number, that number and any names associated with it
are added to the watch lists and the communications on that line
are screened by computer. Names and information on the watch lists
are shared with the FBI, the CIA, the Department of Homeland Security,
and foreign intelligence services. Once a person's name is in
the files, even if nothing incriminating ever turns up, it will
likely remain there forever. There is no way to request removal,
because there is no way to confirm that a name is on the list.
In December of 1997, in a small factory outside the southern
French city of Toulouse, a salesman got caught in the NSA's electronic
web. Agents working for the NSA's British partner, the Government
Communications Headquarters, learned of a letter of credit, valued
at more than $1.1 million, issued by Iran's defense ministry to
the French company Microturbo. According to NSA documents, both
the NSA and the GCHQ concluded that Iran was attempting to secretly
buy from Microturbo an engine for the embargoed C-802 anti-ship
missile. Faxes zapping back and forth between Toulouse and Tehran
were intercepted by the GCHQ, which sent them on not just to the
NSA but also to the Canadian and Australian sigint agencies, as
well as to Britain's MI6. The NSA then sent the reports on the
salesman making the Iranian deal to a number of CIA stations around
the world, including those in Paris and Bonn, and to the U.S.
Commerce Department and the Customs Service. Probably several
hundred people in at least four countries were reading the company's
communications. The question, however, remained: Was Microturbo
shipping a missile engine to Iran? In the end, at the insistence
of the U.S. government, the French conducted a surprise inspection
just before the ship carrying the mysterious crate was set to
sail for Iran. Inside were legal generators, not illegal missile
Such events are central to the current debate involving the potential
harm caused by the NSA's warrantless domestic eavesdropping operation.
Even though the salesman did nothing wrong, his name made its
way into the computers and onto the watch lists of intelligence,
customs, and other secret and law-enforcement organizations around
the world. Maybe nothing will come of it. Maybe the next time
he tries to enter the United States or Britain he will be denied,
without explanation. Maybe he will be arrested. As the domestic
eavesdropping program continues to grow, such uncertainties may
plague innocent Americans whose names are being run through the
supercomputers even though the NSA has not met the established
legal standard for a search warrant. It is only when such citizens
are turned down while applying for a job with the federal government
--or refused when seeking a Small Business Administration loan,
or turned back by British customs agents when flying to London
on vacation, or even placed on a "no-fly" list-- that
they will realize that something is very wrong. But they will
never learn why.
More than seventy-five years ago, Supreme Court Justice Louis
Brandeis envisioned a day when technology would overtake the law.
"Subtler and more far-reaching means of invading privacy
have become available to the government. The progress of science
in furnishing the government with means of espionage is not likely
to stop with wiretapping. Ways may some day be developed by which
the Government, without removing papers from secret drawers, can
reproduce them in court, and by which it will be enabled to expose
to a jury the most intimate occurrences of the home. Can it be
that the Constitution affords no protection against such invasions
of individual security?"
Brandeis went on to answer his own question, quoting from an
earlier Supreme Court decision, Boyd v. U.S. (1886): "It
is not the breaking of his doors, and the rummaging of his drawers
that constitutes the essence of the offence; but it is the invasion
of his indefeasible right of personal security, personal liberty,
and private property."
Eavesdropping in the Digital Age
Today, the NSA's capability to eavesdrop is far beyond anything
ever dreamed of by Justice Brandeis. With the digital revolution
came an explosion in eavesdropping technology; the NSA today has
the ability to scan tens of millions of electronic communications
--e-mails, faxes, instant messages, Web searches, and phone calls--
every hour. General Michael Hayden, director of the NSA from 1999
to 2005 and now principal deputy director of national intelligence,
noted in 2002 that during the 1990s, e-communications "surpassed
traditional communications. That is the same decade when mobile
cell phones increased from 16 million to 741 million --an increase
of nearly 50 times. That is the same decade when Internet users
went from about 4 million to 361 million--an increase of over
90 times. Half as many land lines were laid in the last six years
of the 1990s as in the whole previous history of the world. In
that same decade of the 1990s, international telephone traffic
went from 38 billion minutes to over 100 billion. This year, the
world's population will spend over 180 billion minutes on the
phone in international calls alone."
Intercepting communications carried by satellite is fairly simple
for the NSA. The key conduits are the thirty Intelsat satellites
that ring the Earth, 22,300 miles above the equator. Many communications
from Europe, Africa, and the Middle East to the eastern half of
the United States, for example, are first uplinked to an Intelsat
satellite and then downlinked to AT&T's ground station in
Etam, West Virginia. From there, phone calls, e-mails, and other
communications travel on to various parts of the country. To listen
in on that rich stream of information, the NSA built a listening
post fifty miles away, near Sugar Grove, West Virginia. Consisting
of a group of very large parabolic dishes, hidden in a heavily
forested valley and surrounded by tall hills, the post can easily
intercept the millions of calls and messages flowing every hour
into the Etam station. On the West Coast, high on the edge of
a bluff overlooking the Okanogan River, near Brewster, Washington,
is the major commercial downlink for communications to and from
Asia and the Pacific. Consisting of forty parabolic dishes, it
is reportedly the largest satellite antenna farm in the Western
Hemisphere. A hundred miles to the south, collecting every whisper,
is the NSA's western listening post, hidden away on a 324,000-acre
Army base in Yakima, Washington. The NSA posts collect the international
traffic beamed down from the Intelsat satellites over the Atlantic
and Pacific. But each also has a number of dishes that appear
to be directed at domestic telecommunications satellites.
Until recently, most international telecommunications flowing
into and out of the United States traveled by satellite. But faster,
more reliable undersea fiber-optic cables have taken the lead,
and the NSA has adapted. The agency taps into the cables that
don't reach our shores by using specially designed submarines,
such as the USS Jimmy Carter, to attach a complex "bug"
to the cable itself. This is difficult, however, and undersea
taps are short-lived because the batteries last only a limited
time. The fiber-optic transmission cables that enter the United
States from Europe and Asia can be tapped more easily at the landing
stations where they come ashore. With the acquiescence of the
telecommunications companies, it is possible for the NSA to attach
monitoring equipment inside the landing station and then run a
buried encrypted fiber-optic "backhaul" line to NSA
headquarters at Fort Meade, Maryland, where the river of data
can be analyzed by supercomputers in near real time.
Tapping into the fiber-optic network that carries the nation's
Internet communications is even easier, as much of the information
transits through just a few "switches" (similar to the
satellite downlinks). Among the busiest are MAE East (Metropolitan
Area Ethernet), in Vienna, Virginia, and MAE West, in San Jose,
California, both owned by Verizon. By accessing the switch, the
NSA can see who's e-mailing with whom over the Internet cables
and can copy entire messages. Last September, the Federal Communications
Commission further opened the door for the agency. The 1994 Communica-tions
Assistance for Law Enforcement Act required telephone companies
to rewire their networks to provide the government with secret
access. The FCC has now extended the act to cover "any type
of broadband Internet access service and the new Internet phone
services" and ordered company officials never to discuss
any aspect of the program.
The NSA won't divulge how many people it employs, but it is likely
that more than 38,000 worldwide now work for the agency. Most
of them are at Fort Meade. Nicknamed Crypto City, hidden from
public view, and located halfway between Washington and Baltimore,
the NSA's own company town comprises more than fifty buildings--offices,
warehouses, factories, laboratories, and a few barracks. Tens
of thousands of people work there in absolute secrecy, and most
never tell their spouses exactly what they do. Crypto City also
houses the nation's largest collection of powerful computers,
advanced mathematicians, and skilled language experts.
The NSA maintains a very close and very confidential relationship
with key executives in the telecommunications industry through
their membership on the NSA's advisory board. Created shortly
after the agency's formation, the board was intended to pull together
a panel of science wizards from universities, corporate research
labs, and think tanks to advise the agency. They keep the agency
abreast of the industry's plans and give NSA engineers a critical
head start in finding ways to penetrate technologies still in
the development phase.
One of the NSA's strategies is to hire people away from the companies
that make the critical components for telecommunications systems.
Although it's sometimes difficult for the agency to keep up with
the tech sector's pay scale, for many people the chance to deal
with the ultimate in cutting-edge technology and aid national
security makes working for the NSA irresistible. With the help
of such workers, the agency reverse-engineers communication system
components. For example, among the most crucial pieces of the
Internet infrastructure are routers made by Cisco. "Virtually
all Internet traffic," says one of the company's television
ads, "travels across the systems of one company: Cisco Systems."
For the NSA, this is an opportunity. In 1999, Terry Thompson,
then the NSA deputy director for services, said, "[Y]ou can
see down the road two or three or five years and say, 'Well, I
only need this person to do reverse-engineering on Cisco routers
(that's a good example) for about three or five years, because
I see Cisco going away as a key manufacturer for routers and so
I don't need that expertise. But I really need somebody today
and for the next couple of years who knows Cisco routers inside
and out and can help me understand how they're being used in target
The Temptations of Secrecy
The National Security Agency was born in absolute secrecy. Unlike
the CIA, which was created publicly by a congressional act, the
NSA was brought to life by a top-secret memorandum signed by President
Truman in 1952, consolidating the country's various military sigint
operations into a single agency. Even its name was secret, and
only a few members of Congress were informed of its existence--and
they received no information about some of its most important
activities. Such secrecy has lent itself to abuse.
During the Vietnam War, for instance, the agency was heavily
involved in spying on the domestic opposition to the government.
Many of the Americans on the watch lists of that era were there
solely for having protested against the war. Among the names in
the NSA's supercomputers were those of the folk singer Joan Baez,
the pediatrician Benjamin Spock, the actress Jane Fonda, the civil-rights
leader Martin Luther King Jr., and the newspaper editor David
Kahn, whose standard history of cryptology, The Codebreakers,
contained information the NSA viewed as classified. Even so much
as writing about the NSA could land a person a place on a watch
list. The NSA, on behalf of the FBI, was also targeting religious
groups. "When J. Edgar Hoover gives you a requirement for
complete surveillance of all Quakers in the United States,"
recalled Frank Raven, a former senior NSA official, "and
when Richard M. Nixon is a Quaker and he's the president of the
United States, it gets pretty funny."
Of course, such abuses are hardly the exclusive province of the
NSA; history has repeatedly shown that simply having the ability
to eavesdrop brings with it the temptation to use that ability
--whatever the legal barriers against that use may be. For instance,
during World War I, the government read and censored thousands
of telegrams --the e-mail of the day-- sent hourly by telegraph
companies. Though the end of the war brought with it a reversion
to the Radio Act of 1912, which guaranteed the secrecy of communications,
the State and War Departments nevertheless joined together in
May of 1919 to create America's first civilian eavesdropping and
code-breaking agency, nicknamed the Black Chamber. By arrangement,
messengers visited the telegraph companies each morning and took
bundles of hard-copy telegrams to the agency's offices across
town. These copies were returned before the close of business
A similar tale followed the end of World War II. In August of
1945, President Truman ordered an end to censorship. That left
the Signal Security Agency (the military successor to the Black
Chamber, which was shut down in 1929) without its raw intelligence
--the telegrams provided by the telegraph companies. The director
of the SSA sought access to cable traffic through a secret arrangement
with the heads of the three major telegraph companies. The companies
agreed to turn all telegrams over to the SSA, under a plan code-named
Operation Shamrock. It ran until the government?s domestic spying
programs were publicly revealed, in the mid-1970s. The discovery
of such abuses in the wake of the Watergate scandal led Congress
to create select committees to conduct extensive investigations
into the government?s domestic spying programs: their origin,
extent, and effect on the public. The shocking findings turned
up by the Church Committee finally led to the formation of permanent
Senate and House intelligence committees, whose primary responsibility
was to protect the public from future privacy abuses. They were
to be the FISA court's partner in providing checks and balances
to the ever-expanding U.S. intelligence agencies. But it remains
very much an open question whether these checks are up to the
task at hand.
Who Watches the Watchmen?
Today, the NSA has access to more information than ever before.
People express their most intimate thoughts in e-mails, send their
tax returns over the Internet, satisfy their curiosity and desires
with Google searches, let their hair down in chat rooms, discuss
every event over cell phones, make appoint-ments with their BlackBerrys,
and do business by computer in WiFi hot spots.
NSA personnel, the customs inspectors of the information superhighway,
have the ultimate goal of intercepting and reviewing every syllable
and murmur zapping into, out of, or through the United States.
They are close to achieving it. More than a dozen years ago, an
NSA director gave an indication of the agency's capability. "Just
one intelligence-collection system," said Admiral William
O. Studeman, referring to a listening post such as Sugar Grove,
"can generate a million inputs per half hour." Today,
with the secret cooperation of much of the telecommunications
industry, massive dishes vacuuming the airwaves, and electronic
"packet sniffers," software that monitors network traffic,
diverting e-mail and other data from fiber-optic cables, the NSA's
hourly take is in the tens of millions of communications. One
transatlantic fiber-optic cable alone has the capacity to handle
close to 10 million simultaneous calls. While most communications
flow through the NSA's electronic net unheard and unread, those
messages associated with persons on the agency's watch lists --whether
guilty or innocent-- get kicked out for review.
As history has shown, the availability of such vast amounts of
information is a temptation for an intelligence agency. The criteria
for compiling watch lists and collecting information may be very
strict at the beginning of such a program, but the reality --in
a sort of bureaucratic law of expansion-- is that it will draw
in more and more people whose only offense was knowing the wrong
person or protesting the wrong war.
Moreover, as Internet and wireless communications have grown
exponentially, users have seen a corresponding decrease in the
protections provided by the two institutions set up to shield
the public from eavesdroppers. The first, the FISA court, has
simply been shunted aside by the executive branch. The second,
the congressional intelligence committees, have quite surprisingly
abdicated any role. Created to be the watchdogs over the intelligence
community, the committees have instead become its most enthusiastic
cheerleaders. Rather than fighting for the public's privacy rights,
they are constantly battling for more money and more freedom for
the spy agencies.
Last November, just a month before The New York Times broke the
story of the NSA's domestic spying, the American Bar Association
publicly expressed concern over Congress's oversight of FISA searches.
"The ABA is concerned that there is inadequate congressional
oversight of government investigations undertaken pursuant to
the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act," the group stated,
"to assure that such investigations do not violate the First,
Fourth, and Fifth Amendments to the Constitution.? And while the
administration did brief members of Congress on the decision to
bypass FISA, the briefings were limited to a 'Gang of Eight'",
the majority and minority leaders of the House and Senate and
the chairmen and ranking members of the two intelligence committees.
None of the lawmakers insisted that the decision be debated by
the joint committees, even though such hearings are closed.
Frank Church, the Idaho Democrat who led the first probe into
the National Security Agency, warned in 1975 that the agency's
capabilities could be turned around on the American people, and
no American would have any privacy left, such [is] the capability
to monitor everything: telephone conversations, telegrams, it
doesn't matter. There would be no place to hide. If this government
ever became a tyranny, if a dictator ever took charge in this
country, the technological capacity that the intelligence community
has given the government could enable it to impose total tyranny,
and there would be no way to fight back, because the most careful
effort to combine together in resistance to the government, no
matter how privately it is done, is within the reach of the government
to know. Such is the capacity of this technology.
It was those fears that caused Congress to enact the Foreign
Intelligence Surveillance Act three years later. "I don't
want to see this country ever go across the bridge," Senator
Church said. "I know the capacity that is there to make tyranny
total in America, and we must see to it that [the National Security
Agency] and all agencies that possess this technology operate
within the law and under proper supervision, so that we never
cross over that abyss. That is the abyss from which there is no
The death of empires Jon Carroll
Published 4:00 am, Thursday, February 21, 2002
HISTORY TEACHES THREE pretty clear messages. One is
that all empires die. Second, empires take a long time to die. Finally,
the citizens of the empire rarely recognize the warning signs for
what they are.
The necessity for change is immutable. Empires by their natures
do not change very well. They have had positive feedback for not
changing -- usually it's called "standing by our principles"
-- for years, even centuries.
Empires think they have beaten the rule of change. They haven't.
Empires think size will protect them. It won't. Empires think military
might will protect them. It won't. Empires think charismatic leaders
will protect them. They won't. Nothing will. The old makes way for
The American empire is beginning to die. We will not see its death,
nor will our grandchildren, but it is dying. Its leaders, sensing
trouble, are fetishizing the "old ways," the ways that
brought us power in a different world, a world in which America
was young and the other empires were fading.
They have made denial a national creed. They have made arrogance
a national stance. "We do not need the others because we are
America," they say. A dying empire is like a dying dinosaur;
the only question is how much damage the huge tail will do as it
I have some examples. Our foreign policy is governed by our need
for oil, and yet we have no effective formal programs to reduce
our need for oil. Instead, we purchase large vehicles that use gasoline
with staggering inefficiency. We do it because we can, because God
is on our side, and something will happen because something always
Dick Cheney is the prophet of this mind-set. Conservation is a
hobby; use whatever you want; go to sleep, little citizens, your
oil-based politicians will protect you.
WE ARE GRADUALLY killing the earth that gives us succor. We are
poisoning the air and the water. We are cutting down the forests
that give us life; we are killing the creatures of the ocean that
feed us or feed the things we eat and use; we are ignoring the benefits
Because something will happen. Because God is on our side. Because
the scientists are wrong -- indeed, it is important to our whole
way of life to marginalize science. Hey, they said we'd all be dead
by the year 2000, and here we are. Fools.
We know more about the human body than we ever have. We understand
more about nutrition than we ever have. We are a child-centered
culture; we worship our little darlings and protect them from all
harm. Except that childhood obesity is on the rise. Type 2 diabetes
strikes children as young as 10. Only the very rich and very poor
We know more about the brain than we ever have. We use that knowledge
to persuade children to eat food that will make their lives more
difficult and place a greater burden on our medical system. This
practice exists outside the morality that we are so very proud of.
Inside the morality is discouraging the use of condoms that can
stop the spread of disease that also kills children. Death, where
is thy sting? We are Americans.
WE ARE PROUD of our fine economic system, and yet our government
routinely fails to punish profiteers and cheaters. We are proud
of our Constitution, yet our government seeks to suspend parts of
it when we enter an armed conflict. We are proud of our military,
yet we spend billions on politically mandated weapons systems of
Maybe this is the way empires die. Maybe they weaken themselves
The structure is so rotten that any young and enthusiastic foe
can push it over. I dunno. Heck, I've got mine; why should I care?
This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but with a fine
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