Goodness, just look at the news! There’s a scandal about Russia hacking the US election, the FBI having election-throwing moles, calls for Obama to pardon Edward Snowden, and a new movie’s coming out about the 2013 Boston Bombing attack. And it’s all about to get connected right here! The tech community has been all a-buzz about US Intelligence agencies and concerns that their collective spying powers are too intrusive. The present author will make no attempt to disabuse the reader of these notions. But we instead aim to provide some perspective.
So you want to know more about US Intelligence agencies, eh? Well, take this red pill, take my hand, and let’s see how deep the rabbit hole goes. It goes very deep, so don’t say we didn’t warn you. You may not come out the same person. Prerequisite viewing: Terry Gilliam’s 1985 magnum opus Brazil. We’re going to meme a lot here.
Welcome to the Bottomless Pit
Probably the greatest look into the world of US security/ intelligence was this underrated article by the Washington Post: “A hidden world, growing beyond control.” We could also call that prerequisite reading, all seven pages of it. It makes a point which somehow nobody seems to understand:
It does not matter how much data you collect.
What matters is whether you have the eyeballs to READ the data.
The interview with various security agency employees is frank, candid, and not at all what you’d expect. Far from a Matrix world of cyber-Big-Brothers, it’s instead a world of clerks and desk jockeys drowning in a sea of bureaucracy with no surface in sight. “854,000 civil servants, military personnel and private contractors…” “The U.S. intelligence budget is vast, publicly announced last year as $75 billion…” “Every day, collection systems at the National Security Agency intercept and store 1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls and other types of communications.” It’s an eye-opener. But the TL;DR is they collect more data than God Himself could sort through.
There is always an uproar over every new security bill trying to pass in Congress. A while back, one of those was CISPA. CISPA’s actual purpose was just to make the different agencies more easily able to share data. This would actually make things less redundant, saving tax payer money. The public? Not having any of that! “It’s a security bill, therefore it must be ba-a-ad!,” bleat the #OccupyWallStreet sheeple, and so they protested CISPA, as they previously protested SOPA, PIPA, DMCA… You got an acronym, we got the protest signs!
Nineteen Eighty-Four, like many science fiction novels, failed at math: It is impossible to have this world where everybody in the world has a telescreen in their house 24-7 watching their every move. That’s because, in order to watch 7 billion people, you need to hire 7 billion people. In shifts. And pay them. And give them holidays and sick leave.
Wait, we’re only talking the CIA and NSA here, right?
There’s the Office of Intelligence and Analysis, the Office of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, and the Office of Intelligence Support. There’s the National Intelligence Board, the National Intelligence Coordination Center, and the National Intelligence Council.
And the National Counterterrorism Center, the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center (yes, they’re different), and the CIA’s Counterterrorist Intelligence Center. And don’t forget the FBI Counterterrorism Division, which is completely different from the FBI National Security Branch, the US Treasury’s Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, and the Joint Terrorism Task Force.
There’s the Bureau of Intelligence and Research… Wait, within that branch, there’s the Office of Research, the External Research Staff, the Current Intelligence Staff, and the Publications Staff, which probably sends more stacks of reports to more bureaucrats’ desks. There are offices for analysis of each major continent. There’s the Office of Intelligence Operations, the Office of Intelligence Resources, and the Office of Intelligence Coordination, all headed by (dare you to say it in one breath!) the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Intelligence Policy and Coordination.
Believe it or not, we haven’t mentioned the Defense Intelligence Agency yet, which has the Defense Intelligence Analysis Center, which is apparently competing with the oxymoronically-named George Bush Center for Intelligence.
We haven’t started on the United States Department of Homeland Security, which, of course, has its own galaxy of sub-departments, including the Federal Protective Service, which deploys bomb-sniffing dogs. The US DHS also now controls U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement; now you would think that ICE would have no responsibilities beyond keeping people from jumping the fence and making sure nobody brings quarantined fruit through the airport, right? But they also have divisions for cyber-crimes and national security, too.
And don’t forget: Every branch of the US military has its own intelligence and counterterrorism departments as well!
You might have missed it, but we all but ignored the CIA, NSA, DOD, and FBI back there. In fact, what we just pointed out here represents less than 1% of US Intel-Sec structure.
Aw, come on guys! You’re not even trying now! You’re deliberately designing your logos to provoke conspiracy theorists to wet themselves, for your own sick amusement.
Your Intelligence Agencies At Work: The Boston Bombers
Which brings us to the film Patriots Day, about the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. The Tsarnaev brothers, Dizzy and Tammy, are just the sort of goons that we dream of our Intel-Sec complex protecting us from. Except, they weren’t stopped before their plans went off, only apprehended after the case. Despite the fact that Russian intelligence warned the FBI multiple times of their plans. And despite the fact that the brothers’ names were already in US terrorism databases. This isn’t even an isolated case. Sure, our agencies work hard, sure they catch some bad guys, but when they fail, it’s more from tripping over each other than from any cleverness on the bad guys’ part.
Now, do you feel safer, Mr. Internet Browser? They’re not coming for your data. They don’t care about your search history. Nobody is reading your library check-out list. It isn’t about the song files you posted on Napster in 2001. And even if it were, they wouldn’t be able to do anything to you. For all the data collection, they can’t even stop all the people we agree should be stopped.
The Real Terror Is Populist Paranoia
Unfortunately, the hi-tech geek community tends to be extremely paranoid about government. This goes so far back that there is an entry for the NSA line-eater in the original Jargon File, and an Emacs extension invoked by ‘Meta-X spook’ which inserts random paranoid-schitzo ramblings into a document… nuclear NWO lock picking Ruby Ridge. Even outside tech circles, it seems government paranoia is just part of living in the US now. This study by Chapman University shows the top ten fears of surveyed Americans in 2015. #1 is “corruption of government officials,” #5 is “government tracking of personal information,” and right between them is #3 with “corporate tracking of personal information.” Because they all work together.
Seriously, people? Riots, fires, heart attacks, getting run over by a bus? Show us on the doll where the bad government touched you.
We are heading into a very uncertain time politically in the US. A time, recall, that the majority of voters in our recent election specifically wished for because Donald Trump isn’t a “Washington insider.” Very well, let’s see how our little experiment plays out. But there’s a problem with a voting public who makes its decisions based on paranoid thinking: The more you try to fix the imaginary problem, the more you create a real one.