A reporter takes a mobile phone picture of NSA Director US Army General Keith Alexander as he takes his seat to testify before a US House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence hearing on recently disclosed NSA surveillance programs in Washington, June 18, 2013. (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)
This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com.
Hey, let’s talk spying! In Surveillance America, this land of spookery we all now inhabit, what else is there to talk about?
Was there anyone growing up like me in the 1950s who didn’t know Revolutionary War hero and spy Nathan Hale’s last words before the British hanged him: “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country”? I doubt it. Even today that line, whether historically accurate or not, gives me a chill. Of course, it’s harder these days to imagine a use for such a heroically solitary statement—not in an America in which spying and surveillance are boom businesses, and our latest potential Nathan Hales are tens of thousands of corporately hired and trained private intelligence contractors, who often don’t get closer to the enemy than a computer terminal.
What would Nathan Hale think if you could tell him that the CIA, the pre-eminent spy agency in the country, has an estimated 20,000 employees (it won’t reveal the exact number, of course); or that the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which monitors the nation’s spy satellites, has a cast of 16,000 housed in a post-9/11, almost $2 billion headquarters in Washington’s suburbs; or that our modern Nathan Hales, multiplying like so many jackrabbits, lack the equivalent of a Britain to spy on. In the old-fashioned sense, there really is no longer an enemy on the planet. The modern analog to the British of 1776 would assumedly be… Al Qaeda?
It’s true that powers friendly and less friendly still spy on the United States. Who doesn’t remember that ring of suburban-couples-cum-spies the Russians planted here? It was a sophisticated operation that only lacked access to state secrets of any sort and that the FBI rolled up in 2010. But generally speaking, in a single-superpower world, the United States, with no obvious enemy, has been building its own system of global spying and surveillance on a scale never before seen in an effort to keep track of just about everyone on the planet (as recently released NSA documents show). In other words, Washington is now spy central. It surveils not just potential future enemies but also its closest allies as if they were enemies. Increasingly, the structure built to do a significant part of that spying is aimed at Americans, too, and on a scale that is no less breathtaking.
Spies, Traitors and Defectors in Twenty-First-Century America
Today, for America’s spies, Nathan Hale’s job comes with health and retirement benefits. Top officials in that world have access to a revolving door into guaranteed lucrative employment at the highest levels of the corporate-surveillance complex and, of course, for the spy in need of escape, a golden parachute. So when I think about Nathan Hale’s famed line, among those hundreds of thousands of American spies and corporate spylings just two Americans come to mind, both charged and one convicted under the draconian World War I Espionage Act.