Given how similar they sound and how easy it is to imagine one leading to the other, confusing omniscience (having total knowledge) with omnipotence (having total power) is easy enough. It’s a reasonable supposition that, before the Snowden revelations hit, America’s spymasters had made just that mistake. If the drip-drip-drip of Snowden’s mother of all leaks—which began in May and clearly won’t stop for months to come—has taught us anything, however, it should be this: omniscience is not omnipotence. At least on the global political scene today, they may bear remarkably little relation to each other. In fact, at the moment Washington seems to be operating in a world in which the more you know about the secret lives of others, the less powerful you turn out to be.
Let’s begin by positing this: There’s never been anything quite like it. The slow-tease pulling back of the National Security Agency curtain to reveal the skeletal surveillance structure embedded in our planet (what cheekbones!) has been an epochal event. It’s minimally the political spectacle of 2013, and maybe 2014, too. It’s made a mockery of the 24/7 news cycle and the urge of the media to leave the last big deal for the next big deal as quickly as possible.
It’s visibly changed attitudes around the world toward the US—strikingly for the worse, even if this hasn’t fully sunk in here yet. Domestically, the inability to put the issue to sleep or tuck it away somewhere or even outlast it has left the Obama administration, Congress and the intelligence community increasingly at one another’s throats. And somewhere in a system made for leaks, there are young techies inside a surveillance machine so viscerally appalling, so like the worst sci-fi scenarios they read while growing up, that—no matter the penalties—one of them, two of them, many of them are likely to become the next Edward Snowden(s).
So where to start, almost half a year into an unfolding crisis of surveillance that shows no signs of ending? If you think of this as a scorecard, then the place to begin is, of course, with the line-up, which means starting with omniscience. After all, that’s the NSA’s genuine success story—and what kid doesn’t enjoy hearing about the (not so) little engine that could?
Conceptually speaking, we’ve never seen anything like the National Security Agency’s urge to surveill, eavesdrop on, spy on, monitor, record and save every communication of any sort on the planet—to keep track of humanity, all of humanity, from its major leaders to obscure figures in the backlands of the planet. And the fact is that, within the scope of what might be technologically feasible in our era, they seem not to have missed an opportunity.