Mass surveillance in the United States precedes the War on Terror. Nevertheless, since Edward Snowden’s leaks, it is terrorism that is marshalled as the ultimate threat by government officials and compliant media outlets to justify the need for mass surveillance. In June 2013, the National Security Agency (NSA) director Keith Alexander testified before Congress that just two programs–“tracking more than a billion phone calls and vast swaths of Internet data each day”–had thwarted more than 50 potential terrorist attacks. He later admitted that this wasn’t exactly true, after the claim had already been thoroughly refuted.
A different rendition of this argument for mass surveillance suggests that a society under threat by terrorists must strike a balance between its civil liberties and safety. If the state is to have the capabilities necessary to protect us we must compromise on our civil liberties. A bit of privacy must be relinquished in order for the state to become cognizant of potential threats to our safety. On a superficial level, the argument makes sense, even if it exaggerates the terrorist threat.
Of course the mass surveillance revealed by Edward Snowden is not exclusively concerned with an amorphous terrorist threat, regardless of what government officials tell us. The NSA has been spying on “plainly financial targets such as the Brazilian oil giant Petrobras; economic summits; international credit card and banking systems; the EU antitrust commissioner investigating Google, Microsoft, and Intel; and the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.” Along with the British GCHQ, the NSA has also been spying on “organisations such as the United Nations development programme, the UN’s children’s charity Unicef and Médecins du Monde, a French organisation that provides doctors and medical volunteers to conflict zones.”
Regardless, the argument that societies at war must strike a balance between their cherished freedoms and their safety continues to be a powerful one. After every terrorist attack–successful or otherwise–government surveillance begins to seem more appealing. The recent attack in Garland, Texas, for example, has led to an increase in FBI surveillance of “marginal” or “borderline” terrorist threats.
There is no reason to succumb to this tortured logic. It is premised on the idea of a benevolent state that only encroaches upon civil liberties to protect its citizens. Such a state does not exist. As historian Alfred McCoy writes, US surveillance is intended to “help gain intelligence advantageous to U.S. diplomacy, trade relations, and war-making” and to collect “intimate information that can provide leverage — akin to blackmail — in sensitive global dealings and negotiations of every sort.” The argument collapses even more spectacularly when one considers that US military operations have exacerbated, and at times nurtured, the very terrorist threats now being used to justify its surveillance apparatus.
It is an endless cycle: undertake military operations which exacerbate the terrorist threat; use (and exaggerate) that threat to expand mass surveillance.