May 13, 2006

The "Enemy of the State" Effect

Being detached from American society for an extended period of time makes it hard for me to easily evaluate news like this, as heavily mediated as my impressions of life back in the States right now are, but I think cyberpunk SF author (and oddly-slow-and-deliberate-public-speaker for a writer of such fast-paced, intricate works) William Gibson is definitely on to something regarding the question of why U.S. public opinion might be ambivalent about the Bush administration's NSA programs despite their Orwellian overtones, dubiously usefulness, and tenuous constitutionality.

Speaking on Radio Open Source, Gibson says:

I've been watching with keen interest since the first NSA scandal surfaced. I've noticed on the Internet that there aren't many people who're really shocked about this. I think that what's going is that our popular culture, our real sort of 'dirt-ball street culture' teaches us from childhood that the CIA is listening to all of our telephone calls and reading all of our email anyway.

And I constantly see that as a response in sort of the 'lower discourse' of the Internet, people saying, "Oh, they're doing it anyway." In some way our culture believes that, and it's a real problem, because evidently they haven't been doing it anyway, and now that they've started, we really need to pay attention and muster some kind of viable political response, but it's very hard to get some people on board because they think it's a fait acompli.

This is something I've run into in conversations as well myself, the most recent instance being a debate with some Saga JETs about the various allegations contained in John Perkins' book Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, in which the author purports to have been hired by a mysterious woman working for the NSA for the purpose of tricking/bribing/threatening the leaders developing countries into taking on massive debt in order to fund infrastructure projects that enrich his American corporate masters... or something along those lines. I have yet to read the book and found his appearance on Radio Open Source less than thoroughly convincing, but Perkins' apparently misinformed or otherwise willfully misleading account of just what the NSA actually does — namely signals intelligence and technical surveillance, not covert operations, assassinations, or James Bond auditions — should already be a big red flag in regards to his credibility.

People who get their knowledge of intelligence operations solely from Hollywood — who surely must be happy to have a new, even more super-secret agency to supplant the old CIA clich├ęs — might be forgiven for thinking this is nothing out of the ordinary, though, which as Gibson says poses problems when you're trying to make the case that the President and his administration have overstepped the bounds of normal and acceptable practice.

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