Salon: This year’s revelations about the scope of surveillance-state activity are certainly not the first major leaks you’ve seen draw scrutiny on government spying. Is there something particular or unique, in your view, about the NSA revelations?
In principle it’s not an innovation; things like this have been going on for a long time. The scale and the incredibly ambitious character of the surveillance and control is something new. But it’s the kind of thing one should expect. The history goes back a long way. So, for example, if you go back a century ago, right after the U.S. invasion of the Philippines — a brutal invasion that killed a couple hundred thousand people — there was a problem for the U.S. of pacification afterwards. What do you do to control the population to prevent another nationalist uprising? There’s a very good study of this by Alfred McCoy, a Philippines scholar at University of Wisconsin, and what he shows is that the U.S. used the most sophisticated technology of the day to develop a massive system of survelliance, control, disruption to undermine any potential opposition and to impose very tight controls on the population which lasted for a long time and in many ways the Philippines is still suffering from this. But he also points out the technology was immediately transferred home. Woodrow Wilson’s administration used it in their “Red Scare” a couple years later. The British used it, too.
Q: Do you think revelations about sprawling surveillance have prompted much significant self-reflection from the American public about the workings of our state apparatus and our use of technology?
Governments are power systems. They are trying to sustain their power and domination over their populations and they will use what means are available to do this. By now the means are very sophisticated and extensive and we can expect them to increase. So for instance, if you read technology journals you learn that in robotics labs for some years there have been efforts to develop small drones, what they call “fly-sized drones,” which can intrude into a person’s home and be almost invisible and carry out constant surveillance. You can be sure that the military is very much interested in this, and the intelligence systems as well, and will soon be using it.
We’re developing technologies that will be used by our own governments and by commercial corporations and are already being used to maximize information for themselves for control and domination. That’s the way power systems work. Of course, they’ve always played the security card. But I think one should be very cautious about such claims. Every government pleads security for almost anything it’s doing, so since the plea is predictable it essentially carries no information. If after the event the power system claims security, that doesn’t mean it’s actually a functioning principle. And if you look at the record, you discover that security is generally a pretext and security is not a high priority of governments. If by that I mean the security of the population — security of the power system itself and the domestic interests it represents, yes, that’s a concern. But security of the population is not.
Q: You’ve often highlighted flaws in mainstream media’s insidious institutional fealty during your career — notably in your book “Manufacturing Consent” . What do you think of the current state of the U.S. media? Do you have much hope for new ventures like Glenn Greenwald’s, which has already promised to aggressively take on government and corporate wrongdoing?
The availability of the Internet has offered a much easier access than before to a wide variety of information and opinion and so on. But I don’t think that is a qualitative shift. It is easier to go to the Internet than to go to the library, undoubtedly. But the shift from no libraries to the existence of libraries was a much greater shift than what we’ve seen with the Internet’s development. [The Internet] gives more access — that part is good — but on the other hand, it is combined with a process of undermining independent inquiry and reporting within the media themselves. There’s plenty to criticize about the mass media but they are the source of regular information about a wide range of topics. You can’t duplicate that on blogs. And that’s declining. Local newspapers, I need not inform you, are becoming very much narrower in their global outreach, even their national outreach. And that’s the real meat of inquiry, of information gathering. We can criticize its character and the biases that enter into it, and the institutional constraints on it, but nevertheless it’s of inestimable importance. I’ve never questioned that. And that’s diminishing at the same time as accesses to a wider range of materials is increasing. The Greenwald initiative is a very promising one. He himself has had an impressive career of independent thinking, inquiry, analysis and reporting. I think there is good reason to have a good deal of trust in his judgement. Where it will go, we don’t know; it hasn’t started yet so it is just speculation.
I think that, for example, the New York Times will remain what’s called the “newspaper of record” for the foreseeable future. I don’t see any competitor arising which has the range of resources, of overseas bureaus and so on. Again, I think there is plenty to criticize about it, but it is nevertheless an invaluable resource. There are many other independent developments which are quite significant of themselves, so it’s valuable to have, say, Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now or Salon or any other independent voice. But I don’t see any indication that there is going to be some radically new form of gathering, reporting and analyzing information. [Continue reading…]