Philosophical Investigations Blog

EditEdit InfoInfo TalkTalk


Who shall Watch the Watchers?

“There have often been rumours of this kind of espionage at international conferences, but it is highly unusual for hard evidence to confirm it and spell out the detail.”
The Observer (London) commenting on the implications of the latest 'whistleblowing' spy scandal involving Edward Snowden, a US National Security Agency (NSA) contractor.

Posted by Martin Cohen, June 2013


Well... not exactly... indeed, when I researched the NSA spy network in the 7 years ago, there was already reams of evidence - including both formal Congressional and European Parliament inquiries. The key point being, as the London Observer article oh-so-tentatively suggests, that spying in not about protecting 'us' from terrible people, but rather about grubby political tricks and commercial advantage.

Here's what I wrote about Menwith Hill then (in a book about US foreign policy called No Holiday: 80 Places you don't want to visit)...

"From a distance they seem like giant golf balls, carelessly struck, ending up in the heather, far from the green. Incongruous, yes, but not careless. For the golf balls are the latest hi-tech protection covers for hiding and protecting satellite dishes and radio masts. Well worth photographing, particularly in the summer when the heather is in bloom, albeit not from the road, as you may be arrested.

The site covers over 500 acres, and is surrounded by a barbed wire security fence equipped with watchtowers, US style, but patrolled by the UK’s Ministry of Defense doggies. By night, a glow from the ever-burning lights of its operation rooms and high-tech listening equipment gives the base a more sinister ambience

Communications intelligence is a large-scale industrial activity used by most nations. However, the principal user is UKUSA, an association of English-speaking nations. The study also provides new information about the ECHELON system, which forms part of the Anglo-American network and provides world-wide surveillance. Unlike many other systems, it is designed primarily for use against non-military targets. It operates by intercepting very large quantities of information and then syphoning out what is valuable, using artificial intelligence aids.
Once these organisations had been set up, the various countries involved in them needed to take certain steps to regulate and monitor them. This study summarises the background to the various laws adopted and demonstrates clearly the predominance of the United States which, early on, under pressure from the FBI, convened a meeting of states to discuss together the various ways in which activities might be regulated. The study sets out the position taken by the United States. The author feels that that position does not promote confidentiality and, hence, privacy. Indeed, the policy pursued by the NSA (National Security Agency) seems rather inclined to require anything which might facilitate interceptions. The Agency justifies its stance by quoting aims such as combating crime and terrorism, and it puts its views across to the other countries involved in an attempt to persuade them to pursue the same policy. The study also outlines the reaction of the European Union and of the OECD countries. As far as the Union is concerned, that reaction may best be summed up in a Council resolution adopted in January 1995 which broadly follows the American view (although some Member States have actually succeeded in resisting).
The question remains as to why the American interest is so great. The authorís reply is connected quite simply with the ECHELON system which enables the countries using it to obtain significant economic information and, hence, to secure a leading position on the commercial markets. That has an impact which is more than negligible. The study quotes examples where American companies have secured contracts as a result of communications having been intercepted. Should we assume that the end justifies the means when it comes down to beating the competition?
Document de travail pour le Panel STOA Luxembourg, December 1999 PE 168.184/Vol 1/5/EN DEVELOPMENT OF SURVEILLANCE TECHNOLOGY AND RISK OF ABUSE OF ECONOMIC INFORMATION

Menwith Hill is the biggest spy station in the world. Inside, over a thousand (mostly bearded) secret agents sort through endless millions of intercepted phone calls, faxes and, nowadays, emails. It searches tirelessly for business, government and occasionally (or so at least the papers tell us) terrorist secrets.

There is an operation center and residential area of houses and shops, including a chapel and a sports center. If you were allowed in, which you will not be, it might make quite a good holiday camp, in the highly marshaled spirit of Butlins, albeit with “red berets” on the military police instead of the famous “red coats.”

Notwithstanding that, by the end of the 1990s, the number of staff there had risen to nearly 1,500 American engineers, physicists, mathematicians, linguists and computer experts, alongside several hundred UK staff from the Ministry of Defense—mainly cleaners, groundskeepers and tea-makers and stuff like that. In fact, “RAF Menwith Hill” is home to more people than the whole of MI5, Britain’s secret intelligence agency.

That name “RAF Menwith Hill,” after the original World War II airbase, is misleading—it is not a British airbase. The government leases it directly to the US National Security Agency who call it “Field Station F83.” And being in the middle of England hasn't dented local people's sense that it is there like a friendly guard dog, patiently watching out for those Russian missiles...

Although apparently situated in the middle of nowhere, that is to say eight miles west of Harrogate, the bugging center is actually strategically situated neatly at the heart of the UK telecommunications network, not least because the UK government obligingly constructed this to US specifications in the 1950s and ’60s. Additionally, the UK itself has a special role in much of the rest of Europe’s transatlantic communications.

“Field Station F83” was officially opened in 1960, almost unnoticed, but lost some of its anonymity in the mid-1970s when the US Congress investigated its activities, and found that it was intercepting millions of transatlantic phone calls, flaunting the US citizens’ right to privacy. Congress, however, was reassured that the Constitution was being scrupulously followed and US citizens were never listened to. Except maybe by accident.

In 2001 the European Parliament, following a report from its own secretive organization based in Luxembourg, “STOA,” sent a delegation to Big Brother to find out whether the Americans had used intercepted information to derail European business. Boeing and McDonnell Douglas were suspected of having beaten France to a $6 billion contract to supply Airbus jets to Saudi Arabia, using intercepts of faxes and phone calls. The French also complained that a French electronics company, Thomson-CSF, had lost a billion dollar project to supply Brazil with a radar system after someone intercepted and passed details of the negotiations to an American firm, Raytheon. Alas, the delegation went home empty-handed. The NSA said that what it got up to in Yorkshire was simply too secret to be discussed with them. And, after all, conversations can be overheard!

Funnily enough, the British Government itself is one of the main targets of the US monitoring. The whisper is that during the Suez crisis the US successfully pre-empted the British and French plans using information thus overheard. Certainly the “Fink Report,” the one and only Congressional investigation into FSF83 in 1975, notes that the “NSA monitors the traffic of specific countries including Great Britain, our closest ally. There was a whole bank of machines [and] a whole team of men whose only job was to read and process intercepted British communications.”

Actually, the report was supposed to be secret too, but parts were released accidentally in 1978 as part of another inquiry...

For an expanded description of the NSA spying see [WWW] or our archive version here the NSA and CommInt

Previous Blogs jimmy.jpg

The New York Times dips a toe in British sleaze'

Philosophical Investigations Blog November 2012
All BLOGS are questions!
Previous Blogs nyt-mini.png

Investors in the Times milk the Profits of Doom'

Philosophical Investigations Blog February 2013
All BLOGS are questions!


Join in the debate!


dont enter into this box:

2013-06-18 00:39:35   I used to live near Menwith Hill too... I believe another reason for siting the US spy network there may be that the complex is near a rather good Tea Shop in Harrogate called Bettys. (But that's a secret.) —docmartin

More Comments via OpEd News

Big Brother or Big Fuss?
There have often been rumours of this kind of espionage at international conferences, but it is highly unusual for hard evidence to confirm it and spell out the detail. — The Observer (London) commenting on the implications of the latest "whistleblowing' spy scandal involving Edward Snowden, a US National Security Agency (NSA) contractor.

Well" not exactly" indeed, when I researched the NSA spy network seven years ago, there was already reams of evidence — including both formal Congressional and European Parliament inquiries. The key point being, as the London Observer article oh-so-tentatively suggests, that spying is not about protecting "us' from terrible people, but rather about grubby political tricks and commercial advantage.

Paul Repstock
Please do not attempt to make this appear 'benign".

By suggesting that the NSA data trap is "Just business", you are distracting from the real truth. Remember the old mafia movie line, "Just business". The victim was just as dead! And whose 'Business' is it. We know that the corporate state and the electoral state are now almost indistinguishable. Attacks against one, are often attacks against both.

This data collection will be used against individuals for no other reason than to further or protect the autocratic power of those who have access to the data.

How long will it be, before we have a 'cashless world' where every transaction is recorded, and before we have a 'chipped world' where every human and material asset is tracked continuously??

You may be correct about current motivations, that does not excuse the rabid pursuit of Snowdon and the other whistleblowers! Remember: Iraq was just business too. A million people dead, and a country destroyed....For the profit of a few?????
Wake up people! It does not matter if this has a dollar sign attached. It will still destroy us all!

Philip Zack
Even if information about the activities of intelligence agencies does get out from time to time, it can be used by those same intelligence agencies as 'tracers' to determine what new weaknesses there might be in their understanding of the networks of people that are interested in knowing more about them. They can then manage the narrative through subtle pressure to ensure that the information doesn't harm them or undermine their activities. After all, the intelligence universe must necessarily include intelligence about the agencies themselves. In a way, this is all like the search for the 2nd Foundation, the secretive enclave of psychologists guiding the course of galactic history, in Isaac Asimov's Foundation series.

Ray Johns
World Order without U.S. Hegemony

So, essentially , the United States hegemony that they had enjoyed after the Second World War no longer exists. In today's Post-Cold War back to normalcy world order, the United States had to revert back to the same channels of diplomacy and competition that the other normal ,smaller states have had to use and manage in their pursuit of national interests too. State 'spying ' on one another has been an integral part of the nation-state-centric world order since its creation. Democratic great powers like the U.S, the Euro states, and Japan do have one big advantage over other competing states and that is that they have a shared set of liberal values that minimizes the conflicts that can arise from the competition between states for power and wealth. The Western states also have established those shared democratic values by the creation of international institutions such as the Bretton Woods System , the I.M.F., World Bank, NATO, and the United Nations. Through the operations of these I.G.O.'s ,states have been able to resolve conflicts between them by a diversity of non-violent means based on negotiation and cooperation.

Martin Cohen, Reply to Ray Johns:
Certainly, we need to put things in context - but!

Well, yes, that's the big picture isn't it? But I wouldn't accept that the framework constructed is either as 'collective' let alone as democratic as you put it here. The US emerged as the dominant player after WW2 and it created the framework (who wouldn't?) to serve its interests - or rather the interests of a certain group within the US. The world is full of countries where democracies were brutally snuffed out by the US (with its equally cynical allies, the UK and France) in order to promote business interests. Thereally 'big story', I'd argue, is about the rights of the powerless many versus the rights of the powerful few.

Victoria Bingham
NSA Spying Revealed

As Ray John aptly put it, and so many media outlets confirm - that 'State 'spying ' on one another has been an integral part of the nation-state-centric world order since its creation', then why - we might wonder - should the revelations of the same supplied by Edward Snowden be so earth moving as to launch an international hunt for the former analyst. It should have elicited a shrug of the government powers' collective shoulders... Unless there is something far more sinister to be revealed, than the US intelligence agencies wish to see the light of day.

Martin Cohen: Reply to Victoria Bingham:
A dangerous policy that is self-defeating

How about insider dealing on the Stock Markets? Of course this goes on all the time, but we still try to rule it out as ultimately destructive of their mechanisms. The same goes for bidding for contracts, for patents - for trade negotiations. Communications intelligence on this scale is simply incmpatible with the workings of the free market. The US Department of Commerce can't have its cake and eat it!

If you work your way through the article (I know it's a bit long!) the sums involved here are in the hundreds of billions. The sums SPENT by the US on the surveillance are in the hundreds of billions! It is a system that merits more than 'a shrug of the shoulders'.

Martin Cohen
Watch what happens in Germany
Thanks for the comments. The things I'd suggest to watch in the next few days here is what happens with the European Union response - since what 'Prism' is really about - whatever we saw on PBS or read in the NYT let alone anywhere else - is gaining significant economic information. The system costs hundreds of billions of dollars to US taxpayers and helps a small but immensely powerful elite group within the US "to secure a leading position on the commercial markets".

Put another way, its part of what Eisenhower warned about, when he referred to the dangers of government policy being directed by the military-industrial complex. The reality, it turns out, is subtler, but just as dangerous.

But I wouldn't expect much from anyone EXCEPT the Germans. (After all, they're the one's who are losing the most money.) France, Spain, Italy will pretend to be furious, but then do exactly what the US State Department tells it - just as they did by banning from its airspace the Bolivian plane suspected of carrying Edward Snowden. (The UK, of course, is just the aircraft carrier for the CIA operations!)

Ethan Hollow
The game as old as empire

Historian Jeffrey Steinberg could be referring to the US, Canada and Australia when he writes, "England, Scotland, Wales, and, especially, Northern Ireland, are today little more than slave plantations and social engineering laboratories, serving the needs of ...the City of London..."

I wasted much of my life getting a conventional education, so I feel I am beginning my education anew.

It appears that a vampire-like clique directs the world. This secretive cabal is represented by our dominant political, economic and cultural institutions. Western society has been subverted and western culture is bankrupt. Democracy is a form of social control and the mass media and education are forms of indoctrination.

b. sadie bailey
yes, well said! and...

what about PRISM? that is not being covered by the media at all. what is it? what are its capabilities? and how will we keep it from being used as another corporate tool to control the world's markets and make the entire globe a serfdom state?

Simon Leigh

We simple folk who amass large lists of Contacts (most of whom we don't know) and let them be shared by our Internet Masters are helping marketers target real live people whose interests are known. Now that anyone can manufacture anything (even with a plastic copier!) the most needed commodity world-wide is customers.

Dixie Dellinger
The economic use of NSA

Martin Cohen's piece is worth everything I have read during the past twenty years. Back then I read a thinker (don't recall who it was) who said we do not know what follows Nationalism in the development of history — not having been there — but he posited that it is Corporatism. I think time is proving him right. We see cororations now bigger and more powerful than nations, and nations, their goverments, and all that is in them, serving corporations. The corporations grow, shift, and change around the world, but Corporatism has succeeded Nationalism. Cohen's article is the first cogent description of HOW it is operating. We cannot stop the development of history, being inside it, and maybe not even direct it, but we can observe and understand it even while it unfolds. Truth makes us free, and that freedom is inside our heads where it matters most since it can't be controlled or taken away by any external force.

Martin Cohen: Reply to Dixie Dellinger:
How about an annual report summarizing the info passed on?

Absolutely. The Guardian seems to not see any of this though.. could it be because it has been riddled itself by corporatism? Nick Hopkins, the Guardian's defence and security correspondent writes just that "five years ago no one could have imagined this" - I guess we read that as five years ago he could not have imagined any of this...

The editor, Alan Rusbridger, and the US editor, Janine Gibson, instead spent most of the PBS interview insisting that the paper had shecked with the NSA to ensure nothing they printed would have 'security' implications - the NSA warned about disclosing its 'methods'... Methods change, the fact of mass surveillance is the constant - it should at least be openly acknowledged - Congressional oversight could at a minimum specify that (for example) confidential information was transferred this year from Airbus to Boeing, on the EU biofuels policy to Monsanto... if its a legitimate policy, why not!

Elizabeth Hanson
SO happy!

Hi Mr. Cohen—

Just a couple days ago I ran into a similar essay to yours on For the first time since the Edward Snowden info I though about how the surveillance is in part against us BUT ALSO is out to help corporations and banks make money. My mind immediately my mind went to the 1.2 quadrillion $ derivatives market— insights into all of the markets... wow, if only I knew how—haha. Here is the article. I think it compliments your excellent piece. click here

Thank you so much for your work Mr. Cohen. You are helping me put together the pieces.
Elizabeth Hanson
occupy the money system (facebook)

Martin Cohen: Reply to Elizabeth Hanson
Now it's our turn to do the data mining!

Thanks, Elizabeth, and that's a really interesting article too (I just looked it up.) I'm absolutely convinced that the links are there - probably not so hard to tease out either. But share prices are a dodgy guide - there are so many people swapping inside information - and of course prices fluctuate contrary to 'rational' expectations too. (It can be hard to cheat the market.)

If I get any particular ideas on this (especially the derivatives angle) I'll start a page on the Philosophical-investigations website - and if you want to share any ideas, do please think of joining forces there. If we get some really solid data (and the end of that article about 9/11 is not convincing!) we should definitely post it up here.

Martin Cohen
Big Finance

Elizabeth (and Laurie just), thinking more about this - the kind of financial information the NSA is feeding the US Dept of Commerce to secretly pass on to a corporate elite, is things like the next EU announcement on biofuels, or the imminent nationalisation of a bank. (The paper on CIA coups really misses the point.) The banks that collapse overnight are the best example - it is a matter of record that the big financiers, hedge funds and the like got out well before Lehmann failed in the US or the Halifax and Royabl Bank of Scotland did in the UK. In the past, people have said it is because the super-rich (or their advisors) are very shrewd investors - but a simpler explanation for many of the big funds' ability to foresee events is that, well, they were simply told about them!

The relationship between people like like Warren Buffett at Berkshire Hathaway and the US government, or 'Sir' James Crosby and the UK one, is too cozy for safety.

laurie steele: Reply to Elizabeth Hanson
now i understand why

those texas FBI agents did not look into the plot to assassinate the OWS leaders...

i agree, sounds like insider trading to me, also
seems like the big telecoms kept their mouths shut in order to not have to pay any federal taxes on their huge profits. remember how 10-20 years ago, everyone was worried about calling cost especially if your call was to another country? now we can call across country for the same cost of calling across the street, and can call 60 plus other countries for about 10$ per month. the cost seems to comes down as the invasion of our privacy gets greater.
when (if ever...) with it be enough for these c%&*! they are just out of control. buy a bike and unplug the tv. stop funding them.

Paul Repstock
Information is power!

Power is a weapon! Weapons will be used to justify the cost of construction! Power is always abused because no human can be trusted with its ownership! Power never leads to positive outcomes because without greed, there is no reason to accumulate power!

Deborah Dills
We now have a Totalitarian State

"May we never confuse honest dissent with disloyal subversion," said President Dwight D. Eisenhower. But the Obama administration has confused the two. The aim of these whistleblowers is not to aid a foreign power or enrich themselves; their aim is to make America more transparent, accountable and honorable. For their sacrifice, we honor them today. What we have folks is a "coup" of our Democracy and steps taken towards a Totalitarian State ( in which the state holds total authority over the society and seeks to control all aspects of public and private life whenever necessary)

Paul Repstock: Reply to Deborah Dills

Mr. Obama is not confused,He just has a problem with the truth.
Search CBC 'Snowdon case: has Obama broken pledge...'

This story somehow briefly sneaked past the CBC censors.

Martin Cohen: Reply to Paul Repstock
A Prince's ethics

"Obama's Justice Department has charged a total of eight federal workers under the 1917 Espionage Act for leaking documents. That compares to three people charged in all the previous presidencies combined ."

Obama is, however, consistent on one thing. He is consistently inconsistent. Or should we say, Machiavellian?

As Niccolo Machiavelli whispers: "It is as well to ... seem merciful, faithful, humane, sincere, religious, and also to be so; but you must have the mind so disposed that when it is needful to be otherwise you may change to the opposite qualities (and) do evil if constrained."

Wetwo Williams
NSA Spying: ...... Data privatized for Corporate Use

This is an astute exploration. A panoramic yet interesting and objective view of the hidden agendas behind ally formation and corporation building. Martin successfully explains historical origins of unconstitutional spying of the trans-Atlantic communication stuff. He gives inklings into many related incidents and reveals how all these events escaped mass attention. Martin also hints towards some very important points some of which are extremely necessary to be brought to public attention from both political as well as economic points of view. The true nature of UKUSA alliance is revealed in this essay. Euphemisms are being developed in the name of national security and integrity and used for unconstitutional surveillance. Martins this essay might prove a whistle blower in this domain. I give full marks to the author and lay earnest emphasis on the importance of the topic and the substance of the essay. Great Job!

2013-08-10 23:53:03   I just came across a remark made in 1979 which you must know:

"It is conceivable that the nation-states will one day fight for control of information, just as they battled in the past for control over territory, and for control of access to and exploitation of raw materials and cheap labor. A new field is opened for industrial and commercial strategies on the one hand, and political and military strategies on the other."

Lyotard's book is of course not unfamiliar — but I thought it worth a nod, predicting 35 years ago the field you are now tilling.

2013-08-12 21:42:47   Thanks for this quote, Mark. Absolutely 'spot on'! I don't think much of these French philosophers' philosophy, but their sociology is really good stuff - leaves the anglo-saxons flailing around with their 'rights-based' simplicities. —docmartin

This is a Wiki Spot wiki. Wiki Spot is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization that helps communities collaborate via wikis.