eyes on the U.S.

How Paranoia Came To Rule The USA

The Edward Snowden leaks on the NSA spying structure reveal an intelligence approach driven by the fear of the unknown ... and the "unknown unknowns."

I spy...
I spy...
Nicolas Richter

MUNICH — In the years after 9/11, Deputy Attorney General James Comey received news of a potential danger: “Threat from the Philippines to attack the USA.” Comey asked the FBI for details and received an email in which someone had written: “Dear America, I’ll attack you if you don’t pay me 99999999999999999999 dollars. MUHAHAHA.”

The FBI identified the sender and notified the Filipino police, who eventually tracked down the parents of the supposed public enemy. “Anyone could see that the email had come from a 13-year-old boy and wasn’t serious,” Comey said later. But at the time, young Maxime had his every move tracked.

The story of this email aptly sums up the situation of the American security services. For more than a decade, the overriding aim has been to ensure that they do not miss a thing. They have chased up millions of clues and hoarded billions of data points, no matter if the subjects are innocent. They break their own rules and the laws of their friends, wherever they deem necessary.

Onward Obama

In 2005 the FBI reported that it had not found a single al-Qaeda cell in the country. However, Robert Mueller, then head of the organization, said he was very worried “about what we don’t see.” Former CIA head George Tenet described a tangible fear “of everything we didn’t know.” Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld spoke about the “unknown unknowns.”

Under George W. Bush, the U.S. became so preoccupied with analyzing threats that it was consumed by potential dangers. “It’s like hiding in your apartment and only experiencing the outside world by constantly listening to a police radio scanner,” says terror expert John Mueller.

Europe may well wonder why the U.S. government stores European citizens’ phone numbers, why it taps Angela Merkel’s phone, or why it wages a drone war. The answer is that since 2001 the U.S. has been gripped by paranoia. Danger lurks in every corner and justifies every means.

Not knowing is no longer an option

They say what you don’t know can’t hurt you, but for the CIA, FBI, and NSA, the opposite is true. Not knowing is no longer an option. For years the U.S. intelligence services have been consumed by a fear that the country is full of invisible conspirators. This has led to an “aggressive, panicked attitude,” writes law professor and former government advisor Jack Goldsmith.

Former FBI head Mueller completely restructured the federal investigative force after 2001, yet every evening he visualized a bomb exploding inside a plane. He says that whoever criticizes American intelligence service should meet the families who lost someone on PanAm Flight 103 or on September 11. "That puts everything in a new light,” he says.

Similarly Keith Alexander, head of the NSA, said that he preferred to justify his actions before the House Committee rather than explain why he had failed to stop a second 9/11. It seems that this attitude is prevalent throughout the security services, and even reaches up to the President.

Breaking the rules

In questions of national security, America’s intelligence services have grown accustomed to pleasing themselves. They gather whatever they can get their hands on, even if it is not strictly allowed. Democratic Senator Ron Wyden, who is responsible for overseeing the security services in Congress, said, “The rules have been broken, and the rules have been broken a lot.”

Wyden was referring to the judiciary of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA), a special body that was first created for counter-espionage but has become a kind of shadow Supreme Court. It is a unique kind of tribunal, as only one party stands before the judges: a district attorney who represents the government. The other side – the public, those who have been spied on, the human rights campaigners – is not represented.

Although the trials are utterly one-sided, the judges have often been scathing about the NSA’s methods. In 2009 they found that in sifting through phone calls the NSA had broken the rules “so often and so systematically” that there should be arrests. In 2011, judge John Bates also found that the government was complicit and had “completely misrepresented” the scale of data collected, for the second time in less than three years.

After Edward Snowden’s revelations this summer, the NSA declared that although it collects data from billions of phone calls, it only analyzes a few hundred of these and only when there is a concrete suspicion of terrorism. The judges’ statements suggest that many more are analyzed than is allowed.

The moral of the story is clear. When governments wage secret wars, immoderation and law-breaking are inevitable consequences. There are no controls, as the public, government and courts are kept at a distance and lied to — or prefer to turn a blind eye.

In the face of temptation

For the security services, there is a massive temptation to exploit the insufficient controls and overstep their boundaries. From their perspective, every restriction is a security risk.

But now, finally, the time of controls and reformers is beginning. Congress is debating proposals that would limit the NSA’s powers, at least in the U.S. The White House has set up a commission – meanwhile, in Germany the Bundestag is debating the issue.

However, Senator Wyden warns that the reformers will meet with powerful opposition as the intelligence services fight to retain their shadow realm. President Obama has not yet determined the details and it seems unlikely that we will see significant change in the short term. In the war on terror Obama has moved away from open conflict and towards drone operations, which are dependent on intelligence from electronic surveillance.

Hans-Georg Maassen, President of Germany’s Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, gained insight into the American attitude when his breakfast with NSA head Keith Alexander was interrupted by news of Snowden’s revelations. Alexander is said to have dismissed Snowden as a little traitor from Hawaii. Then he went on with his breakfast.

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020


Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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