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News that the National Security Agency spied on 35 world leaders, a fact revealed in data released by Edward Snowden, has focused on the damage to US foreign relations and the sheer scope of this outrageous behavior. But here's another take on what's really wrong at NSA:

The NSA's Signals Intelligence Directorate actively sought out phone numbers of political VIPs worldwide from other government officials. A NSA memo outlining this effort was entitled "Customers Can Help SID Obtain Targetable Phone Numbers". From UK's The Guardian:

"In one recent case," the memo notes, "a US official provided NSA with 200 phone numbers to 35 world leaders … Despite the fact that the majority is probably available via open source, the PCs [intelligence production centers] have noted 43 previously unknown phone numbers. These numbers plus several others have been tasked."
Among the numbers: That of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, which revelation has created a fire storm of anti-US criticism across Europe.

But who were those NSA "customers"? Answer: Other US government entities that consumed the agency's intelligence, or at least interpretations of its intelligence. Outfits like, oh, you know, the State Department, the Pentagon and, last but not least, the White House.

Yes, that's right. Powerful government spy agencies regard other units of our national government not as purveyors of foreign policy or managers of the nation or protectors of our security or even partners in the process of national defense and foreign policy, but as ... customers. Well, there's the problem, right there.

And the NSA proselytized its "customers," the way your favorite hardware store chain might proselytize you as its customer by offering its affinity rewards card or asking you to help it by filling out a consumer survey.

It's true: The NSA is a business, and it's in the business of spying on important people around the world. Not just to provide critical national intelligence on military or terrorist threats, but to gauge possible trends in economic policy, trade issues, and more. To get a leg up, just like corporations fighting to the death as they try to gain an edge over one another in their product and service marketing. Which is why corporations increasingly engage in private spying.

The bigger picture: The NSA is using its "customers" -- important other units of the government some of which supposedly are in charge of the agency, to improve its product -- or at least improve the way the product looks, feels and smells. And why would it do that? To gain more "sales" of its product, which is secret information. And why sell more? To earn more profit. In this case, profits being gargantuan secret intelligence budgets funded with our tax dollars.

Yup, it's now clear: The National Security Agency and probably much of the rest of our shadow government is now operating on the for-profit corporate model that has lately proved so disastrous to our economy and the world economy.

Note one other thing: Laws and rules require that, in other arenas, the federal government has to be careful to protect privacy and personal information. Thus, your immigration status cannot be queried by a bank that might be considering giving you a loan. Likewise, by federal law your medical records are completely private (except that this privacy is being eroded by so-called "fetus protection act" laws in some states, crafted by conservatives and obliging medical staffs to turn you over to the cops if they think your lifestyle and its impact on your health might harm your pregnancy). Privacy laws are good precautions, in the main, against a national security state and in service to the Fourth Amendment.

But no such limits on spies, apparently. Spies can hit up individuals who work for, say, the State Department or White House, to turn over their Roladexes of private phone numbers, not because there's an identified threat but just because, hey, that info might come in handy -- especially handy for the NSA budget staff. This is totally out of line with how government should work, and apparently our intelligence community has been doing this going back almost to 9/11, if not longer.

Welcome to your crappy democracy.

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Comment Preferences

  •  actually--while I hate everything the NSA is (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    ZedMont, FG, Valar Morghulis, Kingsmeg

    doing, the concept of internal/external customers is pretty common in the internal lingo of many, many types of organizations.  I always disliked that--but it's very much the case.  I worked at many nonprofits--and customers was the term that the adminitration used for 'people who use our services'.

    The NSA sucks but this isn't really anything significant--I would assume that many if not most other government agencies use the same terminology.

  •  All federal agencies view themselves... (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    FG, Hey338Too, Valar Morghulis, Tortmaster

    as having "customers." Or "stakeholders." Or some other marketing-based term. Or a whole bunch of them.

    Believe me, there's less to it than meets the eye. Yes the term itself is a bit creepy but it's simply shorthand for "those entities we interact with and who use our services."

    The same terminology is even used internally by, for example, HR departments, which are now called "human capital offices." Another creepy expression. Anyway, you contact your HR department and you're a "customer." The intention is at least somewhat noble...the idea is to treat the people you interact with from outside as "customers" who presumably have some inherent value, rather than as "impediments to getting your work done." I don't know if changing terminology in this way actually accomplishes something estimable but there it is.

    •  I agree in part with your point (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      blueoasis, StrayCat

      I've worked for government agencies and that lingo does get the sling-around. But it's a mindset, not just a placeholder term for a more nuanced view. At some point, it begins to take on a life of its own. The agency as a purveyor of services, not just to citizens or policymakers as a function of government overall, but services that must be paid for, and thus "sold" to customers. Not necessarily sold to them in monetary terms, although who knows whether the NSA has never done that. But in terms of marketing and hand-holding and the establishment of need, as in, you need us. At some point, the entire enterprise -- because that's what it now is -- becomes self-fulfilling.  

      •  I find the terminology unpleasant (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        I've worked for the federal government for over 36 years and I do understand how these things work. When you can't do something constructive you change titles and terminology.

        Here's my point: The fact that the NSA has "customers" is among the least problematic things about the agency and its policies. It's not a scandal.

  •  Meh, it's just a sign of how old I am that (0+ / 0-)

    the last time I accompanied some kids to the neighborhood school that they were addressed as "customers" (as compared to "students" which was the standard nomenclature back in my day).

    •  Customer is a degradation of consumer, (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      which, in restrospect is probably going to have had more to do with the democratic revolution than the concept of civil rights. While I don't much care for "consumer," consumer rights legislation has reined in the commercial and industrial sector and forced them to be more responsive to people.
      Customers are (speaking hopefully) habit-bound individuals who can be counted on to be patsies on a regular basis.
      I suppose if one doesn't associate consumer with "consumption," the debilitating disease, then the prospect of being devoured is rather threatening and "customers" are relatively innocuous.

    •  Thanks, but ..... (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      blueoasis, StrayCat

      That just proves my point. This whole idea that beneficiaries or voters or citizens are not to be served, but are "customers" is strange. Except that it isn't strange if you track the evolution of the corporation in this country and the path of marketing and PR. So even public schools think their pupils are "customers," or at least feel compelled to address them that way because that is what the pupils most regard themselves to be -- their role in a market-driven culture now affirmed. Indeed, the entire ascent of private school-choice schemes and corporate for-profit education companies strongly suggests that profit motive and "sales" are how the "customers" are to be taught.Sorry, but I think syntax and metaphor and plain old English usage speaks volumes and instructs us as to who we are supposed to be. And it's not a pretty thought, if you ask me.

      •  It's a whole new world out there (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        for me, McDonald's is a restaurant and a place where they sell Chevrolet's is a car dealership.

        but no, according to today's accepted parlance, both places are stores (with the implication that if you go there you are a customer).

        seriously, I'm much too weary from other things to really care about that.

        •  And Disney employees are "associates" (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          blueoasis, StrayCat

          The meanings contained in our language coarsen and get dumbed down. It's gradual, so we frogs don't notice the pot getting hotter, for the most part.

          •  "Associates" Are Not the Same as "Employees" (0+ / 0-)

            The term came into use when companies started outsourcing payroll and other hr functions to other companies...

            •  Whoops, allow me to clarify (0+ / 0-)

              At an increasing number of other big firms, low-wage workers are indeed called "associates," and they are not loaned staff from temp agencies or consulting firms, but on that firm's payroll. But actually, I got the specific reference to Disney wrong. At the Disney theme parks, Disney employees are called "cast members," no matter whether they wear a Donald Duck suit or mop floors. See, in the Disney scheme, all the world's a stage (or a movie screen) and we're all just bit players in their script. Even the "customers."

  •  When you give a list like this: (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    blueoasis, lotlizard, StrayCat
    Outfits like, oh, you know, the State Department, the Pentagon and, last but not least, the White House.
    ...on matters of customers of the NSA...the Department of Homeland Security should always be noted as NSA sharing with U.S. DHS and its 'infrastructure protection' private sector sidekicks should be considered one of the most threatening relationships to the civil liberties of all United States citizens and persons residing in the United States, and for visitors to the United States.
  •  Last but not least? Hardly. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Outfits like, oh, you know, the State Department, the Pentagon and, last but not least, the White House.
    Their client list is not limited to government entities.  Do you really think the privatized spying empire under the umbrella of the NSA doesn't sell their wares to the highest corporate bidder?

    190 milliseconds....

    by Kingsmeg on Thu Oct 24, 2013 at 09:04:34 PM PDT

  •  Please let me explain ... (0+ / 0-)

    ... that taking one word from an anonymous memo written by an anonymous person to an anonymous audience usually doesn't lead to this conclusion:

    "Yup, it's now clear...."
    It is funny, though, that you think "customer" is a scare word. Well, at least kinda funny.  

    Rand Paul is to civil liberties as the Disney Channel is to subtle and nuanced acting.

    by Tortmaster on Fri Oct 25, 2013 at 12:43:32 AM PDT

    •  Well, but it's more than a scare word (0+ / 0-)

      It's an indicator, and it's inaccurate. After all, the "customers" of the intelligence agencies, if there indeed are any, are the people who paid for the information -- namely, all us taxpayers. Imagining their "customers" to be other units of government undermines the concept of democracy by cutting out the real patrons of this activity. Clearly, the real "customers" are becoming less and less sanguine about the "product" as they learn more and more about it. And, after all, that "product" has through normal channels seldom been provided to we citizens.

      I'll grant that this blog arises from one reference in one memo, but that's one more reference than we had a year ago. Also, that memo appears to have been fundamental to pursuing the entire scheme, and we have commentary from numerous other readers here who aver to the (often inappropriate) use of "customer" in this and other inappropriate settings.

  •  Contractors run the NSA (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    An alternative interpretation of this that I subscribe to is that NSA contractors run the NSA which in turn makes them act as if other agencies that can influence their sales are their customers.  That is, it's government being run by and for the business as opposed to the people.

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