Noam Chomsky's nightmare: Once again, you can't trust the New York Times

New stories about the NSA show, once more, how the Times lets the administration define the permissible debate

By Patrick Smith
March 27, 2014 3:00AM (UTC)
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(AP/Mark Lennihan/photo collage by Salon)

Two new communiqués from the surveillance state this week. Over the weekend, the New York Times and Der Spiegel, the German newsmagazine, came up with another batch of documents released by Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor, who has told us in a year more truth about the world we live in than our media seem prepared to tell us in the next two decades.

This case focuses on the NSA’s cyberwar against China, in particular the large, emergent telecommunications company called Huawei Technologies. It turns out that the NSA has been breaking into Huawei’s networks and infrastructure since 2009. This was right because Huawei may have been (note syntax) breaking into American networks and infrastructure, which, if so, would have been wrong.

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A couple of days ago came news that the Obama administration has finally come up with a plan to rein in the NSA’s indiscriminate collection of our telephone records. The Times is out there calling this “a far-reaching overhaul.” This phrase is key — a stake in the ground. In my reading it is code for, “The tweaks we are about to recount are the limit of what you’re going to get by way of restraints on the NSA, so we should all agree now that they will have to do.”

I do not agree. The present passage is significant because what remains at its end now looks as though it will be almost everything Snowden has revealed and all that he has not. The NSA as now constituted is effectively to be confirmed as a permanent feature of a government that is half or less visible and half or less under political control, a permanent intrusion into every American’s personal sovereignty, and a scar on the integrity of our pockmarked public space. Permanent dissent is a grim thought, but it is the sole defensible position for anyone who accepts the responsibility America’s ideals put upon us.

The Huawei case is egregious, for what is done and what is spun. The company has for a few years been the target of a scare campaign that falls not much short of Hearst’s “yellow peril” bit at the start of the American century. Two years ago the House Intelligence Committee warned American companies not to do business with Huawei because it is close to the People’s Liberation Army and its products could, in consequence, be conduits for Chinese government intelligence-gathering programs.

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A year ago, more: The administration barred several government departments — NASA, Justice, Commerce — from purchasing Huawei equipment because of the potential threat it poses to American security.

As you can read any time the topic gets written about, Huawei’s founder, Ren Zhengfei, was once a PLA engineer; later on, you might read that Ren was in the PLA nearly 50 years ago, in the 1970s. Being a PLA veteran is not remarkable in China, to put it mildly. Ren started Huawei to take on state-owned enterprises — SOEs, the companies Beijing uses to develop the Chinese economy. It is now a $40 billion-a-year operation with global reach.

Who can see into a Chinese company’s ties with government? I cannot, any more than I can see into the ties between Washington and United Technologies, Raytheon or any of the other companies at the core of the military-industrial-surveillance complex. (Heard the swoosh of many revolving doors lately?)

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Here is the thing: The NSA cannot see into Huawei’s political connections or services to the Chinese leadership, either.

The NSA’s operation against Huawei is called — another great moniker from the spooks — Shotgiant. It is 4 years old, so far as one can make out it remains up and running, and in the next paragraph I will explain in detail what the effort has unearthed.

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Nothing.

You get fulsome accounts of Huawei’s misdeeds, surely. But there are a couple of things to watch. Watch the verbs: They are all conditional. Watch the sources: These are single-source stories of the open-mouth-and-swallow-whole variety. Here is the Times account this week. It is all coulda, woulda, mighta and “potential threat,” coming from “interviews with intelligence officials,” “current and former American officials,” and that vessel of detached impartiality, the RAND Corp.

One Huawei exec gets to weigh in and nails it well enough. “The irony is that exactly what they are doing to us is what they have always charged that the Chinese are doing through us,” says William Plummer, a Huawei man in America. “If such espionage has been truly conducted, then it is known that the company is independent and has no unusual ties to any government, and that knowledge should be relayed publicly to put an end to an era of mis- and disinformation.”

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“No unusual ties.” One can extrapolate that Huawei probably has what amount to run-of-the-mill dealings with Beijing. Again, who knows what these would come to?

The Snowden document gives good detail on exactly what the NSA has been up to, on the other hand. Not only does it want to follow some so-far-undetected thread from Huawei to the PLA and the Chinese leadership; it also wants to use the Chinese company to cyber-attack its many customers who use it to avoid running data through U.S.-controlled systems — the Cubans, the Iranians, the Afghans and so on. This is a rolling snowball, since it is now reported that more and more governments, companies and people are using non-American servers to avoid, yes, the NSA’s tentacles.

The motives that have nothing to do with Huawei or China do not fit the narrative but must be reported because they are in the Snowden documents. And so this, from the Times account:

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“The Obama administration distinguishes between the hacking and corporate theft that the Chinese conduct against American companies to buttress their own state-run businesses, and the intelligence operations that the United States conducts against Chinese and other targets. American officials have repeatedly said that the NSA breaks into foreign networks only for legitimate national security purposes.”

Please do not write in the Comment box that you accept any such distinction. Please do not miss how “hacking” morphs into the august “intelligence operations” in one ideologically loaded sentence. Please do not tell us you accept at face value the assurances of American officials cited in the last sentence: It is simply not possible this far into the Snowden disclosures.

The Spiegel report on this round of documents sheds more light on the NSA’s doings, as well as the old “power of leaving out” as practiced in the American media. Here it is.

It turns out that Huawei is only part of the Shotgiant plan. Among its other “targets” have been Hu Jintao when he was president, the Chinese trade ministry and unnamed Chinese banks. Among the agency’s concerns, Spiegel is kind enough to tell us, is this one:

“In the past, the network infrastructure business has been dominated by Western firms, but the Chinese are working to make American and Western firms ‘less relevant.’ That Chinese push is beginning to open up technology standards that were long determined by US companies, and China is controlling an increasing amount of the flow of information on the net.”

Among the companies most vulnerable to Huawei’s evident dynamism in the telecoms market is Cisco Systems. But none of this could possibly figure into what the Times assures us are strictly the NSA’s “legitimate national security purposes.”

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I have gone long on the Huawei case because it manifests tendencies in American thinking about China that run deep roots. No one consciously espouses the Hearst-era garbage anymore. But the rotted remains of those prejudices-obscuring-fears make it possible to put all the innuendo about the inscrutable doings of the Chinese into our media and be taken seriously.

Most Americans are convinced that the Chinese are dangerous aggressors in our time, possessing little capacity to imagine how the world looks to a nation still struggling to feed itself, to pave all its roads, to sort itself out politically, to pull itself beyond centuries of humiliation at the hands of others. This shortcoming is becoming critical.

There is a cyberwar in progress, plainly. Reacting to the Snowden documents, Beijing called on Washington to cut it out and come to the table to develop an orderly way past the problem.

Here is where I land: A Chinese account of this question cannot be discounted because it is Chinese, just as an American accounting cannot by any logic be credited because it is American.

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Now, briefly, to the promised reforms of NSA practices. Obama’s people plan to take a proposal to Capitol Hill that I find meager to the point of bitterness.

First of all, the NSA’s mandate is to continue untouched for at least three more months and perhaps more, and how is this for will and determination in the White House? Beyond this, it is all wrapped in the cotton wool legalese Washington typically employs when not much is going on but the effect of commotion is desired. Commonly enough, the newspapers reproduce the legalese such that one has to read every paragraph at least twice to figure out what it is saying — or not saying.

So far as I can make out, the NSA will someday not be allowed to retain telephone records but will be able to obtain any it wants from the telephone companies upon request. A new court order will be required, but the order will be issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which is as invisible as the NSA, of course. Split infinitive and all, the Times reports, “The new type of surveillance court orders envisioned by the administration would require phone companies to swiftly provide records in a technologically compatible data format.”

It is a telling touch: We want it now and we want it the way we want it.

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Some other details are tinkered with. The NSA can burrow into phone data two steps out from a telephone number associated with a terrorism suspect, as against the three steps now permitted. As this kind of thing suggests, the proposal evinces no serious intent to halt the nation’s slide into an era of post-constitutional law.

Two things do seem serious. One, the people most vigilant of civil liberties and constitutional rights during the Cold War appear to be caving. The American Civil Liberties Union: “We agree with the administration that the N.S.A.’s bulk collection of call records should end.” Something short of daring, I would say.

Two, when Obama announced in January his plans for “calibrated curbs” (the Times’ phrase), the reporting from Washington was plain that he had to avoid provoking the surveillance set. I found the thought chilling, and I do again now that these plans are headed for the Hill.

What are we witnessing? What does the phrase “post-constitutional law” mean, if we are to use it? Are we watching some kind of slow-mo coup wherein the security and surveillance establishments, having finally succeeded in suffusing among us an eternal, pervasive fear, are cut loose, immune from all law but the law they make as they need it? Are we all to be watched over by machines of loving grace, as old Brautigan put it long years ago?


Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith was the International Herald Tribune’s bureau chief in Hong Kong and then Tokyo from 1985 to 1992. During this time he also wrote “Letter from Tokyo” for the New Yorker. He is the author of four previous books and has contributed frequently to the New York Times, the Nation, the Washington Quarterly, and other publications.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

China Edward Snowden Huawei Media Criticism New York Times Nsa