A Mea Culpa of Sorts

There are belittling moments in writing when one realizes that a story she’s penned has become perversely innocuous – maybe even meaningless – as it’s dwarfed by much more powerful revelations that were just around the corner waiting to explode. Even worse, it’s a tough kick when a writer feels she has been duped or distracted by a narrative that could very well be military establishment propaganda.


I am feeling that now, and the strong need to address it for the record. It’s about my June 4 article, "Cyber War: Another Epic Fail," which used as a launching point U.S allegations that Chinese hackers, perhaps supported by the Chinese government, had accessed the blue prints of our most advanced military weapons and technology, and in fact had been doing so for years. As a result, the American taxpayer has footed a bill worth billions to fight a "cyber war" that like all our other wars – i.e. War on Drugs, War in Afghanistan – seemed destined to become a sinkhole of massive proportions.

While my piece did mention the U.S and Israeli role in the Stuxnet virus which was revealed to be an elaborate cyber attack aimed at spying on and disabling Iran’s nuclear program dating back to the Bush Administration, the thrust of the report cited sources that painted the United States as a victim, "like the oft-battered underdog, hardly scrappy, and always on the defense,” when it came to Chinese hacking against both the U.S government and its defense contractors, as well as the corporate telecom world.

Well, not more than three days later, the entire news universe shifted as The Guardian reported, aided by documents leaked by one Edward Snowden, that while Washington was whining about the Chinese dragon peeking at its military secrets, the United States had become a Typhon of world surveillance, engaging not only in an unprecedented level of spying on its own citizens, but allied governments and citizens across the globe.

This B.S (Before Snowden) news cycle in which all the talk was how the White House would confront China on its snooping at an upcoming meeting between President Obama and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, may not rise to the level of a "false flag" – but the timing of the accusations are smelling more like a feeble effort at distraction, propaganda even, ahead of what has turned out to be a near-apocalypse of bad press for the administration.

"Wherever he goes, whatever else is on his agenda, Mr. Obama in recent weeks has made a point of reassuring Americans that he is not spying on them. His statements are part of a carefully orchestrated White House damage-control effort in response to revelations about surveillance programs that have unnerved many Americans and exposed him to criticism from the political left and right," The New York Times reported on June 28.

But it seems the more the White House "pushes back" the further it gets away from any "carefully orchestrated" illusion that it was ever an "underdog" or even an equal adversary in a virtual "Cold War" with the Chinese, terrorists or any other mythical entity for that matter. Not only have we learned that the NSA has co-opted our most powerful telecom and Internet communications services – including Verizon, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, Google and Skype – to more easily monitor domestic and foreign Web and phone traffic, but that the White House has ordered a list of targets for potential cyber attacks "ranging from subtle to severely damaging” overseas.

Furthermore, after all of their indignation over Chinese subterfuge, U.S officials are now dancing around new claims by Snowden that he has documents proving the NSA has been tapping into the networks of major Chinese telecom carriers and universities on the mainland and in Hong Kong since 2009 (the institutions allegedly targeted are strategic in that they serve as a major Internet backbone and central hub for millions of Internet users, respectively).

Worse, it seems, is the toll that Snowden’s revelations have taken on America’s relations with its friends. According to the leaked documents reported by Germany’s Der Spiegel and The Guardian earlier this month, U.S intelligence services have been spying on the European Union mission in New York, its offices in Brussels, and its embassy in Washington, targeting the private phone calls, faxes and emails of 38 ally countries. From The Guardian:

The methods used against the mission include the collection of data transmitted by implants, or bugs, placed inside electronic devices, and another covert operation that appears to provide a copy of everything on a targeted computer’s hard drive. …

The eavesdropping on the EU delegation to the US, on K Street in Washington, involved three different operations targeted on the embassy’s 90 staff. Two were electronic implants and one involved the use of antennas to collect transmissions.

"If the media reports are accurate, then this recalls the methods used by enemies during the cold war," German justice minister, Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, told the AP. "It is beyond comprehension that our friends in the United States see Europeans as enemies."

Also from the AP:

Several European officials – including in Germany, Italy, France, Luxembourg and the EU government itself – said the new revelations could scuttle ongoing negotiations on a trans-Atlantic trade treaty that, ultimately, seeks to create jobs and boost commerce by billions annually in what would be the world’s largest free trade area.

But the spying appears to extend much farther than foreign diplomats and staff, affecting the European population at-large. According to additional reporting by Der Spiegel, leaked documents show that the NSA "is more active in Germany than in any other country in the European Union, " "collecting metadata from up to half a billion communications a month in Germany" along with other western European countries, thanks to access to major Internet hubs in western and southern Germany. "The secret NSA documents show that Frankfurt plays an important role in the global network, and the city is named as a central base in the country," the paper reported.

"From there, the NSA has access to Internet connections that run not only to countries like Mali or Syria, but also to ones in Eastern Europe."

The White House has played down the reports, even suggesting that "everybody does it" and that spy-v-spy is as old as statecraft itself. Not surprisingly, the administration’s surrogates on and off the Hill have taken up that narrative with gusto, but not everyone is buying it, nor are they diminishing the potential fall-out for U.S relationships abroad. And, as even more is revealed about U.S spying (this time, against allies in Brazil, Colombia, Chile and Mexico), it’s becoming clearer that the U.S global spy network – whether everyone else, like say, France, is doing it or not – is more expansive, more sophisticated and resourced than anything else in the world. It is not only targeting "terrorists" and potential cyber attackers from places like China, but trading partners, friends and yes, governments that have danced Uncle Sam’s tune post 9/11 on everything from secret renditions and the so-called "drug war," to supplying cannon fodder for our misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan.

To put the extra gloss on this burgeoning image of the world bully, the administration has spent the last month – both overtly and implicitly – pressuring (threatening) allies and adversaries alike to give up Snowden and to deny him safe passage or asylum. The worst case was the grounding of Bolivian President Evo Morales’ plane on "suspicion" that he would help ferry Snowden from his temporary sanctuary in Russia back to South America.

"The international community is justifiably outraged," Eric Hershberg, the director of Latin American studies at American University, told FOX News Latino. "Time and time again the United States has bullied the region with the attitude that ‘it’s my way or the highway.’"

But back to my mea culpa of sorts. All of this exposition about the last month’s headlines is a way of saying that this writer failed to see the forest for the trees. In an interview for my June 3 story, "Epic Fail," federal budget guru Gordon Adams had expressed some wise skepticism for the American "under siege" narrative, writing in an email that "we (U.S) are one of six countries with a first-class, richly developed program to intrude, spy, and damage other people’s networks – Israel, China, Russia, Britain, maybe France, and the USA. We may be the best or in a close race with China and Israel." Furthermore, "we are as invested in offense as defense."

He suggested the "cyber war" Cassandras were aiming to beef up their military budgets – which is pretty plain – and I fit this idea of a Soviet style "arms race" into the bottom of my piece. But because Adams’ suggestion that the U.S was just as aggressive and invested in cyber espionage and subterfuge as the Chinese did not fit my own theme – that America was again sinking the taxpayer into another war in which money could not overcome bureaucratic buffoonery and institutional ineptitude – I did not emphasize his points enough.

Foolish me. Three days later it turns out that Washington may not only be "on par" with China and the others in cyber offensive strategy, but a virtual Eye of Sauron – knowing, stealing, harvesting data from everyone on the earth. And we still don’t know everything.

Lesson learned: best keep my own eye on the ring from now on, and not on the distractions in the forest.

Follow Vlahos on Twitter @KelleyBVlahos

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for FoxNews.com and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.