It's About Blackmail, Not National Security

Spying has a history almost as ancient as humanity itself, but every now and then the rules of the game change. This post-9/11 moment of surveillance is one of those game-changers and the National Security Agency (NSA) has been the deal-breaker and rule-maker. The new rules it brought into existence are simple enough: you -- whoever you are and wherever you live on Planet Earth -- are a potential target. Get used to it. The most basic ground rule of the new system: no one is exempt from surveillance.

But then there’s human nature to take into account. There’s the feeling of invulnerability that the powerful often have. If you need an example, look no further than what key officials around New Jersey Governor Chris Christie were willing to commit to emails, even in this day and age, when it came to their scheme to tie up traffic on the George Washington Bridge. Something similar has been true of the system NSA officials set up. Its rules of the road were that no one was to be exempt from surveillance. (Call me Angela Merkel.) They then plunged their creation into the deepest secrecy, in part because they couldn’t imagine a world without at least one categorical exemption: themselves.

As it happens, Edward Snowden’s revelations fit the logic of the system the NSA created to a T. What the former agency contractor revealed, above all, was that the surveillance of anyone and everyone was the essence of our new world, and that not even the NSA would be exempt. He made that agency his own object of surveillance and so opened it up to the scrutiny of the rest of the planet. He gave its officials a dose of their own medicine.