The surveillance can be aimed at any citizen, whether or not they are involved in subversive or illegal activities. And not just at US citizens: the scandal has exposed the very close cooperation between the NSA and the British GCHQ, and Snowden has claimed that the NSA is in bed with a whole number of other western states. But that doesn’t make these states immune from being spied on themselves: the US uses the same techniques of mass surveillance to spy on other states, including those once deemed to be its allies, like Germany and France.
The startling development of electronic communication in the last few decades has of course taken the technical capacities of such spy agencies to a new level. But there is nothing new in any of this, and it’s certainly not limited to the US.
The British state, for one, used to lead the field in international spying technology. When it was the most powerful capitalist country it was the centre of the international network of telegraph lines, a similar position to that of the US in relation to the internet. In the First World War British imperialism used this position to tap into the international communications networks of German imperialism. It cut the main cables between Germany and the US, but was able to monitor the other networks Germany had to use. It also got its hands on the wireless facilities of the Post Office and Marconi to monitor German wireless traffic. This was done by Navy Intelligence from Room 40 at the Admiralty Building. Following the war it continued to use and develop these abilities. Today, despite no longer being a superpower, it can use its hundred year history of spying through communications systems to punch above its weight in the espionage game.
As for France, which has protested loudly against the violation of its sovereignty by the NSA, the French newspaper Le Monde has recently published information about the vast data collection and electronic surveillance operations being carried out by the national intelligence service, the DGSE. The French Republic is almost as hypocritical as Putin’s Russia, which is regularly suspected of assassinating journalists who ask too many awkward questions, posing as the defender of freedom and considering offering asylum to the fugitive Snowden.
In sum: they are all at it, and they are all at it more than ever before. They spy on their own citizens because their rule is fragile, undermined by its own social and economic contradictions, and they live in constant terror of the danger of revolt from below. They also spy on each other because these same contradictions push each nation state towards incessant warfare with its rivals, and in this war of each against all, today’s ally can be tomorrow’s enemy. And only one organ is capable of organising spying and surveillance on such a gigantic scale: the capitalist state, which in the age of capitalist decline has truly become a cold inhuman monster which tends more and more to swallow the civil society it is supposed to ‘protect’.