NSA: the three letter acronym which has become absolutely irritating. For one, it has monopolised international news for nearly a year. Moreover, leaks from the spy agency (which has all but declared Orwell’s 1984 as its founding doctrine) invariably reveal humiliations of civil liberties.
Annoyingly, this has given ennui-ridden conspiracy theorists cause for celebration. But worse, these were liberties that we’d convinced ourselves were intact, despite similar NSA leaks in 2006. Now, because of Edward Snowden’s courageous tsunami of revelations, the illusion of privacy is as unignorable as it is inconvenient.
NASA is also experiencing renewed public attention. Last week, Channel 4′s Live From Space interviewed the NASA astronauts currently living and working upon the International Space Station. The programme traces their vital research on the human immune system, climate science, and most famously, space exploration. The acronyms of the two agencies differ by a single letter. Given this, the stark differences between them seem almost comical; ‘Aeronautics and Space’, versus ‘Security’. One seeks to extend our freedom to observe and travel the known universe while the other has identified freedom as Public Enemy Number 1.
So, why not disband the NSA, which sells out the world’s secrets to America’s notorious straw-man, ‘National Security’, and redirect its funding to NASA, which has mostly stood by its motto, Per Aspera Ad Astra; For the benefit of All?
This, of course, is an ideological proposal. No, US intelligence’s ontological spy network should not merge with its cosmological cousin, and form some sort of ying-yang super-agency. Disbandment must mean an end to the automated surveillance of private citizens. In other words, a recognition of the US’ own Fourth Amendment to its Bill of Rights:
“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
Laws written by long-deceased revolutionaries are clearly an absurd reference for a modern superpower, even if they do remain in effect. This being the case, Kafka’s gloomy observation, “every revolution evaporates and leaves behind the slime of bureaucracy,” finds its mark.
But in fact, the proposal is not only ideological. It is also fitting. Respectively, these two organisations represent the best and worst manifestations of the USA’s split personality. Even so, they share several characteristics. For starters, they can both watch us while we sleep. Although NASA’s earth-facing satellites are not officially commissioned for surveillance, they’re there, and that’s to say everywhere. Worse than this, the Space Agency was cited in last year’s launch of the National Reconnaissance Office’s Atlas V spy satellite, with its creepily brazen ‘octopus-encircling-the-globe’ logo.
However, the fundamental difference between the two organisations is exhibited in how they make the headlines. Several weeks ago, NASA published this underreported series of pictures from the International Space Station. They invite a transcendent perspective of ourselves, in our planetary dimension. In the same week, Snowden’s documents exposed the NSA as the world’s most prolific voyeur.
It emerged that the agency had helped its protégé this side of the Atlantic, GCHQ, to amass still images from Yahoo webcam conversations. The reports, (one was revealingly entitled Secret Strap1), bring fresh vulgarity and vindication to Slavoj Žižek’s ‘pervert’ interpretation of ideology. Worst of all, the desk-spies were brutally unflattering, branding the British Public’s cybersex as “undesirable”. Who knew technocrats were so snobbish?
The NSA then, works to sequester our most private, and incidentally, our least arousing moments. It uses this violation to examine each of us as prospective terrorists, sexual predators, or perhaps simply as dissidents. NASA, on the other hand, enriches our private perspectives by illuminating our species’ place in the cosmos.
This happy difference emphasises another parallel. In its 56 year existence, NASA’s annual expenditure has averaged $9.9 billion. The NSA’s undisclosed budget is estimated to be in excess of $10 billion a year. Although nowadays NASA spends considerably more, the NSA estimate was conservative, so a transfer of spending could effectively double NASA’s financial capability.
NASA has already landed the first human on the moon, sent more than 1,000 unmanned missions into the solar system, is a leading authority on Earth Science, and delivered those iconic images from the Hubble Telescope. With twice the funding for it, America could truly conquer the stars.
The United States would at once be tackling its fading scientific pre-eminence, and its illegal, overreaching spy network. Two organs of a waning empire would be transplanted with one radical reallocation of federal resources. America could begin to shrug off its doomed pursuit for global empire, and consolidate a humanist legacy worthy of its founders.
In reality, such a policy would require a monumental overhaul; massive shifts of staff and resources, the deconstruction of an entrenched institution, and, more audaciously, its ideology. Nevertheless, it is not practically impossible. However, because of the stubbornness and severity of the USA’s military-industrial complex, plausible alternatives are made to sound ludicrous. Indeed, it seems that Kurt Vonnegut’s joke that “there’s nothing funny about national security, nothing at all”, is as true now as it was in the early decades of Cold War. Today however, the irony runs transparently thin.
Dissolving the ugliest elements of US imperialism in favour of America’s most iconic contributions to science, would restore the nation’s lost reputation as champion of the Enlightenment. It could trade the provincialism of its National Security ideology, for the global legacy of the International Space Station. In any case, defending America becomes obsolete if the cost is the idea of America itself.
The revolutionary, left-libertarian politics of Jefferson and Franklin, have given ground to the paranoid conservatism of an empire in decay. Ideas that appear laughable in their audacity may be the only remaining treatment for such schizophrenic irony.