Trapped in the Empire’s Backup Plan: Why Nations are Stuck in American Entanglements

Everyone knows the common-sense advice to save for a rainy day, to plan for the unlikely events one hopes will never happen. It seems the American empire is no different. It has planned well for future scenarios in which the world order may slowly turn away from American dominance. When Oliver Stone’s film Snowden was released in Japan, a shocking segment of the film was discussed briefly on the major news channels. This non-fiction narrative revealed what Edward Snowden had revealed four years earlier, so it was odd that only now it had made it to headline news. In the following segment from the film of voice-over narration by Edward Snowden, the US National Security Agency’s activities in Japan are described:

Laura: Why did you go back to the NSA [National Security Agency]?

Edward: Because of the money, and because I wanted to live in Japan. And because of Obama, actually. You know, I thought things were going to get better with him. I was wrong.

Laura: What was it like there?

Edward: Well, the first part of my day, I was building this round-the-clock backup system called Epic Shelter. So if there were some catastrophe, say, terrorists burned down every embassy and NSA post in the Middle East, this program would ensure we wouldn’t lose any of that data. But then I would have to put it aside when visitors showed up. The NSA wanted to impress the Japanese, show them our reach. They loved the live drone feeds… They were not as thrilled to learn that we wanted them to help us spy on the Japanese population. They said it was against their laws. Of course, we tapped the entire country anyway. And we didn’t stop there. Once we owned their communication systems, we started going after the physical infrastructure. We had slipped these little sleeper programs into power grids, dams, hospitals. And the idea was that if the day came when Japan was no longer an ally, it would be lights out. And it wasn’t just the Japanese. We were planting malware in Mexico, Germany, Brazil, Austria. I mean, China I could understand. Or Russia or Iran. Venezuela, OK. But, Austria? You’re also being ordered to follow most world leaders and heads of industry. You know, you’re tracking trade deals, sex scandals, diplomatic cables, to give the U.S. an advantage in negotiations at the G8, or leverage over Brazilian oil companies. Or helping to oust some third world leader who’s not playing ball. And ultimately the truth sinks in that no matter what justification you’re selling yourself, this is not about terrorism. Terrorism is the excuse. This is about economic and social control. And the only thing you’re really protecting is the supremacy of your government. (0:55:00~)

"And the idea was that if the day came when Japan
was no longer an ally, it would be lights out."
This is the dramatic turning point of the story showing how a conservative and patriotic servant of his country reached his point of disillusionment. But this is not to say it was the last such point. In another memorable scene, Snowden and his colleagues discuss their discomfort with their participation in drone warfare, and we see them come to the uncomfortable conclusion that they are no different than the lower ranking officials who were found guilty at the Nuremberg trials for “just following orders.” Oliver Stone set the scene at a barbecue party where someone crashes a toy drone at the moment they confront their guilty consciences—not so subtle, but it’s a visual medium that uses simple devices like this to make a point.

Drone pilot: We were in Vegas, looking at Afghanistan, so we were working late hours. This blurry object came wandering into the strike zone. We all knew that it was a kid. Poof, he was gone. We called in for clarification, and the report came back: It was a dog. Okay, fine. The shift’s long. Day and night. The same village two or three days later. We saw the funeral. We knew it was the kid they buried. Moms and dads were wailing. And then the order came down, pretty clear. Hit them. Poof. And they are gone in a cloud of dust. I mean all of them—the whole family. But the crazy thing is that you come home after work, kiss your wife and kids, go back to work the next day. Pretty soon, you know, it just all becomes routine.

Trevor: You make it sound criminal, man. It’s war. It’s a job.

Drone pilot: I don’t know, man. Do you think jobs can’t be criminal?

Trevor: No, not if you’re working for the government.

Edward: Did you ever hear about the Nuremberg trials, Trev? They weren’t that long ago.

Trevor: Yeah. And we hung the Nazi bigshots, right?

Edward: Yeah. Well, the bigshots were the first trial, but then the next trial were just the judges, and lawyers, and police men, guards—ordinary people just doing their jobs, following orders. That’s where we got the Nuremberg principles, which then the UN made into international law, just in case ordinary jobs become criminal again. I’m just saying. (1:30:20)

The event which drove Snowden over the edge (as the film shows it) and into eventual exile in Moscow was a casual remark by his CIA mentor, Corbin O’Brien. Showing apparent concern for Snowden’s personal life, he assured him about his girlfriend:

It's tough to keep any relationship going. Few of us do. So if it will give you any peace of mind, I can assure you she's not sleeping with that photographer friend of hers. (1:37:00~)

O’Brien failed to see that this information would not be re-assuring. The remark made Snowden forget his jealous suspicions and feel more outraged that O’Brien had had agents tapping his girlfriend’s communications and following her movements. It was the proverbial last straw.

O’Brien’s other great reveal in the story came when he said to Snowden:

In 20 years, Iraq will be a hellhole nobody cares about. Terrorism's a short-term threat. The real threats will come from China, Russia, Iran, and they'll come as SQL injections and malware. Without minds like yours, this country will be torn apart in cyberspace. (0:25:18~)

This was uttered over ten years ago in the setting of the film, but the once-unspeakable truth has become so obvious that Secretary of Defense General Mattis declared it openly in early 2018, saying that the US national security focus is no longer on terrorism but on Russia and China (among others). For years the US has been openly supporting “moderate rebels” in Syria, but every serious observer knows these rebels are an inchoate mix of fundamentalist fighters and illiterate, desperate foreign mercenaries who’ve shown up for a gun and a bit of cash. An extremely cynical view is that it is a plan to “mow the lawn,” as some Israeli officials describe regular operations in Palestine. That is, perhaps the plan is nothing more than a way to deal with an excess of young, unmarried adult males in the Arab world. But it seems that the plan has always been to put the radicals on an American leash then to use them to make the region perpetually unstable, never letting Syria become a failed state (hopefully) but never giving it lasting peace and economic ties to Russia and Iran, either. Does anyone ever wonder why there hasn’t been a foreigner-led terror attack on American soil since 2001? It seems the deal with the enemy is that the bloodshed is fine if it will happen elsewhere.

Lee Camp reports on the declared end 
of the war on terror, January 2018

But to return to that planted malware in the infrastructure of Japan and other American allies: What are they supposed to do with this information? After the news in Japan made a few jaws drop, it disappeared without requiring any answers from the prime minister. There is no answer. Every time Trump meets Abe, the president rips up another aspect of bilateral trade and tells both the Japanese and American audiences that Japan has taken advantage of America for too long. And Trump’s insults are only a shade different from those of the previous president who came to Hiroshima to say only “death fell from the sky.” Abe can only smile and shrug because there’s that question of the malware planted in the infrastructure. Furthermore, keep in mind that when Snowden said “lights out” what follows from that is meltdowns at every nuclear plant and spent fuel storage pool. The sensible thing for Japan to do this century is to look west toward China and Russia, and get out of the American alliance, but it can’t. Japan would have to quickly settle territorial disputes and differences over the interpretation of history, and it would lose nothing and gain much by conceding everything China and Russia want. But they can’t do this because of the worries about American repercussions.

Japan’s dilemma also explains why so many countries go along with American pressure on everything. A recent example is the way they went along with the Anglo-US pressure to expel Russian diplomats. No one can afford to stand up to the arm-twisting. Russian foreign minister Lavrov claimed that many diplomats expressed to him whispered regrets about having to go along with the nonsense stemming from the messy and contradictory Skripal incident. Similarly, these dilemmas explain why the nation most afflicted by nuclear testing fallout, the Marshall Islands, would not sign the UN treaty on the abolition of nuclear weapons. They host US military bases and depend on US aid and compensation for the ecological and health effects of nuclear testing. No one knows how to get out of this predicament. No one knows how to back up slowly and quietly toward the exits without provoking the irrationality of an empire in decline. But I think some people are trying and succeeding in small ways that are yet to be understood.

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