It’s hard to imagine that Fareed Zakaria would have written his latest TIME magazine column if George W. Bush (or any other Republican, for that matter) occupied the White House. Zakaria explains why many of his fellow left-leaning political observers fail to grasp the truth of U.S. intelligence operations under Democrat Barack Obama.
The speech annoyed liberals and conservatives suspicious of government overreach, but reaction from the left has been more anguished. Many voices have begun arguing that Edward Snowden’s revelations show that U.S. intelligence operations have run amok and are illegal and unconstitutional and that Snowden deserves to be pardoned and treated like a hero. The factual basis for every one of these claims is weak. A large number of Snowden’s revelations involve not domestic surveillance but foreign intelligence operations, a standard role for U.S. spy agencies. They show, for example, that the U.S. government is spying on the Taliban and Pakistan. They show that the NSA is spying on foreign leaders like Germany’s Angela Merkel and top aides to Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff. Now, you might regard some of these choices as wise and others as mistaken, but there is nothing unprecedented about countries spying on foreign leaders. Obama conceded too much when he promised not to eavesdrop on a host of them. Foreign governments will certainly not return the favor and stop what is often a relentless effort to spy on America’s top officials and CEOs.
There is a gaping hole in the left’s understanding of U.S. intelligence work. The U.S.–its government, businesses and people–is under massive, sustained surveillance from and infiltration by criminals, terrorists and foreign governments. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff pointed out recently that since 2011, cyberattacks on America’s critical infrastructure–chemical, electrical, water and transport systems–have risen seventeenfold. The National Nuclear Security Administration, which is responsible for the country’s nuclear power plants, reported in 2012 that it faces 10 million cyberattacks every day–that’s 3.65 billion in one year. Every major bank and corporation, from Bank of America to Goldman Sachs to the New York Times, faces almost continuous efforts from abroad to penetrate its networks, mine its data, disrupt its procedures and steal its secrets. The effects can range from disruption of transactions to systemic damage that feels more like a military invasion.