On Thursday, the Washington Post’s revelation of thousands upon thousands of National Security Agency violations of both the law and supposed privacy protections included this fascinating detail:
A “large number” of Americans had their telephone calls accidentally intercepted by the NSA when a top-secret order to eavesdrop on multiple phone lines for reasons of national security confused the international code for Egypt (20) with the area code for Washington (202).
I enjoy as much as the next chap all those Hollywood conspiracy thrillers about the all-powerful security state — you know the kind of thing, where the guy’s on the lam and he stops at a diner at a windswept one-stoplight hick burg in the middle of nowhere and decides to take the risk of making one 15-second call from the payphone, and as he dials the last digit there’s a click in a basement in Langley, and even as he’s saying hello the black helicopters are already descending on him. It’s heartening to know that, if I ever get taken out at a payphone, it will be because some slapdash timeserving pen-pusher mistyped the code for Malaysia (60) as that of New Hampshire (603).
The Egypt/Washington industrial-scale wrong number is almost too perfectly poignant a vignette at the end of a week in which hundreds are dead on the streets of Cairo. On the global scene, America has imploded: Its leaders have no grasp of its national interests, never mind any sense of how to achieve them. The assumption that we are in the early stages of “the post-American world” is now shared by everyone from General Sisi to Vladimir Putin. General Sisi, I should add, is Egypt’s new strongman, not Putin’s characterization of Obama. Meanwhile, in contrast to its accelerating irrelevance overseas, at home Washington’s big bloated blundering bureaucratic security state expands daily. It’s easier to crack down on 47 Elm Street than Benghazi.
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