A Washington Post series examines the sprawling, unaccountable world that comprises the National Security State
The Washington Post‘s Dana Priest demonstrates once again why she’s easily one of the best investigative journalists in the nation — if not the best — with the publication of Part I of her series, co-written with William Arkin, detailing the sprawling, unaccountable, inexorably growing secret U.S. Government: what the article calls “Top Secret America.” To the extent the series receives much substantive attention (and I doubt it will), the focus will likely be on the bureaucratic problems it documents: the massive redundancies, overlap, waste, and inefficiencies which plague this “hidden world, growing beyond control” — as though everything would better if Top Secret America just functioned a bit more effectively. But the far more significant fact so compellingly illustrated by this first installment is the one I described last week when writing about the Obama administration’s escalating war on whistle blowers:
Most of what the U.S. Government does of any significance — literally — occurs behind a vast wall of secrecy, completely unknown to the citizenry. . . . Secrecy is the religion of the political class, and the prime enabler of its corruption. That’s why whistle blowers are among the most hated heretics. They’re one of the very few classes of people able to shed a small amount of light on what actually takes place.
Virtually every fact Priest and Arkin disclose underscores this point. Here is their first sentence: ”The top-secret world the government created in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has become so large, so unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it or exactly how many agencies do the same work.” This all “amounts to an alternative geography of the United States, a Top Secret America hidden from public view and lacking in thorough oversight.” We chirp endlessly about the Congress, the White House, the Supreme Court, the Democrats and Republicans, but this is the Real U.S. Government: functioning in total darkness, beyond elections and parties, so secret, vast and powerful that it evades the control or knowledge of any one person or even any organization.
Anyone who thinks that’s hyperbole should just read some of what Priest and Arkin chronicle. Consider this: ”Every day, collection systems at the National Security Agency intercept and store 1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls and other types of communications.” To call that an out-of-control, privacy-destroying Surveillance State is to understate the case. Equally understated is the observation that we have become a militarized nation living under an omnipotent, self-perpetuating, bankrupting National Security State. Here’s but one flavoring anecdote:
Command centers, internal television networks, video walls, armored SUVs and personal security guards have also become the bling of national security.
“You can’t find a four-star general without a security detail,” said one three-star general now posted in Washington after years abroad. “Fear has caused everyone to have stuff. Then comes, ‘If he has one, then I have to have one.’ It’s become a status symbol.”
What’s most noteworthy about all of this is that the objective endlessly invoked for why we must acquiesce to all of this — National Security — is not only unfulfilled by “Top Secret America,” but actively subverted by it. During the FISA debate of 2008 — when Democrats and Republicans joined together to legalize the Bush/Cheney warrantless eavesdropping program and vastly expand the NSA’s authority to spy on the communications of Americans without judicial oversight — it was constantly claimed that the Government must have greater domestic surveillance powers in order to Keep Us Safe. Thus, anyone who opposed the new spying law was accused of excessively valuing privacy and civil liberties at the expense of what, we are always told, matters most: Staying Safe.
But as I wrote many times back then — often by interviewing and otherwise citing House Intelligence Committee member Rush Holt, who has been making this point repeatedly — the more secret surveillance powers we vest in the Government, the more we allow the unchecked Surveillance State to grow, the more unsafe we become. That’s because the public-private axis that is the Surveillance State already collects so much information about us, our activities and our communications — so indiscriminately and on such a vast scale — that it cannot possibly detect any actual national security threats. NSA whistle blower Adrienne Kinne, when exposing NSA eavesdropping abuses, warned of what ABC News described as “the waste of time spent listening to innocent Americans, instead of looking for the terrorist needle in the haystack.” As Kinne put it:
By casting the net so wide and continuing to collect on Americans and aid organizations, it’s almost like they’re making the haystack bigger and it’s harder to find that piece of information that might actually be useful to somebody. You’re actually hurting our ability to effectively protect our national security.
The Government did not fail to detect the 9/11 attacks because it was unable to collect information relating to the plot. It did collect exactly that, but because it surveilled so much information, it was incapable of recognizing what it possessed (“connecting the dots”). Despite that, we have since then continuously expanded the Government’s surveillance powers. Virtually every time the political class reveals some Scary New Event, it demands and obtains greater spying authorities (and, of course, more and more money). And each time that happens, its ability to detect actually relevant threats diminishes. As Priest and Arkin write:
The NSA sorts a fraction of those [1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls and other types of daily collected communications] into 70 separate databases. The same problem bedevils every other intelligence agency, none of which have enough analysts and translators for all this work.
The article details how ample information regarding alleged Ft. Hood shooter Nidal Hassan and attempted Christmas Day bomber Umar Abdulmutallab was collected but simply went unrecognized. As a result, our vaunted Surveillance State failed to stop the former attack and it was only an alert airplane passenger who thwarted the latter. So it isn’t that we keep sacrificing our privacy to an always-growing National Security State in exchange for greater security. The opposite is true: we keep sacrificing our privacy to the always-growing National Security State in exchange for less security.
* * * * *
This world is so vast, secretive and well-funded that it’s very difficult to imagine how it could ever be brought under control. That’s particularly true given its inextricable intertwining with the private sector: the billions upon billions of dollars funneled from the Government to its private-sector “partners,” which is the subject of the not-yet-published second installment of the Priest/Arkin article. As I wrote when examining the revolving public/private shuttling of former DNI and Booz Allen executive Michael McConnell:
In every way that matters, the separation between government and corporations is nonexistent, especially (though not only) when it comes to the National Security and Surveillance State. Indeed, so extreme is this overlap that even McConnell, when he was nominated to be Bush’s DNI, told The New York Times that his ten years of working “outside the government,” for Booz Allen, would not impede his ability to run the nation’s intelligence functions. That’s because his Booz Allen work was indistinguishable from working for the Government, and therefore — as he put it — being at Booz Allen “has allowed me to stay focused on national security and intelligence communities as a strategist and as a consultant. Therefore, in many respects, I never left.”
As the NSA scandal revealed, private telecom giants and other corporations now occupy the central role in carrying out the government’s domestic surveillance and intelligence activities — almost always in the dark, beyond the reach of oversight or the law.
Long before the Priest/Arkin article, Tim Shorrock has been documenting this sprawling, secretive, merged public/private world that combines unchecked surveillance and national security powers with enormous corporate profits. So long as the word Terrorism continues to be able to strike fear in the hearts of enough citizens and media stars — as Communism did before it — the political class, no matter who is elected, will be petrified to oppose any of this, even if they wanted to, and why would they want to? They wouldn’t and they don’t. And it thus grows and becomes more powerful, all justified by endless appeals to The Terrorists.
That’s why it is difficult to imagine — short of some severe citizen unrest — how any of this will be brought under control. One of the few scenarios one can envision for such unrest involves growing wealth disparities and increasingly conspicuous elite corruption. In The New York Times today, investment banker and former Clinton Treasury official Roger Altman announced that the alleged “tension between President Obama and the business community” can be solved only if the political class is willing to “fix Social Security” – i.e., to slash Americans’ retirement security. Sooner or later (probably sooner), one way or another (probably this way), that’s going to happen. It’s inevitable. As George Carlin put it several years ago, in an amazingly succinct summary of so many things:
And now, they’re coming for your Social Security money – they want your fucking retirement money – they want it back – so they can give it to their criminal friends on Wall Street. And you know something? They’ll get it. They’ll get it all from you sooner or later. Because they own this fucking place. It’s a Big Club: and you’re not in it.
That’s really the only relevant question: how much longer will Americans sit by passively and watch as a tiny elite become more bloated, more powerful, greedier, more corrupt and more unaccountable — as the little economic security, privacy and freedom most citizens possess vanish further still? How long can this be sustained, where more and more money is poured into Endless War, a military that almost spends more than the rest of the world combined, where close to 50% of all U.S. tax revenue goes to military and intelligence spending, where the rich-poor gap grows seemingly without end, and the very people who virtually destroyed the world economy wallow in greater rewards than ever, all while the public infrastructure (both figuratively and literally) crumbles and the ruling class is openly collaborating on a bipartisan, public-private basis even to cut Social Security benefits?
* * * * *
The answer, unfortunately, is probably this: a lot longer. And one primary reason is that our media-shaped political discourse is so alternatively distracted and distorted that even shining light on all of this matters little. The New York Times‘ Peter Baker had a good article this weekend on how totally inconsequential squabbles dominate the news more or less continuously: last week’s riveting drama was the bickering between the White House and Nancy Pelosi over Robert Gibbs’ warning that Democratic control of the House was endangered. Baker quotes Democratic strategist Chris Lehane as follows: ”Politics in D.C. have become Seinfeldesque. Fights about nothing.”
If you read and write about politics full-time and are thus forced to subject yourself to the political media — as I am — what’s most striking aren’t the outrages and corruptions, but the overwhelming, suffocating, numbing stream of stupidity and triviality that floods the brain. One has to battle the temptation to just turn away and ignore it all. Every day, day after day, is consumed by some totally irrelevant though distracting melodrama: what Sarah Palin wrote on her Facebook page, some “outrageous” snippet of a comment made by John Boehner or Harry Reid, some “crazy,” attention-attracting statement from some fringe idiot-figure or TV blowhard that is exploited for superficial partisan gain or distraction value (hey, look over there: I think Michelle Bachmann just said something outrageous!!!!). I can’t recall an incident that better captures our political culture than this, from a Politico report on one of last week’s fascinating Royal Court dramas — the insult-trading between Palin and Mitt Romney:
Asked about the comments by POLITICO, a longtime Palin aide unloaded on Romney’s staff. . . . “For Washington consultants to sit around and personally disparage the governor anonymously to reporters is unfortunate and counterproductive and frankly immature,” said the aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
A Palin aide, hiding behind Politico-granted anonymity, complaining that petty comments were made anonymously by a Romney aide: a perfect expression of what our politics are. The Drudge and Politico sewers still rule our world — “fights over nothing” – and happily distract us from Top Secret America, what it does and what it takes.
And whatever these petty distractions fail to achieve, active media distortion takes care of the rest. This superb article by Mark Prendergast, the Ombudsman for Stars & Stripes, details the billions of dollars secretly (and probably illegally) spent by the Pentagon — much of it on private contractors — to subject not only foreign nationals but also American citizens to pure propaganda campaigns. The Pentagon propaganda program exposed by David Barstow is but a representative sliver of the weapons used by the National Security State and its private partners to control media behavior and shape public opinion. Billions upon billions of dollars are spent for this propagandistic purpose at exactly the time that real journalistic outlets are failing. Television journalists think they’re covering war zones when they submit to Pentagon embedding and then broadcast what they’re allowed to see, while repeating government lies about war without challenge. And when all else fails, we’re told to look over there at all those Bad, Evil things done by those Other Countries (hey, look at Pakistan, whose citizens are pumped full of myths and disinformation while their wealthy manipulate the law so as to not pay their fair share of taxes!! – and Iran detains people without charges and China tortures!! — can you believe them?).
Meanwhile, the Real U.S. Government — the network of secret public and private organizations which comprise the National Security and Surveillance State — expands and surveills and pilfers and destroys without much attention and with virtually no real oversight or accountability. It sucks up the vast bulk of national resources and re-directs the rest to those who own and control it. To their immense credit, Dana Priest and William Arkin will spend the week disclosing the details of what they learned over the past two years investigating all of this, but the core concepts have long been glaringly evident. But Sarah Palin’s Twitter malapropism from yesterday will almost certainly receive far more attention than anything exposed by the Priest/Arkin investigation. So we’ll continue to fixate on the trappings and theater of government while The Real Government churns blissfully in the dark — bombing and detaining and abducting and spying and even assassinating — without much bother from anyone.
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