The secret private-sector government

Part 2 of the Priest/Arkin series documents the unaccountable corporate branch of the National Security State

Topics: Pentagon, Washington, D.C.,

Former Bush Attorney General Michael Mukasey, The Washington Post, today, arguing against civilian trials for Guantanamo detainees:

The civilized world has tried over several hundred years to establish rules of warfare so that those who wear uniforms, follow a recognized chain of command, carry their arms openly and do not target civilians are treated as prisoners of war when captured. Those who follow none of these rules are treated as war criminals, not as ordinary defendants accused of ordinary crimes and entitled to far more robust protection than war criminals.

Dana Priest and William Arkin, The Washington Post, today, on the sprawling network of private corporations performing core U.S. military and intelligence functions:

Private contractors working for the CIA have recruited spies in Iraq, paid bribes for information in Afghanistan and protected CIA directors visiting world capitals. Contractors have helped snatch a suspected extremist off the streets of Italy, interrogated detainees once held at secret prisons abroad and watched over defectors holed up in the Washington suburbs. . . . Contractors kill enemy fighters.  They spy on foreign governments and eavesdrop on terrorist networks. They help craft war plans. They gather information on local factions in war zones. . . .

Most of these contractors do work that is fundamental to an agency’s core mission. As a result, the government has become dependent on them in a way few could have foreseen: wartime temps who have become a permanent cadre. . . .

Since 9/11, contractors have made extraordinary contributions – and extraordinary blunders – that have changed history and clouded the public’s view of the distinction between the actions of officers sworn on behalf of the United States and corporate employees with little more than a security badge and a gun.

Contractor misdeeds in Iraq and Afghanistan have hurt U.S. credibility in those countries as well as in the Middle East. Abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, some of it done by contractors, helped ignite a call for vengeance against the United States that continues today. Security guards working for Blackwater added fuel to the five-year violent chaos in Iraq and became the symbol of an America run amok. . . .

Contractors in war zones, especially those who can fire weapons, blur “the line between the legitimate and illegitimate use of force, which is just what our enemies want,” Allison Stanger, a professor of international politics and economics at Middlebury College and the author of “One Nation Under Contract,” told the independent Commission on Wartime Contracting at a hearing in June.

The irony here is that the decision to declare enemy fighters in Afghanistan as “unlawful enemy combatants” – which is what, in turn, “justified” denial of Geneva Conventions protections for them (at least until the Supreme Court ruled otherwise) — was grounded in the fact that they do not, as Mukasey put it, ”wear uniforms, follow a recognized chain of command, carry their arms openly.”  That’s what made them, in the U.S. lexicon, not only “unlawful combatants” but even Terrorists.  But, of course, exactly the same is true for our countless private contractors who are acting as combatants for the U.S. in multiple parts of the world; as Priest and Arkin document, they are so numerous and unaccountably embedded in secret government functions that they are literally “countless”:

Making it more difficult to replace contractors with federal employees: The government doesn’t know how many are on the federal payroll. Gates said he wants to reduce the number of defense contractors by about 13 percent, to pre-9/11 levels, but he’s having a hard time even getting a basic head count.

“This is a terrible confession,” he said. “I can’t get a number on how many contractors work for the Office of the Secretary of Defense,” referring to the department’s civilian leadership.

In sum, if you combine this second Post installment with the first one from yesterday, the picture that emerges is that we have a Secret Government of 854,000 people so vast and secret that nobody knows what it does or what it is.  Roughly 30% of that Secret Government — engaged in the whole litany of functions from spying to killing — is composed of private corporations:  ”The Post estimates that out of 854,000 people with top-secret clearances, 265,000 are contractors.”  That there is a virtually complete government/corporate merger when it comes to the National Security and Surveillance State is indisputable:  ”Private firms have become so thoroughly entwined with the government’s most sensitive activities that without them important military and intelligence missions would have to cease or would be jeopardized.”

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As little oversight as National Security State officials have, corporate officials engaged in these activities have even less.  Relying upon profit-driven industry for the defense and intelligence community’s “core mission” is to ensure that we have Endless War and an always-expanding Surveillance State.  After all, the very people providing us with the “intelligence” that we use to make decisions are the ones who are duty-bound to keep this War Machine alive and expanding because, as the Post put it, they are “obligated to shareholders rather than the public interest.”  Our military, our CIA, our spying agencies (such as NSA) are every bit corporate as they are governmental:   in some cases more so.  So complete is the merger that it’s the same people who switch seamlessly back and forth between governmental agencies and their private “partners,” which means we have not only a vast Secret Government, but one that operates with virtually no democratic accountability and is driven not by National Security concerns but by its own always-expanding private profits.   Just read the years of work from Tim Shorrock — which disgracefully was not even cited by the Postdocumenting how dangerous all of this.

Priest and Arkin wrote yesterday that what they were describing wasn’t quite the same as Dwight Eisenhower’s 1961 Farewell warning about the “military industrial complex” and the threats it poses to democracy (largely because, as they put it, the mission of this entity is more “amorphous” than it was in Eisenhower’s time).  Please read the relevant portions of Eisenhower’s warning and decide for yourself if this isn’t exactly what he was talking about:

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience.  The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government.  We recognize the imperative need for this development.  Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.

Akin to, and largely responsible for the sweeping changes in our industrial-military posture, has been the technological revolution during recent decades.

In this revolution, research has become central; it also becomes more formalized, complex, and costly. A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the Federal government.

Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers.

The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present and is gravely to be regarded.

Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.

That sounds quite on-point to me.  Everyone should decide for themselves if we have the “alert and knowledgeable citizenry” which Eisenhower said was necessary to “compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”  If we empower a massive private industry this way — with core governmental authorities — to gorge on unchecked power and huge private profits at the public expense, all derived from Endless War and civil liberties abridgments, why would one expect anything other than Endless War and civil liberties abridgments to be the inevitable outcome?

Glenn Greenwald
Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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