The Real US Government

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.

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 cutSocial
Security benefits
?

More... Read the entire article at Salon.com