When it comes to the national security state, our capital has become a thought-free zone. The airlessness of the place, the unwillingness of leading players in the corridors of power to explore new ways of approaching crucial problems is right there in plain sight, yet remarkably unnoticed. Consider this the Tao of Washington.
Last week, based on a heavily redacted 231-page document released by the government in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, Charlie Savage, a superb reporter for the New York Times, revealed that the FBI has become a “significant player” in the world of warrantless surveillance, previously the bailiwick of the National Security Agency. The headline on his piece was: “FBI is broadening surveillance role, report shows.”
Here’s my question: In the last 13 years, can you remember a single headline related to the national security state that went “FBI [or fill in your agency of choice] is narrowing surveillance role [or fill in your role of choice], report shows”? Of course not, because when any crisis, problem, snafu or set of uncomfortable feelings, fears, or acts arises, including those by tiny groups of disturbed people or what are now called “lone wolf” terrorists, there is only one imaginable response: more money, more infrastructure, more private contractors, more surveillance, more weaponry, and more war. On a range of subjects, our post-9/11 experience should have taught us that this -- whatever it is we’re doing -- is no solution to anything, but no such luck.
More tax dollars consumed, more intrusions in our lives, the further militarization of the country, the dispatching of some part of the U.S. military to yet another country, the enshrining of war or war-like actions as the option of choice -- this, by now, is a way of life. These days, the only headlines out of Washington that should surprise us would have “narrowing” or “less,” not “broadening” or “more,” in them.
Thinking outside the box may seldom have been a prominent characteristic of Washington, but when it comes to innovative responses to problems, our political system seems particularly airless right now. Isn’t it strange, for instance, that being secretary of state these days means piling up bragging rights to mileage by constantly, frenetically circumnavigating the globe? The State Department website now boasts that John Kerry has traveled 682,000 miles during his time in office, just as it once boasted of Hillary Clinton’s record-breaking 956,733 miles, and yet, like the secretary of defense or the chairman of the Joint Chiefs or the CIA director or the national security advisor or the president himself, when it comes to rethinking failing policies, none of them ever seem to venture into unknown territory or entertain thoughts that might lead in unsettling directions. No piling up of the mileage there.
In a sense, there are only two operative words in twenty-first-century Washington: more and war. In this context, there really is just one well-policed party of thought in town. It matters not a whit that, under the ministrations of that “party,” the Pentagon and the rest of the national security state have grown to monstrous proportions, even though American war and security policies don’t have a significant success to their name.
Four Words That Rule Washington (and Two Words That Don’t)
Here then are four key words -- security, safety, intelligence, and war -- essential to present-day Washington. Add in two others, peace and bases, that for very different reasons are missing in action. Now, put together both the chatter and the silences around those six words and you can begin to grasp why our nation’s capital is such a dead zone in terms of new ideas or ways of acting in our world.
Let’s start with two words so commonplace that no serious player would bother to question them: security (as in “national”) and safety (as in “American”). On those two words alone, the new Washington has been funded and expanded endlessly in the post-9/11 era. They are the soil in which has grown just about every action that put the state intrusively in our lives, sidelined the citizenry, and emboldened a spirit of impunity in the national security bureaucracy, a sense that no one will ever be held accountable for any action, including kidnapping, torture, murder, the destruction of evidence, assassination, and perjury. Both words have an implied “from” after them, as in “from terrorism.”
And yet it has been estimated that an American’s annual fatality risk from terrorism is only one in 3.5 million. When it comes to your security and safety, in other words, don’t focus on local lone wolf jihadists; just put your car in the garage and leave it there. After all, your odds on losing your life in a traffic accident in any year are about one in 8,000.
Put another way, Americans have learned how to live with, on average, approximately 38,000 traffic deaths a year in the post-9/11 era without blinking, without investing trillions of dollars in a network of agencies to protect them from vehicles, without recruiting hundreds of thousands of private contractors to help make them safe and secure from cars, trucks, and buses. And yet when it comes to the deaths of tiny numbers of Americans, nothing is too much for our safety and security. More astonishing yet, almost all of this investment has visibly led not to the diminution of terrorism, but to its growth, to ever more terrorists and terror organizations and ever greater insecurity. This, in turn, has spurred the growth of the national security state yet more, even though it has shown little evidence of offering us significant protection.
Imagine that the government suddenly decided to build high-tech shark fences off every American beach to protect bathers from another kind of headline-inducing predator which strikes even more rarely than terrorists. Imagine as well that an enormous bureaucracy was created to construct and oversee the maintenance of those fences and the launching of armed patrols to take out the global shark population. And imagine as well that the result was a rise in the threat of shark attacks off those coasts, as well as endless claims from the officials in that bureaucracy that they were doing a completely bang-up job. Wouldn’t their word be doubted? Wouldn’t the whole program be reconsidered? Wouldn’t there be a debate in this country about what it means to be safe and secure, and about where our tax dollars were going?
Life itself is a danger zone. It’s not possible to live in total safety and security. So any system that aims to offer that, even for one phenomenon, and then feeds off the very opposite, should be open to question. Certainly, sacrificing things that have long been considered important to American life for protection from the rare and random chance that you might be injured or die is a decision that should be rethought from time to time. In this case, however, it seems that we can no longer imagine what life without a looming national security state might be like.
Now, here’s another word closely associated with the last two: intelligence. Consider it sacrosanct, representing as it does the religion of the national security state. There is only one rule when it comes to intelligence: you can’t have too much of it. Hence, our 17 ever-expanding, intertwined “intelligence” agencies, a vast, still proliferating apparatus for conducting covert ops and gathering information on everyone from presidents and chancellors to peasants in the rural backlands of the planet in every form in which anyone could possibly communicate or simply express themselves or even engage in public play.
This vast world of information overload has, in turn, been plunged into a world of secrecy in which, if it weren’t for leakers and whistleblowers, we would never have any intelligence that they didn’t want us to have. Over these last years, this system has proven intrusive in ways that even the totalitarian states of the previous century couldn’t have imagined, as well as abusive in ways degrading almost beyond imagination. It has also collected more information about all of us than can even be grasped; and yet, as far as we can tell, it has also been eternally a step behind in delivering actionable information to the government on just about any subject you want to mention.
However, whether what it does works or not, is legal or not, is useful or not, doesn't matter in Washington. There, the American intelligence community is unassailable. It emerges from every imbroglio, including the recent one over torture, stronger, not weaker. Its leadership, having made howling mistakes from 9/11 on, is never held accountable for any of them and is always promoted and honored. Oversight of what it does is on the wane. The visibly Orwellian nature of American intelligence is now widely accepted, at least in Washington, as a necessity of our age, of our need for... you guessed it... safety and security.
As a result, its bureaucratic expansion, secret wars, global kill lists, and other activities are largely beyond challenge. In response, for instance, to the disaster of 9/11, a new post, the director of national intelligence, was created to better coordinate the “U.S. intelligence community.” The director's “office,” which started with a staff of 11, now has an estimated 1,750 employees, the sort of growth that can be seen just about everywhere in the intelligence world.
We no longer have the slightest idea what life might be like if, instead of 17 significant intelligence outfits, we had just two of them, or even one. Or whether an intelligence agency operating purely on open-source information might not offer a more useful view of how our world works to American leaders than the vast, secretive, privatized crew of the present moment. We have no idea what our world would be like if the president no longer had his private army, the CIA (not to mention his second private army, the Joint Special Operations Command). None of this could possibly be brought up in the halls of power in Washington.
And here’s another word that’s had its way in the capital in these years: war (and related terms like intervention, counterinsurgency, surge, and raid). It has become the option of choice in situation after situation, while the Pentagon has reached monumental proportions and its elite operatives have become a massive secret military within the military. In any crisis, even essentially civilian ones such as the Ebola outbreak in Western Africa, that military is invariably called upon to ride to the rescue.
You could, in fact, think of these last 13 years in Washington as a sweeping, all-encompassing experiment in modern warfare. The denizens of that city now live in an eternal “wartime,” while from Pakistan to Libya across the Greater Middle East and now much of Africa, U.S. military personnel are eternally engaged in a range of wars, war-like activities, and preparations for future conflicts, while the skies are filled with U.S. planes and drones. At a moment when war seems to be the only go-to option (other than sanctions) in the U.S. foreign policy tool box and a high official can even talk about declaring war on scattered deranged individuals, the results of this military-first global strategy should be considered definitively in. Since 9/11, it has led to a series of well-publicized failures of the first order without a single genuine success, not one instance where anything like a goal Washington set was actually met. Yet a military-first policy remains the unquestioned, unchallenged option of choice and the military budget is largely sacrosanct even for a budget-cutting Congress.
Here, on the other hand, is a word you won’t see in Washington: peace. Once, it was part of the American political lexicon; now, it’s essentially been banished. You’d have to be a wuss to use it.
And here’s another word that’s essentially forbidden: bases. Since World War II, the U.S. has garrisoned the planet in a way achieved by no other imperial power. In the twenty-first century, when even the largest powers have only a few or no military bases outside their national territories, the U.S. still has hundreds scattered around the world. Included in the tally should be the 11 floating towns, loaded with air power -- we call them aircraft carriers -- that regularly cruise the high seas.
The Greater Middle East is packed to the seams with U.S. military bases and drone bases have been spreading rapidly as well. This is a living reality in much of the world. In the U.S., it goes essentially unnoticed and almost completely unmentioned. It's so fundamental to Washington’s military-first policies that, while taken for granted, it is beyond discussion or even public acknowledgement. The very idea of beginning to dismantle this empire of bases, which would automatically change Washington’s military stance in relation to the rest of the planet, is similarly beyond consideration, discussion, or thought.
Who knows what it would mean to abolish the CIA, slash the defense budget, scale down American intelligence, dismantle that empire of bases, or return peace to its first-option status? We know nothing about this because we haven’t seen any of it tried, or even seriously discussed, in twenty-first-century Washington.
Decades of the Living Dead
In the title of his prophetic pre-9/11 book Blowback, Chalmers Johnson brought that term of CIA tradecraft out of the closet. He focused on the way covert Agency operations in distant lands carried the seeds of future retaliation on this country. Because those operations were so secret, though, ordinary Americans were incapable of making the connection between what we did and what hit us. Today, in a world filled with blowback, the connections between Washington’s acts and what follows are no longer in the shadows but regularly in plain sight. Yet they are seldom acknowledged, particularly by policymakers in Washington.
In the wake of the 2014 midterm elections, the capital is said to be a big government town being taken over by smaller government types -- not, however, if you’re talking about the national security state. With the rarest of exceptions, the “small government” folks, aka Republicans, have never seen an oppressive state power they wouldn’t bow down before and champion. Hence, whatever the situation at hand -- Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Ukraine, surveillance -- Republican war hawks, now in control of Congress, will invariably demand more.
Nor should you imagine, as the 2016 campaign revs up, that any of this is likely to change in the years to come. If we end up with the much-ballyhooed dynastic contest between Hillary and Jeb (or, if you prefer, Hillary and that eternal presidential wannabe Mitt), here’s what you should already know: whichever candidate steps into the Oval Office in January 2017 will bring along a whole host of suitably retread personalities toting a jostling crowd of retread ideas.
Some of the people the new president will nominate for office or appoint as advisors will be familiar faces, since that's the way of the world in Washington. Naturally, they will carry with them the most familiar of Washington mindsets. Just recall January 2009, when the hope candidate entered the White House bringing with him those economic retreads from the reign of the man from Hope, Larry Summers and Robert Rubin; in foreign and war policy, there was the ur-Clintonista Hillary, Bush military appointee General David Petraeus, and the director of the CIA under George H.W. Bush and secretary of defense under his son, the former cold warrior Robert Gates. Others who weren’t household names or faces from previous administrations might as well have been. In foreign, war, and economic policy, it was a cast of characters eminently suitable for (as I wrote at the time) a political zombie movie.
Similarly, none of the retreads Hillary, Jeb, or Mitt would bring with them will have a new idea or entertain a thought that wanders off the Washington reservation. And that essentially guarantees one thing: Republican or Democrat, it’ll be dead air to 2020 -- and if either a Bush or a Clinton is then reelected, until 2025, by which time the U.S. would have been led by those two families for 28 of the last 36 years. Washington is, in this sense, the land of the walking policy dead and war, safety, security, and intelligence (that is, failure and disaster) are ours to the horizon.