“Global reach, global power”: that was one motto of the U.S. Air Force when I was on active duty. “A global force for good”: that’s the new motto in advertisements for the U.S. Navy. Note that word: global. For the ambitions of the U.S. government and military transcend national security: they truly are global ambitions of dominance, which is exactly what Tom Engelhardt documents so fully in his new book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World (Haymarket Books).
Engelhardt powerfully documents the growing power of a “shadow government,” a government shrouded in secrecy (and which routinely classifies 100 million documents per year), a government that relentlessly prosecutes anyone who tries to lift this shroud of secrecy, a government that continues to grow in size and power despite, or rather because of, its failures. It’s a government of intelligence agencies and Special Forces and drone strikes and private military contractors and a 1000+ military bases overseas and carrier task forces and rendition/black sites, a government that divides the globe into major military commands like CENTCOM and AFRICOM and NORTHCOM, a government that can’t think of the “homeland” without adding the word “security” and lots of guns and tanks.
This week, Engelhardt introduced his new book at TomDispatch with the following shocker:
“What are the odds? You put about $68 billion annually into a maze of 17 major intelligence outfits. You build them glorious headquarters. You create a global surveillance state for the ages. You listen in on your citizenry and gather their communications in staggering quantities. Your employees even morph into avatars and enter video-game landscapes, lest any Americans betray a penchant for evil deeds while in entertainment mode. You collect information on visits to porn sites just in case, one day, blackmail might be useful. You pass around naked photos of them just for… well, the salacious hell of it. Your employees even use aspects of the system you’ve created to stalk former lovers and, within your arcane world, that act of ‘spycraft’ gains its own name: LOVEINT.
“You listen in on foreign leaders and politicians across the planet. You bring on board hundreds of thousands of crony corporate employees, creating the sinews of an intelligence-corporate complex of the first order. You break into the ‘backdoors’ of the data centers of major Internet outfits to collect user accounts. You create new outfits within outfits, including an ever-expanding secret military and intelligence crew embedded inside the military itself (and not counted among those 17 agencies). Your leaders lie to Congress and the American people without, as far as we can tell, a flicker of self-doubt. Your acts are subject to secret courts, which only hear your versions of events and regularly rubberstamp them — and whose judgments and substantial body of lawmaking are far too secret for Americans to know about.”
And yet despite all the trillions invested in America’s global security state, we’re no safer today than we were before 9/11. Indeed, we’re less safe in a thoroughly militarized world in which Americans increasingly find their rights being abridged in the false name of security.
A painful irony is that however much they fail (like in their recent failure to predict the rise of ISIS), America’s global security state continues to grow. As Engelhardt notes:
“Keep in mind that the twenty-first-century version of intelligence began amid a catastrophic failure: much crucial information about the 9/11 hijackers and hijackings was ignored or simply lost in the labyrinth. That failure, of course, led to one of the great intelligence expansions, or even explosions, in history. (And mind you, no figure in authority in the national security world was axed, demoted, or penalized in any way for 9/11 and a number of them were later given awards and promoted.) However they may fail, when it comes to their budgets, their power, their reach, their secrecy, their careers, and their staying power, they have succeeded impressively.
“You could, of course, say that the world is simply a hard place to know and the future, with its eternal surprises, is one territory that no country, no military, no set of intelligence agencies can occupy, no matter how much they invest in doing so. An inability to predict the lay of tomorrow’s land may, in a way, be par for the course. If so, however, remind me: Why exactly are we supporting 17 versions of intelligence gathering to the tune of at least $68 billion a year?”
Good question. The more they fail, the more money and power they get.
In some ways, the U.S. global security state is like a Rube Goldberg machine, absurdly and immensely complicated, with many points of potential failure. Then again, Rube Goldberg might not be the best metaphor, since his devices actually worked. They accomplished a simple task in an absurdly and often amusingly complex way. But there’s nothing amusing about the U.S. global security machine, which can’t win its wars even as it succeeds in perpetuating its own growth.
What the global security state resembles most is a golem, a soulless monster of immense power. The government summoned it in the name of smiting enemies, but it has now grown so powerful that no one fully controls it. It continues to intervene powerfully and destructively, with wildly unpredictable results. Yet its creators are so simultaneously frightened of it and in awe of it that they continue to feed the beast while sending it forth to do battle.
The shadow government as golem: a shambling monster seeking vengeance but lacking a soul and without a hint of compassion. It’s a terrifying idea. After reading Engelhardt’s new book, you should indeed be terrified of what is lurking in the immense and menacing shadow cast by the global security state.