by Randolph T. Holhut
Sept. 17, 2010
THE NATIONAL SECURITY STATE IS OUT OF CONTROL
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Now that the commemorations and ceremonies marking the ninth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001. attacks are passed, it's a good time to ask a few questions about the rough beast that was born that day.
Why do we have 17 intelligence agencies and 263 intelligence task forces producing more than 50,000 reports a year - a volume so large that most of the information ends up being ignored?
Why are there about 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies working on programs related to counter-terrorism, homeland security and intelligence on 10,000 locations around the nation?
Why are there so many people working in the national security industry that no one - including the people supposedly in charge of it - knows for certain what exactly they are doing and how much it costs?
Why do more than 854,000 people - a number greater than the population of Washington, D.C. - have top secret security clearances?
There were some of the things uncovered by The Washington Post's investigative series, "Top Secret America," written by Dana Priest and William Arkin.
"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," wrote Priest and Arkin.
This series, published in July, was the result of two years of investigation. Perhaps the most damning revelation was that about one-third of the positions in the intelligence agencies are staffed by private contractors.
Just as we've outsourced our military to "private military contractors" (formerly known as mercenaries) to companies such as Xe Services (formerly known as Blackwater, which recently got a $100 million contract from the CIA), we've outsourced our spying to defense companies such as General Dynamics and Northrop Grumman.
And, just as outsourcing military operations has ended up costing taxpayers more money with worse results, it is estimated that outsourced spy operations eat up about half of the personnel budgets of our intelligence agencies.
All this privatization of the national security state accelerated after 9/11. And it not only wastes money, it limits accountability. After all, corporations only answer to their shareholders, not to the American public, and they are only interested in profit, not democracy.
This is the warped world created by the terror attacks on New York and Washington nine years ago, a world of fear and paranoia shrouded by secrecy.
Do we really need the National Security Agency intercepting 1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls and other communications every single day? Does this massive daily harvest of data make us safer or does it simply bury intelligence agencies in trivia?
We've heard for years about the need to be able to "connect the dots" of would-be terror plotters. But it's hard to connect the dots if turf battles, inter-agency rivalries, duplication of efforts and a huge bureaucracy that lacks even rudimentary transparency prevents anyone from even seeing the dots.
The best example of this is the highly embarrassing case of the "underpants bomber," Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who tried to blow up a plane over Detroit last Christmas. The vaunted $75 billion intelligence network generated so much irrelevant data that it couldn't fit together some very obvious clues indicating a genuine threat. It took some alert passengers on the plane, not the spies, to avert an attack.
Also, does it occur to anyone in those 17 intelligence agencies and organizations that America's enemies do not exist in objective independence from our own activities? Does it occur to anyone that it might be more productive to our national security to, say, stop killing Afghan and Pakistani civilian with air strikes from drone aircraft than to sift through an avalanche of trivia in the hope of intercepting a terror plot?
The nine years since 9/11 have seen a massive and unwieldly national security state become ever more massive and more unwieldly. In the process, it has become more likely to perpetuate terrorism than to eliminate the reasons for it.
"Right now, as a nation, we find it remarkably difficult to imagine ourselves as anything but what we now believe ourselves to be - and Washington counts on that," wrote Tom Englehardt last month at TomDispatch.com. "We can't imagine ourselves 'safe' without being dominant, or being dominant without killing others in distant lands in significant numbers to ensure that safety; nor can we imagine ourselves dominant without that full panoply of secret armies, global garrisons, overlapping spy agencies, fear manias, and all the money that goes with them, despite the abundant evidence that this can't be safety, either for us or for the planet."
We need to imagine what a world would look like without the national security overload that threatens to swamp our democracy out of existence. We need to imagine what a nation that pursues a more modest foreign policy would look like, and imagine our nation turning away from the path of perpetual war and toward a path of peace and justice for all.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.