America’s Global Security State

A golem to smite our enemies; until it becomes our enemy
A golem to smite enemies; until it becomes the enemy

W.J. Astore

“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.

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4 thoughts on “America’s Global Security State

  1. Sounds like a very interesting book, but my plate is more than full of stuff I need to read and…I fear the book will be outdated in no time by cascading unpleasant events. The concept of “The Shadow (or Secret) Government” or “Government Within The Government” has been applied to the CIA for decades. What is alarming is the increasing intrusiveness technology has provided the government “spooks” (at the expense of us taxpayers). [Note to self: Don’t post any nude selfies to the Internet! Ha! Like I really would’ve ever contemplated such a thing!] The Human Factor, of course, is the remaining wild card that government cannot (yet) accurately predict or control. As I presently see things, the only thing that could jam up the wheels of the Juggernaut would be a “universal general strike.” Everyone would have to refuse to do their daily jobs until some real change was effected. This is, to put it very mildly, “a wee bit utopian” to wish for. “Occupy America”? “Occupy The World”?

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  2. I would suggest that the title to this excellent revue be changed to read “America’s ILLEGAL Global Security State”

    Since 1975 ,(that is almost 40 years ago! )James Bamford in a piece in Reader Supported News.com points out that The Church Committee and The DOD had compiled a criminal case against the NSA and CIA for their illegal activities spying on US Citizens.

    from James Bamford’s article
    “The secret investigation grew out of the final report by the Rockefeller Commission, a panel that had been set up by President Gerald Ford to parallel the Church Committee. Issued on June 6, 1975, the report noted that both the NSA and CIA had engaged in questionable and possibly illegal electronic surveillance. As a result, Attorney General Edward Levi established a secret internal task force to look into the potential for criminal prosecution. Focusing particularly on NSA, the task force probed more deeply into domestic eavesdropping than any part of the executive branch had ever done before.
    I had heard rumors from several sources about such a probe, so I thought it would be worth requesting a copy of the file under FOIA. Nevertheless, I was surprised when the documents, with relatively few redactions, turned up at my door 10 months later. They included a lengthy, detailed “Report on Inquiry into CIA-Related Surveillance Activities” that laid out the investigation in stark detail, as well as a shorter draft “prosecutive summary” evaluating the potential for criminal prosecution. I was shocked that the Justice Department had released them to me without notifying the NSA. ”

    Bamford points out that that the congress’s “oversight ” committees who are supposed to represent the citizenry have become “under sight ” committees who kow tow to the NSA, CIA, and FBI to protect them from citizen revue. Diane Feinstein is just the latest committee head to bow down to the intelligence agencies and protect their interests over the citizens interests and the Constitution. It’s time to demand more from those who want to get elected by us but once in office protect illegal government activity and the rich.

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    1. The “Church Committee” definitely made some waves back in the day, but of course the media allowed themselves to be lulled back to sleep and any real chance for reform was stifled. I believe the committee had looked into assassination attempts against Castro, ties between Cuban ex-pats and JFK affair, and possibly the successful “hit” against Allende in Chile. Or, my memory may be fuzzy and maybe it only dealt with dirty deeds on US soil. We know the FBI was opening the sacred US mail and tapping phones of suspected subversives as far back as the post-World War I “Red Scare” and I’m pretty sure Honest Abe had agents checking correspondence of suspected Confederate spies. According to a German-immigrant general in the Union Army who corresponded with Marx and Engels during the US Civil War, Washington D.C. was a hotbed of clandestine CSA activity. Not surprising, given its proximity to Richmond, Virginia. Once Milhous Nixon finally got his grubby mitts on the top job, something like the FBI’s COINTELPRO operation was inevitable. Here was a guy who I’m sure literally believed there’d be reds under his bed if he didn’t check carefully each night before retiring! The NSA’s apparatus for monitoring our use of the Internet really ought to be named in his, um…honor!

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  3. I maintain that we should speak of the Global Insecurity State, since the United States now produces nothing but global chaos and the attendant increase in fear and loathing. Nothing even remotely “secure” about it.

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