I recently rewatched “Three Days of the Condor” (1975) featuring Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway. It’s a smart and understated spy thriller that takes on the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the deadly games the agency plays in its pursuit of global dominance. In the aftermath of the Vietnam War and the backlash from Richard Nixon and Watergate, not to mention America’s role in overthrowing the Allende government in Chile in 1973, it became acceptable in Hollywood to make films that portrayed the U.S. government as sometimes less than noble in all its pursuits. Condor, the codename for Redford’s character, stumbles across a plot within the CIA to overthrow governments in the Middle East so that U.S. corporations could dominate the oil market, and for that he and his colleagues in the special branch where he works must die. The movie follows his efforts to stay alive among people who will execute their own for the greater good of The Company (the CIA).
At the end (spoiler alert), Redford goes to the New York Times as a whistleblower in an effort both to stay alive and to reveal the nefarious machinations of the CIA. A CIA senior official, played by Cliff Robertson, confronts Redford and asks him a question that is deadly in its implications: Will they print it? Redford is confident the newspaper will, but Robertson, in asking Redford how he can be sure that they will, reminds us that there’s no certainty the “liberal” New York Times will go against the wishes of the CIA.
This was on my mind today as news broke once again that the CIA is collecting “bulk data” on Americans without Congressional authorization and outside of normal oversight. Well, as some of my students used to say, if you’ve done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear from the diligent and honest agents of the CIA, right?
There’s a little scene in the movie where Condor laughs at the conceit of the CIA in referring to themselves as the intelligence “community.” A community of powerful and ultra-secretive intelligence agencies — I’m sure we have nothing to fear from such an Orwellian concoction.
Anyway, if you haven’t seen “Three Days of the Condor,” I recommend it. As a bonus, it has one of the most powerful yet understated romantic relationships caught on film, with Redford and Dunaway both superb in portraying two people on the edge who are desperately looking for connection.
The supposed big news here is that Dan Coats, the Director of National Intelligence, didn’t know about President Trump’s invitation to Vladimir Putin to visit the White House this fall.
The real story is in plain sight: all the corporate sponsors of the Aspen Security Forum, including Lockheed Martin, the nation’s leading weapons maker. I like the way the logo for Lockheed Martin hovers just above Dan Coats’s head. Who works for whom here?
(Other military contractors with prominent logos included Symantec, which specializes in cybersecurity, and MITRE, which technically is a not-for-profit corporation that works mainly with the Department of Defense; I worked with MITRE engineers when I was in the Air Force.)
The other obvious story: the mainstream media’s cozy relationship to those in power. Andrea Mitchell’s interview with Coats is downright chummy. It’s all very polite and non-confrontational, with Mitchell hinting we all should be very concerned and nervous about Trump negotiating alone with Putin.
Perhaps so, perhaps not. But I am concerned about all those cozy relationships within and across the national security state, and the way our media eagerly joins in on the fun. Collusion takes many forms; let’s not focus so tightly on alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia that we miss what’s in clear sight in photos and videos such as this.
Update (7/22/18): Is the mainstream media focusing on cozy relationships and possible collusion among the various players at Aspen? You know, the military-industrial complex, the government and its seventeen intelligence agencies, universities and think tanks and the media, i.e. the usual suspects? Of course not. At ABC News, they’re focusing on whether Dan Coats’s chuckle and off-the-cuff remarks about Putin’s proposed visit to the White House were disrespectful to Trump. And there you have it.
“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.
The National Security Agency (NSA) has always been highly classified, a fact captured by the joke that NSA really stands for Nonesuch Agency.
Lately, with all the revelations by Edward Snowden about “inadvertent” and “unintentional” spying on Americans, the NSA seems to be defining a new acronym for itself. Call it the
Nothing to See here, move Along, outfit.
The American people are being told by their government and their media that NSA domestic spying is a non-story. The headline is something like: They’ve always done it, or They’re doing it to keep you safe, or You can trust powerful government agencies that have access to your private data.
In other words, nothing to see here, move along.
A true democracy jealously guards the rights of its citizens, notably the right to privacy. A true democracy also has sufficient checks to guard against the acquisition of power and influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-intelligence complex. We are no longer such a democracy.
Perhaps the biggest “reveal” of the whole Snowden affair is how much of government intelligence is not government. It’s been outsourced, privatized. We’ve added the profit motive to spying, ostensibly in the name of efficiency.
So, along with acquiescing to government spying, we’ve now made it a for-profit business in which lobbyists give money to Congress to ensure that this intelligence complex continues to grow in power and reach. All in the name of keeping us safe, naturally.
The Army has an off-color saying: Don’t piss on my leg and tell me it’s raining. Please don’t tell me you’re spying on me and mining my data so that I’m “safer.”
There is something to see here, citizens. And what it is is not pretty.