NOTE FROM THE EDITOR: Many of you, dear readers of El Reportero, might not have any idea of what the government is really doing with all the data accumulated in their databases – our information. How much information it has about all of us and what this means for the preservation of civil liberties in this world of super high technology, where almost everything – from the TV set on which you watch your favorite soap opera to every phone call you make on your cell phone – is being recorded. And our Congress – if we can call it our Congress – is an accomplice on this rape of our liberties. The following article, that was found hidden somewhere in the internet, brings a lot of fine information for you and me to know a little bit more how we are becoming their slaves in a more and more sinister way. Most of us live our lives just coming and going to our jobs or watching our favorite ball games – like zombies, looking dumbly at our iphones, doing nothing about it. Due that this article is too long for our space availability, we have split it into two parts. This is Part One.
by Tom Engelhardt
A system that creates its own reality
To leave the country, of course, I had to briefly surrender my shoes, hat, belt, computer – you know the routine – and even then, stripped to the basics, I had to pass through a scanner of a sort that not so long ago caused protest and upset but now is evidently as American as apple pie. Then I spent those nine days touring some of Spain’s architectural wonders, including the Alhambra in Granada, the Mezquita or Great Mosque of Cordoba, and that city’s ancient synagogue (the only one to survive the expulsion of the Jews in 1492), as well as Antonio Gauda’s Sagrada Familia, his vast Barcelona basilica, without once – in a country with its own grim history of terror attacks – being wanted or patted down or questioned or even passing through a metal detector. Afterwards, I took a flight back to a country whose national security architecture had again expanded subtly in the name of “my” safety.
Now, I don’t want to overdo it. In truth, those new guidelines were no big deal. The information on – as far as anyone knows – innocent Americans that the NCTC wanted to keep for those extra 4½ years was already being held ad infinitum by one or another of our 17 major intelligence agencies and organizations. So the latest announcement seems to represent little more than bureaucratic housecleaning, just a bit of extra scaffolding added to the Great Mosque or basilica of the new American intelligence labyrinth. It certainly was nothing to write home about, no less trap a fictional character in.
Admittedly, since 9/11 the U.S. Intelligence Community, as it likes to call itself, has expanded to staggering proportions. With those 17 outfits having a combined annual intelligence budget of more than $80 billion (a figure which doesn’t even include all intelligence expenditures), you could think of that community as having carried out a statistical coup d’etat. In fact, at a moment when America’s enemies – a few thousand scattered jihadis, the odd minority insurgency, and a couple of rickety regional powers (Iran, North Korea, and perhaps Venezuela) – couldn’t be less imposing, its growth has been little short of an institutional miracle. By now, it has a momentum all its own. You might even say that it creates its own reality.
Of classic American checks and balances, we, the taxpayers, now write the checks and they, the officials of the National Security Complex, are free to be as unbalanced as they want in their actions. Whatever you do, though, don’t mistake Clapper, Holder, and similar figures for the Gaudas of the new intelligence world. Don’t think of them as the architects of the structure they are building. What they preside over is visibly a competitive bureaucratic mess of overlapping principalities whose “mission” might be summed up in one word: more.
In a sense – though they would undoubtedly never think of themselves this way – I suspect they are bureaucratic versions of Kafka’s Joseph K., trapped in a labyrinthine structure they are happencontinually, blindly, adding to. And because their “mission” has no end point, their edifice has neither windows nor exits, and for all anyone knows is being erected on a foundation of quicksand. Keep calling it “intelligence” if you want, but the monstrosity they are building is neither intelligent nor architecturally elegant.
It is nonetheless a system elaborating itself with undeniable energy. Whatever the changing cast of characters, the structure only grows. It no longer seems to matter whether the figure who officially sits atop it is a former part-owner of a baseball team and former governor, a former constitutional law professor, or – looking to possible futures – a former corporate raider.
A basilica of chaos
Evidently, it’s our fate – increasing numbers of us anyway – to be transformed into intelligence data (just as we are being eternally transformed into commercial data), our identities sliced, diced, and passed around the labyrinth, our bytes stored up to be “mined” at their convenience.
You might wonder: What is this basilica of chaos that calls itself the U.S. Intelligence Community? Bamford describes whistleblower William Binney, a former senior NSA cryptomathematician “largely responsible for automating the agency’s worldwide eavesdropping network,” as holding “his thumb and forefinger close together” and saying, “We are that far from a turnkey totalitarian state.”
It’s an understandable description for someone who has emerged from the labyrinth, but I doubt it’s on target. Ours is unlikely to ever be a Soviet-style system, even if it exhibits a striking urge toward totality; towards, that is, engulfing everything, including every trace you’ve left anywhere in the world. It’s probably not a Soviet-style state in the making, even if traditional legal boundaries and prohibitions against spying upon and surveilling Americans are of remarkably little interest to it.
Its urge is to data mine and decode the planet in an eternal search for enemies who are imagined to lurk everywhere, ready to strike at any moment. Anyone might be a terrorist or, wittingly or not, in touch with one, even perfectly innocentseeming Americans whose data must be held until the moment when the true pattern of enemies comes into view and everything is revealed.
In the new world of the National Security Complex, no one can be trusted – except the officials working within it, who in their eternal bureaucratic vigilance clearly consider themselves above any law. The system that they are constructing (or that, perhaps, is constructing them) has no more to do with democracy or an American republic or the Constitution than it does with a Soviet-style state. Think of it as a phenomenon for which we have no name. Like the yottabyte, it’s something new under the sun, still awaiting its own strange and ugly moniker.
For now, it remains as anonymous as Joseph K. and so, conveniently enough, continues to expand right before our eyes, strangely unseen.
If you don’t believe me, leave the country for nine days and just see if, in that brief span of time, something else isn’t drawn within its orbit. After all, it’s inexorable, this rough beast slouching through Washington to be born. Welcome, in the meantime, to our nameless new world. One thing is guaranteed: it has a byte.
(Tom Engelhardt is the author of The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s. His latest book is The United States of Fear).