Why Our Debate about Surveillance Doesn’t Go Far Enough


Tom Engelhardt – Mother Jones

In the wake of Snowden’s revelations, we’ve been narrowly focused on whether or not we should have more security or more privacy. We need to start thinking about the problem differently.



In a 1950s civics textbook of mine, I can remember a Martian landing on Main Street, USA., to be instructed in the glories of our political system. You know, our tripartite government, checks and balances, miraculous set of rights, and vibrant democracy. There was, Americans then thought, much to be proud of, and so for that generation of children, many Martians were instructed in the American way of life. These days, I suspect, not so many.

Still, I wondered just what lessons might be offered to such a Martian crash-landing in Washington as 2014 begins. Certainly checks, balances, rights, and democracy wouldn’t top any New Year’s list. Since my childhood, in fact, that tripartite government has grown a fourth part, a national security state that is remarkably unchecked and unbalanced. In recent times, that labyrinthine structure of intelligence agencies morphing into war-fighting outfits, the US military (with its own secret military, the special operations forces, gestating inside it), and the Department of Homeland Security, a monster conglomeration of agencies that is an actual “defense department,” as well as a vast contingent of weapons makers, contractors, and profiteers bolstered by an army of lobbyists, has never stopped growing. It has won the undying fealty of Congress, embraced the power of the presidency, made itself into a jobs program for the American people, and been largely free to do as it pleased with almost unlimited taxpayer dollars.

The expansion of Washington’s national security state—let’s call it the NSS—to gargantuan proportions has historically met little opposition. In the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations, however, some resistance has arisen, especially when it comes to the “right” of one part of the NSS to turn the world into a listening post and gather, in particular, American communications of every sort. The debate about this—invariably framed within the boundaries of whether or not we should have more security or more privacy and how exactly to balance the two—has been reasonably vigorous. The problem is: it doesn’t begin to get at the real nature of the NSS or the problems it poses.

If I were to instruct that stray Martian lost in the nation’s capital, I might choose another framework entirely for my lesson. After all, the focus of the NSS, which has like an incubus grown to monumental proportions inside the body of the political system, would seem distinctly monomaniacal, if only we could step outside our normal way of thinking for a moment. At a cost of nearly a trillion dollars a year, its main global enemy consists of thousands of lightly armed jihadis and wannabe jihadis scattered mainly across the backlands of the planet. They are capable of causing genuine damage—though far less to the United States than numerous other countries—but not of shaking our way of life. And yet for the leaders, bureaucrats, corporate cronies, rank and file, and acolytes of the NSS, it’s a focus that can never be intense enough on behalf of a system that can never grow large enough or be well funded enough.

None of the frameworks we normally call on to understand the national security state capture the irrationality, genuine inanity, and actual madness that lie at its heart. Perhaps reimagining what has developed in these last decades as a faith-based system—a new national religion —would help. This, at least, is the way I would explain the new Washington to that wayward Martian.

Imagine what we call “national security” as, at heart, a proselytizing warrior religion. It has its holy orders. It has its sacred texts (classified). It has its dogma and its warrior priests. It has its sanctified promised land, known as “the homeland.” It has its seminaries, which we call think tanks. It is a monotheistic faith in that it broaches no alternatives to itself. It is Manichaean in its view of the world. As with so many religions, its god is an eye in the sky, an all-seeing Being who knows your secrets.

Edward Snowden, the man who in 2013 pulled back the curtain on part of this system, revealing its true nature to anyone who cared to look, is an apostate, never to be forgiven by those in its holy orders. He is a Judas to be hunted down, returned to the US, put on trial as a “traitor,” and then—so say some retired NSS warriors (who often channel the opinions and feelings of those still in office)—hung by the neck until dead or swung “from a tall oak tree.”

Al-Qaeda is, of course, the system’s Devil, whose evil seed is known to land and breed anywhere on the planet from Sana’a, Yemen, to Boston, Massachusetts, if we are not eternally and ever more on guard. In the name of the epic global struggle against it and the need to protect the homeland, nothing is too much, no step taken a point too far. (As the Devil is traditionally a shape-shifter, able to manifest himself in many forms, it is, however, possible that tomorrow’s version of him may be, say, China.)

The leaders of this faith-based system are, not surprisingly, fundamentalist true believers. They don’t wear long beards, wave the Koran, shout “Death to the Great Satan,” or live in the backlands of the planet. Instead, they speak bureaucratically, tend to sport military uniforms and medals, and inhabit high-tech government facilities. Fundamentalist as they are, they may not, in the normal sense, be religious at all. They are not obliged to believe in the importance of being “born again” or fear being “left behind” in a future End Times—though such beliefs don’t disqualify them either.

They issue the equivalent of fatwas against those they proclaim to be their enemies. They have a set of Sharia-like laws, both immutable and flexible. Punishments for breaking them may not run to stoning to death or the cutting off of hands, but they do involve the cutting off of lives.

Theirs is an implacable warrior religion, calling down retribution on people often seen only poorly by video feed, thousands of miles distant from Washington, D.C., Langley, Virginia, or Fort Meade, Maryland. It’s no mistake that the weapons fired by their fleet of drone aircraft are called Hellfire missiles, since it is indeed hellfire and brimstone that they believe they are delivering to the politically sinful of the world. Nor is it a happenstance that the planes which fire those missiles have been dubbed Predators and Reapers (as in “Grim”), for they do see themselves as the annointed deliverers of Death to their enemies.

While they have a powerful urge to maintain the faith the American public has in them, they also believe deeply that they know best, that their knowledge is the Washington equivalent of God-given, and that the deepest mysteries and secrets of their faith should be held close indeed.

Until you enter their orders and rise into their secret world, there is such a thing as too-much knowledge. As a result, they have developed a faith-based system of secrecy in which the deepest mysteries have, until recently, been held by the smallest numbers of believers, in which problems are adjudicated in a “court” system so secret that only favored arguments by the national security state can be presented to its judges, in which just about any document produced, no matter how anodyne, will be classified as too dangerous to be read by “the people.” This has meant that, until recently, most assessments of the activities of the national security state have to be taken on faith.

In addition, in the service of that faith, NSS officials may—and their religion permits this—lie to and manipulate the public, Congress, allies, or anyone else, and do so without compunction. They may publicly deny realities they know to exist, or offer, as Conor Friedersdorf has written, statements “exquisitely crafted to mislead.” They do this based on the belief that the deepest secrets of their world and how it operates can only truly be understood by those already inducted into their orders. And yet, they are not simply manipulating us in service to their One True Faith. Nothing is ever that simple. Before they manipulate us, they must spend years manipulating themselves. Only because they have already convinced themselves of the deeper truth of their mission do they accept the necessity of manipulating others in what still passes for a democracy. To serve the people, in other words, they have no choice but to lie to them.

Like other religious institutions in their heyday, the NSS has also shown a striking ability to generate support for its ever-growing structure by turning itself into a lucrative global operation. In a world where genuine enemies are in remarkably short supply (though you’d never know it from the gospel according to them), it has exhibited remarkable skill in rallying those who might support it financially, whether they call themselves Democrats or Republicans, and ensuring, even in budgetary tough times, that its coffers will continue to burst at the seams.

It has also worked hard to expand what, since 1961, has been known as the military-industrial complex. In the twenty-first century, the NSS has put special effort into subsidizing warrior corporations ready to enter the global battlefield with it. In the process, it has “privatized”—that is, corporatized—its global operations. It has essentially merged with a set of crony outfits that now do a significant part of its work. It has hired private contractors by the tens of thousands, creating corporate spies, corporate analysts, corporate mercenaries, corporate builders, and corporate providers for a structure that is increasingly becoming the profit-center of a state within a state. All of this, in turn, helps to support a growing theocratic warrior class in the luxury to which it has become accustomed.

Since 9/11, the result has been a religion of perpetual conflict whose doctrines tend to grow ever more extreme. In our time, for instance, the NSS has moved from Dick Cheney’s “1% doctrine” (if there’s even a 1% chance that some country might someday attack us, we should strike first) to something like a “0% doctrine.” Whether in its drone wars with their presidential “kill lists” or the cyber war—probably the first in history—that it launched against Iran, it no longer cares to argue most of the time that such strikes need even a 1% justification. Its ongoing, self-proclaimed global war, whether on the ground or in the air, in person or by drone, in space or cyberspace (where its newest military command is already in action) is justification enough for just about any act, however aggressive.

Put all this together and what you have is a description of a militant organization whose purpose is to carry out a Washington version of global jihad, a perpetual war in the name of the true faith.

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

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