Monday, July 19, 2010

This Is Not Science Fiction

"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."-- Dana Priest and Will Arkin, The Washington Post, A hidden world, growing beyond control July 19, 2010

Welcome to the 21st-century US: a world in which the state hasn't disappeared (as so many prognosticators in the late 20th-century insisted it would), but in which business has merged with the state, blurring the lines between business and the power and money of the state (BP, anyone? Where BP gets to tell the Coast Guard what to do, where BP has the power to have journalists jailed and fined?), to run our lives and drain our resources (financial, personal, and otherwise). The Washington Post has begun publishing a huge expose by Dana Priest and William Arkin of the development of what they are calling the "Fourth Branch of Government," about which no one has any idea of the size, range, or reach (much less its budget). Almost a million people now have "top secret" security clearances. Imagine that. (I think of the population of the greater metropolitan area of Seattle and am flabbergasted.) You'll want to check out the WA Post articles. A documentary will be coming out in October on PBS's Frontline,as well. Democracy Now's Amy Goodman interviews William Arkin here.
WILLIAM ARKIN: Well, really, the most significant thing that we found, Amy, is not that the intelligence agency or the vast homeland security apparatus does work in this field and that is—and that they are engaged in counterterrorism. Really the most significant finding, to me, is the number of private companies in America who have been enlisted in the war on terrorism and who have now become an intrinsic part of government, really where the line is blurred between government and private sector. And the fact that there are almost 2,000 companies that do top-secret work in—for the intelligence community and the military is not only surprising to me as someone who actually put together the data, but it really asks some fundamental questions about the nature of government and the nature of accountability.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about these 2,000 companies.

WILLIAM ARKIN: Well, you know, it’s funny. We think of the military-industrial complex in a sort of old-fashioned way still. In fact, we don’t even have an appropriate word to describe what this enterprise is today, and we’ve struggled ourselves to try to figure that out. You know, the military-industrial complex of the Eisenhower era was one that produced massive amounts of capital goods for the military—bombers, missiles, nuclear weapons, etc. But today’s national security establishment really values information technology more than it values weapons. And really, one of the things that was most surprising to us, but maybe not so surprising given the nature of society, is that a half of the companies in this particular area are really IT companies, information technology companies, and support companies.

The domination of this world of top-secret contractors over the traditional world of the military-industrial complex is huge. And we see very clearly that the megacorporations which have always been the powerhouses in the defense industry—Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics—they are moving more and more of their business from production to the provision of services—that is, providing staffing for the government. And so, what you see is that we are increasingly a national security establishment that’s producing paper rather than producing weapons. And the question is, with the production of all that paper, whether or not we have either an effective counterterrorism operation or whether or not we’re even safer.
"But there is something fundamentally wrong in America if you have people who are working in a for-profit environment caring for our national security and engaged in what we consider to be the inherent functions of government, " Arkin says, and "I have to say at this point, I feel like the Washington Post has a better understanding of this overall problem than the government does."

Go find out about "Super Users," the few dozen individuals who have access to all the thousands of programs of the government and have no idea about what's going on, because this untended machinery is too vast too oversee. Go check it all out. It feels like science fiction. How I wish it were.


Unknown said...

Okay, that's pretty creepy. I'm pretty sure I'm living in a science fiction novel, after all.

Unknown said...

Well, I went and read the Washington Post article. Reading between the lines, I wonder if they're advocating more central control of this enormous mess. That would be a convenient way to take care of those bothersome constitutional privacy protections.

Mostly, though, when I think about online privacy or lack thereof, I think of Google, which has no legal responsibility to the people, other than a privacy policy that can change at Google's discretion. And Facebook, which has a handy map of everyone's social networks. And the generation raised on social networking, which doesn't expect privacy at all.