Peering into Top Secret America

The National Security Headquarters in Maryland exemplify what the authors of Top Secret America call America's new "alternative geography".

When I lived in the suburban scar tissue of the Sonoran Desert there was an ever present tension between the housing developments and surrounding wilderness. Riding my bike past cul-de-sacs and stuccoed homes, I feared that at any turn I would be charged at by the wild hog creatures of those parts, the fierce and ugly Javelinas. Yet, on the east coast, my suburban doppelganger has much sneakier beasts to reckon with– the suits working away in office complexes as large as two or more Wal Marts gathering sensitive information and crafting kill systems on the tax payer’s dollar. Beyond the inner city capitol of D.C. and bordering army bases in Virginia, a sprawling landscape of covert security work has taken root and few, even those among it, know its true extent.

We don’t often acknowledge the security state, not only because the wolf is hiding in office clothes, but also for fear of sounding like a wacko. Even among participants at Occupy Wall St there was a decided annoyance with those who voiced concern about police surveillance and recording devices. I too often disregarded such concerns as overblown gravitas. I now believe otherwise.  If you watch a lot of X-files, you may know the old adage, you’re not paranoid if they actually are following you. And in many cases, “They” are. Top Secret America, which began as an series of investigative reporting articles in the Washington post reported by Dana Priest and William Arkin, serves to validate these paranoid precautions and illuminate just who “They” are.

Yet, this is not a book about how to fight the security state. It is about how to make it better. This book wouldn’t have been possible if the authors weren’t cozy with army and government officials. Yet, despite their obvious loyalties to the rhetoric of the War on Terrorism and the skewed, often imperialist analysis, Arkin and Priest do offer a book filled with great information. And as an unnamed businessman said in a presentation aimed at scoring government contracts, information services should be regarded as weapons systems. I think that for those who criticize the US government and resist its harmful policies this can also be true: information is often your best defense and as Wikileaks has proved to some degree, information can also attack. In that sense Top Secret America is is a valuable book for information on what the government is up to…because you can be sure They know all about you.

A great deal of Top Secret America, both the book and the phenomenon it tracks, deals with the systems and processes of amassing information. This is the aspect of the security state usually categorized under “intelligence”. The hundreds of thousands of people working in various intelligence agencies, whether private or public, are responsible for 50,000 intelligence reports filled with so much information, much of it overlapping and contradictory, that they find themselves in the bottom of the shredder, the many top secrets within left unacknowledged.

One of the most impressive compilations of information is in the Northern Command’s “multidimensional, multimedia” map that seeks to allow a law enforcement officer or government official or private contractor to draw up every conceivable piece of surveillance information from wireless network signals, security camera footage, and traffic light patterns to property records,  building floor plans and security layouts. The Northern Command, based in Colorado, is one of the mega departments created after 9/11 with the purpose of aiding the Defense Department and coordinating defense support to domestic authorities. One of the most noticeable effects of NorthCom has been the militarization of local police departments who sign onto anti-terrorism efforts in order to be awarded with federal grants for high tech crime fighting gear. Arkin spent a couple days with the Memphis Police Department, which has received $11 million in homeland security grants, and found that what a lot of this anti-terrorism surveillance equipment actually enables is harassment of ordinary citizens, many of them people of color.

Americans indulge their premonitions about the growing security state through movies and television shows that are veritable surveillance technology porn. Shows such as CSI and Criminal Minds portray the best and the brightest of law enforcement working with mind-blowing sophisticated technologies. The ability for characters in these shows to touch a screen and draw up mass amounts of information from various databases along with maps and forensic information within minutes of the next murder or explosion or whatever is often the most  suspenseful or sexy element of these shows.

In the real world of “crime fighters” this sex appeal also exists. One informant in the book likens agencies’ desire to be on the cutting edge as “the penis envy thing” adding that “you can’t be a big boy unless you’re a three lettered agency and you got a big SCIF [Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility].’”

Of course all this technology for all these three lettered agencies costs a lot of money. While the U.S. has suffered through a virtual depression and as lawmakers continue to bicker about how, oh how, to keep the government afloat in its debts, out the back door millions and millions of dollars are being spent to keep the wars abroad at home running at full speed. It certainly creates jobs, but hardly meaningful ones. Most of the employees at these agencies, as Priest bemoans, are doing the same work as people the next office over and a lot of that work, as the hundreds of discarded intelligence reports demonstrate, isn’t going anywhere. And most of that work involves spying on fellow citizens whether they be at pro-choice rallies or posting illegal propositions on Craigslist.

With America having sacrificed most of its manufacturing economy, there remain few ways for the country to stay afloat. Hence many people work either in the service or killing industries. As one honest insider put it, “’The Department of Defense is no longer a war fighting organization, it’s a business enterprise. Afghanistan is a great example of it. There’s so much money being made off this place.’”     Similar to the prison industrial complex, this new military industrial complex, which has expanded to include the security sectors of government, utilize excess populations, whether as labor or casualties, for the benefit of an elite class.

It is not just the Department of Defense filling their coffers on the War on Terrorism, but also the suburban-based and blandly named companies such as General Dynmaics, Booz Allen Hamilton Firm, Lockheed Martin, L-3 Communications, and Northrop Grumman. The workers in these private firms are not just highly trained eavesdroppers and propagandists– they also know how to kill at the touch of a button and return home just in time for some warmed up meatloaf.

When Top Secret America moves from talking about the information services sector of the new security state and on to the killing services, things get a lot more scary. The arguments I agreed with from the first half of the book about the waste of resources and and unnecessary privacy breaches morphed into a very dangerous argument in favor of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC).  JSOC is essentially a paramilitary force expanded in the post 9/11 years responsible for those missions which the U.S. needs to be able to plausibly deny. One Navy Seal who has been involved in JSOC missions likened the group to “dark matter” a substance that cannot be seen or even accounted for but which controls the universe. Such as statement strikes me as the height of American arrogance. Even more arrogant was the authors’ praise for JSOC because of their ability to cut through the red tape of Washington and get things done. Things such as killing innocent civilians during assassination attempts that do not need to be authorized by congress or the president.

While many have considered Obama to be less of a pistol toting, saber rattling leader than Bush, he is certainly no less violent. He simply uses more covert and cowardly methods, namely drone attacks which have exponenetially increased during his first term. Most of these drone attacks have occurred in Pakistan and Yemen. Top Secret America reports that Obama has consciously utilized the political instability of protests in Yemen as a chance to increase drone attacks and knock a few players off the kill lists. According to Top Secret America, the next possible mission for JSOC is in Mexico to help aid in the war against drug cartels. As scary a thought as that may be, it isn’t that hard to imagine a fleet of drones set to strike south of the border bringing the same deaths of innocents and sovereignty as has occurred in America’s recent wars in the middle east.

The self-determination of those in countries other than America is hardly a concern for the authors of Top Secret America however. They betray their imperialist tendencies by criticizing the U.S. government’s lack of pre-emptive intelligence about the Egyptian revolution which, according to the authors, allowed the Muslim brotherhood to to move in while policy makers were “completely unprepared to promote a palatable alternative.” It is up to nobody but the Egyptians themselves to seek and make possible the alternatives best for their country and their people. Apparently the authors’ concerns for personal freedoms extend only as far as the American citizen, which results in an unfortunate and close minded critique of the American security state.

This unfortunate critique within the book is also reflected in such points as “only more transparency and debate will make us safe from terrorism and the other serious challenges the United States faces.” This argument reminded me of the weak game some people were trying to play during the ROTC debates at Columbia (my alma mater). Even somebody I thought was completely against American military action asked, “But isn’t it a good thing if they have smart people working for them? Maybe then they will be better.” Such statements assume that free will and individual expression are openly tolerated in the army. Such statements betray a naïve belief that the U.S. Military is something that merely needs to be reformed…as opposed to stopped.

Unfortunately this year’s annual National Defense Authorization Act has taken one major step further in enabling the U.S. Military to wield its irrational power as much as it wants. As you have probably heard by now, the new NDAA permits the indefinite detention of people suspected of being terrorists. Much of the outrage surrounding Obama’s reportedly reluctant signing of the act was around the fact that it allowed the detention of U.S. citizens. I certainly agree that any government that perceives its own citizens as enemies of the state and is willing to use the terms of war within its own boundaries is fundamentally flawed– I just don’t see it as anything new. The American government has once again shown itself as a failed state, one which is not concerned with the well being of its people but with the self-perpetuation of those in power. Our moral indignation cannot end at the abuse of American citizens alone. It is a grave mistake to only condemn law enforcement and the NSA for eavesdropping on American citizens while lauding secret operative groups invading other countries to assassinate perceived enemies. Perhaps then this new NDAA will disillusion those Americans who thought their government perceived them, its own citizens, as anything other than menacing masses to be detained indefinitely in the abyss of a failed state.

If you want to check out the many articles that culminated into Top Secret America, as well as check out interactive maps and others snazzy info dispatchers, head to The Washington Post‘s website.


1 Comment

Filed under Book Review

One response to “Peering into Top Secret America

  1. Thank you for this post… This book should make people do more than just wonder, it should make them take action against this unwarranted intrusion into private life and freedom of thought and speech. I’ll certainly check it out.

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