Under the I-hate-government, let's-drown-it-in-the-bathtub administration of George Bush and Dick Cheney, the Secrecy State swelled to such enormous proportions it required more than a dozen investigative journalists from the Washington Post two years to fathom its size and shape.
In our otherwise financially bankrupt society, where we can afford virtually nothing that actually helps people, money is no object in the Secrecy State. Thus in the name of national security, as Dana Priest and William M. Arkin tell us in "Top Secret America," their harrowing tale of government gone wild, 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies are currently in the homeland security, counterterrorism and intelligence game.
These agencies either expanded their operations vastly or sprang anew from the head of Zeus (I mean Cheney) in the wake of 9/11, when secret government, like torture, bloomed:
"At least 20 percent of the government organizations that exist to fend off terrorist threats were established or refashioned in the wake of 9/11," Priest and Arkin write in their investigative series, which began Sunday in the Post. "Many that existed before the attacks grew to historic proportions as the Bush administration and Congress gave agencies more money than they were capable of responsibly spending."
Some 854,000 people, according to the article, now hold top-secret security clearances. They generate and recirculate more data than anybody has the least idea what to do with. The NSA, for instance, intercepts 1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls and other communications every single day. And it's highly debatable, as the writers point out repeatedly, whether we're the least bit safer because of it; indeed, the government's massive harvest of classified data seems to jam the wheels of government more than anything else, burying significant bits of information amid reams of trivia.
The Post does an admirable job detailing the staggering dimensions of the Secrecy State, but I find myself, as I read about it, assaulted with questions the article doesn't take on, beginning, of course, with the legitimacy of "counterterrorism" in the first place, at least as an overweening preoccupation of government. Another term for it is paranoia, and it ain't healthy.
If nothing else, its rationality is deeply flawed. An enormous subdivision of the military-industrial complex - including, as Arkin told Amy Goodman on Democracy Now!, "the powerhouses in the defense industry . . . Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics" - has emerged for the purpose of global data extraction on the assumption that America's enemies exist in objective independence from our own activities: that our national security is more a function of intercepting a whispered plot to cause harm than, say, curtailing our own murder of civilians in the war on terror.
The imploding intelligence industry - of which torture is one piece - is the hidden side of the war on terror (the war to promote terror), and another manifestation, so it strikes me, of our unexamined urge to play God. "Man must be insane," wrote French Renaissance essayist Michel de Montaigne. "He can't make a worm, but he makes gods by the dozens." And in the nation-state we have the ultimate faux-triumph of our lunacy: a stumbling sociopath that is, or strives to be, both all-powerful and all-knowing.
The money we've poured into the intelligence industry in the last decade - expanding exponentially the worst excesses of the Cold War - has done more than gum up the wheels of government. It has usurped much of what remained of its legitimacy. The more secrets the government keeps from us, the less it belongs to us. In the Secrecy State, no one extols the value of openness. But a government that isn't open is not a democracy.
What, indeed, are these secrets that only insiders have access to? How much do they concern legitimate, and temporary, matters of national security, and how much do they merely shield unsavory truths about the status quo? How much secrecy, in other words, is of the CYA variety?
Consider, for instance, one of the most high-profile security breaches of recent months: the WikiLeaks release of a classified video showing a U.S. Apache helicopter crew strafing Iraqi civilians on a Baghdad street, killing a dozen, including two Reuters journalists, and laughing in eerie moral disconnection from what they've just done ("Oh yeah, look at those dead bastards").
A 22-year-old Army intelligence analyst, Pfc. Bradley Manning, the apparently conscience-stricken whistleblower who passed the video on to WikiLeaks, has recently been charged with 12 counts of illegal dissemination of classified data - just about the most heinous crime it's possible to commit in the Secrecy State. It's far worse, for instance, than merely killing or torturing civilians.
But in the larger world beyond the Secrecy State, where words like "democracy" and "conscience" carry more weight than "classified," he's a truth teller and a hero. Without such people, the secret government, the private government, will do nothing but grow.
Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at koehlercw [at] gmail [dot] com or visit his Web site at commonwonders.com.
2010 Tribune Media Services, Inc.
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