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Tom Engelhardt: The Shadow Surveillance State Is Really a Secret Religion
Tom Engelhardt (Photo: Don J. Usner)

Tom Engelhardt: The Shadow Surveillance State Is Really a Secret Religion

Tom Engelhardt (Photo: Don J. Usner)

Tom Engelhardt of TomDispatch discusses his new book, Shadow Government, whether the surveillance state actually makes the United States more secure, and how Washington exists in a post-legal world.

Of Tom Engelhardt’s new book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World, Glenn Greenwald writes: “The point of Tom Engelhardt’s important work at and in Shadow Government is to help us find the way to break [the] chains” of the surveillance state. Read this compelling book now. Click here to contribute and receive Shadow Government.

In his first chapter, Tom Engelhardt calls the leaders and acolytes of the shadow state “holy warriors”:

Imagine what we call “national security” as, at its core, 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.”

Appropriately, Truthout began its Progressive Pick interview with Engelhardt by asking him about the ever-expanding covert branch of government as a religious cult.

Mark Karlin: In the first chapter of your book, you describe the national security state as a secret religion. Religions require faith and belief. What are the faith and belief that are at the core of the covert shadow government?

Tom Engelhardt: We’re familiar enough with the obvious tenets of this religion: that there is no greater danger to this country, to Americans or to our world than terrorism; that in pursuing it, traditional constraints of every sort should no longer apply, including the very idea of privacy; that a blanket of secrecy about the acts of government in this pursuit is for the greater good; and that, to be fully protected and safe, the citizenry must be plunged into ignorance of what the national security state actually does in its name, and so on. It’s a distinctly Manichaean religion in its view of the world. Its god is, more or less literally, an eye in the sky. And of course, as with many institutionalized religions, much of its energy goes into self-preservation and the maintenance or bolstering of a comfortable lifestyle for its warrior “priests.”

You note that more that 70 percent of the national security budget is privatized to sub-contractors. How does that large percentage of consultants and corporations ensure that the surveillance and military state grows in order to obtain accelerating profits?

Historically, with the ending of the citizen army in 1973, in the wake of a disastrous war in Vietnam that featured much opposition, resistance and breakdown in that army, the citizenry was to be demobilized. We – those of us not in or connected to members of what came to be known as the “all-volunteer” military – were to have ever less to do with American-style war (except for offering eternal thank you’s to those troops for doing it for us). But if we were demobilized – and never more so than in the post-9/11 years – others were mobilized. I’ve called them “warrior corporations.” If we were to stay home, they were to pick up the gun, sometimes literally in the case of rent-a-mercenary places like Blackwater, and go to war with a new “privatized” military. This kind of crony capitalist mobilization spread from the military into the intelligence services and the spy agencies until, today, the national security state is filled with private contractors of every sort.

In 1961, President Dwight Eisenhower gave his famous “military-industrial complex” speech, his warning about the future as he was leaving office that put that phrase in our language. Today, if he could see the national security state, I’m sure he would roll over in his grave in horror. His phrase no longer even applies. We’d have to call what we now have the military-industrial-homeland-security-intelligence-industrial complex, or something of the sort. It’s a monstrous mix, engorged by simply staggering sums of money, post-9/11, fed eternally by fear and hysteria, and bolstered by a sense of permanent war, by a creeping militarization of our world, and by a conviction that, for all problems we face, there is, in a sense, only one solution: the US military and the national security state. That this solution hasn’t worked, that its use continually fosters disasters of one sort or another, including lost wars, the rise and spread of jihadism, and the destabilization of significant swaths of the planet seems to make no impression at all. There is, it turns out, no learning curve in post-9/11 Washington.

It’s somewhat ironic, isn’t it, that the US government wants draconian punishment to bear upon Edward Snowden – as it has already exacted upon Chelsea Manning – given that you note 1.4 million people have top security clearance, a third of those individuals being in the private sector? Isn’t it likely, given the number of persons with top-level security clearance, that the so-called massive classified US intelligence data is being compromised by the so-called “enemies” of the “homeland”? In addition, there is no certainty that the US will always have a technological edge in any area indefinitely. After all, the Chinese government is alleged to have hacked into Pentagon computers. So, isn’t one of the big myths of the national security state that all the data collected is safe and secure from abuse by either the US itself or other governments – individuals or groups that are or will obtain it through espionage or technological prowess? The great irony is then that the expansive shadow government is making this nation less secure, not more protected.

What I would say is that, as with drones, what the US is doing is establishing the global rules of the road for the future when it comes to subjects like surveillance and cyberwarfare, and we’re not going to be so happy when other countries follow them. In all of these areas, it is in the lead, but as you point out, that’s no guarantee that it will remain so forever. In this context, it is not only making the country, but the world, less secure. On drones, for instance, it has paved the way for any country (say, China pursuing its Uighur enemies) to send missile-armed drones across any borders, no matter whose sovereignty is violated, to take out those it considers terrorists or bad guys. Similarly, by launching history’s first cyberwar against the Iranian nuclear program, the US has begun to establish rules of the road there, too, and we are a country that might seem highly vulnerable to such attacks; and of course from monitoring national leaders (Germany’s chancellor, Brazil’s president etc.) and by so many other acts of mass communications gathering, it is doing the same in the world of surveillance.

How do President Obama’s drone assassination authorizations (the church of St. Drone, as you call it) represent the thuggish immorality of empire maintenance through hi-tech “hits”?

Obviously, White Houses have, in the past, been involved in assassination activities. What immediately comes to mind are all those attempts to kill Fidel Castro, the assassination of Patrice Lumumba in the Congo and of Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam. However, in the past, presidents preferred a kind of “plausible deniability” on such acts. They didn’t brag about them. They didn’t broadcast them. What, in some ways, is most interesting about the present White House and its massive, ongoing drone assassination campaigns in the tribal backlands of the greater Middle East and Africa is that the news about it – the “terror Tuesday” meetings, the presidential “kill list,” the fact that President Obama picks the individuals to be killed – was leaked to The New York Times by the administration itself. They’re proud of what they’re doing. They want it known. That represents something new and, as you put it, thuggish about this imperial moment.

You have a section, “Knowledge Is Crime,” in your chapter called “Definitions for a New Age.” You assert that “The members of the national security state, unlike the rest of us, exist in post-legal America. They know that no matter how heinous the crime, they will not be brought to justice for it.” What happened to the system of governmental checks and balances that you refer to being taught in your elementary and high school?

Oh, Mark, checks and balances? You’re so retro, so last century! It’s clear enough that, faced with the imperial presidency, in what used to be called “foreign policy” and is now essentially military policy, there are few checks or balances left. Congress has been largely neutered and the presidency can send in the drones, special ops forces etc. more or less wherever and whenever and however he wants. And yes, Washington exists in a post-legal atmosphere. Take torture. Of the 101 CIA torture cases the Obama Justice Department had (including cases involving the deaths of two terror suspects in CIA custody, one in Afghanistan and one in Iraq), all were dismissed. Only one torture case has ever been brought to trial, that of CIA agent John Kiriakou who was sent to jail for … giving the name of a CIA agent involved in the agency’s torture program to a reporter. How post-legal can you get?

In addition, congressional oversight of the national security state is visibly on the wane, hence the recent imbroglio over the Senate Intelligence Committee’s torture report in which the CIA took out after the committee and Sen. Diane Feinstein (who had previously been considered “the senator from national security”) with threats, actually hacked into the committee staffers’ computer system, and has now redacted (i.e. censored) the report – all of the above with the backing of the White House. Point made.

You include a letter to an unknown whistleblower at the end of your book. Why do you think that the Obama administration is even more tyrannical than the Bush administration when it comes to prosecuting and harassing whistleblowers?

I’m always hesitant to discuss motivation, since we human beings are a mystery to ourselves and regularly, even when we think we know our motivations, are the unreliable narrators of our own stories. I can certainly confirm that the Obama administration has been fiercer than the Bush administration, or Nixon’s, or any other past administration when it comes to prosecuting whistleblowers under the draconian World War I era Espionage Act and trying to keep the government’s acts secret from the citizenry. We know that the president entered the Oval Office on day one proclaiming a “sunshine” administration and it’s been a case of “into the shadows” ever since. The why is a harder question to answer, except to say that the national security state has in these years become ever stronger and ever more deeply embedded in our American world, and – my opinion only – Obama has proved a weak reed on many such issues. He has regularly given in to the “old hands” he’s put in place around him.

You have a chapter, “Why Washington Can’t Stop.” Why is “war the option of choice” for the US government regardless of which major political party is in the White House or in control of Congress?

In this period, there simply has been no learning curve in Washington. In the wake of 9/11, the militarization of the country has happened at a relatively rapid pace (and domestically of the police as well). The result, it seems – even in the Ebola crisis, the military is invariably the first option. The fact that it’s a force created for destruction, hopeless (as we’ve seen repeatedly) at “building” nations and, assumedly, at dealing with pandemic diseases matters not at all. Impoverished Cuba sends hundreds of doctors and health care workers to Africa to fight Ebola; we take “fight” literally (evidently) and send in the troops!

It’s strange indeed. Similarly, on a large scale across the greater Middle East and more recently Africa, despite 13 years in which no military move of more or less any sort (other maybe than the bin Laden raid) achieved any of Washington’s stated objectives, despite disaster after disaster, the Obama administration and the rest of Washington seem incapable of thinking of anything to do that doesn’t involve sending in the drones, special ops forces and troops. Results seem beside the point.

Is there any evidence – if one accepts the government contention that there are unending dire terrorist threats to “the homeland” – that the massive surveillance state is effective in protecting the US from attacks?

Of course, by definition, a secret or shadow government means that our information on its effectiveness is limited indeed beyond what it cares to tell us (or brag about). However, as it happens, there is reasonable evidence of its general ineffectiveness beyond the obvious – that it didn’t intercept the Shoe Bomber, the Times Square Bomber, the Boston Marathon bombers etc., that it was visibly caught off guard by the rise of the Islamic State in the Middle East, and so on. In addition, the president and others in the intelligence world have claimed that the US thwarted 54 terror-style plots against this country or Americans. But journalists looking into this have found no evidence of any of these “plots” thwarted. Similarly, claims about the usefulness of all the bulk phone metadata the NSA collects, according to a member of a panel appointed by the president with insider access to the sort of information needed to reach conclusions about such things, found no evidence that the metadata had helped on the breaking of even a single case. In other words, based on what we do know about the workings of our secret state, it looks like the bang-for-the-buck quotient is low indeed.

On the whole (see question one), the usefulness of this system, which leaves national security state personnel awash in reams, yottabytes, of useless information, seems a matter of bedrock faith rather than reality.

Meanwhile, there are many clear and present dangers to the US that are not receiving even a small percentage of the funding of the shadow government. Isn’t global warming, for example, a national security threat of disastrous proportion?

Again, it’s a sign of a faith-based system that the overriding, essential thing the national security state is set up to protect us from – terrorism – is a genuine danger to Americans, but not on the great scale of things. It has proven more dangerous and deadly than, say, shark attacks, but less dangerous than just about anything else in American life. Nobody’s set up 17 interlocked agencies and outfits (i.e. the US intelligence “community”) to deal with highway deaths (approximately 450,000 or so since 9/11), or firearm deaths (400,000 in the same period). Food-borne illnesses? Much more dangerous than terrorism, and so on.

Similarly, as you say, the most obvious future threat to this country and our planet, to the very planetary environment that has natured humanity these thousands of years, climate change, gets nothing like the attention that it should. I’m sure that far more money goes into gathering global communications of every sort and keeping the people who run that system living in a style to which they’ve become accustomed than into climate change. Far more governmental blue-sky thinking has undoubtedly similarly gone into the weapons systems of 2035 and 2050 than into future ways to cut fossil fuels, and so on and so forth. Honestly, I think that future historians will consider us mad people (criminally insane, perhaps) for our priorities in this period.

In his introduction to your book, Glenn Greenwald writes, “The government is deliberately working to create a climate of fear in exactly those communities that are most important in checking those in power.” I assume he is referring to all those who dissent from giving the US shadow government a green light, which includes everybody from the Occupy movement to Edward Snowden to Truthout to the ACLU to you and – and so many more. Is the fear factor working to crush dissent?

In case you hadn’t noticed (and that’s just a figure of speech since Truthout has been all over it), we’ve entered a period of outright hysteria, first over the threat of the Islamic State, the new extremist movement (and oil mini-state) in the Middle East, based on two beheading videos they produced because they understood our mentality better than we do and wanted to drive us into another war. Nothing establishes the [credibility] of such a movement (as Osama bin Laden knew) than having the Great Satan actively dropping bombs on you. And then, of course, there was the Ebola hysteria.

I think such waves of both fear and hysteria have the effect of demobilizing Americans generally, of convincing them that without our shadow government we are doomed. Such emotions drive people not into activity but into passivity. It’s not that Truthout and TomDispatch etc. are quelled by this, but that the larger movement that might make a difference has trouble developing in such an atmosphere (though I’m hoping that, with the recent massive march in New York City, a larger climate change movement might indeed be emerging).