Truthout is serializing Beatrice Edwards’ book, The Rise of the American Corporate Security State. To read more excerpts from this book, click here.
Daniel Ellsberg writes of The American Corporate Security State: “Edwards is an extraordinary writer who brilliantly captures the essence of what whistleblowers such as [Edward] Snowden have sacrificed their careers and jeopardized their personal liberties to convey.” Get the book by contributing to Truthout here.
The New Regime
World domination is not easy. Sometimes, even your closest allies and strongest supporters are not really backing you up. For example, SAIC, Booz Allen, and the others want contracts for defense work (cyber and otherwise) to support the American empire. At the same time, senior managers at the Pentagon, the NSA, and the CIA want them to have these contracts because SAIC, Booz Allen, and so forth offer lucrative pre- and post-retirement employment opportunities. Suppose, however, that the most efficient and effective work on cyber-defense can be done relatively inexpensively in-house. Then there’s a painful choice: a major contract for multiple billions and years to SAIC, with the vague promise of a huge cyber intelligence extravaganza of dubious legality ultimately in place. Or, a smaller-scale in-house operation that works better and costs much, much less?
The NSA has been going the first route rather than the second one for a while now. This is why intelligence has become staggeringly expensive. Like everything else produced by our economic system, SAIC concocts its surveillance programs in order to make money.
To help, everyone at the top of the NSA ensures that no one else comes along who can do what SAIC should do more cheaply or quickly or legally. The momentum of the system brings it down all by itself because, once the competition is eliminated, the profiteers paid to defend it will bilk it instead.
To help, everyone at the top of the NSA ensures that no one else comes along who can do what SAIC should do more cheaply or quickly or legally. The momentum of the system brings it down all by itself because, once the competition is eliminated, the profiteers paid to defend it will bilk it instead. The more successful they are at this, the higher their profits, but the weaker the system they depend on to generate their earnings. SAIC is doing what it’s doing primarily in order to make money and not to protect the United States, although protecting the United States would safeguard its profits long term. As it turns out, the best defense money can buy isn’t actually very good.
We all discovered this around 9:00 in the morning on September 11, 2001.
Here in the United States today, the state and the corporation go hand-in-hand, although the rituals of democracy remain as a reminder of how the US political system once worked. For at least one year prior to his ascension, the man who will nominally preside over us is obliged to speak to us with his sleeves rolled up, as an equal. Around the country, we gather in sweaty high school gyms to hear him beseech us for support. He tells us we’re the best country ever – in the history of the world – and we sing our national anthem to the cacophonous tones of the varsity band. This is our political culture.
Occasionally, when we’re in real trouble, the president or the Congress convenes a bipartisan commission of political appointees, closely associated with the corporate interests involved – whatever they are – and asks for hearings and a report. The commission is certain to be pretty tame, and its report will fall within the parameters of the politically acceptable.
The shift from a democratic polity to a corporate security state is a long, slow transition that has gathered momentum in recent years, accelerated by the War on Terror, which justifies mass surveillance, and the financial crisis of 2008, which hastened the integration of finance and government.
For the rest, money talks. The shift from a democratic polity to a corporate security state is a long, slow transition that has gathered momentum in recent years, accelerated by the War on Terror, which justifies mass surveillance, and the financial crisis of 2008, which hastened the integration of finance and government.
In the long years since 9/11, there have been clear signals that we Americans are tiring of the War on Terror. As early as 2005, we were sick of the Iraq War: in June of that year, a poll conducted by CNN/USA Today/Gallup showed that nearly 60 percent of Americans opposed the war in Iraq.
In November 2008, we the public made clear our intentions about the War on Terror. We elected a president whose middle name was Hussein, whose initial popularity rested on his early opposition to the Iraq invasion, who promised to close the prison camp at Guantanamo, who spoke frequently about peace, and who deplored the extremes of economic inequality that had evolved in the United States.
Consistently, during the 2008 presidential election, Americans told pollsters that the number one priority for the country was the economy. But the country did not tack back to economic reform after 2008. On the contrary, the reforms enacted through Dodd-Frank were bureaucratic and slowly implemented, if at all, and President Obama followed through on the bank takeover/bailout as designed by the Bush White House and Treasury Department.
Nor did the War on Terror fundamentally wind down when Obama arrived at the White House in January 2009. The hostilities became more clandestine, and most US troops came home from Iraq in 2011, but the national security state apparently increased its surveillance of citizens and its assassinations of suspected terrorists with drones. The surveillance state continued to contaminate the polity.
After Snowden began to disclose the reach of the national surveillance apparatus, those responsible – the president and congressional representatives – asserted their willingness to have a robust national debate about these practices. The president in particular expressed his opinion that the debate would be healthy in a democracy. For him and for other politicians who similarly weighed in on the issue, the enthusiasm for a debate was patently hypocritical. It was precisely these people who suppressed all public knowledge about ongoing domestic surveillance practices for years.
Let us make no mistake. This is not a debate. It is a battle for the centuries-long traditions and rights of democracy, a system of government that has served us well. The fact that a president, himself a constitutional scholar, would propose the abrogation of the Bill of Rights as a subject of polite discussion among presumably like-minded individuals is, frankly, outrageous.
[D]espite the protestations of Keith Alexander, James Clapper, and James Cole, it is not legal for private companies to exchange bulk customer data with intelligence agencies without a warrant, and the wholesale warrants churned out by the FISA court are now a poor excuse for a dragnet data grab.
Steadily, it has become legitimate for private corporations to conduct our wars and manage our defenses. To ensure their continuing control of lucrative public functions, they also purchase and manage elections, a practice that the Supreme Court condones. Obviously, it is late and getting later, but the struggle for an effective democracy is not yet over. Despite the rulings of the judicial system, the Corporate Security State still lacks a viable legal foundation to protect it from the rulings of the not-yet-compromised courts that operate in public. This is a deficit its proponents lament loudly, for despite the protestations of Keith Alexander, James Clapper, and James Cole, it is not legal for private companies to exchange bulk customer data with intelligence agencies without a warrant, and the wholesale warrants churned out by the FISA court are now a poor excuse for a dragnet data grab. Absent legal immunity for this collaboration, private businesses ultimately balk. After all, lawsuits are immensely inconvenient, and courtroom confrontations mean exposure. A plaintiff may demand documents and testimony, potentially revealing an unpresentable internal state of affairs. Among themselves, the directors of the Corporate Security State discuss their fear of lawsuits brought by small-scale nongovernmental organizations or by private citizens that will wreck both their reputations and their projected returns.
The campaign is on for a legal shift, to patch the chink in the armor of the Corporate Security State. Washington trade associations for banks and Internet security services are attempting to legislate the legal immunities of the state for their private clients and consolidate a regime that allows them to combine their data systems with those of government intelligence agencies. They are explicit about what they need, and the rhetoric associated with their claims is increasingly intense.
Have a listen to Mike McConnell, former director of national intelligence (DNI) and current vice chairman at Booz Allen Hamilton. He told his audience at a Washington, DC, gathering that two impediments obstruct the data consolidation of the corporate world and intelligence agencies. These are the lack of a legal framework for such collaboration and the lack of public commitment to cyber-warfare.
“Are we facing a cyber–Pearl Harbor?” an anxious questioner asked from the audience.
“I hope not,” Admiral McConnell answered, his voice lowered ominously.
Curiously, McConnell doesn’t identify the enemy who will attack us. Nor does Keith Alexander or James Clapper or Michael Hayden. We are left wondering. Their alarms focus exclusively on the effects of the attack: our money will be worthless, our houses and offices will go dark, and we won’t have any water or food. Plus, we’ll run out of gas. Our briefcases will fill up with uncharged electronic devices. Blackberries, Androids, iPhones, iPads, Kindles, and laptops all will go dead. It will be horrible.
Who could or would do this to the United States?
Joshua Axelrod, an expert on the parameters of US critical infrastructure, attributes the evil deed to “a James Bond super-villain type.” He says this seriously on National Public Radio. To be fair, Axelrod admits the American power grid is safe from full-scale attack because of its size and complexity. Only major state actors, like China, have the capacity to knock out the power grid of the United States and keep it out. He observes, however, that such governments have nothing to gain from such an attack. Like McConnell, though, Axelrod foresees some evil force preparing to do the deed anyway. According to him, we’re lucky so far. The super-villain has not attacked: “Yet,” he says.
It would seem as if the more likely threat is another banking collapse or the protracted loss of power somewhere in the coastal United States due to an intense storm caused by climate change. There is, however, little action on either front. Instead, the defense establishment is preoccupied by the potential devastation to be visited on our cyber-system by an imaginary über-thug.
Because Americans are inclined to be skeptical of such doomsday scenarios, the Mike McConnells of industry despair of achieving the controls they desire so long as democratic practices hold sway at all in this country. McConnell himself is reduced to predicting outlandish events like a “cyber–Pearl Harbor” at the hands – presumably – of Goldfinger or Pussy Galore.
Frequently, those who advance the integration of public and private cyber-capacity, like McConnell, bemoan the fact that it is difficult to scare Americans on a sustained basis about invisible digital attacks. The website crashing incidents that affect banks from time to time are not all that much of a mass inconvenience compared to, say, heavy traffic on a week-day morning, and people tend to forget them quickly.
In the field of American political hysteria and fear-mongering, the absence of an identifiable, individual demon is also a problem. In the hysteria over cyber-warfare, there is no Osama bin Laden, no Ahmadinejad, no Gadaffi or Saddam. Most of us can’t even remember the name of the current Chinese premier, so although we’re vaguely afraid of China, we’re not really sure which Chinese superman is about to attack us. Although historically it is true that we will relinquish our civil rights if we are scared, we have to know not just what we are afraid of, but also whom. The fanatical Arab men crashing gassed-up commercial airliners into skyscrapers have faded away, but we have no vision of our next enemy. And so, opportunities to save a government of the people remain.
The Snowden disclosures show not only the specifics of domestic surveillance but also the larger fact that in the so-called cyber-war, the US government is the primary aggressor.
The disclosures made by Edward Snowden create an opportunity to rethink the post-9/11 agenda of our national security agencies. The Snowden disclosures show not only the specifics of domestic surveillance but also the larger fact that in the so-called cyber-war, the US government is the primary aggressor. While claiming to defend the homeland, for example, the NSA is burgling and compromising the networks of other governments. It is clear from official reactions abroad that the United States is virtually unequaled in the sophistication of these offensives, not because other governments are naturally pacific and benign but rather because they lack the capability to do what the NSA can do.
Our government is creating costly and far-reaching conflict not protecting us from it, and the Pentagon has taken this aggressive stance while representing to us that the opposite is true. According to foreign policy and defense experts in Washington, DC, we are being (or are about to be) attacked by China, Russia, Iran, Al Qaeda, hackivists, and other unspecified parties who “mean to do us harm.” The Snowden disclosures show that this claim is largely fictitious. No other government can do what the NSA does. Nor can Al Qaeda. Although it’s true that a loosely organized group of fanatics can hijack airplanes with box cutters, it does not follow that the same people can construct cyber-viruses. The United States is leading the way, starting the race, and forcing the world to divert its scientific brainpower, technological expertise, and scarce resources into cyber-warfare. We are also creating enemies, from whom we must then protect ourselves.
This is not to make an unqualified swords-into-ploughshares argument. It can be a dangerous world. But because it is true that the United States is the most developed and technologically advanced nation in the world, that position should give us some leverage in determining the development path we and the rest of the world are going to take.
Keith Alexander tells us that our national security apparatus is compromised by Snowden. Let’s take him at his word. Much of the agency’s work must therefore be scrapped, and the NSA will have to rebuild its surveillance programs. Why not pause here, then, to evaluate them? Must we really reconstruct all this? Do we have to fund it? Do we want to start an international cyber-conflict or do we want to back away from it? We know what Generals Alexander and Hayden think, but this is nominally a democracy still. What do we as the public want to do? What are our priorities as the budget debate paralyzes the Congress and the national debt overwhelms our legislators’ imagination?
We should learn from the consequences of the twentieth-century nuclear arms race. During World War II, the United States developed a nuclear weapon and used it. Twice. After the war, the technology spread to other countries. In the twenty-first century, there are eight other nuclear states: Russia, China, India, Pakistan, North Korea, the United Kingdom, France, and probably Israel. The international community is still trying to locate and secure these weapons, long after it was obvious that they should never be used. The genie does not go back in the bottle.
Now the NSA has developed malware and backdoors and viruses, which, until exposed, it was deploying abroad (as well as at home). Using the inconvenience of distributed-denial-of-service attacks on bank websites as justification, as well as wild speculation about a cyber–Pearl Harbor, the Defense Department seeks expansion of its budget and its authority for the collection of signals intelligence. The corporate-government complex also seeks to consolidate its prerogatives and shield its private sector flanks from public scrutiny behind legal immunities.
The struggle we are facing is not about privacy versus security, it is about democracy versus tyranny.
The struggle we are facing is not about privacy versus security, it is about democracy versus tyranny. Because we know now what we were never supposed to know, we have a chance to redirect the future of the United States.
There are things we must do, presented here in an order of increasing generality. First, CISPA must not become law – not in any form. Second, further mergers and acquisitions among megabanks must be prevented, and the trend toward an increasing size and reach of financial institutions must be reversed. Third, the NSA must be held accountable for its massive violations of the Constitution, and the illegalities must stop. And fourth, most generally, the continuing development and growing capabilities of information technology must be put at the service of the people and not the state.
In the spring of 2013, the zombie bill came back at us for the second round: the CISPA passed the House of Representatives again, with a couple of half-hearted privacy fixes tacked on. Yet the law as worded remains a threat to privacy and civil rights. It allows Google, Yahoo, and others to break their terms of agreement with you without penalty and without informing you.
To ensure that the surveillance state, which already exists, cannot fuse its capability with that of the private sector, the specter of a massive lawsuit for illegal information exchange and surveillance must remain real. The degree to which the corporate-government complex is consolidating can still be stopped. Technology companies, which are, after all, still private and therefore fear an exodus of customers, are responding to popular pressure in the wake of the Snowden disclosures.
The Big Six – Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, AOL, and Yahoo – wrote to the chairs and the ranking members of the judiciary committees in both the House and the Senate to request their support for measures that would allow the companies to disclose the court orders compelling them to release customers’ data to the NSA. The letter was a direct response to popular perception that these companies are complicit in state surveillance of average citizens. In brief, the Big Six – and the smaller hundreds – are still vulnerable to legal challenge from the public and they should remain that way. There should be no immunities. Period.
The same kind of loophole-free legislation should govern the banks, which continue to pillage the treasury as they try to recapitalize themselves. New legislation should prohibit bank mergers and acquisitions by the biggest banks in order to limit the domino effect that the collapse of one of these institutions will have. As Garrett Jones writes:
No “unless in the judgment of FDIC the public interest would be served by such an acquisition,” no “final rules implementing this legislation shall be passed no later than January 1, 2018,” nothing like that. Just a ban, now.
Next, the public and the press have to ask why the NSA is unaccountable. Its authorities lied on the record in open session to Congress. To the press, they repeatedly deny actions and operations later revealed to be in progress. Or they claim that oversight and safeguards prevent abuse of their databases, and then we find that these statements, too, are fiction. Congressional leaders not only fail to investigate, they actively defend the fiction and contribute their own implausible whoppers – later exposed – for which there are no consequences. There was a time, long ago, when lying to Congress was a serious offense. You can say you don’t know or that you cannot remember (see Alberto Gonzales, July 24, 2007) or that you don’t want to incriminate yourself. But you cannot lie. Nonetheless, NSA authorities did.
After James Clapper lied to the Senate Intelligence Committee about the NSA’s domestic data collection, Senator Diane Feinstein – who should be asking tough questions herself but is not – volunteered that he probably misunderstood the question. But the question was absolutely clear, and instead of backing and filling for Clapper, Feinstein should have requested an investigation.
[I]f the NSA is collecting data on hundreds of millions of Americans, then the NSA is collecting data on members of Congress, too.
Congress is handling the disclosures about the operations of the NSA very gingerly for two reasons. First, some of the information collected is legitimately classified and related to the national defense. Secondly, if the NSA is collecting data on hundreds of millions of Americans, then the NSA is collecting data on members of Congress, too. If you’ve been in Congress as long as many of the senators on the intelligence committees have, you’ve probably got at least a couple of fund-raising incidents in your past that you would rather forget, and you do not want the NSA reminding you about them. Congressional leaders will only act on behalf of the people under great pressure from the people. The press did its part in highlighting Clapper’s deception; popular civil society coalitions must demand accountability of the NSA and the Congress.
Most generally, we must establish where the data we are creating belongs and to whom. Both the CISPA promoters and Julian Assange are right about this. It is a new world now. There are few rules and those few are broken. The US government assumes for itself prerogatives it does not permit any other nation. Routinely and self-righteously, our government protests hacking incidents that are hazily attributed to China or Iran. Then we find that the NSA engages in commercial espionage, sabotages production in other countries, taps the personal communications of the heads of state of allied nations, and bugs the international delegations at the United Nations. When confronted, the responsible authorities claim that everyone else is doing it, too. Actually, they’re not, though. They don’t have the capability of the NSA.
Corporate elites seeking profits and legal immunities are promoting an unnecessary cyber-war. Once we move across this threshold, the culture of the military takes over, and the battle to retain civil rights is lost. The mentality of the armed forces is black and white. There are good guys and bad guys; friendlies and enemies. In this context, the good guys are most certainly Citigroup, Bank of America, AIG, and the NSA. The bad guys? The Guardian and the Washington Post. You and I. All nuance will be gone, and in a cyber-war everyone with a twitter account a combatant.
We cannot allow this shift. The first step toward preventing it is an awareness that it is happening. Edward Snowden’s disclosures gave us that proof. As information technology advances, however, without international and national regulation, without ensuring that the province of profit remains private – deprived of the immunities of the public sector – the window for preserving civil rights is closing.
The United States was and is the great experiment in self-governance, and Americans are rightfully proud of it. But we have preserved it more or less for only a short time, given the long sweep of history, and even this is hard work. We tire of it. We say, “I’m not a terrorist, so I don’t care if some faceless bureaucrat is reading my emails.” But we have to care. Without our Bill of Rights, there is no freedom of expression. Without freedom of expression, there is no safe dissent. And without dissent, there is no democracy.