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Dumb Question of the Twenty-first Century: Is It Legal?

Post-legal America and the national security complex.

| Tue May 31, 2011 4:02 PM EDT

If you are a private in the US military with access to a computer with low-level classified material from the Pentagon's wars and the State Department's activities on it, if you've seen something of the grim reality of what the national security state looks like when superimposed on Iraq, and if you decide to shine some light on that world, as Bradley Manning did, they'll toss you into prison and throw away the key. You'll be accused of having "blood on your hands" and tried, again under the Espionage Act, by those who actually have blood on their hands and are beyond all accountability.

When it comes to acts of state today, there is only one law: don't pull up the curtain on the doings of any aspect of our spreading National Security Complex or the imperial executive that goes with it. As CIA Director Leon Panetta put it in addressing his employees over leaks about the operation to kill bin Laden, "Disclosure of classified information to anyone not cleared for it—reporters, friends, colleagues in the private sector or other agencies, former Agency officers—does tremendous damage to our work. At worst, leaks endanger lives... Unauthorized disclosure of those details not only violates the law, it seriously undermines our capability to do our job."

And when someone in Congress actually moves to preserve some aspect of older notions of American privacy (versus American secrecy), as Senator Rand Paul did recently in reference to the Patriot Act, he is promptly smeared as potentially "giving terrorists the opportunity to plot attacks against our country, undetected."
 

Enhanced Legal Techniques

Here is the reality of post-legal America: since the attacks of September 11, 2001, the National Security Complex has engorged itself on American fears and grown at a remarkable pace. According to Top Secret America, a Washington Post series written in mid-2010, 854,000 people have "top secret" security clearances, "33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work are under construction or have been built since September 2001... 51 federal organizations and military commands, operating in 15 US cities, track the flow of money to and from terrorist networks... [and] some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security, and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States."

Just stop a moment to take that in. And then let this sink in as well: whatever any one of those employees does inside that national security world, no matter how "illegal" the act, it's a double-your-money bet that he or she will never be prosecuted for it (unless it happens to involve letting Americans know something about just how they are being "protected").

Consider what it means to have a US Intelligence Community (as it likes to call itself) made up of 17 different agencies and organizations, a total that doesn't even include all the smaller intelligence offices in the National Security Complex, which for almost 10 years proved incapable of locating its global enemy number one. Yet, as everyone now agrees, that man was living in something like plain sight, exchanging messages with and seeing colleagues in a military and resort town near Islamabad, the Pakistani capital. And what does it mean that, when he was finally killed, it was celebrated as a vast intelligence victory?

The Intelligence Community with its $80 billion-plus budget, the National Security Complex, including the Pentagon and that post-9/11 creation, the Department of Homeland Security, with its $1.2 trillion-plus budget, and the imperial executive have thrived in these years. They have all expanded their powers and prerogatives based largely on the claim that they are protecting the American people from potential harm from terrorists out to destroy our world.

Above all, however, they seem to have honed a single skill: the ability to protect themselves, as well as the lobbyists and corporate entities that feed off them. They have increased their funds and powers, even as they enveloped their institutions in a penumbra of secrecy. The power of this complex of institutions is still on the rise, even as the power and wealth of the country it protects is visibly in decline.

Now, consider again the question "Is it legal?" When it comes to any act of the National Security Complex, it's obviously inapplicable in a land where the rule of law no longer applies to everyone. If you are a ordinary citizen, of course, it applies to you, but not if you are part of the state apparatus that officially protects you. The institutional momentum behind this development is simple enough to demonstrate: it hardly mattered that, after George W. Bush took off those gloves, the next president elected was a former constitutional law professor.

Think of the National Security Complex as the King George of the present moment. In the areas that matter to that complex, Congress has ever less power and, as in the case of the war in Libya or the Patriot Act, is ever more ready to cede what power it has left.

So democracy? The people's representatives? How quaint in a world in which our real rulers are unelected, shielded by secrecy, and supported by a carefully nurtured, almost religious attitude toward security and the US military.

The National Security Complex has access to us, to our lives and communications, though we have next to no access to it. It has, in reserve, those enhanced interrogation techniques and when trouble looms, a set of what might be called enhanced legal techniques as well. It has the ability to make war at will (or whim). It has a growing post-9/11 secret army cocooned inside the military: 20,000 or more troops in special operations outfits like the SEAL team that took down bin Laden, also enveloped in secrecy. In addition, it has the CIA and a fleet of armed drone aircraft ready to conduct its wars and operations globally in semi-secrecy and without the permission or oversight of the American people or their representatives.

And war, of course, is the ultimate aphrodisiac for the powerful.

Theoretically, the National Security Complex exists only to protect you. Its every act is done in the name of making you safer, even if the idea of safety and protection doesn't extend to your job, your foreclosed home, or aid in disastrous times.

Welcome to post-legal America. It's time to stop wondering whether its acts are illegal and start asking: Do you really want to be this "safe"?

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. His latest book is The American Way of War: How Bush's Wars Became Obama's (Haymarket Books). To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.

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