Claire Danes as CIA officer Carrie Mathison on Showtime's "Homeland."
This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.
Weren't those the greatest of days if you were in the American spy game? Governments went down in Guatemala and Iran thanks to you. In distant Indonesia, Laos, and Vietnam, what a role you played! And even that botch-up of an invasion in Cuba was nothing to sneeze at. In those days, unfortunately, you—particularly those of you in the CIA— didn't get the credit you deserved.
You had to live privately with your successes. Sometimes, as with the Bay of Pigs, the failures came back to haunt you (so, in the case of Iran, would your "success," though so many years later), but you couldn't with pride talk publicly about what you, in your secret world, had done, or see instant movies and TV shows about your triumphs. You couldn't launch a "covert" air war that was reported on, generally positively, almost every week, or bask in the pleasure of having your director claim publicly that it was "the only game in town." You couldn't, that is, come out of what were then called "the shadows," and soak up the glow of attention, be hailed as a hero, join Americans in watching some (fantasy) version of your efforts weekly on television, or get the credit for anything.
Nothing like that was possible—not at least until well after two journalists, David Wise and Thomas B. Ross, shined a bright light into those shadows, called you part of an "invisible government," and outed you in ways that you found deeply discomforting.
Their book with that startling title, The Invisible Government, was published in 1964 and it was groundbreaking, shadow-removing, illuminating. It caused a fuss from its very first paragraph, which was then a shockeroo: "There are two governments in the United States today. One is visible. The other is invisible."
I mean, what did Americans know at the time about an invisible government even the president didn't control that was lodged deep inside the government they had elected?
Wise and Ross continued: "The first is the government that citizens read about in their newspapers and children study about in their civics books. The second is the interlocking, hidden machinery that carries out the policies of the United States in the Cold War. This second, invisible government gathers intelligence, conducts espionage, and plans and executes secret operations all over the globe."
The Invisible Government came out just as what became known as "the Sixties" really began, a moment when lights were suddenly being shone into many previously shadowy American corners. I was then 20 years old and sometime in those years I read their book with a suitable sense of dread, just as I had read those civics books in high school in which Martians landed on Main Street in some "typical" American town to be lectured on our way of life and amazed by our Constitution, not to speak of those fabulous governmental checks and balances instituted by the Founding Fathers, and other glories of democracy.
I wasn't alone reading The Invisible Government either. It was a bestseller and CIA Director John McCone reportedly read the manuscript, which he had secretly obtained from publisher Random House. He demanded deletions. When the publisher refused, he considered buying up the full first printing. In the end, he evidently tried to arrange for some bad reviews instead.
Time Machines and Shadow Worlds
By 1964, the "US Intelligence Community," or IC, had nine members, including the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), and the National Security Agency (NSA). As Wise and Ross portrayed it, the IC was already a labyrinthine set of secret outfits with growing power. It was capable of launching covert actions worldwide, with a "broad spectrum of domestic operations," the ability to overthrow foreign governments, some involvement in shaping presidential campaigns, and the capacity to plan operations without the knowledge of Congress or full presidential control. "No outsider," they concluded, "can tell whether this activity is necessary or even legal. No outsider is in a position to determine whether or not, in time, these activities might become an internal danger to a free society." Modestly enough, they called for Americans to face the problem and bring "secret power" under control. ("If we err as a society, let it be on the side of control.")
Now, imagine that H.G. Wells's time machine had been available in that year of publication. Imagine that it whisked those journalists, then in their mid-thirties, and the young Tom Engelhardt instantly some 48 years into the future to survey just how their cautionary tale about a great democratic and republican nation running off the tracks and out of control had played out.
The first thing they might notice is that the Intelligence Community of 2012 with 17 official outfits has, by the simplest of calculations, almost doubled. The real size and power of that secret world, however, has in every imaginable way grown staggeringly larger than that. Take one outfit, now part of the IC, that didn't exist back in 1964, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. With an annual budget of close to $5 billion, it recently built a gigantic $1.8 billion headquarters—"the third-largest structure in the Washington area, nearly rivaling the Pentagon in size"—for its 16,000 employees. It literally has its "eye" on the globe in a way that would have been left to sci-fi novels almost half a century ago and is tasked as "the nation's primary source of geospatial intelligence, or GEOINT." (Don't ask me what that means exactly, though it has to do with quite literally imaging the planet and all its parts—or perhaps less politely, turning every inch of Earth into a potential shooting range.)
Or consider an outfit that did exist then: the National Security Agency, or NSA (once known jokingly as " no such agency" because of its deep cover). Like its geospatial cousin, it has been in a period of explosive growth, budgetary and otherwise, capped off by the construction of a "heavily fortified" $2 billion data center in Bluffdale, Utah. According to NSA expert James Bamford, when finished in 2013 that center will "intercept, decipher, analyze, and store vast swaths of the world's communications as they zap down from satellites and zip through the underground and undersea cables of international, foreign, and domestic networks." He adds: "Flowing through its servers and routers and stored in near-bottomless databases will be all forms of communication, including the complete contents of private emails, cell phone calls, and Google searches, as well as all sorts of personal data trails—parking receipts, travel itineraries, bookstore purchases, and other digital ‘pocket litter.'" We're talking not just about foreign terrorists here but about the intake and eternal storage of vast reams of material from American citizens, possibly even you.
Or consider a little-known post-9/11 creation, the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), which is not even a separate agency in the IC, but part of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. According to the Wall Street Journal, the Obama administration has just turned that organization into "a government dragnet, sweeping up millions of records about US citizens—even people suspected of no crime." It has granted the NCTC the right, among other things "to examine the government files of US citizens for possible criminal behavior, even if there is no reason to suspect them... copy entire government databases—flight records, casino-employee lists, the names of Americans hosting foreign-exchange students, and many others. The agency has new authority to keep data about innocent US citizens for up to five years, and to analyze it for suspicious patterns of behavior. Previously, both were prohibited."
Or take the Defense Intelligence Agency, which came into existence in 1961 and became operational only the year their book came out. Almost half a century ago, as Wise and Ross told their readers, it had 2,500 employees and a relatively modest set of assigned tasks. By the end of the Cold War, it had 7,500 employees. Two decades later, another tale of explosive growth: the DIA has 16,000 employees.
In their 2010 Washington Post series, "Top Secret America," journalists Dana Priest and William Arkin caught a spirit of untrammeled expansion in the post-9/11 era that would surely have amazed those two authors who had called for "controls" over the secret world: "In Washington and the surrounding area, 33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work are under construction or have been built since September 2001. Together they occupy the equivalent of almost three Pentagons or 22 US Capitol buildings—about 17 million square feet of space."