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How the US Intelligence Community Came Out of the Shadows

Zero Dark Thirty, Homeland, Jason Bourne—the way the intelligence community has become a fixture of pop culture is stunning.

| Wed Jan. 2, 2013 7:01 AM EST

Similarly, the combined Intelligence Community budget, which in deepest secrecy had supposedly soared to at least $44 billion in 2005 (all such figures have to be taken with a dumpster-ful of salt), has by now nearly doubled to an official $75 billion.

Let's add in one more futuristic shocker for our time travelers. Someone would have to tell them that, in 1991, the Soviet Union, that great imperial power and nemesis of the invisible government, with its vast army, secret police, system of gulags, and monstrous nuclear arsenal, had disappeared largely nonviolently from the face of the Earth and no single power has since arisen to challenge the United States militarily. After all, that staggering US intelligence budget, the explosion of new construction, the steep growth in personnel, and all the rest has happened in a world in which the US is facing a couple of rickety regional powers (Iran and North Korea), a minority insurgency in Afghanistan, a rising economic power (China) with still modest military might, and probably a few thousand extreme Muslim fundamentalists and al-Qaeda wannabes scattered around the planet.

They would have to be told that, thanks to a single horrific event, a kind of terrorist luck-out we now refer to in shorthand as " 9/11," and despite the diminution of global enemies, an already enormous IC has expanded nonstop in a country seized by a spasm of fear and paranoia.

Preparing Battlefields and Building Giant Embassies

Staggered by the size of the invisible government they had once anatomized, the two reporters might have been no less surprised by another development: the way in our own time "intelligence" has been militarized, while the US military itself has plunged into the shadows. Of course, it's now well known that the CIA, a civilian intelligence agency until recently headed by a retired four-star general, has been paramilitarized and is now putting a significant part of its energy into running an ever spreading "covert" set of drone wars across the Greater Middle East.

Meanwhile, since the early years of the George W. Bush administration, the US military has been intent on claiming some of the CIA's turf as its own. Not long after the 9/11 attacks, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld began pushing the Pentagon into CIA-style intelligence activities—the "full spectrum of humint [human intelligence] operations"—to "prepare" for future "battlefields." That process has never ended. In April 2012, for instance, the Pentagon released the information that it was in the process of setting up a new spy agency called the Defense Clandestine Service (DCS). Its job: to globalize military "intelligence" by taking it beyond the obvious war zones. The DCS was tasked as well with working more closely with the CIA (while assumedly rivaling it).

As Greg Miller of the Washington Post reported, "Creation of the new service also coincides with the appointment of a number of senior officials at the Pentagon who have extensive backgrounds in intelligence and firm opinions on where the military's spying programs—often seen as lackluster by CIA insiders—have gone wrong."

And then just this month the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, originally a place for analysis and coordination, announced at a conference that his agency was going to expand into "humint" in a big way, filling embassies around the world with a new corps of clandestine operators who had diplomatic or other "cover." He was talking about fielding 1,600 "collectors" who would be "trained by the CIA and often work with the Joint Special Operations Command." Never, in other words, will a country have had so many "diplomats" who know absolutely nothing about diplomacy.

Though the Senate has balked at funding the expansion of the Defense Clandestine Service, all of this represents both a significant reshuffling of what is still called "intelligence" but is really a form of low-level war-making on a global stage and a continuing expansion of America's secret world on a scale hitherto unimaginable, all in the name of "national security." Now at least, it's easier to understand why, from London to Baghdad to Islamabad, the US has been building humongous embassies fortified like ancient castles and the size of imperial palaces for unparalleled staffs of "diplomats." These will now clearly include scads of CIA, DIA, and perhaps DCS agents, among others, under diplomatic "cover."

Into this mix would have to go another outfit that would have been unknown to Wise and Ross, but—given the publicity Seal Team Six has gotten over the bin Laden raid and other activities—that most Americans will be at least somewhat aware of. An ever-greater role in the secret world is now being played by a military organization that long ago headed into the shadows, the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). In 2009, New Yorker reporter Seymour Hersh termed it an "executive assassination ring" (especially in Iraq) that did not "report to anybody, except in the Bush-Cheney days... directly to the Cheney office."

In fact, JSOC only emerged into the public eye when one of its key operatives in Iraq, General Stanley McChrystal, was appointed US war commander in Afghanistan. It has been in the spotlight ever since as it engages in what once might have been CIA-style paramilitary operations on steroids, increases its intelligence-gathering capacity, runs its own drone wars, and has set up a new headquarters in Washington, 15 convenient minutes from the White House.

Big Screen Moments and "Covert" Wars

At their top levels, the leadership of the CIA, the DIA, and JSOC are now mixing and matching in a blur of ever more intertwined, militarized outfits, increasingly on a perpetual war footing. They have, in this way, turned the ancient arts of intelligence, surveillance, spying, and assassination into a massively funded way of life and are now regularly conducting war on the sly and on the loose across the globe. At the lowest levels, the CIA, DIA, JSOC, and assumedly someday DCS train together, work in teams and in tandem, and cooperate, as well as poach on each other's turf.

Today, you would be hard-pressed to write a single volume called The Invisible Government. You would instead have to produce a multi-volume series. And while you were at it—this undoubtedly would have stunned Wise and Ross—you might have had to retitle the project something like The Visible Government.

Don't misunderstand me: Americans now possess (or more accurately are possessed by) a vast "intelligence" bureaucracy deeply in the shadows, whose activities are a mass of known unknowns and unknown unknowns to those of us on the outside. It is beyond enormous. There is no way to assess its actual usefulness, or whether it is even faintly "intelligent" (though a case could certainly be made that the US would be far better off with a non-paramilitarized intelligence service or two, rather than scads of them, that eschewed paranoia and relied largely on open sources). But none of that matters. It now represents an irreversible way of life, one that is increasingly visible and celebrated in this country. It is also part of the seemingly endless growth of the imperial power of the White House and, in ways that Wise and Ross would in 1964 have found inconceivable, beyond all accountability or control when it comes to the American people.

It is also ready to take public credit for its "successes" (or even a significant hand in shaping how they are viewed in the public arena). Once upon a time, a CIA agent who died in some covert operation would have gone unnamed and unacknowledged. By the 1970s, that agent would have had a star engraved on the wall of the lobby of CIA headquarters, but no one outside the Agency would have known about his or her fate.

Now, those who die in our "secret" operations or ones launched against our "invisible" agents can become public figures and celebrated "heroes." This was the case, for instance, with Jennifer Matthews, a CIA agent who died in Afghanistan when an Agency double agent turned out to be a triple agent and suicide bomber. Or just last week, when a soldier from Seal Team Six died in an operation in Afghanistan to rescue a kidnapped doctor. The Navy released his photo and name, and he was widely hailed. This would certainly have been striking to Wise and Ross.

Then again, they would undoubtedly have been no less startled to discover that, from Jack Ryan and Jason Bourne to Syriana, the Mission Impossible films, and Taken, the CIA and other secret outfits (or their fantasy doppelgangers) have become staples of American multiplexes. Nor has the small screen, from 24 to Homeland, been immune to this invasion of visibility. Or consider this: just over a year and a half after Seal Team Six's super-secret bin Laden operation ended, it has already been turned into Zero Dark Thirty, a highly pre-praised (and controversial) movie, a candidate for Oscars with a heroine patterned on an undercover CIA agent whose photo has made it into the public arena. Moreover, it was a film whose makers were reportedly aided or at least encouraged in their efforts by the CIA, the Pentagon, and the White House, just as the SEALs aided this year's high-grossing movie Act of Valor ("an elite team of Navy SEALs... embark on a covert mission to recover a kidnapped CIA agent") by lending the film actual SEALs as its (unnamed) actors and then staging a SEAL parachute drop onto a red carpet at its Hollywood premier.

True, at the time The Invisible Government was published, the first two James Bond films were already hits and the Mission Imposible TV show was only two years from launch, but the way the invisible world has since emerged from the shadows to become a fixture of pop culture remains stunning. And don't think this was just some cultural quirk. After all, back in the 1960s, enterprising reporters had to pry open those invisible agencies to discover anything about what they were doing. In those years, for instance, the CIA ran a secret air and sizeable ground war in Laos that it tried desperately never to acknowledge despite its formidable size and scope.

Today, on the other hand, the Agency runs what are called "covert" drone wars in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia in which most strikes are promptly reported in the press and about which the administration clearly leaked information it wanted in the New York Times on the president's role in picking those to die.

In the past, American presidents pursued "plausible deniability" when it came to assassination plots like those against Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba, Cuba's Fidel Castro, and Vietnam's Ngo Dinh Diem. Now, assassination is clearly considered a semi-public part of the presidential job, codified, bureaucratized, and regulated (though only within the White House), and remarkably public. All of this has become part of the visible world (or at least a giant publicity operation in it). No need today for a Wise or Ross to tell us this. Ever since President Ronald Reagan's CIA-run Central American Contra wars of the 1980s, the definition of "covert" has changed. It no longer means hidden from sight, but beyond accountability.

It is now a polite way of saying to the American people: not yours. Yes, you can know about it; you can feel free to praise it; but you have nothing to do with it, no say over it.

In the 48 years since their pioneering book was published, Wise and Ross's invisible government has triumphed over the visible one. It has become the go-to option in this country. In certain ways, it is also becoming the most visible and important part of that government, a vast edifice of surveilling, storing, spying, and killing that gives us what we now call "security," leaves us in terror of the world, never stops growing, and is ever freer to collect information on you to use as it wishes.

With the passage of 48 years, it's so much clearer that, impressive as Wise and Ross were, their quest was quixotic. Bring the "secret power" under control? Make it accountable? Dream on—but be careful, one of these days even your dreams may be on file.

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as The End of Victory Culture, his history of the Cold War, runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050. You can see his interview with Bill Moyers on supersized politics, drones, and other subjects by clicking here.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch book, Nick Turse's The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Proxy Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare.To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.

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