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Why Our Debate About Surveillance Doesn't Go Far Enough

In the wake of Snowden's revelations, we've been narrowly focused on whether or not we should have more security or more privacy. We need to start thinking about the problem differently.

| Mon Jan. 6, 2014 4:22 PM EST

A Practical Failure, A Faith-Based Success Story

Looked at another way, the national security state is also a humongous humbug, a gigantic fraud of a belief system that only delivers because its followers never choose to look at the world through Martian eyes.

Let's start with its gargantuan side. No matter how you cut it, the NSS is a Ripley's Believe It or Not of staggering numbers that, once you step outside its thought system, don't add up. The US national defense budget is estimated to be larger than those of the next 13 countries combined—that is, simply off-the-charts more expensive. The US Navy has 11 aircraft carrier strike groups when no other country has more than two. No other national security outfit can claim to sweep up "nearly five billion records a day on the whereabouts of cellphones around the world"; nor, like the National Security Agency's Special Source Operations group in 2006, boast about being capable of ingesting the equivalent of "one Library of Congress every 14.4 seconds"; nor does it have any competitors when it comes to constructing "building complexes for top-secret intelligence work" (33 in the Washington area alone between 2001 and 2010). And its building programs around the US and globally are never-ending.

It is creating a jet fighter that will be the most expensive weapons system in history. Its weapons makers controlled 78% of the global arms market in 2012. When its military departed Iraq after eight years of invasion and occupation, it left with three million objects ranging from armored vehicles to laptop computers and porta-potties (and destroyed or handed over to the Iraqis countless more). In a world where other countries have, at best, a handful of military bases outside their territory, it has countless hundreds. In 2011 alone, it managed to classify 92,064,862 of the documents it generated, giving secrecy a new order of magnitude. And that's just to dip a toe in the ocean of a national security state that dwarfs the one which fought the Cold War against an actual imperial superpower.

Again, if you were to step outside the world of NSS dogma and the arguments that go with it, such numbers—and they are legion—would surely represent one of the worst investments in modern memory. If a system of this sort weren't faith-based, and if that faith weren't widespread and deeply accepted (even if now possibly on the wane), people would automatically look at such numbers and the results they deliver and ask why, for all its promises of safety and security, the NSS so regularly fails to deliver. And why the response to failure can always be encapsulated in one word: more.

After all, if the twenty-first century has taught us anything, it's that the most expensive and over-equipped military on the planet can't win a war. Its two multi-trillion-dollar attempts since 9/11, in Iraq and Afghanistan, both against lightly armed minority insurgencies, proved disasters. (In Iraq, however, despite an ignominious US pullout and the chaos that has followed in the region, the NSS and its supporters have continued to promote the idea that General David Petraeus's "surge" was indeed some kind of historic last-minute "victory.")

After 12 long years in Afghanistan and an Obama era surge in that country, the latest grim National Intelligence Estimate from the US intelligence community suggests that no matter what Washington now does, the likelihood is that things there will only go from bad enough to far worse. Years of a drone campaign against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has strengthened that organization; an air intervention in Libya led to chaos, a dead ambassador, and a growing al-Qaeda movement in northern Africa—and so it repetitively goes.

Similarly, intelligence officials brag of terrorist plots—54 of them!—that have been broken up thanks in whole or in part to the National Security Agency's metadata sweeps of US phone calls; it also claims that, given the need of secrecy, only four of them can be made public. (The claims of success on even those four, when examined by journalists, have proved less than impressive.) Meanwhile, the presidential task force charged with reviewing the NSA revelations, which had access to a far wider range of insider information, came to an even more startling conclusion: not one instance could be found in which that metadata the NSA was storing in bulk had thwarted a terrorist plot. "Our review," the panel wrote, "suggests that the information contributed to terrorist investigations by the use of section 215 telephony meta-data was not essential to preventing attacks." (And keep in mind that, based on what we do know about such terror plots, a surprising number of them were planned or sparked or made possible by FBI-inspired plants.)

In fact, claims of success against such plots couldn't be more faith-based, relying as they generally do on the word of intelligence officials who have proven themselves untrustworthy or on the impossible-to-prove-or-disprove claim that if such a system didn't exist, far worse would have happened. That version of a success story is well summarized in the claim that "we didn't have another 9/11."

In other words, in bang-for-the-buck practical terms, Washington's national security state should be viewed as a remarkable failure. And yet, in faith-based terms, it couldn't be a greater success. Its false gods are largely accepted by acclamation and regularly worshiped in Washington and beyond. As the funding continues to pour in, the NSS has transformed itself into something like a shadow government in that city, while precluding from all serious discussion the possibility of its own future dismantlement or of what could replace it. It has made other options ephemeral and more immediate dangers than terrorism to the health and wellbeing of Americans seem, at best, secondary. It has pumped fear into the American soul. It is a religion of state power.

No Martian could mistake it for anything else.

Tom Engelhardt, a co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute's His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050.

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