Thursday, July 22, 2010

Secret Government Part 2: National Security Inc.

I realize that the Washington Post "Secret Government" series only marginally relates to privacy issues (at least not directly...yet). Nonetheless, there is a relationship worth delving into, one I started earlier in the week (see my last post).

Part 2 of the series is entitled "National Security Inc.", and, while not that privacy specific, again, I think the privatization of what was once government intelligence agencies has all kinds of deeply disturbing ramifications - including for privacy and civil liberties.

To remind everyone of one tidbit from part 1: Every day, collection systems at the National Security Agency intercept and store 1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls and other types of communications."

To call that an out-of-control, privacy-destroying Surveillance State is to understate the case. But the fact that a growing percentage of intelligence agents are corporate employees, serving shareholders first, the Constitution and the public second, adds to my concerns.

Before I get to some important critiques of the Washington Post series, in particular all those questions it does not answer or even ask, let me share a few choice clips from Part 2 of the series.

Priest and Arkin write:

The intent of the memorial is to publicly honor the courage of those who died in the line of duty, but it also conceals a deeper story about government in the post-9/11 era: Eight of the 22 were not CIA officers at all. They were private contractors.

To ensure that the country's most sensitive duties are carried out only by people loyal above all to the nation's interest, federal rules say contractors may not perform what are called "inherently government functions." But they do, all the time and in every intelligence and counterterrorism agency, according to a two-year investigation by The Washington Post.


It is also a system in which contractors are playing an ever more important role. The Post estimates that out of 854,000 people with top-secret clearances, 265,000 are contractors. There is no better example of the government's dependency on them than at the CIA, the one place in government that exists to do things overseas that no other U.S. agency is allowed to do.

Private contractors working for the CIA have recruited spies in Iraq, paid bribes for information in Afghanistan and protected CIA directors visiting world capitals. Contractors have helped snatch a suspected extremist off the streets of Italy, interrogated detainees once held at secret prisons abroad and watched over defectors holed up in the Washington suburbs. At Langley headquarters, they analyze terrorist networks. At the agency's training facility in Virginia, they are helping mold a new generation of American spies.


Nine years later, well into the Obama administration, the idea that contractors cost less has been repudiated, and the administration has made some progress toward its goal of reducing the number of hired hands by 7 percent over two years. Still, close to 30 percent of the workforce in the intelligence agencies is contractors.


Contractors can offer more money - often twice as much - to experienced federal employees than the government is allowed to pay them. And because competition among firms for people with security clearances is so great, corporations offer such perks as BMWs and $15,000 signing bonuses, as Raytheon did in June for software developers with top-level clearances.


The National Security Agency, which conducts worldwide electronic surveillance, hires private firms to come up with most of its technological innovations. The NSA used to work with a small stable of firms; now it works with at least 484 and is actively recruiting more.


Each of the 16 intelligence agencies depends on corporations to set up its computer networks, communicate with other agencies' networks, and fuse and mine disparate bits of information that might indicate a terrorist plot. More than 400 companies work exclusively in this area, building classified hardware and software systems.

Read the article in its entirety here.

The article also documents the growing size, wealth, and power of these "intelligence" corporations, both that supply contractors, and security technologies. In other words, we've got a growing, private army on our army that has increasing access to hi tech equipment that can monitor and capture nearly everything we do...and fight wars and kill innocent people...while not subject to international law.

I also feel obligated to point out that the likelihood a terrorist like Bin Laden will destroy us is extremely low…but the likelihood that our banana republic economy will is extremely high (made only higher by the amount we spend on “defending” against a mythical “enemy”). Yet, we are being led to believe there is this grave, terrorist threat out there…even though the risk of being hit by lightning is far greater than that of being killed by a “terrorist”.

So, aside from this surveillance state being too costly, and a threat to our privacy and freedom (actually, its already destroyed them), the very premise that we NEED IT in such size and magnitude is patently false. This series does does not however touch on the fundamental scam that the "war on terror" itself is...Nor, from what I’ve seen so far, does it delve into what all these private contractors are ACTUALLY DOING in our name (I’m talking specifics, not generalizations).

Here’s Robert Dreyfuss of The Nation:

"The core that Al Qaeda and its affiliates, its sympathizers, and even self-starting terrorist actors who aren't part of Al Qaeda itself, are a tiny and manageable problem. Yet the apparatus that has been created is designed to meet nothing less than an existential threat. Even at the height of the Cold War ... there was nothing like the post-9/11 behemoth in existence. A thousand smart intelligence analysts, a thousand smart FBI and law enforcement officers, and a few hundred Special Operations military folk are all that's needed to deal with the terrorism threat."

Even at the height of the cold war, when the Soviet Union and its allies were engaged in a brutal, country-by-country battle across Asia, Africa and Latin America to combat the United States, NATO, and American hegemonism, there was nothing like the post-9/11 behemoth in existence. A thousand smart intelligence analysts, a thousand smart FBI and law enforcement officers, and a few hundred Special Operations military folk are all that's needed to deal with the terrorism threat. It's been hugely overblown. Yet in the Post story, sage-like gray beards of the counterterrorism machine stroke their chins and pontificate about how difficult it is to coordinate all these agencies, absorb all the data, read all the reports and absorb the 1.7 billion e-mails and phone calls that are picked up every day by the National Security Agency. It's an "Emperor's New Clothes" problem. The emperor isn't naked, but no one,

What's missing from the story, however, is any assessment of the threat against which this vast and growing machinery is arrayed. The Post notes that twenty-five separate agencies have been set up to track terrorist financing, which admirably shows the overlapping and redundant nature of the post-9/11 ballooning of agencies and organizations targeting terrorism. But the article barely mentions that there are hardly any terrorists to track

Also, here’s Jeremy Scahill (who knows a thing or two about private contractors and their crimes against humanity):

The misplaced hype surrounding the Post series speaks volumes to the ahistorical nature of US media culture. Next week, if the New York Times published a story on how there were no WMDs in Iraq, there would no doubt be cable news shows that would act like it was an earth-moving revelation delivered by Moses on the stone tablet of exclusive, groundbreaking journalism.


In reality, there is little in the Post series that, in one way or another, has not already been documented …In 2007, Shorrock obtained and published a document from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence showing that 70 percent of the US intelligence budget was spent on private contractors. Shorrock was way out in front of this story and, frankly, corporate media ignored it …

The Post and its reporters, Shorrock told me, "are doing their best to obfuscate what contractors really do for US intelligence. They're eight years behind and still haven't caught up. Basically their stories are throwing big numbers at readers-such as the fact that of 854,000 people with top security clearances, 265,000 are contractors. But that's work that can be done by interns; there's virtually nothing in their series about the broader picture-like what it means to have private for-profit companies operating at the highest levels of our national security."

But instead of revealing new details on these types of operations and naming names and employers and specific incidents, none of that is to be found. The discussion of torture and extrajudicial killings committed by private contractors is relegated to a whitewashing by the Post…I'm sorry, Blackwater "added fuel" to "chaos?" "America run amok?" These are very strange descriptions of the take-away message from the massacre of seventeen innocent Iraqi civilians, the alleged murder of a bodyguard to the Iraqi vice president and night-hunting Iraqis as "payback" for 9/11.

Not to mention the allegations of young prostitutes performing oral sex for a dollar, guns smuggled on private planes in dog food bags, hiding weapons from ATF agents and on and on. But more important, where in the Post series is the examination of the CIA assassination program that relied on Blackwater and other private contractors? Where is the investigation of Erik Prince's hit teams that operated in Germany and elsewhere? What about the ongoing work of contractors in the drone bombing program? What about Blackwater contractors calling in air-strikes in Afghanistan or operating covertly in Pakistan?

And let me just add what I believe are some of the most pertinent "take aways" from this series so far, as explained by the great Glenn Greenwald of

In sum, if you combine this second Post installment with the first one from yesterday, the picture that emerges is that we have a Secret Government of 854,000 people so vast and secret that nobody knows what it does or what it is. Roughly 30% of that Secret Government -- engaged in the whole litany of functions from spying to killing -- is composed of private corporations...That there is a virtually complete government/corporate merger when it comes to the National Security and Surveillance State is indisputable...

As little oversight as National Security State officials have, corporate officials engaged in these activities have even less. Relying upon profit-driven industry for the defense and intelligence community's "core mission" is to ensure that we have Endless War and an always-expanding Surveillance State. After all, the very people providing us with the "intelligence" that we use to make decisions are the ones who are duty-bound to keep this War Machine alive and expanding because, as the Post put it, they are "obligated to shareholders rather than the public interest."

Our military, our CIA, our spying agencies (such as NSA) are every bit corporate as they are governmental: in some cases more so. So complete is the merger that it's the same people who switch seamlessly back and forth between governmental agencies and their private "partners," which means we have not only a vast Secret Government, but one that operates with virtually no democratic accountability and is driven not by National Security concerns but by its own always-expanding private profits.


Everyone should decide for themselves if we have the "alert and knowledgeable citizenry" which Eisenhower said was necessary to "compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together." If we empower a massive private industry this way -- with core governmental authorities -- to gorge on unchecked power and huge private profits at the public expense, all derived from Endless War and civil liberties abridgments, why would one expect anything other than Endless War and civil liberties abridgments to be the inevitable outcome?

It's unfortunate that the Washington Post piece does not delve so deeply into these far more important questions...but at least it has elicited them from others...these are extraordinarily important questions to ponder...while there's still time to take a step back from the abyss.

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