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Tom Engelhardt: The National Security Complex and You

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When my daughter was little and I read to her regularly, one illustrated book was a favorite of ours.  In a series of scenes, it described frustrating incidents in the life of a young girl, each ending with the line -- which my tiny daughter would boom out with remarkable force -- "that makes me mad!"  It was the book's title and a repetitively cathartic moment in our reading lives.  And it came to mind recently as, in my daily reading, I stumbled across repetitively mind-boggling numbers from the everyday life of our National Security Complex.

For our present national security moment, however, I might amend the book's punch line slightly to: That makes no sense!

Now, think of something you learned about the Complex that fried your brain, try the line yourself... and we'll get started.

Are you, for instance, worried about the safety of America's "secrets"?  Then you should breathe a sigh of relief and consider this headline from a recent article on the inside pages of my hometown paper: "Cost to Protect U.S. Secrets Doubles to Over $11 Billion." 

A government outfit few of us knew existed, the Information Security Oversight Office or ISOO, just released its "Report on Cost Estimates for Security Classification Activities for Fiscal Year 2011" (no price tag given, however, on producing the report or maintaining ISOO).  Unclassified portions, written in classic bureaucratese, offer this precise figure for protecting our secrets, vetting our secrets' protectors (no leakers please), and ensuring the safety of the whole shebang: $11.37 billion in 2011.

That's up (and get used to the word "up") by 12% from 2010, and double the 2002 figure of $5.8 billion. For those willing to step back into what once seemed like a highly classified past but was clearly an age of innocence, it's more than quadruple the 1995 figure of $2.7 billion.

And let me emphasize that we're only talking about the unclassified part of what it costs for secrets protection in the National Security Complex.  The bills from six agencies, monsters in the intelligence world -- the Central Intelligence Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, the National Reconnaissance Office, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, and the Office of of the Director of National Intelligence -- are classified.  The New York Times estimates that the real cost lies in the range of $13 billion, but who knows?

To put things in perspective, the transmission letter from Director John P. Fitzpatrick that came with the report makes it utterly clear why your taxpayer dollars, all $13 billion of them, are being spent this way: "Sustaining and increasing investment in classification and security measures is both necessary to maintaining the classification system and fundamental to the principles of transparency, participation, and collaboration."  It's all to ensure transparency.  George Orwell take that!  Pow!

Now let's try the line again, this time with more gusto: That makes no sense!

On the other hand, maybe it helps to think of this as the Complex's version of inflation.  Security protection, it turns out, only goes in one direction.  And no wonder, since every year there's so much more precious material written by people in an expanding Complex to protect from the prying eyes of spies, terrorists, and, well, you.

The official figure for documents classified by the U.S. government last year is -- hold your hats on this one -- 92,064,862.  And as WikiLeaks managed to release hundreds of thousands of them online a couple of years ago, that's meant a bonanza of even more money for yet more rigorous protection.

You have to feel at least some dollop of pity for protection bureaucrats like Fitzgerald.  While back in 1995 the U.S. government classified a mere 5,685,462 documents -- in those days, we were practically a secret-less nation -- today, of those 92 million sequestered documents, 26,058,678 were given a "top secret" classification.  There are today almost five times as many "top secret" documents as total classified documents back then.

Here's another kind of inflation (disguised as deflation): in 1996, the government declassified 196 million pages of documents.  In 2011, that figure was 26.7 million.  In other words, these days what becomes secret remains ever more inflatedly secret.  That's what qualifies as "transparency, participation, and collaboration" inside the Complex and in an administration that came into office proclaiming "sunshine" policies.  (All of the above info thanks to another of those ISOO reports.)  And keep in mind that the National Security Complex is proud of such figures!

So, today, the "people's" government (your government) produces 92 million documents that no one except the nearly one million people with some kind of security clearance, including hundreds of thousands of private contractors, have access to.  Don't think of this as "overclassification," which is a problem.  Think of it as a way of life, and one that has ever less to do with you.

Now, honestly, don't you feel that urge welling up?  Go ahead.  Don't hold back: That makes no sense!

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews (more...)
 

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