[Book Recommendations for TomDispatch Readers: Here are four books you might consider putting in your library if you haven't done so already. There's the new paperback of Nick Turse's widely acclaimed bestseller, Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam. Recently, we offered any reader who contributed $100 (or more) to this site a personalized, signed copy of it. (Check out our donation page for more information.) In addition, the newest Dispatch book by Ann Jones, They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return From America's Wars -- The Untold Story, couldn't be more powerful. It's a breath-catching odyssey through the true human costs of war, and though this should have been a mainstream journey, no one other than Jones bothered to take it. Beautifully written, it really is a must-read. For the fiction readers among you, there's TomDispatch author Beverly Gologorsky's Stop Here, a rare genuine working class novel about America (and its wars) and, as readers have been writing me, definitely an experience not to be missed. Finally, a non-TomDispatch recommendation: The Sixth Extinction, a book by perhaps the best environmental writer of our moment, the New Yorker's Elizabeth Kolbert, has just been published. The subject, our own potential demise, couldn't be grimmer, but I can guarantee you that it's a riveting read (as Al Gore recently indicated on the cover of the New York Times Book Review ). And here's a small reminder: if you're an Amazon customer and decide to buy any of these books (or anything else whatsoever), as long as you arrive at that website by clicking on a TomDispatch book link or the cover image link in any TD piece, we get a small cut of your purchase at no cost to you. Tom]
How a Thug State Operates
By Tom Engelhardt
Here, at least, is a place to start: intelligence officials have weighed in with an estimate of just how many secret files National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden took with him when he headed for Hong Kong last June. Brace yourself: 1.7 million. At least they claim that as the number he or his web crawler accessed before he left town. Let's assume for a moment that it's accurate and add a caveat. Whatever he had with him on those thumb drives when he left the agency, Edward Snowden did not take all the NSA's classified documents. Not by a long shot. He only downloaded a portion of them. We don't have any idea what percentage, but assumedly millions of NSA secret documents did not get the Snowden treatment.
Such figures should stagger us and what he did take will undoubtedly occupy journalists for months or years more (and historians long after that). Keep this in mind, however: the NSA is only one of 17 intelligence outfits in what is called the U.S. Intelligence Community. Some of the others are as large and well funded, and all of them generate their own troves of secret documents, undoubtedly stretching into the many millions.
And keep something else in mind: that's just intelligence agencies. If you're thinking about the full sweep of our national security state (NSS), you also have to include places like the Department of Homeland Security, the Energy Department (responsible for the U.S. nuclear arsenal), and the Pentagon. In other words, we're talking about the kind of secret documentation that an army of journalists, researchers, and historians wouldn't have a hope of getting through, not in a century.
We do know that, in 2011, the whole government reportedly classified 92,064,862 documents. If accurate and reasonably typical, that means, in the twenty-first century, the NSS has already generated hundreds of millions of documents that could not be read by an American without a security clearance. Of those, thanks to one man (via various journalists), we have had access to a tiny percentage of perhaps 1.7 million of them. Or put another way, you, the voter, the taxpayer, the citizen -- in what we still like to think of as a democracy -- are automatically excluded from knowing or learning about most of what the national security state does in your name. That's unless, of course, its officials decide to selectively cherry-pick information they feel you are capable of safely and securely absorbing, or an Edward Snowden releases documents to the world over the bitter protests, death threats, and teeth gnashing of Washington officialdom and retired versions of the same.
Summoned From the Id of the National Security State
So far, even among critics, the debate about what to make of Snowden's act has generally focused on "balance"; that is, on what's the right equilibrium between an obvious governmental need for secrecy, the security of the country, and an American urge for privacy, freedom, and transparency -- for knowing, among other things, what your government is actually doing. Such a framework ("a meaningful balance between privacy and security") has proven a relatively comfortable one for Washington, which doesn't mind focusing on the supposedly knotty question of how to define the "limits" of secrecy and whistle-blowing and what "reforms" are needed to bring the two into line. In the present context, however, such a debate seems laughable, if not absurd.
After all, it's clear from the numbers alone that the urge to envelop the national security state in a blanket of secrecy, to shield its workings from the eyes of its citizens (as well as allies and enemies) has proven essentially boundless, as have the secret ambitions of those running that state. There is no way, at present, to limit the governmental urge for secrecy even in minimal ways, certainly not via secret courts or congressional committees implicated and entangled in the processes of a secret system.
In the face of such boundlessness, perhaps the words "whistleblower" and "leaker" -- both traditionally referring to bounded and focused activities -- are no longer useful. Though we may not yet have a word to describe what Chelsea (once Bradley) Manning, Julian Assange, and Edward Snowden have done, we should probably stop calling them whistleblowers. Perhaps they should instead be considered the creations of an overweening national security state, summoned by us from its id (so to speak) to act as a counterforce to its ambitions. Imagine them as representing the societal unconscious. Only in this way can we explain the boundlessness of their acts. After all, such massive document appropriations are inconceivable without a secret state endlessly in the process of documenting its own darkness.
One thing is for certain, though no one thinks to say it: despite their staggering releases of insider information, when it comes to the true nature and extent of the NSS, we surely remain in the dark. In the feeling that, thanks to Manning and Snowden, we now grasp the depths of that secret state, its secret acts, and the secret documentation that goes with it, we are undoubtedly deluded.
In a sense, valuable as they have been, Snowden's revelations have helped promote this delusion. In a way that hasn't happened since the Watergate era of the 1970s, they have given us the feeling that a curtain has finally, definitively been pulled back on the true nature of the Washington system. Behind that curtain, we have indeed glimpsed a global-surveillance-state-in-the-making of astounding scope, reach, and technological proficiency, whose ambitions (and successes), even when not always fully achieved, should take our breath away. And yet while this is accurate enough, it leads us to believe that we now know a great deal about the secret world of Washington. This is an illusion.
Even if we knew what was in all of those 1.7 million NSA documents, they are a drop in the bucket. As of now, we have the revelations of one (marginal) insider who stepped out of the shadows to tell us about part of what a single intelligence agency documented about its own activities. The resulting global debate, controversy, anger, and discussion, Snowden has said, represents "mission accomplished" for him. But it shouldn't be considered mission accomplished for the rest of us.
In Praise of Darkness, the Dangers of Sunshine
To gain a reasonable picture of our national security state, five, 10, 20 Snowdens, each at a different agency or outfit, would have to step out of the shadows -- and that would just be for starters. Then we would need a media that was ready to roll and a Congress not wrapped in "security" and "secrecy" but demanding answers, as the Church committee did in the Watergate era, with subpoenas in hand (and the threat of prison for no-shows and perjurers).