Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single Superpower World
by Tom Engelhardt
Haymarket Books (2014), 174 pages
An American Global Security State sprouted out of the panic that gripped the United States of America following that fateful overture to the new millennium on September 11, 2001. According to author Tom Engelhardt, these changes over the past 15 years “should still stun us.” People might even be more stunned if they were privy to the changes that have taken place. However, a “mania of secrecy” has allowed the creation of “total surveillance structures with staggering and global ambitions,” covert use of drones in countries where Congress has not formally authorized war, and a network of “black sites” in allied countries where the never-ending “threatening list of enemies” can be dealt with beyond the rule of law.
Yet for all these outward signs of America’s growing post-Cold War dominance, the limits to American power are painfully obvious. Is the growth of the American Global Security State an indication of the unchecked dominance of the American empire, or does it point to the seeds of the empire’s downfall?
Shadow Government is an anthology that catalogues the misdeeds of the U.S. over the past decade. The book is a lightly edited collection of essays previously published on Engelhardt’s website, TomDispatch.com. The mission of the website to, “connect some of the global dots regularly left unconnected by the mainstream media and to offer a clearer sense of how this imperial globe of ours actually works” can be seen laced through each of the essays in the anthology.
Engelhardt has been at this game a long time. He found his journalistic and editorial calling following his involvement in the draft resistance movement in opposition to the American war in Vietnam. Subsequently, he spent decades tracking and chronicling the wrongdoing, hypocrisy and apparent stupidity of those who visibly and invisibly control the U.S. The developments catalogued in this book will be familiar to anyone who follows the national security state. Studious fact-checkers, however, will be dismayed to find that there are no footnotes included in the book. Instead, readers are instructed to seek out the original online posts, though are cautioned that link rot may have already set in. Apparently, TomDispatch.com has not heard of online archiving services like archive.is or the Internet Archive.
A transformation shrouded in secrecy
The goal of this latest compilation is tucked away at the end of the acknowledgements section. It is there that the author lauds the contributions of Glenn Greenwald and Edward Snowden for ensuring that, “this American world of ours doesn't disappear into a locked room to which we have no admittance.”
Engelhardt’s central argument throughout this anthology centers on this notion of a “mania of secrecy” and how it has led to the erosion of the checks and balances that ensure a vibrant and representative democracy.
In the months after September 11, 2001, it was regularly said that ‘everything’ had changed. It’s a claim long forgotten, buried in everyday American life. Still, if you think about it, in the decade-plus that followed – the years of the PATRIOT Act, “enhanced interrogation techniques,” “black sites,” robot assassination campaigns, extraordinary renditions, the Abu Ghraib photos, the Global War on Terror, and the first cyberwar in history – much did change in ways that should still stun us.
Our comprehension of the sheer scale and scope of the American Global Security State apparatus has been hindered by the secrecy that surrounds it. Increased secrecy has contributed to the dissolution of checks and balances in the U.S. This in turn has permitted those responsible for misconduct and criminality to evade accountability and justice. Engelhardt’s palpable indignation at this “post-legal America” can be felt with his references to Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) “enhanced interrogation techniques,” Wall Street evasion of criminal proceedings for crashing the world financial system in 2007, and the ecocide currently perpetrated by what Engelhardt dubs “terrarists”: corporations that trash the atmosphere and environment for profit and with impunity, thereby ushering in the global security threat of climate change.
Unchaining the security state globally
In this atmosphere of secrecy, the reach of the American Global Security State has extended. In physical terms, military bases, CIA black sites, and prisons dot the globe in the territory of U.S. allies. The activities in these installations occur outside of the level of legal oversight, control and subsequent accountability that they would be subject to if done at home. This has had the consequence of, “unchaining Washington from the limits that national borders once imposed.”
This global reach has been aided by one technological development, a new weapon the use of which was pioneered during the Bush Administration and carried-over to the Obama Administration: drones. Many of the essays either make reference to, or focus exclusively, on drones. For Engelhardt, drones epitomize all that is wrong in the American Empire since 2001. They are touted in the media as, “the shiniest presents under the American Christmas tree of war, the perfect weapons to solve our problems when it comes to evildoers lurking the global badlands.” Drones involve a secret kill-list, the targets for which the President himself approves. They require the installation of additional bases in foreign lands to house the drones. Even the names of the drone models, Reaper (as in Grim) and Predator, belie the true intent of these remote-operated aircraft, piloted by thousands of people from at least 64 bases across the homeland. Most tragically, Engelhardt points out the self-defeating role that drones play in what was once called the Global War on Terror, as they create more terrorists than they eliminate.
Driven by globalization and privatization, America’s intelligence agencies have also extended their global reach. The now infamous leaks by NSA contractor, Edward Snowden, shone a light on the sheer scale of information collection, storage, and sharing that the now 17 U.S. intelligence agencies, their “5 eyes”1 cousins and SIGINT Seniors Europe2 (though this latter grouping is not mentioned in any of Engelhardt’s essays). Of most concern to Engelhardt is the ability of these agencies to monitor each person’s communications and how this plays into a larger picture where, “our world, our society, is becoming ever more imperial in nature...With its widening economic inequalities, the US is increasingly a society of the rulers and the ruled, the surveillers and the surveilled.”
The strongest of the chapters has little relation to the verbose title of the book. The penultimate chapter focuses on climate change and the very real security risk that it poses not just to the United States but also to the world. This chapter’s strength lies in Engelhardt’s explanation of why this global challenge has not been addressed, something that is not consistently done throughout the other essays. Corporations lobby to prevent any legislation that might adversely impact their interests all while ploughing, “some of their vast profits into the funding of a campaign of climate change denialism and obfuscation and into the coffers of chosen politicians and think tanks willing to lend a hand.” Indeed, this greatest of security threats facing the U.S. and the globe is of no concern to the American Global Security State. Attempting to put this security threat into perspective, Engelhardt writes:
If Osama bin Laden’s 9/11 plane hijackings or the Tsarnaev brothers’ homemade bombs at the Boston Marathon constitute terror attacks, why shouldn’t what the energy companies are doing fall into a similar category (even if on a scale that leaves those events in the dust)? And if so, then where is the national security state when we really need it? Shouldn’t its job be to safeguard us from terrarists and terracide, as well as terrorists and their destructive plots?
What’s old is new again
What is striking about Engelhardt’s claim that “much did change in ways that should stun us” post-9/11 is just how familiar all of these misdeeds are. Indeed, Gore Vidal struck on similar themes–the American Empire, the shredding of the Bill of Rights, the National Security State and its prolific waste, the hijacking of Congress by corporate America, all in one essay of December 2000 (less than a year before much apparently changed) and throughout his works dating back to the 1970s.
Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
At times, Engelhardt recognizes how little the stance of American foreign and domestic policy has truly changed. Throughout his essays, he traces the origins of the current state of affairs back to such milestones as President Truman throwing the need for Congress to authorize wars out the window to fight Korea in 1950, or the scrapping of the draft and subsequent divorce of the armed forces from civilian influence in 1973. Other notable events that bear tremendous resemblance to the surveillance and covert wars of today—but are not mentioned—include the secrecy that permitted the FBI’s domestic spying on Vietnam war dissidents and civil rights groups with COINTELPRO in the 1960s and 70s, President Johnson’s covert war against Laos and Cambodia from 1969-70, and President Reagan’s covert use of the CIA in Nicaragua in the 1980s, which finally came to light in the Iran-Contra affair.
Engelhardt observes that the U.S. has been unable to win its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, in spite of overwhelming financial and material resources. He claims that post-9/11, “a new period in terms of American war-making—the era of tiny wars, or micro conflicts, especially in the tribal backlands of the planet.” This is true, but as the guerilla war in Vietnam showed, the period of tiny or micro-wars, and America’s inability to win these wars, has been going on for quite some time.
The hysteria whipped up around America’s perennially refreshed list of enemies, such as the Axis of Evil or terrorists (Engelhardt terms this the “enemy-industrial complex”), strikes similar chords to the hysteria of the Reds under the Beds scare of the McCarthy era.
American exceptionalism—that idiosyncratic belief that would be quaint if it were not so dangerous—which credits America with being special and thus permitted to resort to whatever means justify its own invented ends, is seen to be one of the driving forces behind the follies of the past decade. American exceptionalism is hardly new though. It traces some of its roots back to Alexis de Tocqueville’s observation of the country as ‘exceptional’ in the mid-nineteenth century. All that was new was that the Neoconservatives wrapped it up in the new packaging of democracy building then set out to turn the tide of history in Afghanistan, the “graveyard of empires,” and Iraq, one of the cradles of civilization.
The curious paradoxes of the American Empire
By the end of the book, the reader has weathered a barrage of repeated facts, de-classified events, and newspaper quotations. Stepping back, the reader is left pondering a fascinating set of paradoxes.
First, why does the United States of America, the most militarily powerful nation several times over, find itself unable to win a war against, “third rate nations and bands of militia in some of the most impoverished places on Earth?” Why does the U.S. even pick fights and start wars that history suggests it cannot win?
Second, how is it that an administration led by a constitutional lawyer and liberal ended up prosecuting more of its own citizens under the Espionage Act than all other Presidents combined?
And finally, how is it that the creator of a worldwide free trade system now faces an electoral revolt by disenfranchised ex-manufacturing and industrial workers whose jobs are now the basis for the emergence of China - America’s main economic rival?
How much should we fear the American Global Security State?
This book provides a valuable compendium of the ways in which the checks and balances that underpin a healthy American Republic have been eroded since 2001, and the role that increased secrecy played in permitting it. Those searching for answers on how to restore the American Republic will be left wanting though.
Yet a far more interesting realization emerges from the consistent exposition of the limits of American power. With so many missteps on display, one is left questioning to what extent the American Global Security State should be feared?
After a meteoric ascent lasting just one century, arriving at the summit of global uni-polarity, the victorious U.S. seems now only able to maintain its military, economic and cultural domination. The American Global Security State is the manifestation of this need to maintain dominance. However, this dominance comes with a heavy price.
The underwriting of the world’s security, paid for by the taxpayers of the U.S., is vital if the U.S. wishes to maintain its dominant global role. The U.S. does not appear to be able to depart from the domestic political economic model that has served it so well–the military-industrial complex—without risking the dominance that the model previously delivered. The U.S. thus finds itself stuck in a never-ending war in the Afghan mountains. It has to rattle its saber to protect key shipping and trading lanes on the other side of the planet, such as the South China Sea, so as to maintain its global trading system. It has funded then constructed a global information surveillance system to ensure that nothing untoward happens anywhere without its knowledge. Trapped in a cycle of continuous and often self-defeating military spending, the ‘American imperial paradox’ seems inescapable.
So too, as it expands, the sheer quantity of information that the global surveillance system must cope with drowns out the signal with ever increasing noise. While on the one hand the surveillance system’s collection and storage of endless information has the capacity to strip away individuals’ privacy and civil liberties, at the same time, these same practices entail an increased risk of whistleblowers within the staff of these organizations leaking information of the misdeeds of their employers to the public. The Panama Papers are the most recent example of this powerful new capacity for shining light on parts of the world that have hereto been shrouded in secrecy. That the U.S. government is so often the victim of these leaks by insiders and outsiders alike demonstrates once again how a Shadow Government’s greatest weakness is the very secrecy from which it derives its strength.
- 1. The Five Eyes Agreement is an information sharing arrangement between the intelligence agencies of the U.S., United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.
- 2. A similar information sharing arrangement between the Five Eyes partners and the intelligence agencies of Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Spain, and Sweden.