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Engelhardt: Paying the Bin Laden Tax

7:35 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

The American Lockdown State 
Post-Legal Drones, the Bin Laden Tax, and Other Wonders of Our American World 
By Tom Engelhardt

Portrait of Osama Bin Laden

Americans have paid a high price for the paranoia created by Bin Laden's actions.

Consider Inauguration Day, more than two weeks gone and already part of our distant past.  In its wake, President Obama was hailed (or reviled) for his “liberal” second inaugural address.  On that day everything from his invocation of women’s rights (“Seneca Falls”), the civil rights movement (“Selma”), and the gay rights movement (“Stonewall”) to his wife’s new bangs and Beyoncé’s lip-syncing was fodder for the media extravaganza.  The president was even praised (or reviled) for what he took pains not to bring up: the budget deficit.  Was anything, in fact, not grist for the media mill, the hordes of talking heads, and the chattering classes?

One subject, at least, got remarkably little attention during the inaugural blitz and, when mentioned, certainly struck few as odd or worth dwelling on.  Yet nothing better caught our changing American world.  Washington, after all, was in a lockdown mode unmatched by any inauguration from another era — not even Lincoln’s second inaugural in the midst of the Civil War, or Franklin Roosevelt’s during World War II, or John F. Kennedy’s at the height of the Cold War.

Here’s how NBC Nightly News described some of the security arrangements as the day approached:

[T]he airspace above Washington… [will be] a virtual no-fly zone for 30 miles in all directions from the U.S. capital.  Six miles of the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers will be shut down, with 150 blocks of downtown Washington closed to traffic, partly out of concern for car or truck bombs… with counter-snipers on top of buildings around the capital and along the parade route… [and] detectors monitoring the air for toxins… At the ready near the capital, thousands of doses of antidotes in case of a chemical or biological attack… All this security will cost about $120 million dollars for hundreds of federal agents, thousands of local police, and national guardsmen from 25 states.

Consider just the money.  It’s common knowledge that, until the recent deal over the renewal of the George W. Bush tax cuts for all but the richest of Americans, taxes had not been raised since the read-my-lips-no-new-taxes era of his father.  That’s typical of the way we haven’t yet assimilated the new world we find ourselves in.  After all, shouldn’t that $120 million in taxpayer money spent on “safety” and “security” for a single event in Washington be considered part of an ongoing Osama bin Laden tax?

Maybe it’s time to face the facts: this isn’t your grandfather’s America. Once, prospective Americans landed in a New World.  This time around, a new world’s landed on us.

Making Fantasy Into Reality

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Tom Engelhardt: The National Security Complex and You

6:18 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

 

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!

How about another form of security-protection inflation: polygraph tests within the Complex.  A recent McClatchy investigation of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), which oversees U.S. spy satellites, found that lie-detector tests of employees and others had “spiked” in the last decade and had also grown far more intrusive, “pushing ethical and possibly legal limits.”  In a program designed to catch spies and terrorists, the NRO’s polygraphers were, in fact, being given cash bonuses for “personal confessions” of “intimate details of the private lives of thousands of job applicants and employees… including drug use… suicide attempts, depression, and sexual deviancy.”  The agency, which has 3,000 employees, conducted 8,000 polygraph tests last year.

McClatchy adds: “In 2002, the National Academies, the nonprofit institute that includes the National Academy of Sciences, concluded that the federal government shouldn’t use polygraph screening because it was too unreliable.  Yet since then, in the Defense Department alone, the number of national-security polygraph tests has increased fivefold, to almost 46,000 annually.”

Now, think about those 46,000 lie-detector tests and can’t you just sense it creeping up on you?  Go ahead.  Don’t be shy!  That makes no sense!

Or talking about security inflation, what about the “explosion of cell phone surveillance” recently reported by the New York Times — a staggering 1.3 million demands in 2011 “for subscriber information… from law enforcement agencies seeking text messages, caller locations and other information in the course of investigations”?

From the Complex to local police departments, such requests are increasing by 12%-16% annually.  One of the companies getting the requests, AT&T, says that the numbers have tripled since 2007.  And lest you think that 1.3 million is a mind-blowingly definitive figure, the Times adds that it’s only partial, and that the real one is “much higher.”  In addition, some of those 1.3 million demands, sometimes not accompanied by court orders, are for multiple (or even masses of) customers, and so could be several times higher in terms of individuals surveilled.  In other words, while those in the National Security Complex — and following their example, state and local law enforcement — are working hard to make themselves ever more opaque to us, we are meant to be ever more “transparent” to them.

These are only examples of a larger trend.  Everywhere you see evidence of such numbers inflation in the Complex.  And there’s another trend involved as well.  Let’s call it by its name: paranoia.  In the years since the 9/11 attacks, the Complex has made itself, if nothing else, utterly secure, and paranoia has been its closest companion.  Thanks to its embrace of a paranoid worldview, it’s no longer the sort of place that experiences job cuts, nor is lack of infrastructure investment an issue, nor budget slashing a reality, nor prosecution for illegal acts a possibility.

A superstructure of “security” has been endlessly expanded based largely on the fear that terrorists will do you harm.  As it happens, you’re no less in danger from avalanches (34 dead in the U.S. since November) or tunneling at the beach (12 dead between 1990 and 2006), not to speak of real perils like job loss, foreclosure, having your college debts follow you to the grave, and so many other things.  But it matters little.  The promise of safety from terror has worked.  It’s been a money-maker, a stimulus-program creator, a job generator — for the Complex.

Back in 1964, Richard Hofstadter wrote a Harper’s Magazine essay entitled “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.”  Then, however, paranoia as he described it, while distinctly all-American, remained largely a phenomenon of American politics — and often of the political fringe.  Now, it turns out to be a guiding principle in the way we are governed.

Yes, we’re in a world filled with dangers.  (Paranoia invariably has some basis, however twisted, in reality.)  And significant among them is undoubtedly the danger the national security state represents to our lives, which are increasingly designed to be open books to its functionaries.  Whether you like it or not, want it or not, care or not, you are ever more likely to be on file somewhere; you are ever more liable to be polygraphed until you “confess”; your cell phone, email, and texts are no longer your property; and one of the 30,000 employees of the Complex assigned to monitor American phone conversations and other communications may be checking you out.  So it goes in twenty-first-century America.

Maybe if you haven’t said it yet, you’re finally feeling the urge.  Go on then, give it a try.

That makes no sense!

There’s just one catch.  The direction your government has taken — call it “transparency” or anything else you want — may boggle the mind.  It may seem as idiotically wrong-headed as having 17 significant agencies and outfits in a single government on a budget of $80 billion-plus a year call the product of their work “intelligence.” It may not make sense to you, but it does make sense to the National Security Complex.  For its “community,” the coupling of security with redundancy — with too much, too many, and always more — means you’re speaking the language of the gods, you’re hearing the music of the angels.

So much of what the Complex does may seem like overkill and its operations may often look laughable and inane.  Unfortunately, the joke’s on you.  In our country, the bureaucrats of the Complex increasingly have the power to make just about any absurdity they want the way of our world not just in practice, but often in court, too.  And if you really think that makes no sense, then maybe you better put some thought into what’s to be done about it.

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear: as well as The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050. To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Engelhardt discusses drone warfare and the Obama administration, click here or download it to your iPod here.

[A note of thanks: to my friend John Cobb for reminding me of Hofstadter’s essay and to Nick Turse from whose book title, The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives, I’ve long lifted the idea of the National Security Complex.] 

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Copyright 2012 Tom Engelhardt

William Astore: The Remoteness of 1% Wars

7:40 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

This year, 155,754 recruits joined the active-duty U.S. military with the Army leading the way to the tune of more than 64,000 soldiers.  Many more Americans, however, went to war. 

Virtual war, that is.  On a single day last month, to be exact, 3.3 million citizens responded to the call of duty or, more accurately, played Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 — simultaneously, together — via Microsoft Xbox LIVE.  Millions more played that combat-packed, first-person shooter video game on the Xbox 360, Sony Playstation 3, or personal computers.

While relatively few young Americans smell cordite on the battlefield, increasing numbers of them experience war through ever more screens: televisions, computers, smart phones, and tablets.  Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 is only the most successful of these digital draft calls, and if you’re wondering what success means, consider that this virtual portal into World War III “shattered theatrical box office, book, and video game sales records for five-day worldwide sell-through in dollars,” according to its producer, Activision Publishing, Inc.  That is, over five days it generated $775 million in sales, beating the previous record, set by last year’s Call of Duty: Black Ops (which raked in a mere $650 million), and trouncing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (just $550 million in 2009).

Fighting their way through virtual world capitals — from New York to Paris, London to Berlin — Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 gamers are immersed in a virtual world of war.  Then there are those mainlining combat through this year’s other popular first-person shooters like Battlefield 3 (which boasts that it provides “unrivaled destruction”) or forays into fantasy fighting like Resistance 3 (in which a human resistance movement battles alien invaders in the ruins of 1950s America).

With so much virtual war to worry about, who has time to keep up with other conflicts, like America’s real wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya, or even the one just now winding down in Iraq?  Who among us can spare a moment to ponder the fact that those wars, too, are increasingly being waged by men and women staring at screens, disconnected from the homes they turn into rubble, cars they turn into flaming heaps, and blood they spill thousands of miles from their climate-controlled trailers in the Las Vegas desert?  Thankfully, TomDispatch regular Bill Astore has been thinking long and hard about the remote nature of America’s wars, while so many of the rest of us are racking up hours liberating Lower Manhattan from the Russians. (Yep, they’re the new Occupy Wall Street crowd in Call of Duty!)  Nick Turse

Fighting 1% Wars
Why Our Wars of Choice May Prove Fatal
By William J. Astore

America’s wars are remote.  They’re remote from us geographically, remote from us emotionally (unless you’re serving in the military or have a close relative or friend who serves), and remote from our major media outlets, which have given us no compelling narrative about them, except that they’re being fought by “America’s heroes” against foreign terrorists and evil-doers.  They’re even being fought, in significant part, by remote control — by robotic drones “piloted” by ground-based operators from a secret network of bases located hundreds, if not thousands, of miles from the danger of the battlefield.

Their remoteness, which breeds detachment if not complacency at home, is no accident.  Indeed, it’s a product of the fact that Afghanistan and Iraq were wars of choice, not wars of necessity.  It’s a product of the fact that we’ve chosen to create a “warrior” or “war fighter” caste in this country, which we send with few concerns and fewer qualms to prosecute Washington’s foreign wars of choice.

The results have been predictable, as in predictably bad.  The troops suffer.  Iraqi and Afghan innocents suffer even more.  And yet we don’t suffer, at least not in ways that are easily noticeable, because of that very remoteness.  We’ve chosen — or let others do the choosing — to remove ourselves from all the pain and horror of the wars being waged in our name.  And that’s a choice we’ve made at our peril, since a state of permanent remote war has weakened our military, drained our treasury, and eroded our rights and freedoms.

Wars of Necessity vs. Wars of Choice

World War II was a war of necessity. In such a war, all Americans had a stake.  Adolf Hitler and Nazism had to be defeated; so too did Japanese militarism.  Indeed, war goals were that clear, that simple, to state.  For that war, we relied uncontroversially on an equitable draft of citizen-soldiers to share the burdens of defense.

Contrast this with our current 1% wars.  In them, 99% of Americans have no stake.  The 1% who do are largely ID-card-carrying members of what President Dwight D. Eisenhower so memorably called the “military-industrial complex” in 1961.  In the half-century since, that web of crony corporations, lobbyists, politicians, and retired military types who have passed through Washington’s revolving door has grown ever more gargantuan and tangled, engorged by untold trillions devoted to a national security and intelligence complex that seemingly dominates Washington.  They are the ones who, in turn, have dispatched another 1% — the lone percent of Americans in our All-Volunteer Military — to repetitive tours of duty fighting endless wars abroad.

Unlike previous wars of necessity, the mission behind our wars of choice is nebulous, confusing, and seems in constant flux.  Is it a fight against terror (which, as so many have pointed out, is in any case a method, not an enemy)?  A fight for oil and other strategic resources?  A fight to spread freedom and democracy?  A fight to build nations?  A fight to show American resolve or make the world safe from al-Qaeda?  Who really knows anymore, now that Washington seldom bothers to bring up the “why” question at all, preferring simply to fight on without surcease?

In wars of choice, of course, the mission is whatever our leaders choose it to be, which gives the citizenry (assuming we’re watching closely, which we’re not) no criteria with which to measure success, let alone determine an endpoint.

How do we know these are wars of choice?  It’s simple: because we could elect to leave whenever we wanted or whenever the heat got too high, as is currently the case in Iraq (even if we are leaving behind a fortress embassy the size of the Vatican with a private army of 5,000 rent-a-guns to defend it), and as we are likely to do in Afghanistan sometime in the years after the 2012 presidential election.  The choice is ours.  The people without a choice are of course the Iraqis and Afghans whom we’ll leave to pick up the pieces.

Even our vaunted Global War on Terror is a war of choice.  Think about it: Who has control over our own terror: us or our enemies?  We can only be terrorized in the first place if we choose to give in to fear.

Think here of the “shoe bomber” in 2001 and the “underwear bomber” in 2009.  Why did the criminally inept actions of these two losers garner so much attention (and fear-mongering) in the American media?  As the self-confessed greatest and most powerful nation on Earth, shouldn’t we have shared a collective belly laugh at the absurdity and incompetence of those “attacks” and gone about our business?

Instead of laughing, of course, we allowed yet more American treasure to be poured into technology and screening systems that may never even have caught a terrorist.  We consented to be surveilled ever more and consulted ever less.  We chose to reaffirm our terrors every time we doffed our shoes or submitted supinely to being scoped or groped at our nation’s airports.

Our distant permanent wars, our 1% wars of choice, will remain remote from our emotions and our thinking, requiring few sacrifices except from our troops, who grow ever more remote from our polity.  This is especially true of America’s young adults, between 18 and 29 years of age, who are the least likely to have family members in the military, according to a recent Pew Research Center study.

The result?  An already emergent warrior-caste might grow ever more estranged from the 99%, creating tensions and encouraging grievances that quite possibly could be manipulated by that other 1%: the powerbrokers, money-makers, and string-pullers, already so eager to call out the police to bully and arrest occupy movements in numerous cities across this once-great land.

Our Military or Their Military?

As we fight wars of choice in distant lands for ever-shifting goals, what if “our troops” simply continue to grow ever more remote from us?  What if they become “their” troops?  Is this not the true terror we should be mobilizing as a nation to prevent?  The terror of separating our military almost totally from our nation — and ourselves.

As Admiral Mike Mullen, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, put it recently to Time: “Long term, if the military drifts away from its people in this country, that is a catastrophic outcome we as a country can’t tolerate.”

Behold a horrifying fate: a people that allows its wars of choice to compromise the very core of its self-image as a freedom-loving society, while letting itself be estranged from the young men and women who served in the frontlines of these wars.

Here’s an American fact: the 99% are far too remote from our wars of choice and those who fight them.  To reclaim the latter, we must end the former.  And that’s a war of necessity that has to be fought — and won.

William J. Astore is a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and TomDispatch regular.  He welcomes reader comments at wjastore@gmail.com.

Copyright 2011 William J. Astore

TARPing War, by Tom Engelhardt

6:22 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

Giant Pile Of Cash (Photo: Noah Wesley, flickr)

Giant Pile Of Cash (Photo: Noah Wesley, flickr)

This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Think of Iraq as the AIG of wars — the only difference being that the bailout there didn’t involve just three payouts.  More than eight years after the Bush administration invaded that country, the bailout is, unbelievably enough, still going.  Even as the U.S. military withdraws, the State Department is planning to spend billions more in taxpayer dollars to field an army of hired-gun contractors to replace it.  Afghanistan?  It could have been the Lehman Brothers of conflicts, but when Barack Obama entered the Oval Office he chose the Citigroup model instead, and surged troops in twice in 2009.  In other words, he double-TARPed that war, and ever since, the bailout money has been flooding in.

Until now — as the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations make clear — “too big to fail” has meant only one set of institutions: the plundering financial outfits that played such a role in driving the U.S. economy off a cliff in 2008, looked like they might themselves collapse in a heap of bad deals and indebtedness, and were bailed out by Washington.  Isn’t it finally time to expand the too-big-to-fail category to include the Pentagon, the U.S. Intelligence Community, and more generally the National Security Complex? Read the rest of this entry →