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A Ripley’s Believe It or Not National Security State

7:17 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.

American Jihad 2014
The New Fundamentalists
By Tom Engelhardt

White House Tilt Shift

What would aliens think of our national security state?

In a 1950s civics textbook of mine, I can remember a Martian landing on Main Street, U.S.A., to be instructed in the glories of our political system.  You know, our tripartite government, checks and balances, miraculous set of rights, and vibrant democracy.  There was, Americans then thought, much to be proud of, and so for that generation of children, many Martians were instructed in the American way of life.  These days, I suspect, not so many.

Still, I wondered just what lessons might be offered to such a Martian crash-landing in Washington as 2014 begins.  Certainly checks, balances, rights, and democracy wouldn’t top any New Year’s list.  Since my childhood, in fact, that tripartite government has grown a fourth part, a national security state that is remarkably unchecked and unbalanced.  In recent times, that labyrinthine structure of intelligence agencies morphing into war-fighting outfits, the U.S. military (with its own secret military, the special operations forces, gestating inside it), and the Department of Homeland Security, a monster conglomeration of agencies that is an actual “defense department,” as well as a vast contingent of weapons makers, contractors, and profiteers bolstered by an army of lobbyists, has never stopped growing.  It has won the undying fealty of Congress, embraced the power of the presidency, made itself into a jobs program for the American people, and been largely free to do as it pleased with almost unlimited taxpayer dollars.

The expansion of Washington’s national security state — let’s call it the NSS — to gargantuan proportions has historically met little opposition.  In the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations, however, some resistance has arisen, especially when it comes to the “right” of one part of the NSS to turn the world into a listening post and gather, in particular, American communications of every sort.  The debate about this — invariably framed within the boundaries of whether or not we should have more security or more privacy and how exactly to balance the two — has been reasonably vigorous.  The problem is: it doesn’t begin to get at the real nature of the NSS or the problems it poses.

If I were to instruct that stray Martian lost in the nation’s capital, I might choose another framework entirely for my lesson.  After all, the focus of the NSS, which has like an incubus grown to monumental proportions inside the body of the political system, would seem distinctly monomaniacal, if only we could step outside our normal way of thinking for a moment.  At a cost of nearly a trillion dollars a year, its main global enemy consists of thousands of lightly armed jihadis and wannabe jihadis scattered mainly across the backlands of the planet.  They are capable of causing genuine damage — though far less to the United States than numerous other countries — but not of shaking our way of life.  And yet for the leaders, bureaucrats, corporate cronies, rank and file, and acolytes of the NSS, it’s a focus that can never be intense enough on behalf of a system that can never grow large enough or be well funded enough.

None of the frameworks we normally call on to understand the national security state capture the irrationality, genuine inanity, and actual madness that lie at its heart.  Perhaps reimagining what has developed in these last decades as a faith-based system — a new national religion — would help.  This, at least, is the way I would explain the new Washington to that wayward Martian.

Holy Warriors

Imagine what we call “national security” as, at heart, a proselytizing warrior religion.  It has its holy orders.  It has its sacred texts (classified).  It has its dogma and its warrior priests.  It has its sanctified promised land, known as “the homeland.”  It has its seminaries, which we call think tanks.  It is a monotheistic faith in that it broaches no alternatives to itself.  It is Manichaean in its view of the world.  As with so many religions, its god is an eye in the sky, an all-seeing Being who knows your secrets.

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Pratap Chatterjee: Big Bro Wants You

6:36 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.

Smartphone

NSA: Thanks for building our database.

Sometimes, the world sends you back to school. These last months have offered us a crash course — call it Surveillance 101 — in how Washington, enveloped in a penumbra of extreme secrecy, went to work creating a global surveillance state on a scale almost beyond the imagination. It was certainly beyond the imaginations, not to say the technological capabilities, of the grim totalitarian states of the previous century, whose efforts were overwhelmingly focused on surveiling and locking down their own citizens, not those outside their borders.

In this schooling process, an unknown 29-year-old, hired by a private contractor to work for the National Security Agency (NSA), became a global figure and most recently a nominee for the European Parliament’s prestigious Sakharov prize, that continent’s leading human rights award — and a rare European slap in the face to Washington. In the process, a journalist (Glenn Greenwald), a filmmaker (Laura Poitras), and the British Guardian, along with a host of bit players, created a global drama out of the documents Edward Snowden had liberated from the NSA’s secret universe. From Brazil to India, Belgium to China, the man chased implacably across the globe by the Obama administration has opened a genuine debate on the far-reaching nature of surveillance in our world and seems to be changing the mood of the planet.

Every few days now, yet more stories wash out of the crevasses of that secret world. Last week, there was the dramatic tale of Lavabit, a small email encryption site; a court made documents on the case public and so ungagged the owner, who had closed his own business rather than turn over the encryption keys to the kingdom to the government. Then there was Tor, a “tool designed to protect online anonymity” that most people (myself included) will never have heard of, but that the NSA targeted and attacked. And don’t forget that critique by the New York Times public editor: she took out after a front-page story in her own paper that accepted the unverified word of anonymous U.S. government sources on the significance of a piece the McClatchy news service had written about American “communications intercepts” of the online messages of al-Qaeda honchos.

And yet for all that we now know, and all that has been released but we have yet to absorb, it’s clear that we’re nowhere near fathoming the depths of the U.S. surveillance phenomenon. As Corpwatch’s Pratap Chatterjee shows today, for example, we still know remarkably little about the private surveillance outfits that are providing the NSA and other government agencies with the ability to know us far too well. Tom

The Data Hackers
Mining Your Information for Big Brother
By Pratap Chatterjee

Big Bro is watching you. Inside your mobile phone and hidden behind your web browser are little known software products marketed by contractors to the government that can follow you around anywhere. No longer the wide-eyed fantasies of conspiracy theorists, these technologies are routinely installed in all of our data devices by companies that sell them to Washington for a profit.

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Tom Engelhardt, Alone and Delusional on Planet Earth

6:00 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

And Then There Was One 

Delusional Thinking in the Age of the Single Superpower
By Tom Engelhardt

Tattered American Flag

Tom Engelhardt on the madness of the world’s lone superpower.

In an increasingly phantasmagorical world, here’s my present fantasy of choice: someone from General Keith Alexander’s outfit, the National Security Agency, tracks down H.G. Wells’s time machine in the attic of an old house in London. Britain’s subservient Government Communications Headquarters, its version of the NSA, is paid off and the contraption is flown to Fort Meade, Maryland, where it’s put back in working order. Alexander then revs it up and heads not into the future like Wells to see how our world ends, but into the past to offer a warning to Americans about what’s to come.

He arrives in Washington on October 23, 1962, in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a day after President Kennedy has addressed the American people on national television to tell them that this planet might not be theirs — or anyone else’s — for long. (“We will not prematurely or unnecessarily risk the costs of worldwide nuclear war in which even the fruits of victory would be ashes in our mouth, but neither will we shrink from the risk at any time it must be faced.”) Greeted with amazement by the Washington elite, Alexander, too, goes on television and informs the same public that, in 2013, the major enemy of the United States will no longer be the Soviet Union, but an outfit called al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and that the headquarters of our country’s preeminent foe will be found somewhere in the rural backlands of… Yemen.

Yes, Yemen, a place most Americans, then and now, would be challenged to find on a world map. I guarantee you one thing: had such an announcement actually been made that day, most Americans would undoubtedly have dropped to their knees and thanked God for His blessings on the American nation. Though even then a nonbeliever, I would undoubtedly have been among them. After all, the 18-year-old Tom Engelhardt, on hearing Kennedy’s address, genuinely feared that he and the few pathetic dreams of a future he had been able to conjure up were toast.

Had Alexander added that, in the face of AQAP and similar minor jihadist enemies scattered in the backlands of parts of the planet, the U.S. had built up its military, intelligence, and surveillance powers beyond anything ever conceived of in the Cold War or possibly in the history of the planet, Americans of that time would undoubtedly have considered him delusional and committed him to an asylum.

Such, however, is our world more than two decades after Eastern Europe was liberated, the Berlin Wall came down, the Cold War definitively ended, and the Soviet Union disappeared.

Why Orwell Was Wrong

Now, let me mention another fantasy connected to the two-superpower Cold War era: George Orwell’s 1948 vision of the world of 1984 (or thereabouts, since the inhabitants of his novel of that title were unsure just what year they were living in). When the revelations of NSA contractor Edward Snowden began to hit the news and we suddenly found ourselves knee-deep in stories about Prism, XKeyscore, and other Big Brother-ish programs that make up the massive global surveillance network the National Security Agency has been building, I had a brilliant idea — reread 1984.

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Alfred W. McCoy, Obama’s Expanding Surveillance Universe

6:59 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.

Nixon's resignation speech

A true history of the surveillance state would stretch back far beyond even Nixon’s spying on domestic “enemies.”

On the website of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services there is a list of rights belonging to all Americans. Chief among them: Freedom to express yourself. Abdiwali Warsame must have taken them literally. Two days after he became a U.S. citizen, he created a rollicking news and opinion website covering his native Somalia.  It became popular with many Somalis and Somali-Americans, but also attracted attention from other quarters.  As Craig Whitlock recently revealed in the Washington Post, Warsame was, according to public records and interviews, soon “caught up in a shadowy Defense Department counterpropaganda operation.”

Warsame’s website became a clearinghouse for articles from various points of view (including his own fundamentalist Muslim beliefs), but with emphasis on strong opposition to U.S.-backed military interventions in Somalia, and the contention that al-Shabab militants are freedom fighters, not terrorists. This, in turn, attracted the attention of the U.S.-based Navanti Group, which was “working as a subcontractor for the Special Operations Command to help conduct ‘information operations to engage local populations and counter nefarious influences’ in Africa and Europe.”  As part of a sophisticated military effort aimed at manipulating news stories and social media around the world, Navanti compiled a dossier on Warsame, even though the military is legally barred from carrying out psychological operations at home.  (Navanti claimed it believed Warsame was based overseas; Whitlock’s reporting indicates otherwise.)  The military contractor eventually sent a copy of its files to the FBI, whose agents soon showed up on Warsame’s doorstep.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website says Americans are bound by “the shared values of freedom [and] liberty” and that “naturalized citizens are… an important part of our democracy.”  Today, this rings about as true as a thump on the side of an empty dumpster.  Abdiwali Warsame is just one of millions of people — Americans and foreigners — who have found themselves monitored in some way by the U.S. military over the years.

No one knows this long history of shadowy military surveillance better than TomDispatch regular Alfred McCoy, author of Policing America’s Empire, among other works.  For decades, McCoy has been shedding light on some of the darkest aspects of government malfeasance from drug trafficking to spying to torture.  Today, he offers a chilling tour of military surveillance efforts from the turn of the twentieth century to a near future even more dystopian than our present — a world in which we’re all liable to end up like Abdiwali Warsame. Nick Turse

Surveillance Blowback
The Making of the U.S. Surveillance State, 1898-2020
By Alfred W. McCoy

The American surveillance state is now an omnipresent reality, but its deep history is little known and its future little grasped.  Edward Snowden’s leaked documents reveal that, in a post-9/11 state of war, the National Security Agency (NSA) was able to create a surveillance system that could secretly monitor the private communications of almost every American in the name of fighting foreign terrorists. The technology used is state of the art; the impulse, it turns out, is nothing new. For well over a century, what might be called “surveillance blowback” from America’s wars has ensured the creation of an ever more massive and omnipresent internal security and surveillance apparatus.  Its future (though not ours) looks bright indeed.

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Rebecca Solnit, How to Act Like a Billionaire

6:51 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.

National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, now charged with violating the Espionage Act, has opened a Pandora’s box of American global surveillance for the rest of us to be stunned by.  Every day a new revelation, a new set of secrets or information, seems to pour out from somewhere — without Hope, that last denizen of Pandora’s famous container, yet in sight.  No matter what any of us already knew (or guessed at or imagined), this rolling, roiling set of revelations, not likely to end soon, should expand our vision of the world we live in, especially the shadow world of those who covertly watch us.

Recent examples would include the Associated Press’s reminder that the Prism program Snowden, Glenn Greenwald of the British Guardian, and Barton Gellman of the Washington Post brought to global attention is actually “a relatively small part of a much more expansive and intrusive eavesdropping effort” in which the NSA “snatches data as it passes through the fiber optic cables that make up the Internet’s backbone. That program, which has been known for years, copies Internet traffic as it enters and leaves the United States, then routes it to the NSA for analysis.”  (British intelligence — yet another revelation of the last week — acts similarly and shares with the NSA what it finds off such fiber optic cables, including “recordings of phone calls, the content of email messages, entries on Facebook, and the history of any internet user’s access to websites.”)

You would have to add as well NSA expert and author James Bamford’s recent exploration of how General Keith Alexander, head of the NSA, brought war to the Internet, developing and launching the first cyberwar in history against Iran’s nuclear program.  The man known as “Alexander the Geek” has also, Bamford tells us, encouraged and gotten lavish funding for the creation of an ever more elaborate universe of cyberwarriors, including private contractors. (In the meantime, President Obama has secretly ordered his top intelligence officials and cyberwarriors to draw up a list of possible future cyber-targets.)

Last week at the New York Times, James Risen and Nick Wingfield slid through the new revolving door that’s taking top Silicon Valley pros into the well-paying shadows of American surveillance in a Vulcan mind meld between the corporate giants of the Internet and U.S. intelligence.  Meanwhile, FBI Director Robert Mueller, appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, let us in on a future horror that turns out to be yesterday’s nightmare: FBI drones are already in the air domestically, possibly over your hometown surveilling… well, maybe you. Mueller, however, couldn’t have been more reassuring on the subject.  The Bureau, he told the senators, uses drones “in a very, very minimal way and very seldom… we have very few.” And p.s., the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives are both testing drones for similar use. But undoubtedly very minimally and very few, so don’t fret.

And last but hardly least, thanks again to the Guardian, we know that warrants issued by a secret FISA court provide the NSA with a loophole into domestic surveillance large enough to drive an up-armored Humvee through. “Top secret documents submitted to the court that oversees surveillance by U.S. intelligence agencies show the judges have signed off on broad orders which allow the NSA to make use of information ‘inadvertently’ collected from domestic U.S. communications without a warrant.” And what can’t qualify as “inadvertent,” after all?  As Timothy Lee of the Washington Post points out, “These documents look more like legislation than search warrants. They define legal concepts, describe legal standards to be applied, and specify procedures for NSA officials to follow… But rather than being drafted, debated and enacted by Congress, the documents were drafted by Obama administration lawyers and reviewed by the FISC.”

In other words, we are in a new world and as TomDispatch regular Rebecca Solnit, author of the just-published memoir, The Faraway Nearby, writes, it’s one in which big government’s most oppressive powers, increasingly on display, are meshing wonderfully with big business’s most oppressive intrusions on our lives.  We await the Edward Snowden of Google. Tom

Welcome to the (Don’t Be) Evil Empire
Google Eats the World
By Rebecca Solnit

Finally, journalists have started criticizing in earnest the leviathans of Silicon Valley, notably Google, now the world’s third-largest company in market value. The new round of discussion began even before the revelations that the tech giants were routinely sharing our data with the National Security Agency, or maybe merging with it. Simultaneously another set of journalists, apparently unaware that the weather has changed, is still sneering at San Francisco, my hometown, for not lying down and loving Silicon Valley’s looming presence.

The criticism of Silicon Valley is long overdue and some of the critiques are both thoughtful and scathing. The New Yorker, for example, has explored how start-ups are undermining the purpose of education at Stanford University, addressed the Valley’s messianic delusions and political meddling, and considered Apple’s massive tax avoidance.

The New York Times recently published an opinion piece that startled me, especially when I checked the byline. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, the fugitive in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, focused on The New Digital Age, a book by top Google executives Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen that to him exemplifies the melding of the technology corporation and the state.  It is, he claimed, a startlingly clear and provocative blueprint for technocratic imperialism, from two of our leading “witch doctors who construct a new idiom for United States global power in the twenty-first century.”  He added, “This idiom reflects the ever closer union between the State Department and Silicon Valley.”

What do the U.S. government and Silicon Valley already have in common? Above all, they want to remain opaque while making the rest of us entirely transparent through the capture of our data. What is arising is simply a new form of government, involving vast entities with the reach and power of government and little accountability to anyone.

Google, the company with the motto “Don’t be evil,” is rapidly becoming an empire. Not an empire of territory, as was Rome or the Soviet Union, but an empire controlling our access to data and our data itself. Antitrust lawsuits proliferating around the company demonstrate its quest for monopoly control over information in the information age. Its search engine has become indispensable for most of us, and as Google critic and media professor Siva Vaidhyanathan puts it in his 2012 book The Googlization of Everything, “[W]e now allow Google to determine what is important, relevant, and true on the Web and in the world. We trust and believe that Google acts in our best interest. But we have surrendered control over the values, methods, and processes that make sense of our information ecosystem.” And that’s just the search engine.

About three-quarters of a billion people use Gmail, which conveniently gives Google access to the content of their communications (scanned in such a way that they can target ads at you). Google tried and failed to claim proprietary control of digital versions of every book ever published; librarians and publishers fought back on that one. As the New York Times reported last fall, Paul Aiken, executive director of the Authors Guild, summed the situation up this way: “Google continues to profit from its use of millions of copyright-protected books without regard to authors’ rights, and our class-action lawsuit on behalf of U.S. authors continues.”

The nonprofit Consumer Watchdog wrote to the attorney general on June 12th urging him “to block Google’s just announced $1 billion acquisition of Waze, developers of a mobile mapping application, on antitrust grounds… Google already dominates the online mapping business with Google Maps. The Internet giant was able to muscle its way to dominance by unfairly favoring its own service ahead of such competitors as Mapquest in its online search results. Now with the proposed Waze acquisition, the Internet giant would remove the most viable competitor to Google Maps in the mobile space. Moreover it will allow Google access to even more data about online activity in a way that will increase its dominant position on the Internet.”

The company seems to be cornering the online mapping business, seems in fact to be cornering so many things that eventually they may have us cornered.

In Europe, there’s an antitrust lawsuit over Google’s Android phone apps.  In many ways, you can map Google’s rise by the litter of antitrust lawsuits it crushed en route. By the way, Google bought Motorola. You know it owns YouTube, right? That makes Google possessor of the second and third most visited Websites on earth. (Facebook is first, and two more of the top six are also in Silicon Valley.)

Imagine that it’s 1913 and the post office, the phone company, the public library, printing houses, the U.S. Geological Survey mapping operations, movie houses, and all atlases are largely controlled by a secretive corporation unaccountable to the public. Jump a century and see that in the online world that’s more or less where we are. A New York venture capitalist wrote that Google is trying to take over “the entire fucking Internet” and asked the question of the day: “Who will stop Google?”

The Tipping Point

We ask that question all the time in San Francisco, because here Google isn’t just on our computers, it’s on our streets. I wrote earlier this year about “the Google bus the armadas of private Wi-Fi-equipped luxury buses that run through our streets and use our public bus stops, often blocking city buses and public transit passengers while they load or unload the employees taking the long ride down the peninsula to their corporation of choice. Google, Apple, Facebook, and Genentech run some of the bigger fleets, and those mostly unmarked white buses have become a symbol of the transformation of the city.

Carl Nolte, the old native son who writes a column for the (dying) San Francisco Chronicle, said this month of the future inhabitants of 22,000 high-priced apartments under construction, “These new apartment dwellers will all be new San Franciscans, with different values. In a couple of years we’ll think of the progressive politicians, circa 2012, as quaint antiques, like the old waterfront Commies your grandfather used to worry about. This is already a high-tech city, an expensive city, a city where middle-class families can’t afford to live. It is a city where the African American population has dropped precipitously, where the Latino Mission District is gentrifying more every day. You think it’s expensive here now? Just you wait. These are the good old days, but it won’t last. We are at a tipping point.”

Mr. Nolte, you can tell, doesn’t particularly like this. A guy named Ilan Greenberg at the New Republic popped up to tell us that we must like it — or face his ridicule. He writes, “Ironically, the anti-gentrifiers themselves undermine San Francisco’s liberal ethos. Opposed to newcomers? Wary of people whose values you don’t understand? Critical of young people for not living up to an older generation’s ideals? It all sounds very reactionary and close-minded.” The problem is that we understand Silicon Valley’s values all too well, and a lot of us don’t like them.

Adding newcomers might not be so bad if it didn’t mean subtracting a lot of those of us who are already here. By us I mean everyone who doesn’t work for a gigantic technology corporation or one of the smaller companies hoping to become a global monolith. Greenberg (who is, incidentally, writing for a publication quietly bought up by a Facebook billionaire) sneers at us for defending middle-class people, but “middle class” is just a word for those of us who get paid decently for our work. People at various income levels in a diversity of fields here in San Francisco are being replaced by those who work in one field and get paid extremely well.  Small, alternative, and nonprofit institutions are also struggling and going down. It’s like watching a meadow being plowed under for, say, Monsanto genetically modified soybeans.

Speaking of meadows, one of Silicon Valley’s billionaires, Napster founder and Spotify billionaire Sean Parker, just threw himself a $10 million wedding on environmentally sensitive land in Big Sur. In the course of building a massive fantasy set for the event, “including grading, change in use from campground to private event, construction of multiple structures including a gateway and arch, an artificial pond, a stone bridge, multiple event platforms with elevated floors, rock walls, artificially created ruins of cottages and castle walls,” he reportedly did significant environmental damage and violated regulations.

Apparently paying $2.5 million in fines after the fact didn’t bother him. Napster and Spotify are, incidentally, online technologies that have reduced musicians’ profits from their recordings to almost nothing. There are tremendously wealthy musicians, of course, but a lot of them are at best, yes, middle class. Thanks to Parker, maybe a little less so.

Teachers, civil servants, bus drivers, librarians, firefighters — consider them representatives of the middle class under siege, as well as the people who keep a city viable and diverse. Friends of mine — a painter, a poet, a filmmaker, a photographer, all of whom have contributed to San Francisco’s culture — have been evicted so that more affluent people may replace them. There’s a widespread tendency to think that defending culture means defending privileged white people, but that assumes that people of color and poor people aren’t artists. Here, they are.

Everyone here understands that if a musician — hip-hop or symphony — can’t afford a home, neither can a janitor and her family. And competition for those apartments is fierce, so fierce that these days no one I know can find a rental on the open market. I couldn’t when I moved in 2011; neither could a physician friend earlier this year. The tech kids come in and offer a year in cash up front or raise the asking price or both, and the housing supply continues to wither, while rents skyrocket. So while Greenberg might like you to think that we’re selfishly not offering a seat at the table, it’s more like old people and working families and people whose careers were shaped by idealism are objecting to being thrown under the, well, bus.

Like Gandhi, Only With Guns

Enough minions of Silicon Valley’s mighty corporations could arrive to create a monoculture.  In some parts of town, it already is the dominant culture. A guy who made a fortune in the dot-com boom and moved to the Mission District (the partly Latino, formerly blue-collar eye of the housing hurricane) got locals’ attention recently with a blog post titled “Douchebags Like You are Ruining San Francisco.” In it, he described the churlish and sometimes predatory behavior of the very young and very wealthy toward the elderly, the poor, and the nonwhite.

He wrote, “You’re on MUNI [the city bus system] and watch a 20-something guy reluctantly give up his seat to an elderly woman and then say loudly to his friends, ‘I don’t know why old people ride MUNI. If I were old I’d just take Uber.’” Yeah, I had to look it up, too: Uber.com, a limousine taxi service you access via a smartphone app. A friend of mine overheard a young techie in line to buy coffee say to someone on his phone that he was working on an app that would be “like Food Not Bombs, to distribute food, only for profit.” Saying you’re going to be like a group dedicated to free food, only for profit, is about as deranged as saying you’re going to be like Gandhi, only with guns.

“An influx of techies will mean more patrons for the arts,” trilled an article at the Silicon Valley news site Pando, but as of yet those notable patrons have not made an appearance. As a local alternative weekly reported, “The tech world in general is notoriously uncharitable: According to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, only four of 2011′s 50 most generous U.S. donors worked in tech, despite the fact that 13 of Forbes 50 Richest Americans in 2012 had made some or all of their fortunes in tech.” Medici in their machinations, they are not Medici-style patrons. There is no noticeable trickle-down in the Bay Area, no significant benevolence toward the needy or good causes or culture from the new tech fortunes.

Instead, we get San Francisco newcomer, Facebook CEO, and billionaire Mark Zuckerberg pursuing his own interest with ruthless disregard for life on Earth. This year, Zuckerberg formed a politically active nonprofit, FWD.us, that sought to influence the immigration debate to make it easier for Silicon Valley corporations to import tech workers. There has been no ideology involved, only expediency, in how FWD.us pursued its ends. It decided to put its massive financial clout to work giving politicians whatever they wanted in hopes that this would lead to an advantageous quid pro quo arrangement. Toward that end, the group began running ads in favor of the Keystone XL pipeline (that will bring particularly carbon-dirty tar sands from Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast) to support a Republican senator and other ads in favor of drilling in Alaska’s pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to support an Alaskan Democrat.

The takeaway message seemed to be that nothing is off limits in pursuing self-interest, and that the actual meaning and consequences of these climate-impacting projects was not of concern at least to that 29-year-old who’s also the 25th richest person in the United States. (To give credit where it’s due: Silicon Valley billionaire Elon Musk, Paypal cofounder and electric car mogul, quit FWD.us.) Zuckerberg and his Valley associates were pushing things they didn’t care about and demonstrating that they didn’t care about much except what makes their corporations run and their profits rise. Here, where the Sierra Club was founded in 1892 and many are environmentally minded, this didn’t go over well. Protests ensued at Facebook headquarters and on Facebook itself.

Rising hostility to the tech surge in San Francisco is met with fury and bewilderment by many Silicon Valley employees. They tend to sound like Bush-era strategists dumbfounded that the Iraqis didn’t welcome their invasion with flowers.

Here’s something else you should know about Silicon Valley: according to Mother Jones, 89% of the founding teams of these companies are all male; 82% are all white (the other 18% Asian/Pacific Islander); and women there make 49 cents to the male dollar. Silicon Valley female powerhouses like Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg get a lot of attention because they’re unusual, black swans in a lake full of white swans. As Catherine Bracy, on whose research Mother Jones based its charts, put it, “The current research I’ve seen shows that wealth creation from the tech industry is extremely unequally distributed, and current venture capital is going overwhelmingly to a small, homogeneous elite.” That’s what’s encroaching on San Francisco.

That Pando article chastises us this way: “San Francisco can become a world capital.  First it needs to get over itself.” But maybe we don’t want to be a world capital or more like New York and Tokyo. The logic of more-is-better seems unassailable to San Francisco’s detractors, but inside their more is a lot of less: less diversity, less affordability, less culture, less continuity, less community, less equitable distribution of wealth. What’s called wealth in these calculations is for the few; for the many, it’s impoverishment.

The Armada of the .0001% 

If Google represents the global menace of Silicon Valley, and Zuckerberg represents its amorality, then Oracle CEO Larry Ellison might best represent its crassness. The fifth richest man in the world, he spent hundreds of millions of dollars to win the America’s Cup yacht race a few years back. The winner gets to choose the next venue for the race and the type of boat to be used. So for this summer’s races, Ellison chose San Francisco Bay and a giant catamaran that appears to be exceptionally unstable. Last month, an Olympic-medal-winning sailor drowned when a boat he was training on capsized in San Francisco Bay, pinning him under its sail.

Part of Ellison’s strategy for winning again evidently involves making the boats so expensive that almost no one can compete. A race that once had seven to 15 competitors now has four, and one may drop out. Business Insider headlined a piece, “Larry Ellison Has Completely Screwed Up The America’s Cup.” It went on to say, “Each team, with the exception of New Zealand’s, is backed by an individual billionaire, and each has spent between $65 million and $100 million so far.” In typical Silicon Valley-fashion, Ellison also figured out how to stick San Francisco for a significant part of the tab and in the process even caused the eviction of a few dozen small businesses, though in the end the city did not give him a valuable stretch of waterfront he wanted.

Here’s what San Francisco is now: a front row seat on the most powerful corporations on Earth and the people who run them. So we know what you may not yet: they are not your friends and their vision is not your vision, but your data is their data, and your communications are in their hands, and they seem to be rising to become an arm of or a part-owner of the government or a law unto themselves, and no one has yet figured out what we can do about it.

Rebecca Solnit is just winding up several months as a research fellow at Stanford Libraries and Stanford’s Bill Lane Center for the American West. Her work there will lead to a book about California history, but her new book, out this month, is The Faraway Nearby.

Copyright 2013 Rebecca Solnit

Tom Engelhardt: You Are Our Secret

6:54 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.

NSA HQ

NSA Headquarters in Ft. Meade. Snowden’s whistleblowing has revealed much about what goes on in places like this.

As happens with so much news these days, the Edward Snowden revelations about National Security Agency (NSA) spying and just how far we’ve come in the building of a surveillance state have swept over us 24/7 — waves of leaks, videos, charges, claims, counterclaims, skullduggery, and government threats.  When a flood sweeps you away, it’s always hard to find a little dry land to survey the extent and nature of the damage.  Here’s my attempt to look beyond the daily drumbeat of this developing story (which, it is promised, will go on for weeks, if not months) and identify five urges essential to understanding the world Edward Snowden has helped us glimpse.

1. The Urge to be Global

Corporately speaking, globalization has been ballyhooed since at least the 1990s, but in governmental terms only in the twenty-first century has that globalizing urge fully infected the workings of the American state itself.  It’s become common since 9/11 to speak of a “national security state.”  But if a week of ongoing revelations about NSA surveillance practices has revealed anything, it’s that the term is already grossly outdated.  Based on what we now know, we should be talking about an American global security state.

Much attention has, understandably enough, been lavished on the phone and other metadata about American citizens that the NSA is now sweeping up and about the ways in which such activities may be abrogating the First and Fourth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.  Far less attention has been paid to the ways in which the NSA (and other U.S. intelligence outfits) are sweeping up global data in part via the just-revealed Prism and other surveillance programs.

Sometimes, naming practices are revealing in themselves, and the National Security Agency’s key data mining tool, capable in March 2013 of gathering “97 billion pieces of intelligence from computer networks worldwide,” has been named “boundless informant.”  If you want a sense of where the U.S. Intelligence Community imagines itself going, you couldn’t ask for a better hint than that word “boundless.”  It seems that for our spooks, there are, conceptually speaking, no limits left on this planet.

Today, that “community” seeks to put not just the U.S., but the world fully under its penetrating gaze.  By now, the first “heat map” has been published showing where such information is being sucked up from monthly: Iran tops the list (14 billion pieces of intelligence); then come Pakistan (13.5 billion), Jordan (12.7 billion), Egypt (7.6 billion), and India (6.3 billion).  Whether you realize this or not, even for a superpower that has unprecedented numbers of military bases scattered across the planet and has divided the world into six military commands, this represents something new under the sun.  The only question is what?

The twentieth century was the century of “totalitarianisms.”  We don’t yet have a name, a term, for the surveillance structures Washington is building in this century, but there can be no question that, whatever the present constraints on the system, “total” has something to do with it and that we are being ushered into a new world. Despite the recent leaks, we still undoubtedly have a very limited picture of just what the present American surveillance world really looks like and what it plans for our future.  One thing is clear, however: the ambitions behind it are staggering and global.

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Todd Miller: Fortress USA

6:23 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

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

Drones are nothing new. The first of them took to America’s skies before the Wright Brothers plane lifted off at Kitty Hawk in 1903. In the years since, “unmanned air systems” (UAS) have played a relatively minor role in domestic aviation. All that, however, is about to change in a major way.

At a training, a member of the National Guard holds a rifle while Border Patrol looks on.

National Guard & Border Patrol training at the Arizona border (Photo: U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Jim Greenhill).

“UAS have evolved from simple radio controlled model airplanes to sophisticated aircraft that today play a unique role in many public missions such as border surveillance, weather monitoring, military training, wildlife surveys and local law enforcement, and have the potential to do so for many civil missions as well.” So reads part of a research and development “roadmap” put out earlier this year by the U.S. Joint Planning and Development Office (a multiagency initiative that includes the Department of Transportation, Department of Defense, Department of Commerce, Department of Homeland Security, Federal Aviation Administration, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and White House Office of Science and Technology Policy). “According to industry forecasts,” the report notes, “UAS operations will increase exponentially in a variety of key military and civil areas. About 50 U.S. companies, universities, and government organizations… are developing over 150 different unmanned aircraft designs. Projections for 2010 to 2019 predict more than 20,000 UAS produced in the U.S.”

In the process, count on one thing: increasing numbers of those drones will be patrolling U.S. borders.

It was only in the 1990s that the U.S. Border Patrol first began considering the use of remotely piloted aircraft. After the attacks of 9/11, the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and the funding bonanza that followed, the DHS’s Customs and Border Protection Office began experimenting with unmanned planes. In 2005, it settled on using General Atomics’ Reaper and today a fleet of nine of these drones patrol the northern and southern U.S. borders. Their brethren in America’s war zones have tended to crash at an alarming rate due to weather, mechanical failures, and computer glitches, have proven vulnerable compared to manned jets, and are susceptible to all manner of electronic attack. The domestic drones, too, have failed to impress. As a recent Los Angeles Times article noted: “The border drones require an hour of maintenance for every hour they fly, cost more to operate than anticipated, and are frequently grounded by rain or other bad weather, according to a draft audit of the program last month by the Homeland Security Department’s inspector general.”

But don’t expect such hard truths to have much impact. After all, as Todd Miller demonstrates in his inaugural TomDispatch post, border security is an arena for true believers. And despite every indication of their crash-and-burn future, expect ever more overhead, up north and down south and in-between, in the years ahead. Nick Turse

Bringing the Battlefield to the Border
The Wild World of Border Security and Boundary Building in Arizona

By Todd Miller

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Nick Turse: Hot Drone-On-Drone Action

6:33 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

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

A US Customs Drone.

Photo by Charles McCain

It’s now commonly estimated that more than 50 nations have drones, are making plans to develop them, or are at least planning to buy them from those who do produce them. In other words, the future global skies are going to be a busy — and increasingly dangerous — place. They will be filled not just with robotic surveillance aircraft, but also with non-U.S. remotely piloted armed assassins which, thanks to the path Washington has blazed, need pay no attention to anyone’s national sovereignty in a search for their version of bad guys to destroy. Iranians, Israelis, Russians, Chinese, Indians, British — you name it and if they don’t already have something robotic aloft, they undoubtedly will soon enough. And those estimates don’t even include insurgent groups and terrorists, who are undoubtedly giving real thought to how to develop and use the equivalent of suicide drones.

Just keep an eye on the news, because those numbers are only going to rise. In fact, just this month they’ve gone up by at least one, thanks to the decision of the Obama administration to sell surveillance drones to the Iraqis (and it is evidently also preparing to arm Italy’s six Reaper drones with Hellfire missiles and bombs). Right now, Washington is almost alone in launching drones at will in countries ranging from Yemen to the Philippines, but that won’t last long. Already we know that these wonder weapons, hailed like so many previous wonder weapons as the ultimate answer to a military’s problems, as the only game in town, will kill many, but won’t deliver as promised.

Take Pakistan. Last week, among other attacks, a U.S. drone launched two missiles at a bakery in the North Waziristan tribal area, killing (we are assured by ever-anonymous officials) four suspected “foreign” militants “buying goods.” (No information was available on the fate of the baker, of course.) Strange to say, the Pakistani people, or at least 97% of them, haven’t taken as well as Washington might have expected to its urge to launch endless drone attacks on their territory, no matter what they or their parliament might say. Drones, which have certainly killed their share of “bad guys” (and children) in the Pakistani borderlands, have also managed to throw U.S.-Pakistan relations into chaos, caused a surge of anti-Americanism, undoubtedly created future blowback among the relatives of the dead, and have almost singlehandedly made it impossible for the Pakistani government to reopen its borders to supplies for our Afghan War. This, in turn, has helped send the already-exorbitant costs of that war skyrocketing, an immediate form of blowback for the American taxpayer.

Like most wonder weapons, drones have proven a distinctly mixed bag for Washington wherever they have been used (though you wouldn’t know it from the press they get), but like most wonder weapons, not delivering ultimate global victory or even victory on local battlefields hasn’t stopped them from proliferating. In search of the perfect solution to impossible-to-win local and global wars, Washington has ensured that drones will proliferate everywhere on what, for all of us, will turn out to be the worst possible terms. Assassination was once a complex, secret, shameful, difficult to arrange, and relatively rare act of state. Now, it’s as normal, easy, and — amazingly enough — almost as open as sending a diplomat to another country. Nick Turse, TomDispatch regular and co-author of the new book Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050, explores just why the drone has a remarkably dismal future ahead of it and why that won’t stop the dronification of our world for a second. Tom

A Drone-Eat-Drone World
With Its “Roadmap” in Tatters, The Pentagon Detours to Terminator Planet
By Nick Turse

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Lewis Lapham: Machine-Made News

6:27 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

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

The Kindle Reader, after Renoir by Mike Licht

A decade ago, I wrote a novel, The Last Days of Publishing, about the world I had worked in for a quarter-century. I already had at least some sense, then, of what was bearing down on the book. Keep in mind that this was a couple of years before Facebook was launched and years before the Kindle, the Nook, or the iPad saw the light of day. Still, back then, for my novel’s characters — mostly authors and book editors like me — I imagined an electronic book-in-the-making, which I dubbed the “Q.” It was the “Q-print,” officially, with that initial standing for “quasar”– for, that is, a primordial force in the universe.

When one of my younger characters, an editorial assistant, unveils it — still in prototype form — it’s described as “a sleek, steno-pad sized object… a flickering jewel of light and color.” And he imagines its future this way: “Someday it’ll hold a universal library and you’ll be able to talk with an author, catch scenes from the movie, access any newspaper on earth, plan your trip to Tibet, or check out a friend on screen, and that probably won’t be the half of it.”

An older publishing type, on the other hand, describes its possibilities in this fashion: “In a future Middlemarch, the church will offer public service ads when Casaubon appears, the drug companies will support Lydgate, and architectural firms can pitch their wares while Dorothea reorganizes the housing of the poor.” A decade later, that may still be a little ahead of the game, but not by so much. The inexpensive version of the Kindle is awash in ads by now and, books and all, the iPad, of course, is a riot of activity.

Don’t think of me, though, as the Nostradamus of online publishing. It was evident even then that the coming machines of our electronic lives, no matter the tasks they might be dedicated to, including reading The Book, would have little choice but to “generalize’ into all-purpose entities. The urge for email, a video camera, ads, apps, you name it, has indeed proved overwhelming.

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Sex and the Single Drone: The Latest in Guarding the Empire

7:13 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.

In the world of weaponry, they are the sexiest things around.  Others countries are desperate to have them.  Almost anyone who writes about them becomes a groupie.  Reporters exploring their onrushing future swoon at their potentially wondrous techno-talents.  They are, of course, the pilotless drones, our grimly named Predators and Reapers.

As CIA Director, Leon Panetta called them “the only game in town.”  As Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates pushed hard to up their numbers and increase their funding drastically.  The U.S. Air Force is already training more personnel to become drone “pilots” than to pilot actual planes.  You don’t need it in skywriting to know that, as icons of American-style war, they are clearly in our future — and they’re even heading for the homeland as police departments clamor for them. 

They are relatively cheap.  When they “hunt,” no one dies (at least on our side).  They are capable of roaming the world.  Someday, they will land on the decks of aircraft carriers or, tiny as hummingbirds, drop onto a windowsill, maybe even yours, or in their hundreds, the size of bees, swarm to targets and, if all goes well, coordinate their actions using the artificial intelligence version of “hive minds.”

“The drone,” writes Jim Lobe of Inter Press Service, “has increasingly become the [Obama] administration’s ‘weapon of choice’ in its efforts to subdue al-Qaeda and its affiliates.”  In hundreds of attacks over the last years in the Pakistani tribal borderlands, they have killed thousands, including al-Qaeda figures, Taliban militants, and civilians.  They have played a significant and growing role in the skies over Afghanistan.  They are now loosing their missiles ever more often over Yemen, sometimes over Libya, and less often over Somalia.  Their bases are spreading.  No one in Congress will be able to resist them.  They are defining the new world of war for the twenty-first century — and many of the humans who theoretically command and control them can hardly keep up.

Reach for Your Dictionaries

On September 15th, the New York Times front-paged a piece by the estimable Charlie Savage, based on leaks from inside the administration.  It was headlined “At White House, Weighing Limits of Terror Fight,” and started this way:

*****

“The Obama administration’s legal team is split over how much latitude the United States has to kill Islamist militants in Yemen and Somalia, a question that could define the limits of the war against al-Qaeda and its allies, according to administration and Congressional officials.”

Lawyers for the Pentagon and the State Department, Savage reported, were debating whether, outside of hot-war zones, the Obama administration could call in the drones (as well as special operations forces) not just to go after top al-Qaeda figures planning attacks on the United States, but al-Qaeda’s foot soldiers (and vaguely allied groups like the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and al-Shabab in Somalia).   

That those lawyers are arguing fiercely over such a matter is certainly a curiosity.  As presented, the issue behind their disagreement is how to square modern realities with outmoded rules of war written for another age (which also, by the way, had its terrorists).  And yet such debates, front-paged or not, fierce or not, will one day undoubtedly be seen as analogous to supposed ancient clerical arguments over just how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.  In fact, their import lies mainly in the fascinating pattern they reveal about the way forces that could care less about questions of legality are driving developments in American-style war.

After all, this fierce “argument” about what constraints should be applied to modern robotic war was first played out in the air over Pakistan’s tribal borderlands.  There, the CIA’s drone air campaign began with small numbers of missions targeting a few highly placed al-Qaeda leaders (not terribly successfully).  Rather than declare its latest wonder weapons a failure, however, the CIA, already deeply invested in drone operations, simply pushed ever harder to expand the targeting to play to the technological strengths of the planes.

In 2007, CIA director Michael Hayden began lobbying the White House for “permission to carry out strikes against houses or cars merely on the basis of behavior that matched a ‘pattern of life’ associated with al-Qaeda or other groups.”  And next thing you knew, they were moving from a few attempted targeted assassinations toward a larger air war of annihilation against types and “behaviors.”

Here’s another curiosity.  The day after Charlie Savage’s piece appeared in the Times, the president’s top advisor on counterterror operations, John O. Brennan, gave a speech at a conference at Harvard Law School on “Strengthening our Security by Adhering to our Values and Laws,” and seemed to settle the “debate,” part of which he defined this way:

“Others in the international community — including some of our closest allies and partners — take a different view of the geographic scope of the conflict, limiting it only to the ‘hot’ battlefields.  As such, they argue that, outside of these two active theatres, the United States can only act in self-defense against al-Qaeda when they are planning, engaging in, or threatening an armed attack against U.S. interests if it amounts to an ‘imminent’ threat.”

He then added this little twist: “Practically speaking, then, the question turns principally on how you define ‘imminence.’”

If there’s one thing we should have learned from the Bush years, it was this: when government officials reach for their dictionaries, duck!

Then, the crucial word at stake was “torture,” and faced with it — and what top administration officials actually wanted done in the world — Justice Department lawyers quite literally reached for their dictionaries.  In their infamous torture memos, they so pretzled, abused, and redefined the word “torture” that, by the time they were through, whether acts of torture even occurred was left to the torturer, to what had he had in mind when he was “interrogating” someone. (“[I]f a defendant [interrogator] has a good faith belief that his actions will not result in prolonged mental harm, he lacks the mental state necessary for his actions to constitute torture.”)

As a result, “torture” was essentially drummed out of the dictionary (except when committed by heinous evil doers in places like Iran) and “enhanced interrogation techniques” welcomed into our world.  The Bush administration and the CIA then proceeded to fill the “black sites” they set up from Poland to Thailand and the torture chambers of chummy regimes like Mubarak’s Egypt and Gaddafi’s Libya with “terror suspects,” and then tortured away with impunity.

Now, it seems, the Obama crowd is reaching for its dictionaries, which means that it’s undoubtedly time to duck again.  As befits a more intellectual crowd, we’re no longer talking about relatively simple words like “torture” whose meaning everyone knows (or at least once knew).  If “imminence” is now the standard for when robotic war is really war, don’t you yearn for the good old days when the White House focused on “what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is,” and all that was at stake was presidential sex, not presidential killing?

When legalisms take center stage in a situation like this, think of magicians.  Their skill is to focus your attention on the space where nothing that matters is happening — the wrong hand, the wrong face, the wrong part of the stage — while they perform their “magic” elsewhere.  Similarly, pay attention to the law right now and you’re likely to miss the plot line of our world.

It’s true that, at the moment, articles are pouring out focused on how to define the limits of future drone warfare.  My advice: skip the law, skip the definitions, skip the arguments, and focus your attention on the drones and the people developing them instead.

Put another way, in the last decade, there was only one definition that truly mattered.  From it everything else followed: the almost instantaneous post-9/11 insistence that we were “at war,” and not even in a specific war or set of wars, but in an all-encompassing one that, within two weeks of the collapse of the World Trade Center, President Bush was already calling “the war on terror.”  That single demonic definition of our state of existence rose to mind so quickly that no lawyers were needed and no one had to reach for a dictionary.

Addressing a joint session of Congress, the president typically said: “Our war on terror begins with Al Qaeda, but it does not end there.” And that open-endedness was soon codified in an official name that told all: “the Global War on Terror,” or GWOT.  (For all we know, the phrase itself was the invention of a speechwriter mainlining into the zeitgeist.)  Suddenly, “sovereignty” had next to no meaning (if you weren’t a superpower); the U.S. was ready to take out after terrorists in up to 80 countries; and the planet, by definition, had become a global free-fire zone. 

By the end of September 2001, as the invasion of Afghanistan was being prepared, it was already a carte-blanche world and, as it happened, pilotless surveillance drones were there, lurking in the shadows, waiting for a moment like this, yearning (you might say) to be weaponized.

If GWOT preceded much thought of drones, it paved the way for their crash weaponization, development, and deployment.  It was no mistake that, a bare two weeks after 9/11, a prescient Noah Shachtman (who would go on to found the Danger Room website at Wired) led off a piece for that magazine this way: “Unmanned, almost disposable spy planes are being groomed for a major role in the coming conflict against terrorism, defense analysts say.”

Talk about “imminence” or “constraints” all you want, but as long as we are “at war,” not just in Afghanistan or Iraq, but on a world scale with something known as “terror,” there will never be any limits, other than self-imposed ones.

And it remains so today, even though the Obama administration has long avoided the term “Global War on Terror.”  As Brennan made utterly clear in his speech, President Obama considers us “at war” anywhere that al-Qaeda, its minions, wannabes, or simply groups of irregulars we don’t much care for may be located.  Given this mentality, there is little reason to believe that, on September 11, 2021, we won’t still be “at war.”

So pay no attention to the legalisms.  Put away those dictionaries.  Ignore the “debates” between the White House and Congress, or State and Defense.  Otherwise you’ll miss the predatory magic.

Beyond Words

Within days after the news about the “debate” over the limits on global war was leaked to the Times, unnamed government officials were leaking away to the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal on an allied subject of interest.  Both papers broke the news that, as Craig Whitlock and Greg Miller of the Post put it, the U.S. military and the CIA were creating “a constellation of secret drone bases for counterterrorism operations in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula as part of a newly aggressive campaign to attack al-Qaeda affiliates in Somalia and Yemen.” 

A new base, it seems, is being constructed in Ethiopia, another somewhere in the vicinity of Yemen (possibly in Saudi Arabia), and a third reopened on the Seychelles Islands in the Indian Ocean — all clearly intended for the escalating drone wars in Yemen and Somalia, and perhaps drone wars to come elsewhere in eastern or northern Africa.

These preparations are meant to deal not just with Washington’s present preoccupations, but with its future fears and phantasms.  In this way, they fit well with the now decade-old war on terror’s campaign against will-o-the-wisps.  Julian Barnes of the Wall Street Journal, for example, quotes an unnamed “senior U.S. official” as saying: “We do not know enough about the leaders of the al-Qaeda affiliates in Africa.  Is there a guy out there saying, ‘I am the future of al-Qaeda’? Who is the next Osama bin Laden?”  We don’t yet know, but wherever he is, our drones will be ready for him.

All of this, in turn, fits well with the Pentagon’s “legal” position, mentioned by the Times’ Savage, of “trying to maintain maximum theoretical flexibility.”  It’s a kind of Field-of-Dreams argument: if you build them, they will come.

It’s simple enough.  The machines (and their creators and supporters in the military-industrial complex) are decades ahead of the government officials who theoretically direct and oversee them.  “A Future for Drones: Automated Killing,” an enthusiastic article that appeared in the Post the very same week as that paper’s base-expansion piece, caught the spirit of the moment.  In it, Peter Finn reported on the way three pilotless drones over Fort Benning, Georgia, worked together to identify a target without human guidance. It may, he wrote, “presage the future of the American way of war: a day when drones hunt, identify, and kill the enemy based on calculations made by software, not decisions made by humans. Imagine aerial ‘Terminators,’ minus beefcake and time travel.”

In a New York Review of Books piece with a similarly admiring edge (and who wouldn’t admire such staggering technological advances), Christian Caryl writes:

“Researchers are now testing UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] that mimic hummingbirds or seagulls; one model under development can fit on a pencil eraser. There is much speculation about linking small drones or robots together into ‘swarms’ — clouds or crowds of machines that would share their intelligence, like a hive mind, and have the capability to converge instantly on identified targets. This might seem like science fiction, but it is probably not that far away.”

Admittedly, drones still can’t have sex.  Not yet anyway.  And they can’t choose which humans they are sent to kill.  Not so far.  But sex and the single drone aside, all of this and more may, in the coming decades, become — if you don’t mind my using the word — imminent.  It may be the reality in the skies over all our heads.

It’s true that the machines of war the Obama administration is now rushing headlong to deploy cannot yet operate themselves, but they are already — in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words — “in the saddle, and ride mankind.”  Their “desire” to be deployed and used is driving policy in Washington — and increasingly elsewhere as well.  Think of this as the Drone Imperative.

If you want to fight over definitions, there’s only one worth fighting over: not the phrase “the Global War on Terror,” which the Obama administration tossed aside to no effect whatsoever, but the concept behind it.  Once the idea took hold that the United States was, and had no choice but to be, in a state of permanent global war, the game was afoot.  From then on, the planet was — conceptually speaking — a free-fire zone, and even before robotic weaponry developed to its present level, it was already a drone-eat-drone world to the horizon.

As long as global war remains the essence of “foreign policy,” the drones — and the military-industrial companies and lobbying groups behind them, as well as the military and CIA careers being built on them — will prove expansive.  They will go where, and as far as, the technology takes them. 

In reality, it’s not the drones, but our leaders who are remarkably constrained.  Out of permanent war and terrorism, they have built a house with no doors and no exits.  It’s easy enough to imagine them as beleaguered masters of the universe atop the globe’s military superpower, but in terms of what they can actually do, it would be more practical to think of them as so many drones, piloted by others.  In truth, our present leaders, or rather managers, are small people operating on autopilot in a big-machine world.

As they definitionally twitch and turn, we can just begin to glimpse — like an old-fashioned photo developing in a tray of chemicals — the outlines of a new form of American imperial war emerging before our eyes.  It involves guarding the empire on the cheap, as well as on the sly, via the CIA, which has, in recent years, developed into a full-scale, drone-heavy paramilitary outfit, via a growing secret army of special operations forces that has been incubating inside the military these last years, and of course via those missile- and bomb-armed robotic assassins of the sky.

The appeal is obvious: the cost (in U.S. lives) is low; in the case of the drones, nonexistent.  There is no need for large counterinsurgency armies of occupation of the sort that have bogged down on the mainland of the Greater Middle East these last years.

In an increasingly cash-strapped and anxious Washington, it must look like a literal godsend.  How could it go wrong?

Of course, that’s a thought you can only hang onto as long as you’re looking down on a planet filled with potential targets scurrying below you.  The minute you look up, the minute you leave your joystick and screen behind and begin to imagine yourself on the ground, it’s obvious how things could go so very, very wrong — how, in fact, in Pakistan, to take but one example, they are going so very, very wrong.

Just think about the last time you went to a Terminator film: Who did you identify with? John and Sarah Connor, or the implacable Terminators chasing them?  And you don’t need artificial intelligence to grasp why in a nanosecond.

In a country now struggling simply to guarantee help to its own citizens struck by natural disasters, Washington is preparing distinctly unnatural disasters in the imperium.  In this way, both at home and abroad, the American dream is turning into the American scream.

So when we build those bases on that global field of screams, when we send our armadas of drones out to kill, don’t be surprised if the rest of the world doesn’t see us as the good guys or the heroes, but as terminators.  It’s not the best way to make friends and influence people, but once your mindset is permanent war, that’s no longer a priority.  It’s a scream, and there’s nothing funny about it.

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s as well as The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His latest book, The United States of Fear (Haymarket Books), will be published in November.

[Note on further reading: A small bow to four websites I particularly rely on when gathering information for pieces like this one: the invaluable Antiwar.com, the War in Context website with its sharp-eyed editor Paul Woodward, Juan Cole’s Informed Comment blog (a daily must-read), and Noah Shachtman’s Danger Room website, which no one interested in military affairs should miss.]

Copyright 2011 Tom Engelhardt