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Data Mining for a New American World
Posted on Apr 4, 2012
By Tom Engelhardt, TomDispatch
A System That Creates Its Own Reality
To leave the country, of course, I had to briefly surrender my shoes, hat, belt, computer—you know the routine—and even then, stripped to the basics, I had to pass through a scanner of a sort that not so long ago caused protest and upset but now is evidently as American as apple pie. Then I spent those nine days touring some of Spain’s architectural wonders, including the Alhambra in Granada, the Mezquita or Great Mosque of Cordoba, and that city’s ancient synagogue (the only one to survive the expulsion of the Jews in 1492), as well as Antonio Gaudí’s Sagrada Família, his vast Barcelona basilica, without once—in a country with its own grim history of terror attacks—being wanded or patted down or questioned or even passing through a metal detector. Afterwards, I took a flight back to a country whose national security architecture had again expanded subtly in the name of “my” safety.
Now, I don’t want to overdo it. In truth, those new guidelines were no big deal. The information on—as far as anyone knows—innocent Americans that the NCTC wanted to keep for those extra 4½ years was already being held ad infinitum by one or another of our 17 major intelligence agencies and organizations. So the latest announcement seems to represent little more than bureaucratic housecleaning, just a bit of extra scaffolding added to the Great Mosque or basilica of the new American intelligence labyrinth. It certainly was nothing to write home about, no less trap a fictional character in.
Admittedly, since 9/11 the U.S. Intelligence Community, as it likes to call itself, has expanded to staggering proportions. With those 17 outfits having a combined annual intelligence budget of more than $80 billion (a figure which doesn’t even include all intelligence expenditures), you could think of that community as having carried out a statistical coup d’état. In fact, at a moment when America’s enemies—a few thousand scattered jihadis, the odd minority insurgency, and a couple of rickety regional powers (Iran, North Korea, and perhaps Venezuela)—couldn’t be less imposing, its growth has been little short of an institutional miracle. By now, it has a momentum all its own. You might even say that it creates its own reality.
Of classic American checks and balances, we, the taxpayers, now write the checks and they, the officials of the National Security Complex, are free to be as unbalanced as they want in their actions. Whatever you do, though, don’t mistake Clapper, Holder, and similar figures for the Gaudís of the new intelligence world. Don’t think of them as the architects of the structure they are building. What they preside over is visibly a competitive bureaucratic mess of overlapping principalities whose “mission” might be summed up in one word: more.
In a sense—though they would undoubtedly never think of themselves this way—I suspect they are bureaucratic versions of Kafka’s Joseph K., trapped in a labyrinthine structure they are continually, blindly, adding to. And because their “mission” has no end point, their edifice has neither windows nor exits, and for all anyone knows is being erected on a foundation of quicksand.
Keep calling it “intelligence” if you want, but the monstrosity they are building is neither intelligent nor architecturally elegant. It is nonetheless a system elaborating itself with undeniable energy. Whatever the changing cast of characters, the structure only grows. It no longer seems to matter whether the figure who officially sits atop it is a former part-owner of a baseball team and former governor, a former constitutional law professor, or—looking to possible futures—a former corporate raider.
A Basilica of Chaos
Evidently, it’s our fate—increasing numbers of us anyway—to be transformed into intelligence data (just as we are being eternally transformed into commercial data), our identities sliced, diced, and passed around the labyrinth, our bytes stored up to be “mined” at their convenience.
You might wonder: What is this basilica of chaos that calls itself the U.S. Intelligence Community? Bamford describes whistleblower William Binney, a former senior NSA crypto-mathematician “largely responsible for automating the agency’s worldwide eavesdropping network,” as holding “his thumb and forefinger close together” and saying, “We are that far from a turnkey totalitarian state.”
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