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That Makes No Sense!

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Posted on Jul 20, 2012
david drexler (CC BY 2.0)

By Tom Engelhardt, TomDispatch

(Page 2)

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.”

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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.


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