I have just finished reading Tom Engelhardt’s latest book Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World. I will be completely frank – it is a book I would have liked to have written myself. Indeed, I did try to write something like it a couple of years back but got so wrapped up in the complexity of what is taking place that I kept losing my focus as I was going along.
Engelhardt, however, gets it right. He cuts to the quick and never takes his eye off the ball: the national security state is here and now and while we were looking the other way beguiled by frequently fabricated tales of international terror it has gone global. Every American and many foreigners are now victims of an Orwellian universe of unending warfare coupled with constant surveillance and multifaceted manipulation that together make 1984 seem amateurish. Tom Engelhardt calls the development “Shadow Government” because it exists on the fringes of what we read every day in the newspapers and see every day on television.
At this moment we Americans are being subjected to largely fictional accounts of developments in the Middle East, where the United States is once again waging a war that not only makes no sense in terms of American interests but also is completely unwinnable by any reasonable standard. The question inevitably arises, “Why are we there and what are we doing?” Shadow government operates invisibly and is accountable to no one, its machinations providing an answer to that question, revealing the wheels within wheels that fuel the national security leviathan.
Shadow Government is a collection of articles written by Englehardt between 2011 and 2014 for his website Tomdispatch.com. Inevitably, there is some repetition of material as a result but the chapters can be read independently as each is built around a central theme. The overriding narrative is that the United States has become a global monster since 9/11, using the terrorist attack to justify a disproportionate response that has benefited certain interests that operate behind the scenes to dictate policy and, more important, keep the cash flowing into their pockets. Along the way the rule of law and any accountability for those involved in the secret state have been effectively abandoned while Washington itself has been on a binge wasting resources on a policy of global dominance that is not justified either by the nature of the threat or by geopolitical realities. As one Bush era insider commented “We are an empire now, and when we act we create our own reality.”
It is an empire that, inter alia, apparently mandates a Tuesday afternoon meeting of one hundred chiefs of security and intelligence to determine which American citizens will be placed on a kill-on-sight list. With no real enemies in sight, a White House unobstructed by either congressional or judicial restraint has been moving forward with a plan for total war at any time and potentially everywhere on the planet. Engelhardt notes how the world has been divided into six regional “commands” by the Pentagon in addition to the functional Stratcom for outer space, Socom for special warfare, and Transcom for transportation. There is also an active Cyberwar command already engaged in largely invisible internet based warfare.
Shadow Government is particularly good on a point that I too have been attempting to make for some years now, namely that all the spending and violations of both international and domestic law have not produced any good result. Indeed, the reverse is true as both friends and adversaries have been stung by American hegemony underwritten by more than 1,000 overseas bases, motivating those hostile to Washington’s pretensions to spring up everywhere in spontaneous fashion.
Tom Engelhardt looks at every country where the US boot has trod and notes that without exception each is worse off now than before. Invasions, bombing, regime change, kidnappings, secret wars and assassinations do not make many friends, even when the news is being managed in such a way as to represent such actions as necessary for national or even global security. The hideously expensive and ruinous foreign policy disasters in Iraq, Yemen, Libya and upcoming in Afghanistan, are all products of imperial hubris and a ruling class in Washington that knows nothing and could care less. Engelhardt rightly describes the foreign policy since 9/11 as a “train wreck.”
But as Engelhardt demonstrates clearly, even though Washington has created chaos worldwide by its thoughtless interventions, nothing in the status quo actually constitutes a threat to our nation, suggesting a massive military buildup to crush an enemy that does not really exist. Putting it all together, the cost of our secret government constitutes the greatest rip off in the history of the world.
And then there is the domestic side of the ledger. Huge (and illegal) data collection projects mean that no one’s personal information or activities once protected by law and regarded as “private” are any longer safe. Quite the contrary, as one can assume 24/7 surveillance. The United States government seeks to know everything and has the computer power and data bases to do just that while it protects itself from scrutiny through invocation of the state secrets privilege.
When the law is broken, and in spite of existing whistleblower laws, no one who exposes the crime is safe. Engelhardt observes ironically that the only one imprisoned in connection with CIA torture was the whistleblower John Kiriakou. Engelhardt notes that Washington seeks both omnipotence and omniscience, but in fact it achieves neither. It can destroy any conventional army that any adversary might field or destabilize and regime change any country, but clusters of lightly armed and highly motivated tribesmen elude its grasp. As Engelhardt observes, the Washington policy making elite fail again and again because they have no learning curve and repeat their mistakes over and over again. To be sure countless billions of phone intercepts sit in an enormous data base in Utah, but if no one can read them or figure out what they mean it has all been a waste of time. So the key question becomes, “Has the national security state actually accomplished anything?”
The answer is a qualified “no,” only qualified because it has succeeded in shredding the US Constitution while creating a so-called unitary executive backed by a military industrial complex that is unrestrained by congress. That unitary executive and those supporting it from the shadows have successfully delivered war without end.
Finally, I would somewhat disagree with Engelhardt regarding his assertion that there is some hope for change because information available over the internet has created a greater awareness about what has happened to the United States since the end of the Cold War and most particularly since 9/11. That is certainly true but the problem with the internet is that it has as much bad information as good and is viewed askance by many. Furthermore, most of the public continues to get their news and analysis from the mainstream media, which is large part of the problem. Indeed, most Americans don’t have a clue about what is going on anywhere in the world, such profound ignorance leading to clichéd thinking about foreigners. Unless something hits Americans in their wallets or lands in their backyard they prefer not to think about issues like surveillance and war and many continue to trust the government even when it is absolutely clear that they are being lied to. The fear mongering about terrorism has made many otherwise sensible people value “security” more than their rights and responsibilities as citizens.
But as the current course of government trends more towards increased abuse of liberties it is indeed possible that there will be a tipping point leading to an awakening somewhere down the road. The process is, however, likely to be both incremental and slow. Then there just might be what amounts to a new American Revolution. I would like to see that happen in my lifetime and I suspect Tom Engelhardt would agree, but am not optimistic.