by Tom Engelhardt (Haymarket Books 2014), 200 pages.
“A shadow government has conquered twenty-first-century Washington. We have the makings of a thug state of the first order.” No two sentences more clearly and disturbingly summarize what Tom Engelhardt’s Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World is about: a Leviathan national-security state rampaging around the world in pursuit of perfect security and creating chaos wherever it puts its grotesque girth down.
The editor of TomDispatch.com, which he launched in November 2001, Engelhardt has spent the last 13 years trying to understand our post–9/11 world, where al-Qaeda’s atrocities in lower Manhattan, Northern Virginia, and a field in Pennsylvania led the United States to shed any pretense of being a democracy and embrace its imperial ambitions without reservation. (Full disclosure: I’m a regular contributor to TomDispatch.com.) The book itself is a collection of TomDispatch pieces originally published between 2011 and 2014, modestly revised and updated, and woven into book form. Whether it’s torture, kidnapping, weaponized drones strikes, special forces’ raids, or the rise of the surveillance state, Engelhardt has been there to document the corruption and savage violence that has seeped into our nation’s policymakers and warriors, who obey no restrictions — whether legal or moral — to their ambitions of total global domination.
And have no doubt: This is a book about corruption.
There’s no other word that better describes how in little more than a decade, the Pentagon and the intelligence community and their legions of contractors have mutated into a shadow government that is the antithesis of what the United States is supposed to stand for: an open, democratic nation that understands there are limits to the power it wields at home and overseas. But these wolves don’t dress themselves up as sheep, but as shepherds protecting the American people from the predators that would devour them if their vigilance ever faltered.
Our new state religion
Engelhardt sees this national-security state — this Deep State so often shrouded in secrecy — led by proselytizers of a warrior religion. “The leaders of this faith-based system are, not surprisingly, fundamentalist true believers,” he observes.
Its high priest is the president of the United States, who after 9/11 has accumulated almost godly powers to monitor the world’s communications, including domestic communications, as well as to deliver death almost anywhere on the globe through his fleet of drones — our secular angels of death. As in any religion, its proselytizers erect grandiose testaments to their powerful faith. “Their monuments to themselves, their version of pyramids and ziggurats,” according to Engelhardt, are the “vast data storage center the NSA is building in Bluffdale, Utah, to keep a yottabyte of private information about all of us, or the new post-9/11 headquarters of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.”
As with fundamentalism of any kind, its adherents are impervious to the fact that their worldview is flat-out wrong. The national-security state’s militarized messianism to rid the world of terrorism and ensure U.S. hegemony has failed. “After all, if the twenty-first century has taught us anything, it’s that the most expensive and over-equipped military on the planet can’t win a war,” writes Engelhardt. “Its two multitrillion-dollar attempts since 9/11, in Iraq and Afghanistan, both against lightly armed minority insurgencies, proved disasters.” At home, the National Security Agency abused its power to construct a surveillance state that to this day logs the phone calls of as many Americans as possible in an effort to identify and disrupt terrorist attacks. The call-records program, however, has not stopped a single terrorist plot, according to Barack Obama’s own review group. Overseas, the country’s 17 intelligence outfits, unbelievably, missed the Arab Spring.
Yet despite staggering losses in blood and treasure, the national- security state only continues to grow, regardless of its record of failure after failure. How can that be? Engelhardt believes he knows why. The shadow government “has pumped fear into the American soul,” he writes. “It is a religion of state power.” Unfortunately, the American public has genuflected.
Engelhardt never tires of reminding his readers that the national-security state has been able to inject these irrational fears into the American people at a time when they face not a single threat to their survival (aside from maybe global climate change). The Soviet Union and its arsenal of nuclear weapons were an existential threat to the United States; al-Qaeda or the Islamic State: not even a little bit. Nevertheless, the United States has spent trillions and trillions on a global war on terrorism that has undermined its values and eroded its citizens’ rights without making them any safer.
Obama may have finished what George W. Bush started when Osama bin Laden’s body slid into its watery grave in the Indian Ocean, but have no doubt: bin Laden won, as new franchises of al-Qaeda pop up across the globe and as the Islamic State preys on the instability the United States wrought in Iraq.
A cult of violence
One of Engelhardt’s most disquieting theses is that the United States continues to make the same hypermilitarized mistakes because that’s the only thing the true believers of the national-security state know. They have internalized a culture where state violence, or at least the threat of it, is often the first, and only, solution to almost any problem.
You could offer various explanations for why our policymakers, military and civilian, continue in such a repetitive and — even from an imperial point of view — self-destructive vein in situations where unpleasant surprises are essentially guaranteed and lack of success is a given. Yes, there is the military-industrial complex to be fed. Yes, we are interested in the control of crucial resources, especially energy, and so on. But it’s probably more reasonable to say that a deeply militarized mindset and the global maneuvers that go with it are by now just part of the way of life of a Washington eternally “at war.” They are the tics of a great power with the equivalent of Tourette’s Syndrome.
The United States has metaphorically become the Incredible Hulk of international relations, using its unparalleled strength to smash through its adversaries, forever creating new ones, seemingly oblivious to the all but predictable results. Blind faith in its own righteousness and power therefore obscures the monstrous things it does.
For Engelhardt, nothing shows this better than “terror Tuesdays,” where Obama and his national-security advisers gather in the White House Situation Room to go through the “kill list” of suspected terrorists the president can order droned. While the New York Times goes to great lengths to describe the agony of deciding who lives and dies for the president — such as his deep dives into the “just war” writings of St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine or his reliance on his counterterrorism adviser John Brennan’s approval of his targets (“a priest whose blessing has become indispensable to Mr. Obama”) — Engelhardt will have none of it.
“Thought about another way,” he writes, “‘terror Tuesdays’ evoke not so much a monastery or a church synod as a Mafia council directly out of a Mario Puzo novel, with the president as the Godfather, designating ‘hits’ in a rough-and-tumble world.”
Conscience: the ultimate crime
The national-security state is a behemoth. Approximately five million of its employees and contractors have security clearances as this shadow government stamps document after document “SECRET” and “TOP SECRET.” This is blowback just waiting to happen, according to Engelhardt in his final chapter, “Letter to an Unknown Whistleblower.”
The architects of the national-security state have
built their system so elaborately, so expansively, and their ambitions have been so grandiose that they have had no choice but to embed you [the whistleblower] in their developing global security state, deep in the entrails of their secret world — tens of thousands of possible yous, in fact…. And because they have built using the power of tomorrow, they have created a situation in which the prospective whistleblower, the leaker of tomorrow, has access not just to a few pieces of paper but to files beyond imagination. They, not you, have prepared the way for future mass document dumps, for staggering releases, of a sort that once upon a time in a far more modest system based largely on paper would have been inconceivable.
Already Engelhardt’s prediction is bearing fruit, as apparently another government employee or contractor has disclosed documents revealing how the government’s secret terrorist-watchlisting program works to Glenn Greenwald’s website The Intercept. In October, the FBI raided the home of this “Second Snowden,” according to media reports.
Whistleblowers, like former NSA-contractor Edward Snowden (who is represented by the ACLU, my employer) and now his new comrade-in-disclosure, therefore are the freethinkers, the apostates of the national-security state, who must be so severely punished that no one else will betray the one true faith. Snowden had to go into exile because of his defiance of this shadow government, his decision forced by the government’s treatment of whistleblowers before him, such as Bradley Manning and Thomas Drake, whose lives and reputations have been ruined, either through harsh prison terms or vindictive government prosecution.
In George Orwell’s 1984, the slogan of Oceania’s Ministry of Truth was “WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.” If that all too uncomfortably describes the way Washington operates today, Oba-ma’s treatment of whistleblowers deserves an addition to Orwell’s perfect distillation of totalitarianism, observes Engelhardt: “KNOW-LEDGE IS CRIME, or perhaps even KNOWLEDGE IS THE ONLY CRIME.”
If anyone needs reminding, the constitutional professor-cum-president has used the Espionage Act more times during his administration than any other administration before him. Never forget, those “spies” weren’t trying to hand government secrets off to an enemy. Rather they were trying to educate Americans about what their government was doing. If they were spies, they were our spies. They did it for us.
And we need more of them, Engelhardt believes, as he tries to provide the moral support and long view for their acts of courage. “Right now, those like you are sure to be prosecuted, jailed, or chased implacably across the planet,” he warns. “But this won’t last forever. Someday, your country will recognize what you did — first of all for yourself, for your own sense of what’s decent and right in this world, and then for us — as the acts of an upright and even heroic American.”
Tom Engelhardt, as this volume shows unequivocally, is, like Snowden and the other whistleblowers he defends, an American of conscience. Whereas the mainstream media, without fail, tally only how Washington’s masters of war shred up their own volunteer military forces, Engelhardt always bears witness to the carnage Uncle Sam churns out overseas. An Iraqi man is worth just as much as an American man. An Afghan child is worth no less than an American child. A Yemeni woman is equal to an American woman. It’s depressing to praise and single out a writer for such egalitarian ethical clarity, but alas, that’s where we are today.
Engelhardt’s simple morality defies the American exceptionalism at the heart of this national-security priesthood, whose sermons always spread the noxious lie that all values are sacrificed on the altar of security. He is, as Lewis Lapham wrote of Mark Twain, of whom Engelhardt very much reminds me, “A man at play with freedoms of his mind, believing allegiance to the truth and not the flag rescues democracy.”
That’s too much of a burden — rescuing democracy — for any one man to shoulder, but Engelhardt continues to be that flickering flame that reminds us of who we claim to be.
This article was originally published in the April 2015 edition of Future of Freedom.