Cross-posted with TomDispatch.com
Since 9/11, untold sums of money have gone into building up the national security state. That includes new billion-dollar-plus headquarters for some of its agencies, hiring outside contractors by the bushelful, and creating a system of global surveillance the likes of which would once have been inconceivable even for the rulers of totalitarian states. It includes the National Security Agency constructing in Georgia “the world’s largest listening post” focused only on the Middle East. James Bamford describes it as a “$286 million, 604,000-square-foot facility [that] has more than 2,500 workstations and 47 conference rooms, and... employs more than 4,000 eavesdroppers and other personnel.” And don’t forget the facility it constructed in Bluffdale, Utah, a “$2 billion, 1-million-square-foot complex... to function as the centerpiece of the NSA’s global eavesdropping operations” into which “would flow streams of emails, text messages, tweets, Google searches, financial records, Facebook posts, YouTube videos, metadata, and telephone chatter picked up by the constellation of” America’s satellites, cable taps, and listening posts. The national security state now houses 16 major intelligence outfits, not including the office of the director of national intelligence, and boasts an intelligence black budget of close to $70 billion a year. And that’s just to begin what would be an endless list.
And all of this has essentially been built and expanded on the basis of a single “threat” to the American way of life: terrorism, which means, of course, the terrorism of Islamic extremists, which in the U.S. means the terrorism of unhinged or disturbed individuals who feel deeply aggrieved by and at odds with this society and come, however briefly, to identify with ISIS and its brutal mission, and ― to add yet another element to this mix ― have remarkably easy access to military-style weaponry and ammo galore.
In other words, without Islamic terrorism, which has been responsible for the deaths of a surprisingly modest number of American civilians in these years, the national security state, now the fourth branch of government, would be a far less impressive, less well-funded structure, and its various experiments in governmental overreach, whether in the realms of torture, detention, kidnapping, assassination, the militarization of the police, or surveillance, would have been far less possible. Put another way, that state within a state is joined at the hip to terrorism.
And yet here’s the strange thing: given the nature of the terrorist threat, no matter how many people it surveils or what kinds of communications it listens in on, no matter the drones in the air or the cameras on the streets, it remains remarkably helpless when it comes to finding the Syed Rizwan Farooks, Dahir Adans, and Ahmad Khan Rahamis of our world. It is incapable of picking those unexpected needles out of the vast haystack of us. In its own strange way, it is, then, remarkably overbuilt, overfunded, and useless in its present muscled-up form. Karen Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School and author of Rogue Justice: The Making of the Security State, illustrates this point vividly today in “Liberty Is Security,” offering a clear-eyed view of what such a security state is actually capable of ― and what we abandon needlessly when we bow down before it.