We’re all aware of the reputed Chinese curse about living in interesting times. Upheaval seems to be in the air. According to Wikipedia, the interesting times curse was linked with a second, more worrisome curse: “May you come to the attention of those in authority.”
If a young computer nerd like Edward Snowden can access so much secret information concerning US citizens’ lives, what’s to stop some righteous NSA employee with the moral intelligence of Adolf Eichmann from accessing the same material and, in collusion with a para-military cabal of like-minded and armed patriots, deciding someone (me!) is a national security threat in need of neutralization?
Paranoia? Maybe. But I see it as paying attention and having the historically-based imagination to understand we’re no longer in Kansas — that we actually live in Oz and Toto has been declared a terrorist. The basis of Franz Kafka’s absurd world, of course, is that what you know about yourself doesn’t matter if powerful, secretive elements act hostilely against you based on what they think they know about you.
At an anti-Iraq War demonstration in Philadelphia some years ago, a Civil Affairs cop took me aside and told me the FBI had just called him about me. He seemed to be warning me so I could clean up any suspicious behavior. Since I was exercising my first amendment rights, I felt I had nothing to hide. But, then, I began to wonder why exactly some FBI drone thought I might be a threat and how dangerous for me such a person might be.
It all distills down to Power versus Truth and which one is the lodestar for one’s actions. The Obama administration’s current obsession with crushing whistleblowers is clearly about Power and assuring the bloated national security apparatus he oversees retains all its accumulated Power. This is done by controlling access to the Truth.
In his 2011 book The Future of Power, Joseph Nye, Jr. says we live in an age of the “diffusion of power” in which the nation state is no longer the only game in town. “Transnational actors” of all sorts — corporations, terrorist networks, affinity groups, media and entertainment forces — all vie for power and attention. The fact our lives are overwhelmed by computers, social media and the forces of economic globalization is central to this diffusion. I would argue that US militarism and the burgeoning police state has become a power center in its own right separate from whatever “The United States of America” is — and that this militaristic power center is more and more driven by its own self-aggrandizing impulses.
The nonviolent antiwar/peace movement is, then, arguably a countervailing power center within the land mass that is the United States of America. Unfortunately, this power center has yet to reach any kind of critical mass analogous to how frustrations with corruption are being manifested in Brazil and Egypt. The cruel truth, it’s hard to get anywhere in today’s world unless you’re rich or well armed.
The military goes to great lengths to keep up with change. Consider four-star General Keith Alexander, the director of the NSA, appearing at a hacker convention in jeans and hip t-shirt to recruit young computer nerds to join the NSA or to work with the new US Cyber Command. Edward Snowden was one of these recruits. You can be sure his whistleblower actions have raised fears in the NSA and Cyber Command of other backfiring young nerds. If past is prologue in our national security state, this fear can only lead to more secrecy, more self-aggrandizing behavior and more fear of backfiring nerds — in a dark and ever widening gyre of paranoia.
The times are challenging for leaders of nation states everywhere. In America, it must be tough to stay on top of a 250-year-old democratic experiment while continuing to propagate and believe in the beloved myth of American Exceptionalism. It’s like being in a roller-coaster car dazzled and delighted with the incredible view from the ride’s apogee — all the while terrified of the frightening gravity-driven fall you know is coming. How does a leader keep a grip on it all?
The diffusion of power, Nye points out, involves several things including the natural dynamic of decline, the complementary rise of other, formerly less powerful global entities and the increasing democratization of information flow thanks to computers. You see examples of the diffusion of US power everywhere in the news these days. It’s clearly evident in how Iraq was finally sorted out in favor of our Shiite enemies and in stories out of Afghanistan now.
Consider a news story from the great reporter Rod Nordland of The New York Times about the Afghan Taliban negotiating team in Qatar. His prose assumes a moderately incredulous tone as he reports on the Taliban’s two-front strategy involving diplomatic talks in Qatar, on one hand, and continuing attacks on US troops and Afghan government forces inside Afghanistan, on the other. As it opens to talks, the US, of course, is not easing off on special ops night raids and drone attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The obvious hypocrisy, here, is never recognized. The same with the fact the Taliban are Afghanis and we reside halfway around the globe. The diffusion of US power is evident in the rise of Taliban credibility in Qatar as the Qatar government ignores expressed US wishes and delivers heat-seeker missiles to Islamic rebels in Syria.
The bluster of John McCain, our equivalent of an aged ayatollah, aside, US leaders no longer have the national will or the resources for large military operations. The big stick created by Teddy Roosevelt is not so imposing anymore — and the Taliban know it. The Vietnam and Iraq debacles helped accomplish that, making it clear George Bush the elder was wrong when he said, “We’ve licked the Vietnam syndrome.” Vietnam is a lesson of history American propaganda cannot quash.
The diffusion of US power is clear when both China and Russia refuse to turn over Edward Snowden. As he left for Africa, President Obama pulled back on the previous heated rhetoric and said, “I’m not going to be scrambling jets to get a 29-year-old hacker.” The symbolism of the statement was clear. US projection of military power is shifting from the classic brute invasion force to a finesse-oriented doctrine noted for cyber intelligence and secret killer programs focused on leadership. Lop off their head. Still, the United States is far from out of the global power game, as is evident in how we’re intimidating other nations vis-a-vis Snowden’s stateless plight.
In the cyber war realm, one of the stranger events recently was the Justice Department’s announcement that it was criminally investigating retired four-star Marine General James Cartwright, the guy who virtually founded US Cyber Command. Like Snowden, he allegedly leaked secret information to the press. In his case, it was information about the Stuxnet cyber attack on Iran. So far, Cartwright has not fled to Hong Kong or taken up residence in an airport VIP lounge.
In the Stuxnet case, the US and Israel are clearly the aggressors against Iran. It should also be clear why the US government feels the need to crack down so hard on the release of such information to the American people. After all, it’s no secret to the Iranians, who know who did it and how they did it. But if Americans know this it will be more difficult in the future for our leaders to cite Iranian defensive reactions as outrages justifying a military response. Better to keep the citizens in the dark.
More sobering than the obsessive hunt for whistleblowers is the political argument that the US media should be seen as a “combatant” in future wars.
Ralph Peters is a retired lieutenant colonel, a columnist for USA Today and a Fox News Strategic Analyst. He writes that, “The media are now full-blown participants in the wars of the information age, and ‘lethal journalism’ will prove to be one of the greatest battlefield challenges facing generals and privates alike.” By “lethal journalism” he means the reporting of embarrassing facts about a military operation that affects the civilian-based decision to continue that operation.
The worst case of “lethal journalism” he can think of is the first battle for Falluja. The press reported the battle as morally problematic and politicians pressed the military to stop its assault — at the point the military, to free the city of terrorists, was about to obliterate the city. (I was in Falluja just before this assault was begun.) The point militarists like Peters can’t grasp is that an information-based moral brake on a military operation is not a bad thing if seen in a human context above and beyond that of the closed military culture his thinking flourishes in.
If this kind of criticism grows, most mainstream media will fall in line and, as they now do, self-censor themselves and focus on personality journalism. The Snowden case is a classic example. Instead of whetting the media’s appetite to dig for more real information about massive spying on the American people, Snowden has mostly become a personality-centered human interest story. Will he get out of the Moscow airport? Who will take him in? Both MSNBC and Fox News literally reduced the story to the preposterous comic headline “Where’s Waldo?
Thomas Friedman likes to assume “the view from 30,000 feet.” From there, we seem to be living through an epochal shift no less profound than the one from feudalism to the modern world of nation states — headed for a technology-driven synthesis of the two. Facing such shifting sands, our military is frantically gearing up for cyberwar and developing sophisticated methods for secretly killing the leaders of problematic power centers.
In such a transnational future, one might ask what happens to nation-state relics like the First Amendment? The Second Amendment seems safe, since it’s protected by gun-lovers friendly to militaristic and police institutions. On the other hand, those who favor the First Amendment tend to be in opposition to militarism and police state power centers. What happens to them when the current top-down hunt for leakers becomes more institutionalized as a hostility toward the freedom of information? It’s not hard to imagine a future when the Constitutional protections of a “free” press only include those who go along with the government’s self-imposed and ever-expanding rules of secrecy. Our current Supreme Court seems not far from that now.
Popular Culture as the Canary in the Mine
If so many decisions and actions of our government are secret, where is one to look for an understanding of reality? For me, popular culture is like a canary in the mine offering up prescient warnings of danger out of the human imagination.
Noir or crime fiction is an interesting genre in this respect. We see a hard-boiled, violent sensibility everywhere, in novels, movies, TV shows and computer games. More and more, the killer seems to be our favorite popular archetype and extra-legal, under-the-radar operations the preferred mode for getting things done. Annie Leibovitz captures the murkiness of the noir sensibility in a series of constructed photos, below, featuring A-list Hollywood actors.
The new noir novel Rake by Scott Phillips is about a male actor who plays a popular doctor on a TV soap opera. He’s a charming sociopath who beds beautiful women with ease, a Special Forces vet who was drummed out of the service for behaving badly. He’s in Paris setting up a movie deal and murders a man to advance the production’s fund-raising. The homicide detective on the case knows our protagonist did it, but he does not pursue the case. The victim was an arms dealer, a real bad sort who deserved to die. Plus, the protagonist is giving the detective’s daughter a part in the movie; she’s also a hot babe he has designs on.
It’s a fictional noir comedy right? As I finished the short book, I learned that football star Aaron Hernandez allegedly shot a guy to death in an industrial park not unlike the fictional murder location in Rake. The police now say Hernandez knocked off two other guys days before he appeared on Good Morning America as charming as any mainstream sociopath. The 23-year-old had just landed a $40 million contract with the New England Patriots.
Killing is in the air. It’s become the ultimate corner-cutting strategy; sexy men and women posturing with fetishistic weapons is an entertainment cliché. The Irish mob boss Whitey Bulger isn’t concerned about being known as a sadistic, bloody murderer; what really pisses Whitey off is being seen as an FBI rat. On the militarism front, secret Seal Team killers are high fashion. Nowhere in the culture does killing seem to be treated as morally wrong. Such a posture is not sexy; it’s boring. As in all good melodrama, it’s all good guys and bad guys.
In the realm of secret killing, my colleague Dave Lindorff just uncovered a scary real-life plan in which an unidentified police element or civilian contractor in Houston developed a plan to use “suppressed sniper rifles” to kill leaders of the Occupy Movement — “if necessary.” Texas Occupy leader Remington Allessi told Lindorff, “I believe the sniper attack was one strategy being discussed for dealing with the occupation.” He speculates it was spawned in the Houston Fusion Center, a hub for local and national police entities.
This kind of tactic — identify specific leaders and then kill them — is precisely the new Special Ops doctrine of the US military. On the public relations level, this kill-list doctrine is only applied to the likes of al Qaeda leadership. But seepage into the motivational minds of all sorts of armed official, semi-official and un-official whackos should no longer be seen as that far-fetched. We already have the model of death squads in Latin America, which our leaders were fine with in places like El Salvador — when they felt it was, to quote the Houston document, “necessary.” Similar documents have revealed that official or semi-official police entities have referred to the Occupy Movement as a “terrorist” activity. If a critical mass were to be reached and huge demonstrations occurred in the United States like in Brazil and Egypt the Houston document suggests plans to kill leaders is well within the realm of possibility.
In a Times story on a new TV show called Ray Donovan about a Boston mob family (echoes of Whitey Bulger) that moves to Hollywood, Alessandra Stanley put it this way:
“Everybody is interested in the underbelly of show business. Maybe because conventional authority figures, politicians, lawyers and priests have lost so much mystique, fixers have special currency these days. … [T]here’s a fascination with off-the-books problem solving.”
Fixers? Off-the-books problem solving? Isn’t that what we used to call making the trains run on time?