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Top Secret America: The Garrison State has arrived

July 20, 2010

A couple of thoughts on Dana Priest and William Arkin’s series that began in the Washington Post yesterday. First, this is the type of story that is all but non-existent in our non-stop 24-hour news cycles — a two-year investigative report that pulls together thousands of bits and pieces of information and carefully assembles them to tell the bigger story of where we have traveled in the past decade. (I see that the story actually bumped CNN’s coverage of Sara Palin’s last tweet…) (Update: My bad — the Post actually featured Palin’s last tweet above the Top Secret America in the streaming news banner… oh well..)

Second, on the substance, the sheer size of this new intelligence and security system is staggering:

Some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States.

I’m guessing when others take a closer look — we’ll find that Priest and Arkin are either double counting some things or tallying things that are only peripheral to the overall system.

Nonetheless, it is clear the United States is a garrison state. We are a society that lives in fear and we have a set of institutions designed specifically to hide the costs and consequences of our security. Since 9/11, the United States has hovered around 50% of global expenditures on defense, i.e., as much as the rest of the world combined. If we add the amount of spending on domestic security and all of the related state and municipal security and intelligence spending as part of overall security expenditures, that percentage no doubt sky rockets (this doesn’t even begin to consider the qualitative advantage of these capabilities — the US spends somewhere near two-thirds of the global R&D on security technology). Furthermore, the magnitude of the effort across multiple lead departments and agencies makes accountability almost impossible. Think about it: Where can sufficient oversight come from? What kind of institutional structure would be needed to control this system?

Priest and Arkin argue that we need to have a candid discussion about these institutions and whether or not they are worth it. Of course, scholars such as Andrew Bacevich and John Mueller have been making similar arguments — from different perspectives — for several years. But here’s the problem: there are powerful structural forces that entrench and perpetuate this system: private security firms and commercial defense industries with powerful economic motives are coupled with epistemic communities that provide the ideological justifications for the system; personnel systems that encourage/allow tight relationships and/or revolving doors between government agencies and private firms; and, massive bureaucracies that expand and adapt to new roles and missions, etc…. In addition, once the system grows as big as it is, there is a diffusion effect. For example, stimulus money is being used to construct not only new security facilities, but also to construct the infrastructure (roads, communications lines, and other municipal services) to support those facilities. This isn’t just about security, its also about jobs.

Aaron Friedberg argued that the United States was able to avoid becoming a garrison state after World War II largely because of the objections of the anti-statists in the American public –= principally Midwest Conservative Republicans. But where are the domestic constituencies capable of checking the garrison state today? The Eisenhower anti-statists within the Republican party of the 1950s died with the Reagan revolution. Today’s “anti-statists” aren’t really anti-statist — for example, they are farmers who oppose Obama”s “socialism” but demand agricultural subsidies or they are seniors concerned about ObamaCare because of how it might affect Medicare or their Veteran health benefits, etc… No one in the Tea Party movement that loathes the rising deficit is calling for a reduction of American defense or security expenditures.

The left is equally unwilling or incapable of stemming the flow. Progressives mobilized to elect Barak Obama. But, Obama entered office as the most constrained president since Harry Truman — two wars and a global financial meltdown — and much of this security infrastructure was already in place. Obama’s problem-solving pragmatism has ignored the progressive agenda and there don’t appear to be any articulate or strong voices challenging this “Top Secret America” system from within the Democratic Party leadership.

I agree that we need a rational discussion on risks and threat and we need more transparency regarding the institutions that are being designed. I’m just skeptical that we will have one….

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Jon Western has spent the last fifteen years teaching IR in liberal arts colleges at Mount Holyoke College and the Five Colleges in western Massachusetts. He has an eclectic range of intellectual interests but often writes on international security, U.S. foreign policy, military intervention, and human rights. He occasionally shares his thoughts about professional life in liberal arts colleges. In his spare time he coaches middle school soccer, mentors the local high school robotics team, skis, and sails.