Tom Egelhardt’s account of the intertwined systems of the American National Security state presents a daunting picture, but also argues that it can be defeated, finds Kit Klarenberg
Tom Engelhardt, Shadow Government: surveillance, secret wars, and a global security state in a single super-power world (Haymarket 2014), 174pp.
'I know the capacity that is there to make tyranny total in America, and we must see to it that this agency and all agencies that possess this technology operate within the law and under proper supervision so that we never cross over'
These words were spoken by Frank Church, a crusading US Senator from Idaho, in 1975. They heralded the publication of his Senate Committee’s report into the activities of America’s domestic and international intelligence apparatuses, the first officially sanctioned investigation of its kind.
Despite a concerted campaign by the intelligence services to mislead the enquiry and destroy evidence, and efforts by the Ford administration to obstruct and derail the process outright, the Committee uncovered the rough outline of a wide-ranging and horrifying record of malfeasance perpetrated by the US intelligence establishment since 1945, on American soil and elsewhere. The activities exposed are too numerous to detail here (it’s worth reading the report in full); although what was revealed represented merely the tip of the iceberg.
The Church Committee, and its report, was subsequently vilified in the US media on the grounds of treason, and Church lost his Senate seat in 1980 to a very well-funded Republican campaign. Public outcry over the United States’ spectral para-political underbelly subsequently dwindled, remaining largely dormant until June 2013, when The Guardian published Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations.
Fittingly, in September 2013, declassified papers revealed that Senator Church himself had been spied on as part of Project Minaret, a top-secret NSA operation that monitored the private communications of prominent Vietnam War critics (and, an operation the NSA itself concluded was "disreputable if not outright illegal”).
Despite Church’s stark warning, today much of the world is subject to a US-led surveillance network so advanced and extensive it makes the Stasi look like Scooby Doo and pals. The Snowden exposures make it clear that the unsavoury excesses of US intelligence brought to public attention by Church et al. have continued untrammelled ever since, intensifying and becoming more sophisticated year on year.
Coupled with this is an equally state-of-the-art and extreme system of propaganda and manipulation. This sets the terms for what the vast majority of the world’s media reports about events – and in the process has a tremendous impact on what a significant proportion of the world’s population thinks. On top of that, of course, is a commitment by the US and its assorted allies to perpetual warfare, via both overt and covert means.
Tom Engelhardt, in his assorted writings on the resolutely worth reading Tom Dispatch, refers to this pestilential trifecta as ‘Shadow Government’: the private conduct of public affairs via indirection, collusion, and deceit, by individuals who are largely invisible, and accountable to no one. The phrase Shadow Government gives this book its title, and the concept the book’s content. The book, a compendium of pieces penned by Englehardt between 2011 and 2014, documents the rise of a national security state in America, whilst also making clear that this state of affairs has gone global.
Engelhardt is good – very, very good indeed. Some of the information here will be new to many readers, and even his analysis of well-covered topics such as Abu Ghraib and the 2001 Invasion of Afghanistan is fresh and insightful. Engelhardt articulates with tremendous detail and force just how ineffectual and counterproductive US foreign policy has been – not merely since 9/11, but forever. The American Empire has caused incalculable political, diplomatic and economic problems for the country itself; the United States’ assorted client states have suffered too, as their intimate involvement in wars, interventions and meddling have created a world which is more hazardous, more unstable and more hostile than ever before. Despite news reporting the world over being strictly managed to sell the necessity of American Imperialism, the line isn’t being bought by a progressively large proportion of people. More enemies are being created than friends won – and the number of people adding two and two, and concluding that no group, state or individual poses an even remote threat to American military might, is increasing.
One of the book’s core strengths is that Engelhardt is perpetually wry, human and (somehow) optimistic, despite invariably tackling intensely bleak and depressing subject matter. Much of the literature surrounding the NSA/GCHQ spying apparatus concludes that the average person is almost totally powerless to defend themselves from surveillance and can do little to prevent its utilisation, and that whistleblowers will merely be punished severely for bringing such abuses to light. Admittedly, this stance is understandable given that the NSA/GCHQ spying apparatus hasn’t been dismantled as far as anyone can tell, and no one has been punished in connection with it, despite the worldwide consternation and uproar that attended the revelations.
Defeating the National Security State
Engelhardt, however, remains hopeful that human beings can overcome the national security state infrastructure, and that it will collapse under the weight of its own contradictions in time. He jeers at the preeminent military superpower that can theoretically crush any conventional army or overthrow any government in the world, yet has run into immense difficulty taking down a rabble of fugitive farmers armed with AK-47s in rural Pakistan. He taunts the spying network that can collect billions of email intercepts but cannot establish an effective system of reading them, and as a result has no idea what they actually contain. This confidence is maintained even when noting that the only person to be imprisoned in connection with CIA torture revelations was whistleblower John Kiriakou, and that the US appears to be mobilising for total war, carving up the world map into six regional “commands” and even establishing infrastructure for cyberwars and galactic conflict.
As with any collection of previously published articles, Shadow Government suffers slightly from a lack of consistent supporting narrative. Similarly, the articles are very much a product of the specific point in time in which they were originally written. Much material here has obviously been expanded and updated from source, which is welcome and necessary; however, attempts to link what were obviously previously intended as standalone, independent pieces often amount to little more than content duplication.
This is not to say, however, that the essays collected here are not supremely readable, or that the work can only be enjoyed in gobbet form – more that it might have been preferable to unapologetically present the book as a series of largely unconnected, individual essays covering different facets of the ‘Shadow Government’ triumvirate, rather than contriving cohesion by retrofitting connecting strands.
Furthermore, as stridently precise and inarguable as much of the book’s analysis is, it falls down slightly when discussing the opportunities for reform and progress. As noted, Engelhardt is blessed with an apparently indefatigable optimism. Whilst this is a welcome antidote to more common doom-laden diagnoses, it can seem misplaced. For instance, he argues that the internet, with its tremendous capacity for sharing information and countering officially mandated narratives, is playing a pivotal role in promoting greater awareness of the true nature of America’s role in the world. Whilst the internet is a powerful tool, its liberatory potential remains largely speculative; it can be (and almost undoubtedly is) exploited for the purposes of control and misdirection by the state as much as traditional media already, and the public still absorb the vast majority of their information from mainstream news sources. Whilst anti-war movements and figures are gaining traction online, polls indicate that alarmism over imagined terror threats has been incredibly effective in shaping popular opinion; much of the destruction of civil liberties and democratic rights since 9/11 was and is welcomed by a majority of the public.
I’d like to believe that there is a tipping point – an awakening juncture at which the wider populace decide that enough is enough, and it’s time for a change. However, as so much of the post-9/11 damage has been incremental and hidden from public view, that point may never come, or, perhaps, may have already passed us. Similarly, there are so many structures in place to inhibit and stifle dissent and popular action that it may be difficult to begin the process – and there’s no guarantee of how it might end.
In the case of the US, the destruction of their Shadow Government might necessitate a second American Revolution (an eventuality much of their domestic surveillance and infrastructure is, of course, in-part designed to prevent). In our case, it would require a government not wedded to the concept of perpetual war, or beholden to the will of the American Empire. If this happens, it won’t happen overnight, and it won’t happen due to the good nature and generosity of the British ruling class. What is needed in Britain, the US and elsewhere are sustained mass movements against war and imperialism, against the racism generated by them, and in defence of the civil liberties they threaten. Only mass political movements can challenge the prevailing media consensus, and turn tools like the internet from their weapons into ours.
To understand what we’re up against, and how it can be fought, readers could do worse than purchasing a copy of Shadow Government. Even when dealing with the most troublingly totalitarian excesses of the US surveillance state, Engelhardt remains entertaining, accessible and, somehow, positive. On that basis alone, he deserves much credit, and Shadow Government deserves to be read.