Monday, July 19, 2010

The National Insecurity State and the Twitterpation of America

Everyone's abuzz and atwitter about the WaPo's investigative report, Top Secret America. 

It certainly inspired Glenn Greenwald, and your really must read every single substantive word. It is an on-point piece about the National Security State and a howl of frustration toward the endless flood of trivial drek that we must all wade through to find anything, anything at all of actual importance.

Ironically, it's exactly the same problem that the "Intelligence" community has... a flood of information that overwhelms one's intelligence.
If you read and write about politics full-time and are thus forced to subject yourself to the political media -- as I am -- what's most striking aren't the outrages and corruptions, but the overwhelming, suffocating, numbing stream of stupidity and triviality that floods the brain.  One has to battle the temptation to just turn away and ignore it all.  Every day, day after day, is consumed by some totally irrelevant though distracting melodrama:  what Sarah Palin wrote on her Facebook page, some "outrageous" snippet of a comment made by John Boehner or Harry Reid, some "crazy," attention-attracting statement from some fringe idiot-figure or TV blowhard that is exploited for superficial partisan gain or distraction value (hey, look over there:  I think Michelle Bachmann just said something outrageous!!!!).
Now compare that to this excerpt:

NSA whistle blower Adrienne Kinne, when exposing NSA eavesdropping abuses, warned of what ABC News described as "the waste of time spent listening to innocent Americans, instead of looking for the terrorist needle in the haystack."  As Kinne put it:
By casting the net so wide and continuing to collect on Americans and aid organizations, it's almost like they're making the haystack bigger and it's harder to find that piece of information that might actually be useful to somebody.  You're actually hurting our ability to effectively protect our national security.
Glenn goes on and I'm certain I could find others saying much the same. Indeed, it would take very little effort to pick up instructive examples of waste and duplication of effort. I learned to pad the bibliography in grade school. But in fact, it would add very, very little to what I'm going to say next, which is, sadly, mostly based on things I've known for quite a long time, and you probably know too.

Now, this is actually what an intelligence and policy analyst does. Ideally, they do it a long, long time ahead of the curve, so that infrastructure, government and regulation - all slow moving entities - are able to respond and adapt. 

This entire, completely mad situation occurred because national panic created a situation that could be exploited by political and economic opportunists; people who put their own agendas far ahead of any rational view of National Security.  So the US is now far less secure than it was, with less reliable intelligence than it had before, with a bizarre degree of available force deployed in the wrong places, addressing the wrong threats, generally in the worst possible way. Consequently, it's ability to wield power usefully and effectively in order to secure it's own national and economic interests is much diminished, to the extent that it explains why there has been no serious attempt to follow up on 9/11.

"Never distract an enemy who's in the process of destroying themselves."

The whole point to "national security" is making the nation secure; that means every single citizen and indeed, even the unwelcome visitors and the rats in the walls must be secure; it must be a perceived and genuine reality. 

They must know they are secured against predictable threats and hazards, and that their governments are both willing, able and capable of responding to emergencies effectively, so when things like Katrina or the oil spill in the gulf happen the competent response to a visible emergency will reassure them that they are in good hands in regard to situations that must be kept under a cloak of secrecy.

One way to demonstrate competence is to deal with the obvious in an intelligent and proportional way. If you are serious about a policy, if it's not merely an exercise in diverting funds to cronies, then there are certain things that must be done, things that will displease some constituencies while pleasing others, but which proceed logically from the proposition. 

If you want a good football team, you don't dump a quarter of the budget into the glee squad. You don't spend time playing tennis to "develop a rounded athleticism."  Most of all, you do not choose the squad based on which player's parents whine the loudest. Once the process is corrupted, the only predictable outcome is that you won't have a football team that can put the ball in the end-zone. Putting it in the end-zone is the point to the exercise, and between corruption, distraction and pandering - that's the national security situation in a nutshell.

A team that doesn't know what game they are playing, how to work together, or where the other team is.

One of the first things that should have happened in the weeks following 9/11 would have been to secure the petroleum infrastructure, since large piles of things that can leak or go bang with effects that dwarf any pitiful little WMD that might be cobbled together in a garage are a problem

Security, regulation and oversight for critical infrastructure should have been an immediate and obvious priority. Hasn't been done. Hell, the routine maintenance of critical infrastructure has not been done. 

When procedures and inspections are so sloppy as to permit a well to just blow up all by itself, it would be amazingly trivial to sabotage a pipeline, pumping station or tank farm. Considering the industry track record on safety and cover-ups, I'd venture a guess that the sabotage, if ever detected, might never be reported. 

The same for securing the ports; ensuring that it's impossible to casually transit a few shipping containers filled with God Knows What routed to Who Knows Where. Hasn't been done.

And consider the substitution of National Security Theatre for anything that might actually promote National Security, such as the TSA and the "no fly list." Meanwhile, air cargo remains largely unscreened and the baggage handling system is easily penetrated. People concerned about the potential for cheap, high-impact terrorism have been screaming about this for decades. Decades. Since the time it was fashionable to hijack planes and fly them to Cuba.

Fixing infrastructure and communications mis-matches are not sexy. Precautionary regulations that cost Boeing and Exxon money are third-rail double-plus un-sexy. It's a quick ticket to being taken down in a primary by some useful idiot who will rant on about god, guns, gays and "American Exceptionalism."

Meanwhile, various levels of law enforcement are making it increasingly clear that if you have a bad situation, the quickest way to make it worse is to ask a cop for help. So, aside from all the inherent wrong that presents, you can fairly much forget getting any ground-level intelligence out of the very communities that any terrorist would first think to hide within. "The revolutionary swims within a sea of peasants" - Chairman Mao. 

He owed everything to the astonishingly corrupt "legitimate" government.  

So the way to avoid that outcome is to govern honestly and have as few ignorant, sullen resentful peasants as humanly possible. That's a lot easier and far less expensive than running a counter-insurgency.    

When it becomes clear to ordinary people that they will be treated as aliens, subversives and criminals by agents of the state, that the worst might happen to them regardless of their innocence, what incentive is there for them to not be smuggling blow, spying for foreign powers or trafficking in illegal weapons and people? 

There would have been no Robin Hood without the Sheriff of Nottingham. Now, here's the obvious thing. From the viewpoint of people who fondly believe that they are in charge, the Sheriff is "one of them." He's one of the good guys. But in actual fact, he's the guy who's escalating the situation. It's hard to find Robin, but you know where this guy lives. Dealing with him sends a message and just incidentally, makes a whole bunch of really bad situations never happen in the first place. 

That is the goal of national security. Making sure that most bad situations never happen. 

Looking at the concentration of effort going into "narcoterrorism" at the WaPo site, it's clear there is dramatic concern about the overlap between drug trafficking and it's ability to generate funds and camouflage for terrorism. Or at least, concern within each intelligence community that they aren't getting their share of drug dollars.

And yet the most obvious response would be to literally legislate the problem away. 

Legalize drugs, regulate them in a sane manner, tax them cautiously, so as to avoid significant grey and black market activity and an enormous amount of human capital and a giant pile of wasted money will be released for other uses.

It would take a relatively small amount of that money to deal intelligently and humanely with the actual consequences of individual drug use - which, I might add, are largely un-addressed due to there being no money and a lack of warm bodies. And suddenly, without the influx of "drug offenders" into private enterprise prisons, those prisons could retask themselves and their staffs towards something actually useful - say, perhaps rehab and treatment for drug use, chronic PTSD and vets affected or disabled by traumatic brain injuries. 

In other words, you want to get as close to the root of a problem as possible, and that leads me to refer once again to petroleum infrastructure. Clearly it's vulnerable. Hell, it's falling apart and blowing up at random! Phasing it out in favour of renewables, and distributing fuel and energy production as widely and evenly as possible would be a Very Good Thing. 

Consider how much havoc could be caused by simply triggering an overload of the power grid on a hot summer day at rush hour on the Eastern Seaboard. The best way to avoid this is to ensure that power is generated diffusely so that there are many fewer obvious, high-value targets.

But the most important thing to understand about National Security is this - you always, always, always want to get at least two bangs for your buck. Worse, any dollar that is directly spent on guns and spies is pretty much wasted, because those are fall-backs; ways to address the worst case. So you really do not want to invest more than you actually need, and you really want to spend even those dollars in ways that develop capabilities that can be used for more mundane things.

It's like building a city wall, in olden days. It is a HUGE investment. It's required, of course, and it must be maintained, and manned. If you don't have it, you will be exploited or attacked. But the point to the effort is to secure everything else, and if it becomes half of everything, and makes everything else that much harder... it's not actually doing it's job. Indeed, if it actually gets in the way of those it's intended to keep secure, they will subvert it as a matter of course.

Government should foster, encourage and regulate toward the end of seeing the nation secure itself, organically, in the ordinary course of affairs. That is to say, you regulate and legislate so that things that tend to make the nation more secure against external threats, and promote domestic tranquility and prosperity happen as a happy and natural side effect of what people are ordinarily doing. 

This generally means securing lines of communication, encouraging inter-dependencies between classes and regions, fostering trust, building relationships and generally being responsive and useful. In other words, when you call, they should come - and they should have better things to do than show up for no good reason.

When it starts to look to large portions of your population that they have a greater natural alliance and a greater reason to owe loyalty to foreign governments, drug lords, street gangs and of course, personal networks and families - that signifies national irrelevance - and at that point, you don't really have a "state" to "secure."

So, maybe you all should get to work on that. Me, I'd deal with the unemployment crisis. Can't really think of a bigger threat to national security than a large number of hungry, desperate, well-armed peoplewho can find out where you live by poking a few buttons on their smartphones. But that's just me. Carry on as you will.

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