Sunday, March 23, 2014

Point of Ordure, Mr. Chairman

First we had the journalism profession up in arms because the FCC was going to assign someone to every newsroom in order to keep the hired help in line. That was good for a few larfs. Now we have the Senate and the CIA standing toe-to-toe and arguing about who has been spying on whom, and who hacked who's computers, and who has, or thinks they have, or pretends to have, oversight over whom... and so on. This is one of those cases where, quite frankly, I don't care who wins because both sides deserve to lose, and lose big. It's like what happens when two schoolyard bullies get into a fight – everyone else wants it to keep going until both of them have to be carried out on stretchers.

Another way of putting it is that the Senate (and Congress in general) and the CIA (and the intelligence community overall) deserve each other. The rise of the intel cabal to its place of preeminence in the government was aided and abetted by Congress, which has been only too happy to give up its Constitutional prerogatives, one by one, almost since the founding. It seems to have started with war powers, but has escalated more recently to the point where Congress is as ignored and left out as the proverbial wallflower at a high school dance. The Executive Branch does as it damn pleases, and the courts reverse all the hard work of Congress on any whim that strikes their fancy. In fact, one could seriously question whether we need the Legislative Branch at all – except that they do the donkey work on laws that the Executive Branch wants, because the latter have better things to do with their time. You could say that Congress is little more, on any given day, than an extension of the White House staff – and you'd be right. And I say this fully aware that we still have, allegedly, a two-party system, and that the two parties in question are at perpetual knife-points about just about everything... except that they're not. As I've pointed out before, all the debates are about trivial and marginal issues, and are staged primarily as demonstrations that the Legislative Branch is not obsolete. (And when you have to stage meaningless debates about trivia, that's the best indicator that said branch is, in fact, obsolete.)

One could ask, plaintively, at what point did legislators cease to represent the people in any meaningful way? And I guess one would have to attribute this to things like bribery, lobbies, interest groups, special pleading, etc. -- in other words to things that have been around since the day after the Constitution was ratified. But again, the trajectory has been a long, slow curve upward – correlated, roughly 100%, with the portion of our gross national product, i.e. our productivity, that was confiscated by Congress and turned to dubious uses. When tax rates were low they had less to play with, and hence were less besieged by people wanting a handout. As, over time, they took a bigger bite out of the flesh of the hapless working American, they had more to play with, and hence were the targets of more, and more irresistible, temptations – not only in the form of money per se, but even more in the form of power. Power, and glory – or, maybe power without glory. Isn't that just as good? And this actually brings us back to the intelligence complex.

You have to admit, at least the hard-core intel types aren't in it for the fame – unless you count strictly intramural reputation as fame. And they aren't even particularly in it for the money. No, it's all about power, which is, supposedly, a product of knowledge, AKA intelligence. The spy has power simply because he can find things out about other people without them knowing – i.e. it's an asymmetrical relationship. He can exploit people without them knowing they're being exploited – sort of a sophisticated, high-tech version of a peeping tom. And that seems to be enough for these characters most of the time. They are content to live – and occasionally die – in obscurity, because they hold the power... the golden keys... the combination to every lock. They are people for whom secrets are like unto pearls of great price, and for whom secrecy, and the arts and crafts thereof, comprise their highest-valued skill.

Now... certain of us are occasionally fooled and misled by the notion that the intel agencies are somehow working for the good of the American citizen, or to protect our way of life (whatever that entails these days)... that they are super-patriots, willing to sacrifice anything to keep the wolf from the door. Well, no. OK – there may be a few genuine patriots slaving away in the bowels of CIA or NSA or some other intel headquarters, but they're either deluded or in denial as to the true agenda and priorities of those for whom they slave. (And they'll never get a corner office, I guarantee you that.)

Am I saying that this is the age of cynicism? Yes, to a great extent. The average citizen may be harboring some residual feelings of patriotism – love of country – but his leaders have grown way beyond such childish, grade-school and social-studies-class foolishness and have acquired a new respect for milking the system for all it's worth. “Intelligence” is no longer, assuming it ever was, about patriotism, any more than “defense” is about pursuing the ideals of the Founding Fathers. And again, I suppose that this is inevitable given the universal concupiscence of politicians when it comes to money and power (sex being a sub-category of power, note). Even the few with good intentions who are sent to Washington by starry-eyed supporters come down with “Potomac fever” the minute they get inside the Beltway, and never recover – nor do they want to. What, after all, is fragile human nature when confronted with that much confiscated wealth, the levers of power, the (kind of pathetic, when you think about it) “perks”? The reason power and money corrupt is that human beings are corruptible – and nothing lends itself more to this process than big government. It would be like expecting dictators to be philosopher kings; it just ain't gonna happen. Fallen human nature is against it. Thus, the folly of ever expecting the sins and offenses of big government to be cured by more government (an affliction which befalls “conservatives” from time to time). No, the idea is: Less, or none. Line up all the government agencies like ducks in a shooting gallery and start plugging away. I guarantee that the more that fall, the more refreshed and liberated and energized we will all be.

Consider, for a moment, how the omnipresent, omniscient intelligence complex came to be. It started in earnest – and by necessity, assuming the war was necessary, which Pat Buchanan questions – during World War II. For two decades up to that point, our unofficial policy when it came to other countries was: They don't bother us, we don't bother them. But all that was to change, and permanently, on that “date that will live in infamy”. So along came the intelligence agencies, and they multiplied like rabbits – internal, external, one for each armed service, overlapping missions, the occasional gap (which 9/11 was not, BTW)... and, like any other government entity created to deal with an emergency (war or otherwise), they turned out to have everlasting life. They could not be killed, because “mission creep” is always way ahead of whoever it is that doles out funding (Congress, for example). World War II was followed in close order by the Iron Curtain, and the Cold War, and all the other artificially life-extending circumstances that required us to keep armies of spies fully deployed around the globe as well as internally, because there are enemies everywhere, don't you know. Add to this our expanding economic and political empire, and you have the perfect formula for the dominance of “intelligence” over all other functions of government. We did not give up on military conquest, but preferred the economic kind – less messy, more efficient. But for economic conquest to work, one must have information, and the intimate symbiosis between the intelligence community and the business community arose quite naturally out of this necessity.

Now, I'm not saying, as some do, that the rest of the government actually works for the intelligence complex. It would be more accurate to say that they are all employees of a higher power. The intel side only seems to have more power because it keeps secrets and can get away with more. But are they running the whole show? I doubt it very much, and one reason is simply, why would they? Why bother? They have their empire – their “parallel government” -- and they don't need to waste time bossing the tools on Capitol Hill or in the White House. Those latter entities have their uses... and the appearance of separation of powers helps when they're dealing with the citizenry (not that there aren't plenty of chuckles and guffaws in Langley or Ft. Meade at their follies). One could almost say that Congress and the White House pretend to be in charge but aren't, whereas the intel agencies pretend to not be in charge, but are. But again, being in charge, I suspect, is secondary to playing the game.

And this is the real key. Intelligence is a game, and ultimately it doesn't even matter who wins or who loses. Losers can write memoirs too, after all. The appeal is that of action – of manipulation – of being in the midst of it all – of knowing what really happened and why, and who did it. Imagine spending a lazy Sunday afternoon riffling through the Top Secret/Kill Self Before Reading files in the basement of the CIA. Wouldn't you then have all the answers – about JFK, 9/11, Jimmy Hoffa... and so on? The great mysteries of our time, revealed? It's tempting to think so. But again, is the ultimate truth really what it's about? Remember, it's a game. Old CIA and KGB guys get together and reminisce over vodka and Cuban cigars: “Ah yes, those were the days. And I'm sorry about poor Percy, but he had to go, you know.” “Think nothing of it, old friend, we got back at you with Ivan, remember.” “Oh yes, I do remember – good show.” (chuckles all around) So when anyone is “eliminated” it's, basically, because they got in the way – not of national security but of the game, like some pinhead running onto the field during the Super Bowl. They get due diligence – but the game goes on. (I imagine this is a major aspect of the JFK story – he was done in by a cabal of cold warriors, intel game-playing types, plain cynics, opportunists, sociopaths, and maybe one or two genuine patriots. Sort of a dream team, if you will. But mainly, he got in the way of the game.)

So the intelligence cabal was partly created (by the Executive Branch and Congress) and partly self-created. It grew and multiplied like the brooms in The Sorcerer's Apprentice. And because it dealt in secrets, everything about it had to be secret as well – budget, staffing, operations, influence on foreign governments, and so on. And... now this is where it gets weird (or pathetic)... Congress is, allegedly, charged with “oversight” when it comes to intelligence operations. Well, who charged it? Itself, of course. So every once in a while a few intel bigwigs trek up Capitol Hill in order to provide a briefing, behind closed doors, to one or more Congressional committees – but how do those committees know that the intel guys aren't just blowing smoke up their butts? They don't, obviously – how could they? What are they going to do, go up to Langley or Ft. Meade in a motorcade with flashing lights to see if the intel guys were telling the truth? “Trust but verify?” How about “Don't trust, and afraid to verify.” Even if they were shown all the secrets down to the third sub-basement, what about the fourth and fifth sub-basements? If someone tells you they've told you all there is to know, how do you know? So it's really impossible. Add to this that the intel agencies have secret budgets (all approved, sight unseen of course, by Congress), and probably take a good chunk out of other budgets as well. How about a personnel count? You've got people on the books, people off the books, contractors, informants, deep-cover operatives, moles, rats, stool pigeons... every species, from high fliers to bottom feeders. “Oversight”? It's a total joke. And yet Congress, in its infinite narcissism, insists on keeping up the pretense, and all is well until they get too close for comfort, and then you have the current situation, with the very people who created the monster now in high dudgeon because said monster is galumphing through the formal garden.

And what's most delicious about the current hostilities is that it's largely Democrat members of the Senate who are feeling victimized -- yes, the same people who will use any means at their disposal to increase the size of government and the extent of its reach into the lives of private citizens – but their own hallowed halls are to be kept sacrosanct, right? Sorry guys, that's not the way it works. Cookie Monster want more cookies, and it doesn't care where it gets them.

What do I recommend? Well, it's too late to get rid of the intel cabal – might as well try to get rid of an inoperable tumor once it's taken over every organ system. It would actually be easier – and more fun – to get rid of Congress, but since they apparently have their uses even in the midst of appearing useless, that seems unlikely as well (not to mention that it would require some minor modifications to the Constitution – but it's widely ignored anyway, so I don't see that as as a major issue). No, I really do think that there is no solution short of waiting for the system to collapse of its own weight – but that could take many more lifetimes even though the process seems to be accelerating. Better to focus one's serious attentions elsewhere, and just let these sorts of controversies serve as comic relief.

1 comment:

Bob A. said...

As usual, a satisfying and thought provoking read,David....especially from one with your background. I particularly liked the part about sequential elimination of government agencies as a sensible, if only partial, fix for our over-governed society.

I'm with you in terms of regretfully concluding that there is probably not a lot within the ability of ordinary citizens to "do", and that waiting for it all to collapse of its own weight, complexity, and irrelevance, and hoping that something better eventually emerges from the wreckage, may be the only available course.

In any event, and especially at my lifestage, those grim thoughts, while interesting to play with, clash with the beautiful, late winter morning we're having up on our hill. So, another approach is simply to take the dog for a walk.

Cousin Bob