Privatize Me (NSA and the Surveillance State)

“Privatization” is considered such an unalloyed blessing for society that we don’t even have a good antonym for it. “Publicization,” assuming that’s really a word, would have to do with giving publicity to something, not with taking something that’s been made private and bringing it back into the public sector. The word we use to mean the opposite of “privatization” is “nationalization,” which (I would be willing to bet all the money in my wallet, which either shows how strongly I believe this or how little money is in my wallet, you decide) for most Americans conjures up images of America-hating dictators seizing control of their nation’s oil supply or the like; in other words, a connotation that most people in this country would find unappealing at best. But is privatization always good?

I’ve often wondered aloud to anyone in earshot (who isn’t able to get out of range before it’s too late) about what future archeologists and historians are going to think when they pick through the rubble of our once-great society to find that, at some utterly bizarre point in our development, we decided to privatize our public education system and our penal system. My feeling is that they’ll probably never figure out how any supposedly advanced society could be that stupid. Now I think we should add a third item to that list: our national security apparatus.

Thom Hartmann preached a pretty righteous sermon in his first hour today about the ways in which our outsourced national security infrastructure has contributed to the growth of the surveillance state, and I think this is the underreported story of the Snowden-NSA leak saga. I’ve been reading as much as I could about the NSA leaks and frankly am still not sure how I feel about all of this. I’m not an idealist. I recognize that governments have to engage in espionage and keep state secrets, that governments on a war footing (as ours is, maybe forever at this rate, but I digress) assume greater-than-normal or greater-than-desirable amounts of power. But I respect the idealists, because somebody has to keep pointing out that these powers are greater-than-desirable, that limits need to be imposed, and that no war, however lucrative for defense contractors wonderful it might be, should last forever. If compromise involves meeting in the middle, the voices out there arguing for total government transparency and a dismantling of the all-encompassing surveillance state are the only ones who might keep “the middle” in a place where it is still compatible with a free democratic society.

Something that should alarm people, even if the content of this particular leak doesn’t, is the degree to which we’re now farming out our national security to private contractors, a topic on which ThinkProgress and Salon have both done good work. For example:

The total annual budget of the intelligence community is itself secret; only the top line is reported to the public. For Fiscal Year 2014, the Obama administration requested $48.2 billion for the National Intelligence Program, encompassing “six Federal departments, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.” Of that amount, according to a 2007 article, an amazing 70 percent goes towards private contractors.

Also, too:

“The largest concentration of cyber power on the planet is the intersection of the Baltimore Parkway and Maryland Route 32,” says Michael V. Hayden, who oversaw the privatization effort as NSA director from 1999 to 2005. He was referring not to the NSA itself but to the business park about a mile down the road from the giant black edifice that houses NSA’s headquarters in Fort Meade, Md. There, all of NSA’s major contractors, from Booz to SAIC to Northrop Grumman, carry out their surveillance and intelligence work for the agency.

With many of these contractors now focused on cyber-security, Hayden has even coined a new term — “Digital Blackwater” – for the industry. “I use that for the concept of the private sector in cyber,” he told a recent conference in Washington, in an odd reference to the notorious mercenary army. “I saw this in government and saw it a lot over the last four years. The private sector has really moved forward in terms of providing security,” he said. Hayden himself has cashed out too: He is now a principal with the Chertoff Group, the intelligence advisory company led by Michael Chertoff, the former secretary of Homeland Security.

The problem with turning these things over to private enterprise, especially with a political system that rewards the amassing of enormous campaign funds the way ours does, is that it creates perverse social and political incentives for our elected representatives. Turning prison management over to private contractors creates a profit motive for those contractors to try to maximize the number of people who go to prison and to maximize the amount of time they spend in prison. The contractors, large and wealthy corporations all, use their wealth to lobby for “tough on crime” legislation, and to support the campaigns of legislators and judges who promise to lock ’em up. The end result is a country that locks ’em up at rates far higher than any other country in the world. When we turn public school management over to private companies (and note that I am NOT talking about private schools, having gone to one myself in high school), we create incentives for those companies to cut back on the quality of the education they offer maximize profits, a fact that they cover up with respect to standardized test scores by politically gaming the system so that they can pick only the best and brightest students for their schools. Those companies then use part of their profits to lobby for more charter schools and greater ability to cherry-pick students to boost their test scores, and kids across the board suffer.

So it is with our national security. If the government decides to pay contractors for its defense and intelligence work rather than do those things in house, as it has, the firms who win the contracts are absolutely going to put part of the money they earn into “encouraging” the government 1) to make those revenue streams permanent, and 2) to expand them, by privatizing more and more of our defense infrastructure but also by increasing the size of our defense infrastructure. For companies that specialize in data-mining, this means “encouraging” the government to add more layers to the surveillance state so that there’s correspondingly more government money out there to be earned. This “encouragement” may not take the form of direct lobbying, but security contractors are major campaign donors, and the revolving door is certainly at play when it comes to defense. Does any of this data-mining and surveillance work? Well, that depends on your point of view. It certainly “works” in the sense of making the private contractors rich. But does it actually help to prevent terrorism? Perhaps, but that’s not so cut-and-dried.

Maybe it would be easier to shrink the surveillance state if we hadn’t created a security contractor industry that can use its profits to insure that its business only grows, never shrinks.

UPDATE: Thom Hartmann, from his radio program yesterday, on security, government bureaucrats, and private contractors:


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