September 23, 2013

When the State Floods the Zone, Reform Is Dead

Imagine that there is a special class of American citizens. This special class is made up of individuals from private business, in fields such as agriculture, finance, the internet, academia, and utility companies. These people have certain responsibilities and, in exchange, they are granted certain privileges. These people are dedicated to providing information that, in their view, might be related in some way to possible threats to "national security." They are encouraged to report all such information they may come across, including information about their fellow employees. Imagine that there are tens of thousands of such "special" people, spread across the entire United States.

Members of the special class are given phone numbers for the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI. When they call to report "suspicious" behavior, and when they identify themselves as members of the special class, they know they "will be listened to." Were you recently angered by a decision by your boss, and did you mutter something about wanting "to give that bastard what he deserves"? Or perhaps you were chatting with one of your neighbors, and you casually and unthinkingly remarked that you'd like to see some of the politicians in Washington "get what they have coming." If a member of the special class heard such comments, you may already be known to the State, and in a decidedly unfavorable way.

For their diligent work, members of the special class are given advance "secret" warnings about terrorist threats, before the general public learns of them (and sometimes even before elected officials). These special individuals receive "almost daily updates" on threats "emanating from both domestic sources and overseas." These special people enjoy being "special." They "are happy to be in the know." In the event that communications networks are seriously disrupted, this special class will be able to get phone calls and internet messages through when most people can't.

These special individuals also have specified roles when martial law is declared. That's what the State has communicated to them: when martial law is declared, not if. These people will be "expected to share all [their] resources," and to protect any parts of the "critical infrastructure" to which they have access. In return, they will have "the ability to travel in restricted areas and to get people out."

When martial law is declared, these special individuals are granted one further power. They will be expected "to protect [their] portion of the infrastructure." If necessary, the State expects them to use deadly force to do so. Because these are very special people, the State has told them that, should they use deadly force, they will not be prosecuted.

Imagine all that. Would such a state of affairs trouble you? Do you think it would be a cause for concern that the State employed an army of "private" Americans to be its spies in businesses of every kind, perhaps including the business where you work? Would it bother you that the State has deputized tens of thousands of otherwise "ordinary" Americans to be murderers when martial law is declared -- murderers who are given an advance blank check for their killings?

But you don't need to imagine any of this. All of this is true, and this program came into existence in 1996. The program is called InfraGard, and I wrote it about more than five years ago. As of February 2012, InfraGard had more than 45,000 members; roughly 7,000 new members join each year. There are at least 86 chapters spread across the United States.

Please note the following, as it is of special importance. Information about InfraGard has been easily available for years. As I noted at the outset of my earlier post in February 2008, the InfraGard website is right in the open. The government isn't trying to keep InfraGard a secret. To the contrary, the State is enormously pleased with this program. It is more than happy to make its operations known -- and many Americans are very happy to join it. Most other Americans appear not to care about InfraGard at all -- for it is almost never talked or written about. You should find that profoundly disturbing. The State maintains a private army of tens of thousands of spies -- spies who are deputized to kill other people, possibly including you -- and no one seems to give a damn.

As a result of the recent NSA/surveillance stories, there is much debate about the NSA and its massive spying apparatus. But as the existence of InfraGard shows, the NSA is only the beginning of what should concern us. In fact, and it gives me no pleasure to say this, but it's better to face the truth as fully as we can, if the NSA ceased to exist today, it would not make any appreciable difference in the surveillance activities of the United States government. Given InfraGard's existence, which the State happily tells us about, if only we would pay attention, what other programs of this kind is the State engaged in, doubtless including many programs that the State is determined to keep secret?

And there are many other similar programs that we do already know about. Tarzie raised this critical point toward the end of a recent post. He provides a useful graphic, and he notes the other governmental entities that demand our focus, including the CIA and the Department of Justice. And the Justice Department includes the Bureau of Prisons, the FBI, and the DEA. InfraGard is nominally an FBI program, so that's where InfraGard would appear on this chart. InfraGard is also closely connected to the Department of Homeland Security, but, as Tarzie notes, the Department of Homeland Security doesn't even appear in the graphic.

For these reasons (among others), Tarzie describes the "unique focus on the NSA" as "arbitrary" and "perplexing." He's entirely correct, and the problem is far worse than that. Certainly, the discussion about the NSA is of value in one sense; shining any light at all on the nightmarish and deadly activities of the U.S. government is a good thing. However -- and it is a "however" of singular significance -- to focus on the NSA as if that agency is the only or even a major source of the problem is entirely wrong. The NSA is only one source of the rot that is spread across numerous agencies and programs, the rot that has infected our government at every level (federal, state, county, municipal, etc.) and in countless ways. But the unique and restricted focus on the NSA is also an enormous boon to the State; it is largely the result of our culture's idiotic and myopic focus on the "hot" story of the moment, devoid of history, of context, of everything that should inform our understanding of the issues involved. It creates and supports the view that, if only we "fix" the NSA, then a significant part of the problem will be solved. But that is flatly untrue. As I already noted, you could eliminate the NSA entirely this very minute, and it wouldn't make a damned bit of difference. But the heightened focus on the NSA, while ignoring all the other agencies and programs involved in similar and even identical activities, leads directly to the "solution" that will make the State writhe in ecstasy. Congress will have some hearings, and they will provide for some "oversight" and "accountability," and most people, including most of the State's critics, will herald the great triumph of "the people" and "democracy." Meanwhile, the State will continue doing exactly what it was doing before.

There is a further, related reason why the "reformist" agenda focused only on one part of a far larger problem is doomed to failure, and why such a reformist agenda represents exactly what the State hopes will happen. Here we come to the phenomenon that I now refer to as the State "flooding the zone." When the State floods the zone, as it has with regard to surveillance (and in many other areas), incremental reformism is rendered almost entirely meaningless. I've explained this phenomenon before; interestingly, the focus on that earlier occasion was also surveillance, although the particular story concerned FISA. You can see the continuity in theme from the very opening of the post from 2008:
I indicated the other day that, as odious and destructive of liberty and privacy as the new FISA "compromise" bill is, there is one perspective from which the momentous to-do about this legislation is very badly misplaced. The selective focus on FISA misses the crucial larger picture in a way that ensures that the ruling class's hold on increasingly tyrannical power will never be consistently or seriously challenged -- which is, of course, precisely what the ruling class wants.
Later in the essay, I explained what I now call flooding the zone:
With regard to FISA and issues of liberty and privacy in general, let me now ask you a few questions. How long do you think it would take you to identify, read, and understand every provision in every statute, regulation and other authorization that gives surveillance powers to the government? Furthermore: Would you know each and every place to look, or how to determine what those places were? Additionally: With a staff of 20, or 50, could it be done, even if you were provided with limitless time and limitless funds?

I submit to you, without qualification or reservation, that you could not do it. No one could. Consider that most legislators in Washington aren't even aware of much of what's in the bills they so eagerly vote on. Consider the prohibitive length and complexity of legislation that comes before Congress. That's true of what is going on now. If you tried to track down every piece of legislation, every regulation, every administrative agency ruling, and every other pronouncement still in effect that allows the government to surveil and otherwise keep track of you, me, the guy down the street, the woman next door and the man in the moon, based on alleged concern with and the need to protect us all from the ravages of drugs, "illicit" sex, any and all other suspected criminal activity and, natch, terrorism, how on God's green earth would you do it? You couldn't. I further submit to you that the only reason you appear to have some precious remnants of freedom left, and the only reason you remain at liberty, is that the government hasn't comprehensively focused on all the powers it already possesses and hasn't come anywhere close to utilizing them fully and consistently. This is the moment you should fall to your knees and thank whatever gods may be for the miraculous, close to perfect incompetence of the pathetically ineffectual blockheads in Washington.
Certainly with regard to surveillance, the State has already granted itself entirely comprehensive, indeed omnipotent, powers. I guarantee you that, buried in the hideous bowels of all the laws, regulations, agency rulings, etc. and so on unto the ends of time, that give the State surveillance powers, the State has the power to spy on anything, anywhere, anytime, for any reason it manufactures, or for no reason at all. The State can do whatever it wants. And since the State now claims the right to murder anyone, anywhere, anytime, that statement is literally true: the State can do whatever it wants.

But I must clarify one of my earlier points: it is not only because no one can possibly keep track of all the relevant laws and regulations, and it is not only incompetence on the part of the ruling class, that explain why the State's already comprehensive powers have not yet been fully realized. Systemic restraints, and questions relating to the growth of the corporatist-authoritarian-militarist State, also play an important role, and I will be discussing some of these factors in upcoming articles. For our purposes here, the basic point remains: the State already possesses total surveillance powers. It doesn't need the NSA to accomplish its goals; an endless number of other agencies and programs (including InfraGard, as just one example) can fulfill those goals just as easily. Provide oversight and accountability all you want; it won't make the slightest bit of difference, except to the reformers who will shout in triumph still one more time.

I should mention one further issue. I'm writing about the numerous ways in which all of us seek to control events, how we devote enormous energy to manipulating and attempting to direct our individual lives (see here and here). For people involved in politics, the desire for control extends to trying to direct the policies and actions of the State. This is another reason that we so easily fall into an utterly unjustified and restrictive focus with regard to many issues, as, for instance, in the case with the NSA in the current surveillance debate. We would prefer to believe that, if only we can "fix" this particular problem, then the general problem will be solved, or at least a significant part of it. In this way, we delude ourselves into believing that we can control events, and even the State itself. If only it were so -- but it isn't. Make the NSA "accountable," make many of its operations more "transparent." The ruling class will be goddamned thrilled. They know that it will make no difference at all with regard to the success of their program -- and they know that they will have won once again.

Once the State has flooded the zone, the State has placed itself far beyond "reform." I realize this is a notably unpleasant, unwelcome and unpopular truth. Unhappily, for all of us, it is the truth.