During his election campaign in 2008, Barack Obama promised to close the prison at Guantánamo, repeal the Patriot Act of 2001 that authorised new domestic surveillance, and protect military and intelligence whistleblowers against government reprisals. It was a pledge to rein in much of the security state apparatus that had been expanded after 11 September 2001 into an enormous, often unaccountable, bureaucracy.
But four years later, Guantánamo is still open, its military tribunals have resumed and Obama has approved the renewal of the Patriot Act. His Department of Justice has launched six Espionage Act prosecutions of security whistleblowers — twice as many as all previous administrations combined. Also the no-fly list of individuals prohibited from air travel — a designation that is often arbitrary and always opaque — has more than doubled since last year, to 21,000. In 2011, the president signed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which gives the federal government the power to imprison indefinitely US citizens accused of terrorism, a major erosion of habeas corpus rights. The administration has authorised the assassination of an unknown number of US citizens abroad who are not directly engaged in armed hostilities but who have been designated as “terrorists”, with minimal legal process. Last September, American drones in Yemen hunted and killed radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and Al-Qaida propagandist Samir Khan; two weeks later, a separate American drone strike killed Awlaki’s 16-year old son: all were US citizens. Obama has also radically expanded the ostensibly “secret” killing of non-US citizens by drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia; as many as a third of the victims are non-combatant civilians, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.
What happened? The expectation that Obama would reduce the national security state was not wholly naïve, nor without historical precedent. In the 1970s, after Watergate and Vietnam, an emboldened Democratic majority in Congress rose up against Republican president Gerald Ford to curtail intrusive police powers and domestic spying at home while limiting the executive’s war-making powers, including covert operations, abroad. Many voters expected similar changes, in accordance with Obama’s campaign promises, after the 2008 election.
They have been disappointed. Airport security is ever more intrusive, with the introduction of body-imaging “porno-scanners,” now in 140 airports. These time-consuming and irritating practices are “security theatre” and initial reports by the Transportation Security Administration show that the scanners — which have cost $90m — are not difficult to elude (1). Those who refuse to be scanned go through pat-downs more like sexual groping.
Alphabet Soup of Fiefdoms
Most striking is the normalisation of domestic surveillance under Obama. The federal government now employs 30,000 people to monitor phone conversations in the US; the Department of Homeland Security, formed only in 2002, is now the third-largest federal bureaucracy, surpassed only by the Pentagon and the Department of Veteran Affairs. The construction of a 1m sq ft (93,000 sq m) domestic surveillance data centre costing $2bn has just been started in Bluffdale, Utah (2).
It is difficult to discern exactly how much the national security state has grown. Since 9/11 an alphabet soup of bureaucratic fiefdoms, all with ballooning budgets (supplemented by secret funding allocations), has fuelled a construction boom in the Washington area: 33 complexes, nearly 17m sq ft (1.58m sq m). Dana Priest, national security correspondent at The Washington Post, estimates that the post-9/11 “security spending spree” has topped $2 trillion. There is no overarching authority: the new cabinet-level position theoretically in charge of these agencies, the Director of National Intelligence, is in practice powerless.
At the same time government secrecy has intensified. Washington classified an amazing 92m documents in 2011, almost double the number made secret in 2009. The classification process costs $10bn annually, according to William Bosanko, a former director of the federal Information Security Oversight Office. Declassification of secret material is glacially slow; not until last year did the National Security Agency (NSA) finish releasing material from the war of 1812. Only well-funded advocacy groups with experienced lawyers are able to use the Freedom of Information Act to gain access to information about the security state — and with only limited success.