The Edward Snowden-National Security Agency leak case raises anew the balance between means and ends that has been simmering on the back burner of the nation’s consciousness for a decade or so.
The terror attacks of 9/11 generated a predictable push to do everything to ensure such a thing would not happen again. When that’s the government’s mission, there can be only one outcome: cash, and lots of it.
It’s something tangible that the nation’s leaders can point to – “Look – we’ve created a Department of Homeland Security!” Perhaps some of it was even necessary.
But that relies on a core belief:
First of all, that al Qaeda and other terrorists pose such a threat to the U.S. that the only way to stop them is an annual stew of billions of dollars spiced up with AGM-114 Hellfire missiles. Osama bin Laden was able to do the damage he did by harnessing our airplanes against our skyscrapers. Are there other unlocked cockpit doors out there, metaphorically speaking, that we need to bolt? In other words, how much of a fat target did we present to the terrorists, and how likely are they to be able to replicate it?
Second, the shocking nature of the 9/11 attacks were their boldness – and that the perpetrators were willing to kill themselves to carry them out. Absent things like planes and skyscrapers, what tools do they have? Anything short of a nuclear weapon is something, to some degree, we may have to learn to live with in this era of non-state actors armed with malice and menace. We are never going to be able to eliminate everyone who wants to place backpack bombs on marathon sidewalks.
The nation’s over-reaction to 9/11 has led to the widespread surveillance to which Snowden, and a fair share of Americans, object. That’s fine: let them work through the political system to change it.
But make no mistake: there will be a lot of opposition to paring back the post-9/11 security state not because of the threat, but because of the billions of dollars pouring into the intelligence-industrial complex every year:
— You can see it along the major highways around Washington, D.C., where major intelligence firms have sprouted in recent years like mushrooms after the rain.
— You can hear it on the airwaves of Washington radio stations, where contractors warn of perpetual threats and the need to retain them to handle them.
— You can sense it around the nation’s capital, ringed by seven of the country’s 10 richest counties.
The Washington Post notes that 70% of the intelligence community’s budget flows to private firms. Since 9/11, the nation has spent close to $1 trillion on intelligence, meaning about $700 billion has gone to contractors like Booz Allen Hamilton, which hired the 29-year old Snowden, a computer expert, three months ago.
The $122,000 job gave Snowden a ringside seat to the intelligence community’s crown jewels.
How can Booz Allen – in reality, you – afford to pay a high school dropout that much (they fired him Monday for “for violations of the firm’s code of ethics and firm policy”)?
Simply scan this list of Pentagon contracts awarded to Booz Allen — all 42,000 of them — for the answer.
Or check out this section of a story in the Wall Street Journal last month:
That is the real scandal.