Originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle, 8 September 2013
Programmed to act
By William M. Arkin
The drive last week to attack Syria for using weapons of mass destruction is an American straight-jacket of the most confining sort.
Before President Obama decided to ask Congress to authorize the use of military force, the arguments for and against were flying. Is it legal? Is the intelligence accurate? Do we know the right targets? Can missiles or aircraft overcome supposedly robust Syrian air defenses? Will U.S. military and Syrian civilian lives be spared? Are we really helping the Syrian people? How will the rest of the world react? Can we achieve our objectives? The horror of chemicals, the gassing of innocent civilians, terror weapons; the hyperbole reserved for the evil of weapons of mass destruction is only matched by equally grave phrases — American credibility on the line, catastrophe, World War III — used to describe the costs of action or inaction.
That’s the thing with WMD.
They hover above every other concern, foreign and domestic. They are a national security trump card accorded a special place befitting being the most coveted and detested of all objects.
In close to 40 years I’ve been working on issues relating to the military, I’ve watched this never-ending theater of WMD. Over decades and diverse administrations, justifications for the use of force — limited and full scale — have constantly revolved around weapons of mass destruction. Protection against them, real and imaginary, has served itself as justification for government excess and a curtailment of our freedoms. So much so that even today, from august international bodies that sit on high to the recognized wise that populate academia to human rights activists and even peaceniks, the common mantra is that WMD cannot be tolerated. We stop everything because it is WMD and we fret about the consequences of both action and inaction because it is WMD.
We do so because of a little known and little understood entity that truly drives American national security practices: It’s called The Program.
Founded in the darkest days of nuclear threat during the Eisenhower administration, The Program began as a limited system given responsibility for survival of the government. The nuclear arms race ended, but The Program never completely went away. And since 9/11, like everything else about national security, its mission and focus has expanded. The main reason again is WMD.
An accepted assumption passed down from Clinton to Bush to Obama is that an exceptional threat that once just existed in all-out nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union transformed into an everyday threat. And not only that, but in an age of terrorism and global connectedness, WMD manifests not just from foreign regimes or terrorist groups, but also in common components — pressure cookers, a nasty virus, a keyboard — anything that could be the trigger for societal breakdown, even if it comes in the form of natural disasters or just system failures.
As the agent of survival, The Program is also the survivor.
To conceive of what The Program is, think Wall Street. It is a place, but it is also allusively the entirety of certain interests. It is made up of the equivalent of banks and financial institutions — actual offices in departments and agencies of government; people, policies, objectives — but it is not ruled by one man or entity, yet it acts in unison and with united purpose. It has a nominal headquarters that culminates in the White House but it has become more permanent than the elected who occupy it. And though it is budgeted and the Congress even participates in its workings, it is neither legislated nor publicly sanctioned. The Program exists through a system of sealed envelopes — four dozen formal Presidential Emergency Action Documents more secret than anything that has been revealed about the National Security Agency of late, arrangements that instruct a surviving entity of what to do if a nation-destroying calamity befalls Washington or the United States.
Because Doomsday is now thought by the experts in government to be any day, and because the potential battlefield is anyplace and every place, the work of The Program, and its power, has dramatically expanded. A survival apparatus operates behind the scenes as if survival is perpetually and instantly at stake. There’s no overt conspiracy here, unless one considers the supremacy of this impenetrable and unchallenged ideology.
Successive presidencies have granted The Program extraordinary powers and extralegal action beyond anything sanctioned in the Constitution or public laws. This is precisely because whatever would activate the need for overt takeover would surely be necessary to preserve or even restore the nation’s institutions and laws. Extraordinary secrecy safeguards The Program, but in an always hyperbolic society where threats redefined as mass destruction are seemingly everywhere, not too many questions are asked.
With the discussions that began last week, we will be back again in this cycle, whether it’s with Iran’s WMD or North Korea’s or even al Qaeda’s. At the highest reaches of government, the inherited and ingrained assumption will be that when it comes to WMD violating law to uphold law is allowable, even warranted. And not only that, but because of WMD and the vulnerability of modern society, political compromises and legal violations will be endorsed to prevent or forestall mass destruction.
The Program is a subtle American coup that condemns us to perform the same rituals and set down the same red lines oblivious to the stranglehold that this way of thinking and mode of governance has on our nation. If the program were effective at improving our national security, if at the end of any given year the powers that be concluded that they had made progress and could loosen the reins of secret government and return to some state of normalcy, then one might reluctantly agree with the Washington tune that everything is a trade-off between security and freedom.
Not only does this never happen, but policies of torture and warrantless surveillance and government assassination of American citizens persist and flourish, our freedoms and values actively undermined in a state of martial life that is both invisible and all-encompassing.
For The Program, Syria is just business as usual.
It’s not as if the thousands who toil away behind the scenes have an opinion one way or another. Nor are they necessarily pulling any strings. But the business of doing the nation’s dirty work demands a complex web, and the mission to connect the dots to every potential hiding place creates an almost unlimited mandate.
What The Program endeavors for is for the American people to get with the program. Fear of mass destruction and the righteous action associated with WMD forms a perfect cushion and shield, survival and sustenance assured for noble purposes.
William M. Arkin is author of “American Coup: How a Terrified Government is Destroying the Constitution;” and co-author of the best-selling book and newspaper series “Top Secret America.”