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Weren’t those the greatest of days if you were in the American spy game? Governments went down in Guatemala and Iran thanks to you. In distant Indonesia, Laos, and Vietnam, what a role you played! And even that botch-up of an invasion in Cuba was nothing to sneeze at. In those days, unfortunately, you—particularly those of you in the CIA—didn’t get the credit you deserved.
You had to live privately with your successes. Sometimes, as with the Bay of Pigs, the failures came back to haunt you (so, in the case of Iran, would your “success,” though so many years later), but you couldn’t with pride talk publicly about what you, in your secret world, had done, or see instant movies and TV shows about your triumphs. You couldn’t launch a “covert” air war that was reported on, generally positively, almost every week, or bask in the pleasure of having your director claim publicly that it was “the only game in town.” You couldn’t, that is, come out of what were then called “the shadows,” and soak up the glow of attention, be hailed as a hero, join Americans in watching some (fantasy) version of your efforts weekly on television, or get the credit for anything.
Nothing like that was possible—not at least until well after two journalists, David Wise and Thomas B. Ross, shined a bright light into those shadows, called you part of an “invisible government,” and outed you in ways that you found deeply discomforting.
Their book with that startling title, The Invisible Government, was published in 1964 and it was groundbreaking, shadow-removing, illuminating. It caused a fuss from its very first paragraph, which was then a shockeroo: “There are two governments in the United States today. One is visible. The other is invisible.”
I mean, what did Americans know at the time about an invisible government even the president didn’t control that was lodged deep inside the government they had elected?
Wise and Ross continued: “The first is the government that citizens read about in their newspapers and children study about in their civics books. The second is the interlocking, hidden machinery that carries out the policies of the United States in the Cold War. This second, invisible government gathers intelligence, conducts espionage, and plans and executes secret operations all over the globe.”
The Invisible Government came out just as what became known as “the Sixties” really began, a moment when lights were suddenly being shone into many previously shadowy American corners. I was then 20 years old and sometime in those years I read their book with a suitable sense of dread, just as I had read those civics books in high school in which Martians landed on Main Street in some “typical” American town to be lectured on our way of life and amazed by our Constitution, not to speak of those fabulous governmental checks and balances instituted by the Founding Fathers, and other glories of democracy.
I wasn’t alone reading The Invisible Government either. It was a bestseller and CIA Director John McCone reportedly read the manuscript, which he had secretly obtained from publisher Random House. He demanded deletions. When the publisher refused, he considered buying up the full first printing. In the end, he evidently tried to arrange for some bad reviews instead.
Time Machines and Shadow Worlds
By 1964, the “U.S. Intelligence Community,” or IC, had nine members, including the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), and the National Security Agency (NSA). As Wise and Ross portrayed it, the IC was already a labyrinthine set of secret outfits with growing power. It was capable of launching covert actions worldwide, with a “broad spectrum of domestic operations,” the ability to overthrow foreign governments, some involvement in shaping presidential campaigns, and the capacity to plan operations without the knowledge of Congress or full presidential control. “No outsider,” they concluded, “can tell whether this activity is necessary or even legal. No outsider is in a position to determine whether or not, in time, these activities might become an internal danger to a free society.” Modestly enough, they called for Americans to face the problem and bring “secret power” under control. (“If we err as a society, let it be on the side of control.”)
Now, imagine that H.G. Wells’s time machine had been available in that year of publication. Imagine that it whisked those journalists, then in their mid-thirties, and the young Tom Engelhardt instantly some 48 years into the future to survey just how their cautionary tale about a great democratic and republican nation running off the tracks and out of control had played out.
The first thing they might notice is that the Intelligence Community of 2012 with seventeen official outfits has, by the simplest of calculations, almost doubled. The real size and power of that secret world, however, has in every imaginable way grown staggeringly larger than that. Take one outfit, now part of the IC, that didn’t exist back in 1964, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. With an annual budget of close to $5 billion, it recently built a gigantic $1.8 billion headquarters—“the third-largest structure in the Washington area, nearly rivaling the Pentagon in size”—for its 16,000 employees. It literally has its “eye” on the globe in a way that would have been left to sci-fi novels almost half a century ago and is tasked as “the nation’s primary source of geospatial intelligence, or GEOINT.” (Don’t ask me what that means exactly, though it has to do with quite literally imaging the planet and all its parts—or perhaps less politely, turning every inch of Earth into a potential shooting range.)
Or consider an outfit that did exist then: the National Security Agency, or NSA (once known jokingly as “no such agency” because of its deep cover). Like its geospatial cousin, it has been in a period of explosive growth, budgetary and otherwise, capped off by the construction of a “heavily fortified” $2 billion data center in Bluffdale, Utah. According to NSA expert James Bamford, when finished in 2013 that center will “intercept, decipher, analyze, and store vast swaths of the world’s communications as they zap down from satellites and zip through the underground and undersea cables of international, foreign, and domestic networks.” He adds: “Flowing through its servers and routers and stored in near-bottomless databases will be all forms of communication, including the complete contents of private emails, cell phone calls, and Google searches, as well as all sorts of personal data trails—parking receipts, travel itineraries, bookstore purchases, and other digital ‘pocket litter.’” We’re talking not just about foreign terrorists here but about the intake and eternal storage of vast reams of material from American citizens, possibly even you.
Or consider a little-known post-9/11 creation, the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), which is not even a separate agency in the IC, but part of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. According to the Wall Street Journal, the Obama administration has just turned that organization into “a government dragnet, sweeping up millions of records about U.S. citizens—even people suspected of no crime.” It has granted the NCTC the right, among other things “to examine the government files of U.S. citizens for possible criminal behavior, even if there is no reason to suspect them… copy entire government databases—flight records, casino-employee lists, the names of Americans hosting foreign-exchange students, and many others. The agency has new authority to keep data about innocent U.S. citizens for up to five years, and to analyze it for suspicious patterns of behavior. Previously, both were prohibited.”
Or take the Defense Intelligence Agency, which came into existence in 1961 and became operational only the year their book came out. Almost half a century ago, as Wise and Ross told their readers, it had 2,500 employees and a relatively modest set of assigned tasks. By the end of the Cold War, it had 7,500 employees. Two decades later, another tale of explosive growth: the DIA has 16,000 employees.
In their 2010 Washington Post series, “Top Secret America,” journalists Dana Priest and William Arkin caught a spirit of untrammeled expansion in the post-9/11 era that would surely have amazed those two authors who had called for “controls” over the secret world: “In Washington and the surrounding area, 33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work are under construction or have been built since September 2001. Together they occupy the equivalent of almost three Pentagons or 22 U.S. Capitol buildings—about 17 million square feet of space.”
Similarly, the combined Intelligence Community budget, which in deepest secrecy had supposedly soared to at least $44 billion in 2005 (all such figures have to be taken with a dumpster-ful of salt), has by now nearly doubled to an official $75 billion.
Let’s add in one more futuristic shocker for our time travelers. Someone would have to tell them that, in 1991, the Soviet Union, that great imperial power and nemesis of the invisible government, with its vast army, secret police, system of gulags, and monstrous nuclear arsenal, had disappeared largely nonviolently from the face of the Earth and no single power has since arisen to challenge the United States militarily. After all, that staggering U.S. intelligence budget, the explosion of new construction, the steep growth in personnel, and all the rest has happened in a world in which the U.S. is facing a couple of rickety regional powers (Iran and North Korea), a minority insurgency in Afghanistan, a rising economic power (China) with still modest military might, and probably a few thousand extreme Muslim fundamentalists and Al Qaeda wannabes scattered around the planet.
They would have to be told that, thanks to a single horrific event, a kind of terrorist luck-out we now refer to in shorthand as “9/11,” and despite the diminution of global enemies, an already enormous IC has expanded nonstop in a country seized by a spasm of fear and paranoia.
Preparing Battlefields and Building Giant Embassies
Staggered by the size of the invisible government they had once anatomized, the two reporters might have been no less surprised by another development: the way in our own time “intelligence” has been militarized, while the U.S. military itself has plunged into the shadows. Of course, it’s now well known that the CIA, a civilian intelligence agency until recently headed by a retired four-star general, has been paramilitarized and is now putting a significant part of its energy into running an ever spreading “covert” set of drone wars across the Greater Middle East.
Meanwhile, since the early years of the George W. Bush administration, the U.S. military has been intent on claiming some of the CIA’s turf as its own. Not long after the 9/11 attacks, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld began pushing the Pentagon into CIA-style intelligence activities—the “full spectrum of humint [human intelligence] operations”—to “prepare” for future “battlefields.” That process has never ended. In April 2012, for instance, the Pentagon released the information that it was in the process of setting up a new spy agency called the Defense Clandestine Service (DCS). Its job: to globalize military “intelligence” by taking it beyond the obvious war zones. The DCS was tasked as well with working more closely with the CIA (while assumedly rivaling it).
As Greg Miller of the Washington Post reported, “Creation of the new service also coincides with the appointment of a number of senior officials at the Pentagon who have extensive backgrounds in intelligence and firm opinions on where the military’s spying programs—often seen as lackluster by CIA insiders—have gone wrong.”
And then just this month the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, originally a place for analysis and coordination, announced at a conference that his agency was going to expand into “humint” in a big way, filling embassies around the world with a new corps of clandestine operators who had diplomatic or other “cover.” He was talking about fielding 1,600 “collectors” who would be “trained by the CIA and often work with the Joint Special Operations Command.” Never, in other words, will a country have had so many “diplomats” who know absolutely nothing about diplomacy.
Though the Senate has balked at funding the expansion of the Defense Clandestine Service, all of this represents both a significant reshuffling of what is still called “intelligence” but is really a form of low-level war-making on a global stage and a continuing expansion of America’s secret world on a scale hitherto unimaginable, all in the name of “national security.” Now at least, it’s easier to understand why, from London to Baghdad to Islamabad, the U.S. has been building humongous embassies fortified like ancient castles and the size of imperial palaces for unparalleled staffs of “diplomats.” These will now clearly include scads of CIA, DIA, and perhaps DCS agents, among others, under diplomatic “cover.”
Into this mix would have to go another outfit that would have been unknown to Wise and Ross, but—given the publicity Seal Team Six has gotten over the bin Laden raid and other activities—that most Americans will be at least somewhat aware of. An ever-greater role in the secret world is now being played by a military organization that long ago headed into the shadows, the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). In 2009, New Yorker reporter Seymour Hersh termed it an “executive assassination ring” (especially in Iraq) that did not “report to anybody, except in the Bush-Cheney days… directly to the Cheney office.”
In fact, JSOC only emerged into the public eye when one of its key operatives in Iraq, General Stanley McChrystal, was appointed U.S. war commander in Afghanistan. It has been in the spotlight ever since as it engages in what once might have been CIA-style paramilitary operations on steroids, increases its intelligence-gathering capacity, runs its own drone wars, and has set up a new headquarters in Washington, 15 convenient minutes from the White House.
Big Screen Moments and “Covert” Wars
At their top levels, the leadership of the CIA, the DIA, and JSOC are now mixing and matching in a blur of ever more intertwined, militarized outfits, increasingly on a perpetual war footing. They have, in this way, turned the ancient arts of intelligence, surveillance, spying, and assassination into a massively funded way of life and are now regularly conducting war on the sly and on the loose across the globe. At the lowest levels, the CIA, DIA, JSOC, and assumedly someday DCS train together, work in teams and in tandem, and cooperate, as well as poach on each other’s turf.
Today, you would be hard-pressed to write a single volume called The Invisible Government. You would instead have to produce a multi-volume series. And while you were at it—this undoubtedly would have stunned Wise and Ross—you might have had to retitle the project something like The Visible Government.
Don’t misunderstand me: Americans now possess (or more accurately are possessed by) a vast “intelligence” bureaucracy deeply in the shadows, whose activities are a mass of known unknowns and unknown unknowns to those of us on the outside. It is beyond enormous. There is no way to assess its actual usefulness, or whether it is even faintly “intelligent” (though a case could certainly be made that the U.S. would be far better off with a non-paramilitarized intelligence service or two, rather than scads of them, that eschewed paranoia and relied largely on open sources). But none of that matters. It now represents an irreversible way of life, one that is increasingly visible and celebrated in this country. It is also part of the seemingly endless growth of the imperial power of the White House and, in ways that Wise and Ross would in 1964 have found inconceivable, beyond all accountability or control when it comes to the American people.
It is also ready to take public credit for its “successes” (or even a significant hand in shaping how they are viewed in the public arena). Once upon a time, a CIA agent who died in some covert operation would have gone unnamed and unacknowledged. By the 1970s, that agent would have had a star engraved on the wall of the lobby of CIA headquarters, but no one outside the Agency would have known about his or her fate.
Now, those who die in our “secret” operations or ones launched against our “invisible” agents can become public figures and celebrated “heroes.” This was the case, for instance, with Jennifer Matthews, a CIA agent who died in Afghanistan when an Agency double agent turned out to be a triple agent and suicide bomber. Or just last week, when a soldier from Seal Team Six died in an operation in Afghanistan to rescue a kidnapped doctor. The Navy released his photo and name, and he was widely hailed. This would certainly have been striking to Wise and Ross.
Then again, they would undoubtedly have been no less startled to discover that, from Jack Ryan and Jason Bourne to Syriana, the Mission Impossible films, and Taken, the CIA and other secret outfits (or their fantasy doppelgangers) have become staples of American multiplexes. Nor has the small screen, from 24 to Homeland, been immune to this invasion of visibility. Or consider this: just over a year and a half after Seal Team Six’s super-secret bin Laden operation ended, it has already been turned into Zero Dark Thirty, a highly pre-praised (and controversial) movie, a candidate for Oscars with a heroine patterned on an undercover CIA agent whose photo has made it into the public arena. Moreover, it was a film whose makers were reportedly aided or at least encouraged in their efforts by the CIA, the Pentagon, and the White House, just as the SEALs aided this year’s high-grossing movie Act of Valor(“an elite team of Navy SEALs… embark on a covert mission to recover a kidnapped CIA agent”) by lending the film actual SEALs as its (unnamed) actors and then staging a SEAL parachute drop onto a red carpet at its Hollywood premier.
True, at the time The Invisible Government was published, the first two James Bond films were already hits and the Mission Impossible TV show was only two years from launch, but the way the invisible world has since emerged from the shadows to become a fixture of pop culture remains stunning. And don’t think this was just some cultural quirk. After all, back in the 1960s, enterprising reporters had to pry open those invisible agencies to discover anything about what they were doing. In those years, for instance, the CIA ran a secret air and sizeable ground war in Laos that it tried desperately never to acknowledge despite its formidable size and scope.
Today, on the other hand, the Agency runs what are called “covert” drone wars in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia in which most strikes are promptly reported in the press and about which the administration clearly leaked information it wanted in the New York Times on the president’s role in picking those to die.
In the past, American presidents pursued “plausible deniability” when it came to assassination plots like those against Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba, Cuba’s Fidel Castro, and Vietnam’s Ngo Dinh Diem. Now, assassination is clearly considered a semi-public part of the presidential job, codified, bureaucratized, and regulated (though only within the White House), and remarkably public. All of this has become part of the visible world (or at least a giant publicity operation in it). No need today for a Wise or Ross to tell us this. Ever since President Ronald Reagan’s CIA-run Central American Contra wars of the 1980s, the definition of “covert” has changed. It no longer means hidden from sight, but beyond accountability.
It is now a polite way of saying to the American people: not yours. Yes, you can know about it; you can feel free to praise it; but you have nothing to do with it, no say over it.
In the 48 years since their pioneering book was published, Wise and Ross’s invisible government has triumphed over the visible one. It has become the go-to option in this country. In certain ways, it is also becoming the most visible and important part of that government, a vast edifice of surveilling, storing, spying, and killing that gives us what we now call “security,” leaves us in terror of the world, never stops growing, and is ever freer to collect information on you to use as it wishes.
With the passage of forty-eight years, it’s so much clearer that, impressive as Wise and Ross were, their quest was quixotic. Bring the “secret power” under control? Make it accountable? Dream on—but be careful, one of these days even your dreams may be on file.
Zero Dark Thirty is the latest pop culture presentation of U.S. covert ops. Check out Michelle Dean’s take on its depiction of torture.