When it comes to the national security state, our capital has become a thought-free zone. The airlessness of the place, the unwillingness of leading players in the corridors of power to explore new ways of approaching crucial problems is right there in plain sight, yet remarkably unnoticed. Consider this the Tao of Washington.
Last week, based on a heavily redacted 231-page document released by the government in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, Charlie Savage, a superb reporter for The New York Times, revealed that the FBI has become a “significant player” in the world of warrantless surveillance, previously the bailiwick of the National Security Agency. The headline on his piece was: “FBI is broadening surveillance role, report shows.”
Here’s my question: In the last thirteen years, can you remember a single headline related to the national security state that went “FBI [or fill in your agency of choice] is narrowing surveillance role [or fill in your role of choice], report shows”? Of course not, because when any crisis, problem, snafu or set of uncomfortable feelings, fears, or acts arises, including those by tiny groups of disturbed people or what are now called “lone wolf” terrorists, there is only one imaginable response: more money, more infrastructure, more private contractors, more surveillance, more weaponry and more war. On a range of subjects, our post-9/11 experience should have taught us that this—whatever it is we’re doing—is no solution to anything, but no such luck.
More tax dollars consumed, more intrusions in our lives, the further militarization of the country, the dispatching of some part of the US military to yet another country, the enshrining of war or war-like actions as the option of choice—this, by now, is a way of life. These days, the only headlines out of Washington that should surprise us would have “narrowing” or “less,” not “broadening” or “more,” in them.
Thinking outside the box may seldom have been a prominent characteristic of Washington, but when it comes to innovative responses to problems, our political system seems particularly airless right now. Isn’t it strange, for instance, that being secretary of state these days means piling up bragging rights to mileage by constantly, frenetically circumnavigating the globe? The State Department website now boasts that John Kerry has traveled 682,000 miles during his time in office, just as it once boasted of Hillary Clinton’s record-breaking 956,733 miles, and yet, like the secretary of defense or the chairman of the Joint Chiefs or the CIA director or the national security advisor or the president himself, when it comes to rethinking failing policies, none of them ever seem to venture into unknown territory or entertain thoughts that might lead in unsettling directions. No piling up of the mileage there.