Remember, when they say “Austerity,” substitute “Priorities”

by zunguzungu

When you’re reading Dana Priest and William Arkin’s Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State — just published, but a book length expansion of their reporting for the Washington Post which you can read for free, on explosion of stuff that is classified “Top Secret” —  the thing to remember is that we are tearing apart what’s left of the social safety net to pay for stuff like this:

When roadside bombs (called IED’s, for improvised explosive devices) became the greatest cause of casualties in Iraq, the army set up an IED task force to investigate ways to stop these crude weapons. The Marine Corps, too, set up a working group. Finally the Pentagon established a Washington-based joint organization– the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization, or JIEDDO, to undertake a militarywide effort to counter this deadly, low-tech terrorist weapon.

JIEDDO is a perfect example of how an ad hoc crisis task force can become a permanent multi-billion-dollar agency. Working from undisclosed office buildings in Crystal City, Reston, and Charlottesville, Virginia, JIEDDO has grown to about four hundred military, civilian, and contractor personnel. In fiscal year 2010, to deal with the surge of U.S. troops into Afghanistan, the JIEDDO budget increased from an initial $1.88 billion to $2.98 billion, and then to $3.465 billion. JIEDDO had so much money that it hired 1,200 contractors, according to the Government Accountability Office. It also oversees more than three hundred research projects aimed at stopping IED attacks. It has developed its own intelligence agency (which will compete and overlap with other, existing intelligence services– themselves overlapping with each other), its own training facilities, and its own top secret “special activities.” It even has its own air force.

That the army and marines each had their own expensive, non-collaborating IED-related projects going was not the end of the military’s budget-related interest in the subject. The availability of funds for counter-IED projects prompted each of the services to create its own IED Center of Excellence, a common military slogan for a research center. One senior official at the contracting giant SAIC admitted that each of these centers is replicating the same work, even cross-hiring the exact same contractors. If one defense of the overlap was that having multiple, independent efforts might more quickly lead to a solution, the fact that nearly everyone was using the same contractors to provide expertise meant the fresh ideas were limited.

The book is excellent; the only quibble I have so far is their tendency to avoid attributing intention or efficacy to most of the projects they describe. While it may be true that you or I find the creation, proliferation, and redundant duplication of Top Secret perpetual war machines to be stupid and wrongheaded, we should also not forget that perhaps the Pentagon is also planning on fighting a lot more wars like this in the future and a lot of people with contracts are planning on selling them the stuff to do it. One should always watch closely exactly why and at what people are scandalized. After all, just because Top Secret America’s priorities aren’t ours doesn’t mean the logic of their functioning doesn’t make a kind of sense. But behind a lot of the book’s push to demonstrate and emphasize waste, inefficiency, and incoherence is the implication that if we could only do it right, we could prosecute these wars better. And when they gesture towards the “real job” which is not, as a result, getting done, I wonder if they and I are thinking of the same thing…