Corporate Spooks Are Watching You: The Dangerous Rise of the Industrial-Surveillance Complex

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June 19, 2013

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Whether one views Edward Snowden as a hero or a villain, perhaps we could all agree that if the government is to keep secrets, a 29-year-old private contractor with a soft spot for Ron Paul shouldn’t have access to a treasure trove of its most sensitive information.

Of course, that assumes that there still exists a bright line between government and the private sector. But that’s become an antiquated notion after two decades of ideologically driven outsourcing of what were once considered core government functions. As a result of that effort, there are now a million potential Edward Snowdons — or, more precisely, 483,263 contractors with top-secret clearances, according to James Clapper, the director of National Intelligence — any of whom could slip out with sensitive data on a thumb drive if they have a personal or ideological axe to grind.

More troubling is the fact that we’re being constantly monitored by private spy companies with virtually no oversight or accountability. According to journalist Tim Shorrock, around 70 percent of our national security spending now goes to private firms. Michael Hayden, “who oversaw the privatization effort as NSA director from 1999 to 2005,” told Shorrock that “the largest concentration of cyber power on the planet is the intersection of the Baltimore Parkway and Maryland Route 32,” where the NSA’s top contractors are located. Hayden coined the term, “Digital Blackwater” to describe the privatization of American cyber security agencies.

“I think it’s extraordinarily frightening because the oversight by Congress is so minimal to begin with,” says Robert McChesney, a professor of communications at the University of Illinois and author of Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism Is Turning the Internet Against Democracy. “From what we know, the oversight of spying, intelligence and surveillance is really rock-bottom, with members of Congress often knowing little or nothing” about the details of these programs. “So, they’re going off the books [with private firms] to avoid even the minimal oversight they do have.”

Reinventing Government

How did we get here? Ironically, while a lot of Americans are convinced that Democrats hold an unwavering fealty to “big government,” during the 1990s, a central tenet of Bill Clinton’s agenda was shrinking down the size of the federal government. The administration’s “Reinventing Government” initiative — which took place in two phases, known as REGO I and II — resulted in a whopping 17 percent reduction in the federal workforce.

Ed Kilgore, former vice president for policy at the Democratic Leadership Council and now a journalist with the Washington Monthly , said REGO, “reflected not just a serious determination by the Clinton administration to rethink how government works, but also a much broader trend on the center-left — at think tanks and magazines really for years — that suggested that the future of liberalism depended on sorting out ends and means.”

Liberals, the administration believed, had become too eager to identify progressivism with government programs. “So a lot of the neoliberal movement and the whole New Democrat thing was very explicitly focused on making the efficient achievement of progressive goals the definition of being a liberal rather than just defending programs and how they were administered.”

The initiative resulted in some decent innovations, like government data being made available in easily accessible form over the Internet. But 20 years later, Donald Kettl, dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, told the industry magazine Government Executive  that the elimination of over 425,000 federal jobs had caused serious problems. “The reduction didn’t happen in a way that matched workforce needs because they used a strategy for downsizing to hit a target,” he said. “The effort got in the way of the ‘making government work better’ piece. Many with special skills left, and people who stayed might have been those we’d have wanted to leave.”

This article originally appeared on: AlterNet