Viruses? Assassination? Arming Insurgents? How Could That Go Wrong?

You don’t have to be paranoid or a conspiracy freak to think that re-engineering the technology at the heart of digital communications so that it can be legally wiretapped is a bad idea. Drearily, this is another example of how little the Obama Administration cares about reining in the out-of-control national security shadow state inside the U.S. federal government.

Though I think the roots of their reluctance go deeper than diffident centrism. At this point there’s no government in the world which has any interest in reducing its investment in secret and security institutions. Covert power has increasingly become the only place where the 21st Century state has the luxury to imagine itself as having producing willed and deliberate political and social change.

The official transcript of government power is riddled with audacious high modernist failures. Most politicians and political elites know it once they’re off the stage. Wherever you go in the world, no citizenry really expects its government to do more than tread water or at best tinker incrementally with the major public aspirations of the modern nation-state: education, public health, regulation of the economy, safety and security, support for the arts and sciences. More often, whether in authoritarian or democratic states, many citizens rightfully suspect that much of that agenda is a bunch of hollowed-out humbug.

The shadow state, on the other hand, remains an extravagant domain of fantasized action and has been since the 1950s. The more I read about the culture of Cold War espionage for my current research, the more charmed I am in a way by the brash sociopolitical hallucinations and improvisations of spies, military planners, covert-action diplomats, and dark-arts technologists.

The split between intelligence and covert action is an old mainstay in policy debates and research on espionage. For all of that, most expert analysis underappreciates how “pure” advocacy of intelligence over covert action fits with an old paradigm of rational modernism. Covert action flourishes in our later era of pervasive state incapacity. Intelligence in its purest form presumes that with the most accurate information, state actors and political leaders can make the proportionately wisest and most rational decisions in committing state power.

If there is any sense in which that is true, it is only in the most subtle and slight ways. Domains of overt state action which are drenched in data don’t magically induce better outcomes: not only do you need a political elite which is willing to act on what they know, you also need an issue which is actually tractable to the toolkit and abilities of a technocratic state. Which is not most social or political issues.

Intelligence only just barely produces demonstrably better outcomes in the relatively simple, agency-drenched environment of a single discrete military battlefield, and is subject to the same limitations. You need military leaders willing to act on information, you need the military capabilities to take the action that intelligence recommends, and you need a desired outcome that can be accomplished with the military power available on the battlefield.

So it’s not surprising that the cleanly rational ideal of provisioning intelligence to government leaders about the hidden or unknown intentions of other political or institutional actors was quickly entangled in and then engulfed by covert action. What’s more interesting is that covert action as an idea has been so thoroughly able to exempt itself from the global skepticism that has fallen on high modernist state projects like a ton of bricks, even though there’s even less evidence of its ability to produce deliberate, planned instrumental outcomes that work towards the generalized interests of a given nation-state.

Don’t get me wrong: covert actors can make a lot of things happen, including, apparently, screwing up Siemens-built infrastructure with a targeted virus. They can kill people, subvert governments, mine harbors, ship weapons, torture prisoners, play dirty tricks, mess with computers, destabilize currencies. All of which is quite meaningful if you’re one of the people killed, tortured, blackmailed, poisoned or driven into madness. What it means beyond those immediate outcomes is less clear.

Covert actors can accurately match outcomes to interests in two ways: outcomes which advance their own specific institutional power, and outcomes which narrowly deliver a desired self-interested result to individual clients. If you’re a corrupt political elite and you have a connection to covert instruments, you can divert more cash or resources in your direction. Again, this is not terribly different from overt action. A development agency can advance its own specific influence, and it can deliver to specific clients outcomes that suit their self-interest.

Covert action doesn’t seem any better than overt action in deliberately producing complex, multilayered sociopolitical change. “Get this government to stop doing something that is not in our long-term interests”, “Change the cultural and social nature of this government over there”, “Make this place stable”, “Make this group of bad actors less able to do bad things in the world”.

A covert action plan can, if all the stars align, accomplish these goals for a little while in a little way. Not, as far as I can see, to a degree markedly different than many overt institutions can. But there is something about secrecy that unleashes extravagant dreams and imaginative fantasies about a world where sociopolitical trends have simpler, more intimate, and more knowable levers, where killing heads of state is a hey presto! way to make a new state, or mindfucking insurgents with some leaflets and misinformation is a way to get rid of an insurgency.

It’s not just that coverts and their armchair supporters dream of finding the delicious center of tractability inside of the confusing, multilayered Tootsie Pop of modern life. It’s that they also hope that covert action will somehow rid us of the demon of unpredictable and unintended outcomes who so relentlessly stalks most other policy-making, as if covert action might be a humanint form of a smart missile, delivered only to its target. But if there’s any domain of government action where that demon makes his home, it’s covert action: most of all, he hates sunlight and transparency.

Stuxnet in the infrastructure of its producer? Re-engineering the Internet for wiretappability only to open up a security hole a mile wide for every underemployed Bulgarian hacker in the world to luxuriate in? Arming and training Afghan insurgents to kill superpower militaries? A President asking you to dirty-tricks his political opponents just like you dirty-tricked the country’s foreign enemies?

You can quite like and appreciate spies (who at times strike me as an exotic mutation of anthropology if they’re field intelligence, and of hard social science if they’re data analysts) and yet think that the extravagant dreams that flit and float around the idea of secret action and surveillance are less the harbinger of some perfected Orwellian dystopia and more just the worst and most perversely productive example of how the modern state has clay feet.

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2 Responses to Viruses? Assassination? Arming Insurgents? How Could That Go Wrong?

  1. Brutus says:

    I kinda lost your thread in there somewhere, but this sentence seems like the germinal idea: Covert action doesn?? seem any better than overt action in deliberately producing complex, multilayered sociopolitical change. If there are reasons why power players lust principally after covert power rather than overt, it’s not for the objective results. Rather, it’s because being the puppet master or the James Bond type are such attractive if puerile fictions, like the Wizard of Oz before being unmasked. Wedded to the heady stuff of high modernism, it’s pretty easy to see why one despot after another loses his or her grip on reality and leads whole societies on rampages through history.

  2. Matt Lungerhausen says:

    Agreed. The secret police of communist eastern Europe spectacularly failed to keep those regimes going. The stasi basically had one third of the country ratting on the other two thirds of the DDR at any given point in time. They amassed huge amounts of information, harassed dissidents, and had nearly unlimited power, but the whole house of cards collapsed anyway.

    The post 9/11 schemes for total information awareness and other infringements of the rights of man are bound to fall in on themselves in a similar manner. The tragedy is that it will harm countless individuals and damage social trust for a long time to come.

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