Shadow Government

Tom Englehardt. Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World. Preface. Glenn Greenwald. Chicago: Haymarket books, 2014.

“Yes we scan – Demo am Checkpoint Charlie.” By Digitale Gesellschaft (DSC_0121 Uploaded by NoCultureIcons) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Tom Engelhardt’s book Shadow Government is an engagingly written and interesting critique of the U.S. National Security state, which he compares to a religion (p. 6). He begins his work with a colorful description of U.S. military power, which he contrasts with the nation’s military failures. In his eyes, U.S. citizens have abandoned fundamental rights to an unaccountable elite, without any real threat to justify these choices: “Had you been able to time-travel back to the Cold War era to inform Americans that, in the future, our major enemies would be Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Mali, Libya, and so on, they would surely have thought you mad” (p. 39).

A key focus of the book is the vast scale of the U.S. security state, and the virtual autonomy that security agencies have acquired. These organizations no longer conceal their activities behind a veil of “plausible deniability.” Instead, they publicize drone strikes (p. 26-27). His ultimate argument is that the U.S. is a rogue superpower, which has vast powers even though it is ultimately ineffective. Chapter four is titled “Mistaking Omniscience for Omnipotence.”

At the same time, the book lacks nuance. In Englehardt’s depiction of U.S. policy choices there is little grey. Do North Korean nuclear capabilities pose a genuine threat to the United States? What are the appropriate trade-offs in the fight against terrorism? Engelhardt argues that if all the intelligence agencies in the U.S. disappeared tomorrow, the nation would be better off (p. 49).

While Englehardt discusses key issues that don’t always receive enough media attention -the grounding of Bolivian president Evo Morales’ plane during the search for Snowden- he also elides discussion of the real moral quandaries. In his depiction U.S. politicians make decisions because they are captured by a deep state or are ignorant, rather than that they face genuine dilemmas. For this reason, the book reads as a fascinating screed, which is filled with brilliant details, but does little to capture the real challenges that leaders address. From his perspective, we have the policies we do because political leaders in Washington are stupid (p. 55). At times the book reads like the reader comments on an engaging news article; fun, but not measured. In this respect, it’s an interesting contrast with Scott Horton’s Lords of Secrecy, which makes a similar argument with a much more reasoned tone. If Engelhardt had limited his sarcasm and attempts at humor, his argument at points would have been more effective. There are some corny lines. At points the book could have been more tightly organized, and the argument is sometimes repetitive, perhaps because the text was originally written for a website (p. 165-166).

At the same time, this book reflects the mood of our times. The weapons of mass destruction were not in Iraq (p. 42). For all the vast powers of U.S. intelligence services, they did not have the correct information on this key question. If the U.S. is so effective at gathering intelligence, why are so many of its foreign interventions such failures (p. 47, 69)? At this stage, it’s hard not to view the invasions of both Iraq and Afghanistan as anything but financial and human disasters, which have diminished U.S. standing in the world. What is the exit plan for Afghanistan? Engelhardt believes that COIN (U.S. counter-insurgency doctrine) has been an utter failure. He also convincingly details the heavy costs of U.S. surveillance and intelligence activities, in monetary, moral and political terms. Englehardt believes that the U.S. war on terror is fundamentally illegal (85).  He also worries about the professionalization of security, which represents a step towards privatization, even of the military itself (80). In this sense, his critique of the U.S. security state represents a criticism of the larger structure of U.S. government. Again and again, Englehardt returns to his central argument: there is a mismatch between the U.S. use of resources and the actual threats to the nation: “The US government is investing an estimated 1.45 trillion to produce and operate a single future aircraft, the F-35 -more than any country, the United States included, now spends on defense annually” (p. 116).

This is not a book written for an academic audience. There are no notes on sources in the work, which appears to be largely based on newspaper reporting. But the work at times is almost poetic, (p. 91), and the book is filled with fascinating details. This is a provocative, frustrating and clever book, which consists of sustained critique of the U.S. approach to security.

Shawn Smallman, 2018.

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