The week of June 7, 2015

Talking war and secrecy with William M. Arkin

By Joseph L. Flatley

For the last 40 years, William M. Arkin has been studying war: first for the Army, when he was a military analyst stationed in West Berlin, then for groups like the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Human Rights Watch. He has also been a columnist for the New York Times and Los Angeles Times. In 2010, Arkin made waves coauthoring the series “Top Secret America” with Dana Priest for the Washington Post (later published as a book of the same name). Recently he launched Phase Zero, a Gawker blog covering national security issues. His latest book, Unmanned: Drones, Data, and the Illusion of Perfect Warfare, arrives July 28.

I think a lot of people would assume that an intelligence analyst would have a hawkish worldview, but after your stint in the military, you went on to organizations like NRDC and Human Rights Watch. Was there a change in your worldview, having served in the military?

Not at all. I was against the Vietnam war; I came from a liberal democratic family. I decided to join the military; it was my own decision that this was the best way for me to go to graduate school. I chose to go to intelligence; I chose to go to Berlin. And though I was maybe unusual in the sense that I was liberal and I was a New Yorker and a Jew and all those things—and I certainly came up against people in those days who were John Birchers in the military, or what today we call neocons but are just crazy right-wing people. But, you know, so what? I just did my job, and I did my job fantastically, and I was the best analyst in the Berlin command. It didn’t change anything about me—pro-war, anti-war, nothing. It just sort of took away the mystique of the military in the first regard, the mystique of intelligence work in the second, and gave me an appreciation for the fact that this endeavor of war is a part of the human condition and it’s never going to go away.

For me, a career of being a military expert and studying war is not in any way about stopping this or that war or seeking peace, although it’s a wonderful goal to have. It’s more a recognition that war is with us; it’s with us every day in one form or another. The best approach to it is to understand it, and to clamor to have some democratic influence over it, and to ensure that the standards of war reflect the standards of society.

How did you go from studying the Soviet Union for the Pentagon to studying and writing about the United States military?

When I was in intelligence, I was expected to be an expert on the armed forces of the Soviet Union and East Germany. It’s not to say that I didn’t do a good job or I didn’t have an abundance of intelligence available to me to make analysis and assessments, but the one thing that I felt like I was completely missing was any appreciation of the strengths or weaknesses of the United States. I realized that that was endemic throughout the entire intelligence establishment—that people could be experts on the enemy and not really know very much about themselves, and therefore what expectations existed regarding how we might formulate war plans or defenses, or what the capacities are, or even what the net assessment between the two sides might be. What does it mean when you stack up those numbers, one against another? What kind of a discount do you provide to Russian tanks versus American tanks, or what kind of capability do you really ascribe to a Soviet battalion when you know that half the guys are drunk and disgruntled conscripts versus some unit in the United States that maybe doesn’t face those problems.

“This endeavor of war is a part of the human condition and it’s never going to go away.”

So, this began my post-Army desire to really understand the U.S. military better. Immediately, 40 years ago, I came up against the secrecy that everyone thinks is the product of 9/11 or Bush or Obama, but it was exactly the same then. To really understand what was going on in the military, to really understand what the intelligence community was doing, to really understand to what degree there were things going on that were maybe illegal or controversial required exactly the same kind of work that one does today. Just imagine it with index cards and going to libraries, as opposed to this sort of instant gratification world that we have today.

Do you find that on the level of the military or the government, that the true nature of how a war is being conducted is being obfuscated in order to be able to get away with stuff that the population might not agree with?

No, never. But then, I don’t know this thing that you just called “the military.” You know, there’s lots of different actors, and they have different interests, and they have different cultures and subcultures, and somebody in the conventional army might be willing to do or want to do, or the degree of risk that they might want to take would be completely different than what some black special operator might be willing to or want to take. So the military is not one entity.


I would go even one step further and say that it’s far worse today than it was 40 years ago, in terms of wrapping your head around the technologies and the ins and outs of everything that’s going on. It’s far, far more complex. I mean, there’s so much going on in so many different places. The technologies range from the most discreet and secret cybertechnologies, all the way through to directed energy weapons, which are not even kinetic in nature.

I’ve been reading on your blog about “inside threats” and “homegrown terrorism.” Is that one of the way things have changed over the years? Are the various intelligence agencies looking at the American public itself more than it was 40 years ago?

Well, again, yes and no. There were certain periods in the McCarthy era or whatever where the internal security controls were much greater than they are now. It’s not a constant. But I think that there are some things that have changed since 9/11, and the distinction between what is military and what is civilian, the distinction between what is intelligence and what is law enforcement, the distinction between what is domestic and what is foreign, has eroded. And those are really important distinctions to maintain, and the more that they are eroded, the more that we face a situation where the rules that are in place to protect our civil liberties and privacy, the rules that determine how we fight wars, and how we conduct our relations in the world begin to be more and more weakened and made less definitive.

“The means of that surveillance state are being built, but if there’s a smart goofball at the NSA that can put this stuff together for political gain, I’ve never found him or her.”

That worries me more than anything else, because terrorism is about ignoring the distinction between military and civilian; it’s about ignoring the distinction between organized warfare—that is, state warfare—and non-state warfare. When we begin to behave in the same manner, when we begin to obscure what is military and what is civilian, when we begin to operate in such a way that what is overt and what is covert becomes an intrinsic part of our overall national security and foreign policy, then we’re signalling to those who wish us harm that we have the right, or we hold the right, to ignore those distinctions when we feel like it.

Was there a point over the last several years that you started to see this distinction being to erode?

I think that I saw it really in the 1990s, in the Clinton administration. It seemed to me that the advent of a reliable, long-range, unmanned cruise missile as a tool in the U.S. arsenal began to signal to the rest of the world that we were going to enforce some form of punishment in an extrajudicial way. Drones are merely a follow-on to that technology, but they would not exist if the proposition of the “right” to attack some place wasn’t accepted as the norm of international behavior.

Without declaring war on Iraq or other places, we’ve shot cruise missiles during the 1990s. It established two norms: One was that we would do this, and we had the right to do this, without asking for the international community’s approval, except in the most perfunctory or the loosest possible way. And second, it signalled to those who we were attacking that there was something about the new mode of warfare that we were undertaking, that made us immune to counterattack.

I don’t have any hesitation in saying that I think that 9/11 happened to some degree because we attacked the Muslim nations and terrorist organizations with cruise missiles and covert action and sanctions and airpower and secrecy, and built up a well of hatred on the part of Al Qaeda and others, and the only way that they would be able to fight back was to attack the civilian objects of the nation.

I think people see the United States as becoming a sort of testing ground for a lot of surveillance and military intelligence. I’m wondering if things have really changed that much in the last 40 years. Is this the “Big Brother” society that we’ve been warned about?

I think it is, except I think there’s “Big,” but there’s no “Brother.” The technology has advanced so rapidly in the last decade or so that of course the NSA and military and other intelligence establishments and the FBI and the local police and the local authorities are drowning in data, and they don’t know what to do with it.

“We have to be a vigilant public, and never accept the faith that they can work without adult supervision.”

But is there a “Brother” that’s behind it all, that’s pulling the strings in a political way to victimize or focus on an enemies list of some sort? I think the answer is, “not yet.” The means of that surveillance state are being built, but if there’s a smart goofball at the NSA that can put this stuff together for political gain, I’ve never found him or her. But that’s the thing: We’ve built a system that’s basically manned by technicians and software specialists, and even though they may call themselves intelligence analysts, what they really are are people who specialize in a piece of software. So the kind of real analysis that we think of when we think of an investigative case, or a deep problem trying to be solved, that’s happening in the same exact way that it’s always happened. And the mass collection of information that happens as a result of the growth of technology is a separate endeavour that doesn’t necessarily overlap with the old style work that is being done.

Does the FBI still follow people and conduct traditional investigations, in which I’m sure occasionally it goes after the wrong person or it goes after someone for the wrong reason? Absolutely. But we see it all the time, and that’s why we have to be a vigilant public, and never accept the faith that they can work without adult supervision. But at the same time, what I see happening is I see the FBI spending as much of its time and energy becoming a part of the intelligence community and becoming mesmerized with data-mining and link analysis and big data and thinking that this is the way they’re going to catch criminals in the future.

I liken the sort of apogee of mass surveillance of the NSA and data mining and big data fascinations of the intelligence community with the end of the Cold War. At the end of the Cold War, we got to the point where, with the MX missile, we could now stuff 10 multi-hundreds of megaton warheads onto the top of one missile (MIRVs). With the Trident II, we were even going to get up to 14, and the number of weapons was going to get back to the thousands, and [it was supposed to be] a wonderful technological achievement. But the fact of the matter is, even people inside the system felt, “OK, we don’t need 10 warheads, 14 warheads on these missiles.” We’ve actually come to a point where, like in basic chemistry, we’d supersaturated the system.

I think something happened broader in society that said, “this is absurd,” and one of the things that was negotiated in the Reagan and Bush administrations was that we negotiated limits on how many warheads you could put on a missile, and the MX never survived. In a way, the little connection between miniaturization if you will, technology, in the nuclear sphere became the opening gambit in what we’re now seeing in the intelligence sphere. Which means everything got smarter: more computers, more smartphones, more data, more tweets and more emails and more texts. The numbers are just astounding.

So you need better and better techniques and storage to surveil. That doesn’t even mean to monitor, that just means to get the shit in, to collect it. I think that that sort of similarity of the nexus of miniaturization and superb technology, it’s a question of: Do we need it this much? Do we need to go the way that technology goes? I think that’s a question that we’re just starting to ask with [Edward] Snowden. If we can just get away from the pompous polemics of Snowden and understand the technology and the absolute obliviousness of the government, in terms of understanding its own technology and its own activities, then I think we can actually have an influence over shaping what the information environment should be as we move forward.

Photos via William Arkin and Nan Palmero/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) | Remix by Jason Reed