Mike McConnell, the Washington Post & the dangers of sleazy corporatism
In a political culture drowning in hidden conflicts of interests, exploitation of political office for profit, and a rapidly eroding wall separating the public and private spheres, Michael McConnell stands out as the perfect embodiment of all those afflictions. Few people have blurred the line between public office and private profit more egregiously and shamelessly than he. McConnell’s behavior is the classic never-ending “revolving door” syndrome: public officials serve private interests while in office and are then lavishly rewarded by those same interests once they leave. He went from being head of the National Security Agency under Bush 41 and Clinton directly to Booz Allen, one of the nation’s largest private intelligence contractors, then became Bush’s Director of National Intelligence (DNI), then went back to Booz Allen, where he is now Executive Vice President.
But that’s the least of what makes McConnell such a perfect symbol for the legalized corruption that dominates Washington. Tellingly, his overarching project while at Booz Allen and in public office was exactly the same: the outsourcing of America’s intelligence and surveillance functions (including domestic surveillance) to private corporations, where those activities are even more shielded than normal from all accountability and oversight and where they generate massive profit at the public expense. Prior to becoming Bush’s DNI, McConnell, while at Booz Allen, was chairman of the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, the primary business association of NSA and CIA contractors devoted to expanding the privatization of government intelligence functions.
Then, as Bush’s DNI, McConnell dramatically expanded the extent to which intelligence functions were outsourced to the same private industry that he long represented. Worse, he became the leading spokesman for demanding full immunity for lawbreaking telecoms for their participation in Bush’s illegal NSA programs — in other words, he exploited “national security” claims and his position as DNI to win the dismissal of lawsuits against the very lawbreaking industry he represented as INSA Chairman, including, almost certainly, Booz Allen itself. Having exploited his position as DNI to lavishly reward and protect the private intelligence industry, he then returns to its loving arms to receive from them lavish personal rewards of his own.
It’s vital to understand how this really works: it isn’t that people like Mike McConnell move from public office to the private sector and back again. That implies more separation than really exists. At this point, it’s more accurate to view the U.S. Government and these huge industry interests as one gigantic, amalgamated, inseparable entity — with a public division and a private one. When someone like McConnell goes from a top private sector position to a top government post in the same field, it’s more like an intra-corporate re-assignment than it is changing employers. When McConnell serves as DNI, he’s simply in one division of this entity and when he’s at Booz Allen, he’s in another, but it’s all serving the same entity (it’s exactly how insurance giant Wellpoint dispatched one of its Vice Presidents to Max Baucus’ office so that she could write the health care plan that the Congress eventually enacted).
In every way that matters, the separation between government and corporations is nonexistent, especially (though not only) when it comes to the National Security and Surveillance State. Indeed, so extreme is this overlap that even McConnell, when he was nominated to be Bush’s DNI, told The New York Times that his ten years of working “outside the government,” for Booz Allen, would not impede his ability to run the nation’s intelligence functions. That’s because his Booz Allen work was indistinguishable from working for the Government, and therefore — as he put it — being at Booz Allen “has allowed me to stay focused on national security and intelligence communities as a strategist and as a consultant. Therefore, in many respects, I never left.”
As the NSA scandal revealed, private telecom giants and other corporations now occupy the central role in carrying out the government’s domestic surveillance and intelligence activities — almost always in the dark, beyond the reach of oversight or the law. As Tim Shorrock explained in his definitive 2007 Salon piece on the relationship between McConnell, Booz Allen, and the intelligence community, in which (to no avail) he urged Senate Democrats to examine these relationships before confirming McConnell as Bush’s DNI:
[Booz Allen's] website states that the Booz Allen team “employs more than 10,000 TS/SCI cleared personnel.” TS/SCI stands for top secret-sensitive compartmentalized intelligence, the highest possible security ratings. This would make Booz Allen one of the largest employers of cleared personnel in the United States.
Among those on Booz Allen’s payroll are former CIA Director and neoconservative extremist James Woolsey, George Tenet’s former Chief of Staff Joan Dempsey, and Keith Hall, the former director of the National Reconnaissance Office, the super-secret organization that oversees the nation’s spy satellites. As Shorrock wrote: “Under McConnell’s watch, Booz Allen has been deeply involved in some of the most controversial counterterrorism programs the Bush administration has run, including the infamous Total Information Awareness data-mining scheme” and “is almost certainly participating in the agency’s warrantless surveillance of the telephone calls and e-mails of American citizens.” For more details on the sprawling and overlapping relationships between McConnell, Booz Allen, the INSA, the Government and the private intelligence community, see Shorrock’s interview with Democracy Now and his 2008 interview with me.
Aside from the general dangers of vesting government power in private corporations — this type of corporatism (control of government by corporations) was the hallmark of many of the worst tyrannies of the last century — all of this is big business beyond what can be described. The attacks of 9/11 exploded the already-huge and secret intelligence budget. Shorrock estimates that “about 50 percent of this spending goes directly to private companies” and “spending on intelligence since 2002 is much higher than the total of $33 billion the Bush administration paid to Bechtel, Halliburton and other large corporations for reconstruction projects in Iraq.”
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All of that is crucial background for understanding just how pernicious and deceitful is the Op-Ed published this weekend by The Washington Post and authored by McConnell. The overarching theme is all-too-familiar: we face a grave threat from Terrorists and other Very Bad People (“cyber wars”), and our only hope for protection is to vest the Government with massive new powers. Specifically, McConnell advocates a so-called “reeingeer[ing] of the Internet” to allow the Government and private corporations far greater capability to track what is being done over the Internet and who is doing it:
The United States is fighting a cyber-war today, and we are losing. It’s that simple. . . . If an enemy disrupted our financial and accounting transactions, our equities and bond markets or our retail commerce — or created confusion about the legitimacy of those transactions — chaos would result. Our power grids, air and ground transportation, telecommunications, and water-filtration systems are in jeopardy as well.
Scary! And what do we need to submit to in order to avoid these calamaties? This:
The United States must also translate our intent into capabilities. We need to develop an early-warning system to monitor cyberspace, identify intrusions and locate the source of attacks with a trail of evidence that can support diplomatic, military and legal options — and we must be able to do this in milliseconds. More specifically, we need to reengineer the Internet to make attribution, geolocation, intelligence analysis and impact assessment — who did it, from where, why and what was the result — more manageable.
In one sense, this is just typical fear-mongering of the type the National Security State has used for decades to beat frightened Americans into virtually full-scale submission: you are in grave danger and you can be safe only by vesting in us far greater power, which we’ll operate in secret: here, allowing us to “reengineer” the Internet so we can control it.
Think about how dangerous that power is in relationship to the war I wrote about this weekend being waged on WikiLeaks, which allows the uploading of leaked, secret documents that expose the corruption of the world’s most powerful interests. This “reengineering of the Internet” proposed by McConnell would almost certainly enable the easy tracing of anyone who participates. It would, by design, destroy the ability of anyone to participate or communicate in any way on the Internet under the shield of anonymity. Wired‘s Ryan Singel — noting that “the biggest threat to the open internet is . . . Michael McConnell” — documents the dangers from this “cyber-war” monitioring policy and how much momentum there now is in the Executive and Legislative branches for legislation to implement it (as a result of initiatives that began during the Bush era, under McConnell, and which continue unabated).
But there’s something even worse going on here. McConnell doesn’t merely want to empower the Government to control the Internet this way; he wants to empower private corporations to do so — the same corporations which pay him and whose interests he has long served. He notes that this “reengineering” is already possible because “the technologies are already available from public and private sources,” and explicitly calls for a merger of the NSA with private industry to create a sprawling, omnipotent network for monitoring the Internet:
To this end, we must hammer out a consensus on how to best harness the capabilities of the National Security Agency, which I had the privilege to lead from 1992 to 1996. The NSA is the only agency in the United States with the legal authority, oversight and budget dedicated to breaking the codes and understanding the capabilities and intentions of potential enemies. The challenge is to shape an effective partnership with the private sector so information can move quickly back and forth from public to private — and classified to unclassified — to protect the nation’s critical infrastructure.
We must give key private-sector leaders (from the transportation, utility and financial arenas) access to information on emerging threats so they can take countermeasures. For this to work, the private sector needs to be able to share network information — on a controlled basis — without inviting lawsuits from shareholders and others. . . .
[T]the reality is that while the lion’s share of cybersecurity expertise lies in the federal government, more than 90 percent of the physical infrastructure of the Web is owned by private industry. Neither side on its own can mount the cyber-defense we need; some collaboration is inevitable. Recent reports of a possible partnership between Google and the government point to the kind of joint efforts — and shared challenges — that we are likely to see in the future.
No doubt, such arrangements will muddy the waters between the traditional roles of the government and the private sector. We must define the parameters of such interactions, but we should not dismiss them. Cyberspace knows no borders, and our defensive efforts must be similarly seamless.
In other words, not only the Government, but the private intelligence corporations which McConnell represents (and which are subjected to no oversight), will have access to virtually unfettered amounts of information and control over the Internet, and there should be “no borders” between them. And beyond the dangerous power that will vest in the public-private Surveillance State, it will also generate enormous profits for Booz Allen, the clients it serves and presumably for McConnell himself — though The Washington Post does not bother to disclose any of that to its readers. The Post basically allowed McConnell to publish in its Op-Ed pages a blatant advertisement for the private intelligence industry while masquerading as a National Security official concerned with Keeping America Safe.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that the “cyber-war” policies for which McConnell is shilling is the top priority of the industry he serves. Right this very minute, the front page of the intelligence industry’s INSA website (previously chaired by McConnell) trumpets the exact public-private merger for “cyber-war” policies which McConnell uses the Post to advocate:
The Report just published by that that industry group (.pdf) is entitled “Addressing Cyber Security Through Public-Private Partnership.” The industry’s Report sounds like a virtually exact replica of what McConnell just published in the Post: America is under grave threat and can Stay Safe only by transferring huge amounts of public funds to these private corporations in order to restructure the Internet to allow better detection and monitoring. And look at the truly Orwellian and unintentionally revealing logo under which the Report is written: showing a complete linkage of Government institutions (such as Congress and regulatory agencies), the Surveillance State, private intelligence corporations, and the Internet (click on image to enlarge):
Readers of The Washington Post, exposed to McConnell’s Op-Ed, would know none of this. They would think that they were reading the earnest National Security recommendations of a former top military and government official, and would have no idea about the massive profit motives driving him. Although the Op-Ed, at the end, identifies McConnell as “executive vice president of Booz Allen Hamilton, which consults on cybersecurity for the private and public sector” (as well as a former NSA head, DNI, and retired Admiral), there’s no hint that Booz Allen, its multiple clients, and the industry it represents (along with McConnell himself) would stand to benefit greatly from the very policies he advocates in The Post. Indeed, just like the INSA, the Booz Allen website, at the top, this very minute promotes the exact policies McConnell advocates:
So here we have a perfect merger of (a) exploiting public office for personal profit, (b) endless increases in the Surveillance State achieved through rank fear-mongering, (c) the rapid elimination of any line between the public and private sectors, and (d) individuals deceitfully posing as “objective commentators” who are, in fact, manipulating our political debates on behalf of undisclosed interests.
And, as usual, it is our nation’s largest media outlets (in this case The Washington Post) which provide the venue for these policies to be advocated and glorified, all the while not only failing to expose — but actively obscuring — the bulging conflicts of interests that drive them. While “news” outlets distract Americans with the petty partisan dramas of the day, these factions — whose power is totally impervious to changes in party control — continue to expand their stranglehold on how the Government functions in ways that fundamentally alter our core privacy and liberties, and radically expand the role private corporations and government power play in our lives.