On Trying Not to Think of Stalin While Reading the Priest-Arkin Series

Joseph StalinNot long ago I read Stalin: Triumph and Tragedy, a magisterial biography — stop right there. Don’t you hate it when reviewers reflexively laud a biography with the cliche “magisterial”? Besides, the reactions this nonetheless important book evoked in me ranged from banal (okay, another cliché, this one to describe evil, of course) to disgusting — the deeds Stalin committed. It was written in 1991by Dimitri Volkogonov, one of Russia’s highest ranking generals and among the first to gain access to secret archives of the Stalin years . If you’ll recall, that was a time when the life of a Russian, especially if he or she worked for the state, was like a game of Russian roulette.

We haven’t reached the point in the United States where the state capriciously singles out individuals for execution or imprisonment (at least not on the scale Stalin did). But has any recent reporting brought home the extent to which the U.S. government has become a secretive national security state than the series by Dana Priest and William Arkin that the Washington Post is publishing this week?

Part one, A hidden world, growing beyond control, begins (as you probably know since you’ve no doubt read it):

The top-secret world the government created in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has become so large, so unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it or exactly how many agencies do the same work.

For example . . .

Some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States. . . .

In Washington and the surrounding area, 33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work are under construction or have been built since September 2001. Together they occupy the equivalent of almost three Pentagons or 22 U.S. Capitol buildings – about 17 million square feet of space.

To begin with, imagine Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden — assuming he’s not dead or a permanent resident in al Qaeda’s nursing and rehab center — reading a translation of this series. Al Qaeda may never again be the force it was (if it ever really was). But, along with the Afghanistan and Iraq wars started in its name, our inflated military budget, and our staggering secret national security state, al Qaeda’s leaders can’t help but celebrate how well their strategy of bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy seems to be working.

It’s true that the government of a large country is, almost by definition, a cold, unfeeling entity. But more and more, one can’t help but view the U.S. government as the citizens (or subjects) of countless countries have perceived theirs since the inception of statehood. Such governments don’t exist for the benefit of their people; instead, we exist to ensure the hardiness and continuity of the state. More to the point, the apparatus of the state, as epitomized by Soviet Russia, is perceived as an occupying force in not only other states, such as, in our case, Iraq and Afghanistan, but in its own country.

But let’s go straight to the most critical issue: After the Priest-Arkin series, exactly how are we supposed to respond to Tea Partiers who condemn big government?

Part 2: National Security Inc.
Part 3: The secrets next door