COTA Revisited – From the Invisibility of Industry to the Industries of Invisibility (PART II)

[This is the second part of the transcript of the talk we delivered at Gallery 400 in Chicago. Many thanks to Beate Geissler, Oliver Sann, and Anthony Stepter for the logistics and hospitality, and to the audience, including Brian Holmes, Claire Pentecost and Blake Stimson for the excellent discussion.  Note: citations available upon request.]

The Dark Geography of the Deep State

Since the beginning of the War on Terror, references to what has alternately been dubbed the national security state, the invisible government, the state within, the deep state, or the shadow government have become increasingly prevalent in discussions of national security and American democracy. These terms all generally refer to same network of national security actors and institutions operating within, and to a certain extent alongside, the United States government broadly conceived. Users of the terms generally share a fear of the network’s secrecy, of the lack of meaningful control and oversight by the three branches of government of its activities, of its seemingly ever increasing share of the federal budget, and its general lack of democratic accountability. Today I’ll be looking at some theorists that understand the rise of the national security network as heralding a novel form of bifurcation of the American state – a dual state or double government. Rather than merely a troubling intensification of tendencies always already existing within our constitutional framework, in these theorizations the rise of the national security network represents a quantitative/qualitative shift in which the locus of power in American government is fundamentally different than in the past. I will also consider works of art that explicitly take the national security network as their object of study, primarily those of artist, author and geographer Trevor Paglen (also Oscar winner for his work on Citizenfour).

Paglen They Watch the Moon 2010

On a very basic, straightforward level, any cognitive mapping of this bifurcated state is wrought with epistemological difficulties, and the challenges of studying, let alone depicting or representing, an object or realm whose structure and activities are often legally shrouded in secrecy, and beyond even legislative or judicial oversight, are in many ways obvious. How do we depict this world that is literally out of sight? What does it mean to detail the sites in which representations of our world are produced when these are ‘black sites’, whose invisibility is violently guarded? I’m going to start with a brief discussion of the national security network and its place within what has been called the dual state or double government, which I hope will show the importance of this very difficult task.

The national security network is best conceptualized as just that: a network. It is made of up different nodes (actors, groups, institutions – both governmental and non-governmental), through which information and resources flow. The conceptualization allows the basic insight that all of these different nodes are not necessarily colluding – in fact, they might occasionally be working against each other or competing for abundant, yet nonetheless scarce, resources – but are still all part of the same network. This network is a “labyrinthine structure” that includes forty-six federal departments and agencies carrying out classified national security work, which ranges from intelligence gathering an analysis to cyber-warfare, weapons development, and the actual waging of war. It includes nearly 2,000 private companies that support this work at over 10,000 locations across America. It employees millions, and has annual expenditures in the trillions.

While national security has existed in some sense since the dawn of the republic, Paglen and many others identify the birth of “the national security state” or “black world” with the development of the atomic bomb at Los Alamos during World War II, in its enormous expenditure, mobilisation of manpower, and generation of huge covert sites employing unprecedented magnitudes of materiel and human capital: ‘Building secret weapons during a time of war was nothing new. Building industrialized secret weapons, employing hundreds of thousands of workers, the world’s top scientists, dedicated factories, and multibillion-dollar budgets hidden from Congress – that was unprecedented. It would become a standard operating procedure’. If the quest to build the world’s first atomic bomb set the coordinates of the black world, it became a legitimate part of the US state with Truman’s signing of the National Security Act of 1947, which, among other things, spawned the Central Intelligence Agency (the nation’s first peacetime intelligence agency) and the National Security Council, and merged the various branches of the military into the Department of Defense.” Until this moment, the United States would increase military spending in build up to war, but it would decline during peacetime, and intelligence spending was a relatively small portion of the federal budget. The national security state was intended to provide a posture of constant military readiness for the country. A key event in this history is the CIA Act of 1949, which remains the statutory basis for the black or classified budget. Remarkably, the bill was voted into legislation without congress even being able to read it in its entirety. It had been vetted by the Committee on Armed Services, which removed portions of the bill that were ‘of a highly confidential nature’. As Paglen emphasizes: ‘The bill itself was secret’.

The first theory of actual bifurcation that I’d like to discuss is that of the American political scientist Michael Glennon, who has recently presented his theory of double government as part of an attempt to answer the question as to why the Obama administration’s approach to almost all national security issues has been essentially the same as that of the Bush administration. His answer involves a double government within the United States, split between dignified and efficient institutions, that “together make up a ‘disguised republic’ that obscures the massive shift in power that has occurred, which if widely understood would create a crisis of public confidence.”

The dignified institutions, also referred to as the Madisonian institutions, are the three branches of government – the presidency, Congress and the courts – while the national security network is the “efficient” institution – Glennon calls this the Trumanite network, to reflect Truman’s role in bringing about the National Security Act of 1947. “America’s efficient institution makes most of the key decisions concerning national security, removed from public view and from the constitutional restrictions that check America’s dignified institutions. The United States has, in short, moved beyond a mere imperial presidency to a bifurcated system – a structure of double government – in which even the President now exercises little substantive control over the overall direction of U.S. national security policy.” Importantly, Glennon argues that the Trumanite network has become so entrenched and powerful that it has actually achieved autonomy from the Madisonian institutions. “The Trumanite network makes American national security policy; it is occasional exceptions to that policy that are made by the Madisonian institutions.” The democratic institutions largely exist for spectacle, while the more autocratic institutions wield actual political power.

So what are the consequences of this bifurcated state structure? Most generally, it means that in a profound way, at least in the realm of foreign policy and national security, the American government is a democracy in name only. Any influence that the tripartite government has on national security policy is minimal and a trillion dollar budget is being formulated and spent largely beyond any democratic controls. Furthermore, with the Madisonian institutions ostensibly still in charge as far as the public is concerned, in all likelihood the Trumanite network will only grow in power and influence. Glennon fears a future where the Madisonian institutions “fade gradually into museum pieces […]; Madisonians kiss babies, cut ribbons, and read Trumanite talking points, while the Trumanite network, careful to retain historic forms and familiar symbols, takes on the substance of a silent directorate.” His conclusion is menacing: “What form of government ultimately will emerge from the United States’ experiment with double government is uncertain. The risk is considerable, however, that it will not be a democracy.”

What I am going to group together as parapolitical researchers or dual state theorists go a step farther than Glennon. The term “dual state” seems to have first been used by the German political scientist Ernst Fraenkel in his research on formation of the Nazi state in the 1930s. Fraenkel analyzed the German state as being split between a normative state of law (statutes, common law and administrative law) and a prerogative state governed by the Nazi party outside the bounds of the law. Importantly for Fraenkel, the prerogative state and the normative state did not have a symbiotic relationship; they were conceived as “competitive and not complementary parts of the German Reich.” Twenty years later the term was used by Hans Morgenthau in his The Decline of Democratic Politics, where he claimed the US state was split between a “regular state hierarchy” and a “security hierarchy.” The security hierarchy, he claimed, “not only acts in parallel to the regular state hiearchy but also monitors and exerts control over it.” Morgenthau goes as far as to claim that the security hierarchy is able to “exert an effective veto over the decisions” of the regular state hierarchy. Unlike in Fraenkel’s theorization, these two states had a symbiotic relationship, as the democratic state legitimized the politics of security while the security hierarchy limited the range of democratic politics.

Recently, this conception has been pushed forcefully and provocatively by a loose grouping of theorists published in two academic volumes of texts on “parapolitics.” Parapolitics is defined by Robert Cribb as the study of “systemic clandestinity” or “the study of criminal sovereignty, of criminals behaving as sovereigns and sovereigns behaving as criminals in a systematic way.” The term has only emerged in scholarly literature very recently, in the early nineties, and also amongst what are pejoratively referred to as conspiracy theorists. Parapolitical research focuses not merely on the activities and crimes of clandestine and criminal groups like security services, cartels, terrorist organizations, secret societies, and cabals, but primarily on the systemic roles played by such actors. If traditional political science looks at the “overt politics of the public state, so parapolitics as a field studies the relationships between the public state and the political processes and arrangements outside and beyond conventional politics,” claims Eric Wilson.

Like Glennon, the parapolitical theories formulate a theory of bifurcated government: a dual state divided between a democratic state and a deep state. The broad strokes are very similar to the theory of double government, with the exception that dual state theorists often paint the national security network as being considerably more sinister and lawless than Glennon. In a sense, parapolitical theorists see a vision of the order that Glennon sees emerging if the Trumanite network is not contained, although they see it as already existing within the current liberal order.

Because of the issues they inevitable end of dealing with, parapolitical theorists often feel the need to differentiate their work from what might be denigrated as conspiracy theory. For Peter Dale Scott, who is credited with creating the term, parapolitics sees conspiracies as being part of the political structure and not as exceptions – things like the employment/utilisation of mobsters, terrorists, death squads, or drug traffickers in foreign (or domestic for that matter) affairs are not framed in terms of corruption, but governance. These structures are “neither ‘parasitic’ nor ‘deviant,’ but functionally central to the routine operation of global governance and private authority.” The key difference between parapolitics and conspiracy theory, according to Scott, is that “[s]cholars of parapolitics are united in asserting that parapolitics is not simply a collection of strange tales from the margins of politics which serve only to mark out the extreme limits of human behavior. That is to say, parapolitics does not blame rogue elements or evil genius. Rather it exams global political, social and economic structures to identify those features which permit or encourage the growth and maintenance of parapolitics.” Most conspiracy theory sees a given conspiracy as a criminal aberration that must be solved and whose masterminds must be brought to justice, so that normal functioning democracy can be restored. A position that often shrouds structural antagonisms, and structural critique as a whole, and instead conceives of the conspiracy as an infection to be expelled from the social body.

For all of their similarities, the main, and for the most part latent, difference between the double government and dual state theses seems to be that for Glennon, the consequences of the Trumanite network do not seem to extend beyond the realm of national security, while for the dual state theorists, the deep state has become so central in Western democracies that it has become the actual locus of real political power. As Ola Tunander writes, “In the final analysis, it is the deep state that is the state structure that decides when and when not to use illegal measures to keep order.” Referencing Fraenkel’s contemporary Carl Schmitt, particularly his conception of the sovereign as he who decides on the state of exception, the theorists of the dual state claim that the deep state has become the sovereign, as it is “the entity that is able to establish order and the rule of law through operations outside the law.” Tunander stresses that the deep state, as sovereign, “is able not to just limit the range of the democratic discourse but also to manipulate or ‘fine tune’ such discourse.”

This begs a three-part question: 1) does the Trumanite network or deep state impact democratic life in the United States outside of the confines of national security concerns, 2) without being subject to democratic controls, and 3) in a similar way to, for example, Italy in the 1970s? Even if one takes the position that the national security network in its current configuration is completely necessary to counter contemporary threats from states and non-state actors, the answer to the first two is surely yes, especially if one considers the question broadly. To take two simple examples, the Snowden revelations about NSA surveillance and the sheer amount of tax dollars going to the national security network both impact democratic life in this country, going beyond the confines of what one normally thinks of national security concerns. To go back to the recent past, the FBI was carrying out COINTELPRO and the NSA Project MINARET, both purportedly to maintain political stability. One might also consider things like the militarization of municipal police forces over the past decades; projects like the Lower Manhattan Security Initiative, a complex surveillance system featuring mobile roadblocks guarding Wall Street from attack; or the state’s evocation of the state secrets privilege to dismiss claims of simple negligence. If one were to go farther, and perhaps enter the realm of what might be considered the lunatic fringe, one might consider examples of alleged false flag terrorism within the United States (everything from 9/11 and the anthrax attacks to the JFK assassination) or Gary Webb’s dark alliance between the contras, the CIA, and inner-city crack dealers.

Of course this puts one on shaky epistemological grounds, but in a sense, this is inevitable because of the nature of the subject. As Daniele Ganser writes, when studying the deep state “only fragments can be collected and ordered into a narrative of limited coherence, which can only offer glimpses into the abyss of deceit and manipulation. Noble as it might be, the aim to penetrate and illuminate the world of parallel structures and secret warfare still has a long way to go, as most universities do not even teach and research the secret side of international politics as a field of inquiry.” Also, one must consider the possibility that it is hard to come up with demonstrable instances in which the deep state has interfered with democratic politics in the United States simply because it no longer has to, and arguably hasn’t for some time. As Glennon demonstrates, the national security network almost always gets its way, so it rarely has to exercise its “veto power.”

Trevor Plagen’s body of work investigating the contours of the deep state frames and illustrates many of these concerns. This work – which comprises photo series, installations, critical travelogues and political commentary – is an incursion into the more secretive reaches of the ‘dark world’, the covert geography of empire sometimes hiding in plain sight. His exploration of this world and its accompanying juridical vacuum doesn’t just lead Paglen to remote desert locations in which the national security state has hived itself off from the everyday lives of most citizens and denizens. These are of course included, but beyond the sweltering expanses of the Nevada desert and the carceral dungeons on the outskirts of Kabul, Paglen’s investigation takes him to sites like the geography department at the University of California, Berkeley (where he carried out his own doctoral research), corporate parks in northern Virginia and hotel conferences rooms in New Mexico. What transpires from this interlinked series of inquiries is the deep state’s ‘relational geography’.

Paglen’s photo series, The Other Night Sky, captures classified reconnaissance satellites by taking long exposures of the nocturnal heavens, while in Limit Telephotography he employs photographic equipment designed for capturing astronomical imagery to ‘access’ secret military installations at great distances. Vastness and indeterminacy connect both series, and one has to take the artist’s word that one is in fact looking at a spy satellite and not merely an ordinary communications satellite,; at a secret military installation and not merely a remote airport hanger. The banality of appearances is one of the abiding cognitive and political leitmotivs of this work.

KEYHOLE IMPROVED CRYSTAL from Glacier Point (Optical Reconnaissance Satellite; USA 224) 2011
In I Could Tell You but Then You Would Have to Be Destroyed by Me (2007), Paglen presents a collection of patches connected to various ‘black world’ projects – incongruous hieroglyphs of covert action, featuring, for example, an image of a topless woman riding a killer whale with the words ‘Rodeo Gal’ stitched onto the patch, worn by flight crews involved in testing a classified cruise missile prototype. The distance in this work is not as literal as in Paglen’s photography, but the viewer is yet again compelled to put a great trust in the veracity of the artist’s revelations. Here too a layer of mystery cloaks the images, intensified by the thrilling notion that one is perhaps viewing sensitive, classified information.

More recent work from 2014 asks “What does a surveillance state look like?” and shows the offices of three of the largest agencies in the US intelligence committee: the National Security Agency (NSA),  The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA – geospatial intelligence), and the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO – in charge of satellites). His stated purpose with the photos is “to expand the visual vocabulary we use to “see” the U.S. intelligence community,” and to take a network whose organizing logic is invisibility and secrecy and frame its operations in the actual physical world. As he writes, “Digital surveillance programs require concrete data centers; intelligence agencies are based in real buildings; surveillance systems ultimately consist of technologies, people, and the vast network of material resources that supports them. If we look in the right places at the right times, we can begin to glimpse America’s vast intelligence infrastructure.” The Brecht quote that Alberto cited earlier, that ‘a photograph of the Krupp factory or of AEG says almost nothing about these institutions’, is interesting to consider in this context. Also interesting is the reluctance of these agencies to be represented in the most straightforward sense: Paglen notes that the only image of the NSA used by the press following the Snowden revelations was this photograph from what seems to be the 1970s supplied by the agency.


In intimating, through its artefacts and traces, the reality of an unimaginably vast and largely inaccessible universe of secrecy and domination, the knowledge of which seems as essential for any understanding of contemporary power, just as it remains restricted in its totality for anyone without the highest levels of security clearance, these works engage our epistemological drive. As Gail Day and Steve Edwards write, Paglen’s ‘photographs are just one element in a process of tracking and location. They are traces, put into the public domain, of power structures that otherwise remain invisible. If Paglen does not provide us with an actual map or diagram, his work nonetheless offers cognitive maps that reveal hidden facilities of the secret state’.113 Paglen’s attention to geographic materiality, to the production of space that accompanies the proliferation of secrecy, arguably allows him to attain a degree of definition which is lacking in the purely diagrammatic trajectories of an artist like Mark Lombardi, for example.

lombardi Bush and Harkan Energy

As mentioned above, be it geographically or economically, the secret state delineated by Paglen is immense – its ‘sublimity’, to borrow from Kant, is both mathematical and dynamic.  While Wikileaks has provided us with a vast moving archive of the covert communicational networks through which US imperialism threads itself, and the Snowden revelations with a sense of the stupefying scale of transactions mined by the security state, the geographical blueprint of secrecy is more difficult to quantify116 – the immense classified spaces of the US South West, dispossessed from their indigenous inhabitants, shading over into a very heterogeneous series of sites within and without the United States, from business parks in which CIA shell companies are allegedly located to the torture dungeons to which the victims of extraordinary rendition are dispatched.117  Paglen’s photos of these sites too bring to mind the Brecht quote from earlier.

In its full span, Paglen’s work brings into relief the epistemological boundaries that stand in the way of any investigation into the deep state or the dark geography of the ‘war on terror’, whether it be those of political scientists, parapolitical researchers, journalists, artists, or concerned citizens (even, for that matter, our elected officials and appointed judges). This is dramatized in an illuminating passage in his critical travelogue Blank Spots on the Map, where Paglen goes through the Department of Defense’s public budget from the 2008 fiscal year. As fat as a phonebook, the budget contains line items for sundry projects. Many programmes include descriptions, but alongside banal expenses like latrines and postage, we find entries like Chalk Eagle, allocated $352 million for 2009 but unaccompanied by any programme description. Beyond this lie another class of programmes, with names like Cobra Ball and Forest Green, that don’t even have their budgets listed, while at the extreme end we find (or rather don’t) programmes whose names or expenses are not revealed and are only listed as ‘Special Program’ or ‘Special Activities’. By adding up all the line items and comparing the result – $64 billion – with the overall Department of Defense budget – just under $80 billion – one can roughly figure out how much was spent on these completely secret projects. This $16 billion is only a part of the overall black budget, however; Paglen claims that it was around $34 billion for the 2009 fiscal year.

9-Paglen Code Names

Yet again attending to the overlap between militarism and political economy, Paglen acknowledges his literal inability to ‘follow the money’, along with the inevitable incompleteness of any investigation into the deep state: ‘I must confess that when I began this project, I was seduced by blank spots on maps, by the promise of hidden knowledge that they seemed to contain. It was easy to imagine that if I could just find one more code name, if I only knew what the HAVE PANTHER project was … somehow the world itself would change for the better’.122 As he concludes, however, this is not enough. Detection and discovery fall short. Simply revealing even some of the details of these classified projects is a complex and time-consuming task – getting the state to acknowledge their existence is even more difficult. While exposure makes for important political (and aesthetic) work, it has to be linked to systemic concerns if is not going to be reduced to a mere cataloguing of the black world – an activity which, like that of the satellite-spotters whom Paglen enlists to such effect in his work, has its own downside, with its libidinal investment in infinite registering, itemising, classifying, in the desperate attempt to leave no hole in knowledge. The power of this kind of work is to be sought in the interplay between, on the one hand, the strategies through which visual and documentary form is given to the refractory geography of covertness, and, on the other, the awareness of limits that are simultaneously political and cognitive. Paglen is able to shed a refracted light on many of the dark corners of this world, but the map that emerges is inevitably incomplete. Their contours can be grasped, but the blank spots are not completely filled in. In fact, to raise another point made in a slightly different context by Alberto, we should perhaps not speak of a map at all. The scalar, material and subjective complexities of the geographies explored in Paglen’s visual and written works, and the intricacy of their visual and textual mediations, mean that the deep state which emerges in relief through these inquiries far exceeds the limited capacities of cartography proper.

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