I have been puzzling over the ever-augmenting Black Budget since about the time the U.S. government began openly assassinating suspects, including U.S. citizens, without indictment, much less conviction in a court of law, for capital crimes. Tim Weiner’s groundbreaking work Blank Check: The Pentagon’s Black Budget (1990) explains how the means to commit crimes under cover of state secrets privilege all began with the Manhattan Project. Like so many other aspects of the sprawling defense and security apparatus which continues to expand like an amoeba, engulfing nearly every aspect of American culture, the Black Budget took on a life of its on during the Cold War.
The stakes were admittedly high: freedom or slavery? Put that way, it seemed eminently reasonable to policymakers at the time to devise intricate mechanisms shrouded from public view in order to do whatever needed to be done to keep the inhabitants of the Western world both safe and free. In their view, it was strategic; it was tactical; and it had to be secret, in order to succeed. Beginning with the Manhattan Project, through which atomic bombs were developed for the first time in human history, the perceived need to keep newly developed weapons systems shrouded in secrecy, for fear that the enemy might develop the same, arose out of a recognition of just how devastating those weapons could be. Little Boy and Fat Man were notoriously tested on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in early August 1945, and with the U.S. government’s demonstrated willingness to deploy such weapons, the nuclear arms race was on.
Once a chunk of the defense budget had been made black to keep new weapons technology secret, it did not take long for entire systems of clandestine operations, today known as “black ops,” to emerge and expand as well. Again, we have Tim Weiner to thank for having done us the service of documenting in his indispensable work Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA (2007) at least some of what went on during the Cold War. Legacy of Ashes is based on a trove of some 50,000 CIA documents declassified after decades of secrecy. But today, long after the Soviet Union collapsed, the secrecy apparatus put in place by well-meaning—if sometimes confused, inept, deluded and occasionally outright insane—bureaucrats has come to be a seemingly permanent fixture of our world. At more than $80 billion, the Black Budget now exceeds the entire military budget of nearly all other governments.
We may, if so inclined, most charitably explain the persistence of the Black Budget by appeal to bureaucratic habits (which do die hard…), even when the rational grounds for the secrecy no longer obtain. The strategic grounds originally used to justify the Black Budget disappeared with the dissolution of the U.S.S.R., but so did the tactical grounds, given that advanced nuclear weapons systems are already possessed by several governments, and the technology has been shared with others as well—whether by spies, defectors or simple mercenaries. The secrets, then, remain secrets, ironically enough, only to the very citizens who pay for the systems, including nearly all of their elected representatives.
Legislators continue nonetheless reflexively to approve every new defense budget, along with any requests for funding which anyone cares to cast as a matter of national defense. Indeed, embedding controversial, non-defense measures within National Defense Authorization Acts (NDA) has become a tried-and-true technique of passing new laws which would never have been ratified on their own, as stand-alone bills. A notable and relevant example is the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act, which was rolled into the NDA of 2013. This tactic works because any congressperson who votes against “national defense” becomes an instantly denounced target by the political opposition and the media.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower presciently warned in 1961 about the danger of perversely prioritizing state means of mass homicide over every other thing. How this ultimately came to fruition has been illuminated by Robert Higgs, author of Crisis and Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government (1987), who shows how historical crises invariably expand the power of the state, the agents of which are loath to give any of it back. Even when the originating crisis is somehow mitigated or resolved, the government does not retract in size. Instead, it continues to “ratchet up” in response to each new crisis, with the previous expansion regarded as the new baseline.
Everyone is aware of this dynamic on some level, whether or not they spend much time reflecting on foreign affairs. We all know, to take a considerably less grave example than the summary execution of persons deemed “suspicious” by anonymous analysts, that when we prepare to fly anywhere in the world from the United States, we are not permitted to transport in our carry-on luggage any liquids or gels in volumes greater than 100ml (~3.3 ounces). Why do we still have to remove our footwear to get through airport security, more than two decades after September 11, 2001? Because some incompetent dude thought that he could use explosives hidden in his shoes to blow up a plane.
The post-9/11 travel security measures seem unlikely ever to change, and we can also expect the structural features of the sprawling homeland defense apparatus, including mass surveillance of citizens not suspected of any crimes, to continue to grow, given the conservative nature of belief conjoined with the bet-hedging behavior of lawmakers. Setting what is arguably bribery by lobbyists to one side, the primary driving factor in the minds of politicians who wish to be reelected is plausibly that they want not to be blamed, should anything untoward happen after they vote to reduce the defense budget or eliminate any of the security-related laws already in place. And God forbid that unelected bureaucrats who dispense unaccountable Black Budget funds at their caprice should be “hobbled” through oversight!
The reasoning of opportunistic politicians appears to be that adding even more restrictions, filling the (feckless) defense department’s already overflowing coffers, and allowing off-the-leash bureaucrats to do whatever they may deem necessary in the name of national defense, will all be seen in a positive light by citizens who are counting on the government to serve as their protector. This fictional image is maintained, against all empirical evidence of the actual outcomes of every military intervention since World War II, because the populace is constantly “tutored” by the government-coopted mainstream media to support anything whatsoever labeled by anyone as “defense”. Examples include the “War on Terror”; the “humanitarian intervention” on behalf of the Libyan people; the empowerment of Saddam Hussein; the arming of radical Islamists in Afghanistan and, later, in Syria; the bombing of Kosovo; and the goading of Russian President Putin in 2022 to the point where he may opt to use nukes. Despite the human misery which these undertakings have caused, all have been “worth it,” according to mainstream media pundits, and as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright might say.
Now, given the tendency of government restrictions enacted in response to crises to expand, the power of government authorities in such circumstances to augment, and the natural resistance of human beings to relinquish any of that power, the persistence and expansion of the Black Budget may not seem puzzling in the least. Having been trained quite effectively to believe that “national defense” is always and everywhere good, few citizens would find it troubling even to learn that trillions of Pentagon dollars have been “lost track of”—creating what is in effect an enormous supplement to the Black Budget, which should perhaps be termed the Ultra Black Budget.
Albeit considerably less charitable than the “bureaucratic habit” explanation for the persistence and growth of the Black Budget, equally plausible is that it has created a class of people who now wear what is tantamount to the ring of Gyges (Plato’s Republic). They are capable of committing crimes invisibly, with no possible risk of being redressed, much less punished, for their morally dubious activities. Why would anyone in such a position ever renounce that privilege, the unassailable power to do anything at all to anyone at all for any reason at all and with complete impunity? To anyone with even the most rudimentary understanding of human nature and the reality of corruption, it should be clear that the ongoing pretext of state secrets privilege has opened up the possibility of an entire criminal underworld operating under the aegis of the U.S. government and fully funded by taxpayers.
What it worse, far from serving either strategic or tactical roles in defending our waning republic, the Black Budget is arguably being used to undermine it. Let us take as a possible example the recent sabotage of the Nord Stream natural gas pipelines between Russia and Europe. If this intentional act of piracy was perpetrated by the United States, then it is equivalent to a declaration of war against Russia. As a Black Op, the secret need never be admitted to anyone, even if it leads to World War III and nuclear holocaust. And therein lies the irony: the means to destroy the United States in toto are now possessed by a few individuals with access to the Black Budget, even though all of what they do is paid for by citizens under the assumption that they are being protected. Such is the logic of the legislatively shielded Black Budget that, if in fact the Nord Stream sabotage was a U.S. operation, then anyone who knows what happened and who dares to go public with compelling evidence of the truth becomes guilty of espionage, if not treason, and subject to the federal death penalty, if convicted. Conviction?
One of the most significant expansions of federal power in the twenty-first century has been the executive’s elimination of the requirement of conviction in a court of law before state execution. This assault on the most basic principles of the republic came about in incremental steps, in the aftermath of the events of September 11, 2001, and was made possible by the technological development of the ability to kill by remote control.
The U.S. government’s first publicly vaunted execution of suspects by lethal drone outside a war zone was carried out under the authorization of President George W. Bush, on November 3, 2002, in Yemen, when a group of men were incinerated while driving down a road. Nearly twenty years later, President Joe Biden claimed to have terminated the life of alleged al Qaeda mastermind Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul, Afghanistan, on July 31, 2022. For his part, President Donald Trump openly bragged about having used a lethal drone to eliminate Iranian Major General Qasem Soleiman on January 3, 2020, at Baghdad International Airport, as though this brazen act of premeditated, intentional homicide were somehow noble or courageous.
Before Biden and Trump, it was President Barack Obama who in 2011 summarily executed not only Osama bin Laden, when he could have been taken prisoner, but also Anwar al-Awlaki, which places Obama in a league all his own, having intentionally denied even a U.S. citizen his right to stand trial for whatever crimes he was believed to have committed. (Note that an American, Kamal Derwish, was killed by the Bush administration in its publicly vaunted drone strike on November 3, 2002, but this fact appears to have been discovered after, not before, the strike.) Had Anwar al-Awlaki been found guilty of treason in a federal court, he might have been sentenced to death. Obama opted instead to streamline the process, in the manner of every tyrant since time immemorial, by imposing the death penalty on the basis of what the president, a fallible human being, had been persuaded by bureaucrats to believe was evidence of the suspect’s guilt. John Brennan, Obama’s drone killing czar at the time, was promoted in 2013 to the directorship of the CIA.
Obama also authorized the execution of U.S. citizen Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, the son of Anwar al-Awlaki, for which no official explanation was ever offered by his killers. Being a male and having recently celebrated his sixteenth birthday, the younger al-Awlaki did satisfy the Obama administration’s scrupulous standard for classifying a corpse as an Enemy Killed in Action (EKIA). Yes, the label EKIA was applied to all men who found themselves at the receiving end of missiles launched by U.S. drones, whether inside or outside areas of active hostility, provided only that they were of military age. We have Daniel Hale to thank for having revealed to U.S. citizens the unsavory truth about the drone program, that the burden of proof was inverted by the drone killers, who defined their victims as guilty until proven innocent. Note that Hale was rewarded for his courageous act of whistleblowing with a federal prison sentence.
The longstanding international proscription to political assassination has been flouted throughout the twenty-first century, and the string of intentional acts of homicide perpetrated and openly acknowledged by four successive administrations together illustrate that the U.S. executive is no longer constrained in any way by the letter of international law. Once someone has been labeled a “terrorist” by appropriately situated bureaucrats, the U.S. executive grants the drone assassins the license to take him out. Given this normalization of assassination, what precisely is the Black Budget being used for, if people deemed dangerous by the U.S. government may be summarily executed without any sort of judicial process whatsoever?
No one privy to the details, the line items shrouded in secrecy, is permitted to share them publicly without risking harsh sanctions. But logic suggests that the Black Budget and the ancillary Ultra Black Budget (the trillions of dollars “lost track of” by the Pentagon) are being either siphoned off by mercenary criminals, in yet another version of the lobbyist kick-back scheme, or else used to commit crimes which are even worse than the summary execution of suspected criminals without trial. Assuming for the sake of argument the latter to be true, if government officials are now permitted premeditatedly and intentionally to assassinate human beings, including U.S. citizens, perceived of as potentially dangerous, then what is it that the Ring of Gyges wearers are not permitted to do and which must, for allegedly strategic and tactical reasons, be done secretly and beyond the reach of any form of accountability?
There is no proof that the U.S. government perpetrated the Nord Stream attack and thereby increased the likelihood of nuclear war, in which millions of Americans could be expected to die. But undermining democratically elected foreign governments, through inciting mass unrest and plotting coups are enterprises in which the U.S. government is known to have engaged repeatedly. Again, a great deal of that sort of activity went on during the Cold War, on the grounds that the evil Communists could not be allowed to spread their ideology around the world. But communism is no longer a threat, so it is unclear what the rationale for undermining democratically elected governments is supposed to be today, beyond maintaining U.S. global military hegemony.
In this post-Communist world, examples of crimes worse than the summary execution of terrorist suspects (some of whom are in fact innocent) could be the summary execution (or attempted elimination) of persons whose outspoken opposition to the U.S. hegemon is perceived of as threatening to the defense apparatus itself. Such figures may have included Julian Assange, Michael Hastings, John McAfee, et al.—anyone who has dared to reject in an effective way the reigning narrative that “We are good, and they are evil,” which has been used to rationalize mass homicide and destruction wherever and whenever the current crop of U.S. elites happen to please.
Consider the plans reportedly drawn up to assassinate Wikileaks founder Julian Assange while he was living under asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. It is undeniable that this sort of initiative is both illegal and criminal, and yet it is, one gathers, fully funded by taxpayers. Less clear examples of the same phenomenon may or may not include the fate suffered by a long list of other “annoying” persons who came to tragic ends either by their own or someone else’s hand. The case of Julian Assange is especially troubling because he quite successfully exposed U.S. war crimes, and for his efforts he has been discredited and criminalized as though he were a mass murderer. It is true that Assange is still among the living, which cannot be said of the many other arguably less fortunate nonviolent dissidents eliminated by governments throughout history. But Assange has by now been incapacitated to the point where it can be said without hyperbole that he no longer is the person who he once was. His power to express dissent has been stripped entirely away. The Nord Stream sabotage “mystery” is in fact just the sort of event which Assange, if not shackled and muffled, might have been able to illuminate with the aid of whistleblowers.
Needless to say, this schema does not bode well for the future of free people, and least of all dissidents who criticize the government, pointing out its crimes and contradictions. President Biden recently announced that “domestic extremists” currently constitute the gravest danger to the republic, an allegation which he claims is based on reports from “our very own intelligence agencies,” presumably including the CIA and the FBI. Both of these organizations have evinced a morally unsavory “scorecard” mentality in recent years, attempting to rack up as many EKIA (in the case of the CIA) or federal convictions (in the case of the FBI) as possible—by all means necessary.
In the drone killing program run throughout the Middle East by the CIA in the twenty-first century, analysts have been generously remunerated for finding potential future terrorists to kill, with ever-lengthening hit lists of targets created through bribing informants on the ground while mining the cellphone data of persons previously suspected of terrorism. Meanwhile, in the homeland, FBI agents have gone to great lengths to identify potential future members of factional terrorist groups, and even to lure them into complicity in conspiracies to commit violent plots which were in fact masterminded by government officials and informants, who provided funding to hundreds of hapless losers who ended up being convicted and are now serving sentences in federal penitentiaries. It sounds preposterous, if not impossible, but such techniques of entrapment have been well-documented by Trevor Aaronson in his extremely disturbing exposé, Terror Factory: Inside the FBI’s Manufactured War on Terrorism (2013).
Given the ways in which suspected potential terrorists were targeted and ensnared by the CIA and the FBI throughout the “War on Terror,” we should be very wary of anyone who maintains that persons in the homeland who reject the current administration’s narratives are properly labeled “extremists”. “Extremism” is a concept by now wed to the notion of “terrorism,” and by calling dissenters at home “extremists,” the path is paved for bureaucrats to deploy the very same “tools” against them.
By stripping our civil liberties away and propelling the nation toward World War III, the bureaucrats currently protected by state secrets privilege are on track, and indeed seem determined, to destroy what remains of the republic. Nowhere is the danger before us more evident than in the shockingly reckless handling of the crisis in Ukraine by war propagandists posing as diplomats. It has become abundantly clear that the only way to rein in what has transmogrified into tyrannical rule by an unaccountable oligarchic bureaucracy is to abolish the Black Budget and cease funding any of the network of activities being perpetrated under cover of a spurious and obsolete need for secrecy.