Welcome to Phase Zero, a new Gawker Media site that will cover the world of spying and killing.
Phase Zero will attempt to apply Gawker's modus operandi of honesty and impertinence to the deadly serious world of intelligence, war, policing, and homeland security. With an assist from Gawker's Adam Weinstein, I will expose secrets. I will name secret programs and tell you where they live, who is running them, and what they are doing in your name. I will try to drag the architecture of permanent war out of the shadowy protection program its stewards in the Pentagon, Congress, intelligence community, and journalistic establishment have built for it.
The name requires a bit of an explanation: "Phase Zero" is national security jargon. I first noticed it popping up in official documents about a year ago. When I hunted down the bureaucratic definition, I was amused but not surprised: It means peace. Not peace like a normal person might define it. Instead, think "pre-war." Pentagon planners like to chop their wars up into neat, easily digestible nuggets—Phase One, for instance, is the "deterrent phase," when we try to scare the enemy into backing down. Phase Two is seizing the initiative and deploying forces, etc., on to Phase Five, the return of conquered lands to civilian authority.
Phase Zero—during which the warrior's task is to "shape" the always-emerging battlespace—is what exists in the mind of a caveman before he picks up his club. It's a permanent state of propaganda meant to ensure that, even for the most reasonable citizens, the inevitable debate about going to war is limited to how big the war should be, and how long it should last. The goal of Phase Zero is a populace convinced that armed-and-ready is the only acceptable option.
So what used to be called "peacetime" is now just another stage in a never-ending cycle of war. And while a military connoisseur would argue that all of this shaping is meant for the enemy, in our integrated society where national security threats are constantly being trumpeted, the American and other "friendly" populaces are targets as well.
In the world of national security, where nothing is straightforward because it's not meant for democratic debate or public understanding, the day-to-day work of pre-pre-war is primarily conducted through an enormous public relations apparatus tasked with "influence operations." These activities are undertaken, with your money, to secure your acceptance and acquiescence. You're paying them to manipulate you, to surrender to fear, to live obediently, to tune out the constancy of the war phases and accept them as given. We get the privilege of foregoing the nasty shit that used to part and parcel of being at war—draft, rationing, overt censorship, the spectacle of martial law—in exchange for ignoring the subtle creep of their contemporary equivalents.
In the upcoming months, I hope Phase Zero will start a debate about the reasons and motivations behind this state of affairs. Old farts will simply say the military industrial complex is to blame, and young upstarts will point to the NSA or some Cheney-led cabal. We will disagree about who's really in charge and who's to blame, but we can agree about money. And money is a good place to find some common ground.
Take Gawker. If you don't come here and read, if you don't continue to click, some new Gawker or some more entertaining Phase Zero 2.0 will supplant and conquer. That's the American way. And yet if the CIA, or the Army, or TSA, or some secret chamber we don't know about yet fails to deliver on its sacred charge of keeping us safe—if they screw up every phase except the one where they get to blow things up—the money just keeps on flowing.
And look at what that money gets them! The NSA, to put it plainly, has spectacularly succeeded in tackling all that the new information society has thrown at it. People might have imagined in the past that the government was listening in, that their emails were being read, that their license plate numbers could be read from space. Now, however, because of computing capacity and the experience of almost 15 years of constant war, it's actually plausible. It's happening. But what has it gotten us? If they know everything, then why are we still so fucking dumb? Why does every ISIS emerge as a surprise? Why do more and more people hate us? After all these gazillions of dollars, does the intelligence community really have a better understanding of the Middle East, or terrorism? Do people feel safer here at home?
And does anyone inside the government even understand what the NSA was or is doing? How come no one—not one security person, let alone anyone in an actual position of leadership—gets publicly fired when an insider who's been granted "clearance" penetrates their own system of safeguards? And if we're so vulnerable to Chinese hacking, or the armies of Anonymouses wreaking havoc, what are all these security guys actually doing? I'm not demanding a perfect game, but I am truly mystified as to why we do not keep score.
It's not just the soldiers and the spies and the corporations who continue to be rewarded irrespective of performance. A permanocracy of interlocking enablers—politicians, officers, staffers, think tankers, contractors, cops and first responders, and their news media interpreters—has risen up to choreograph this unending cycle of war. Serious, mainstream, sanctioned, and center, all are granted admission to the party because they buy into the circular and never-ending Logic of Phases. But other parties? Tea Party and Occupy, activist and evangelical, right and left; they are out. (OK, maybe not right.)
Though members of the permanocracy might appear at times to be at each other's throats about this or that war option, what keeps them all in one big unhappy family is that they are almost always supportive of some war option. For Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals, the threats are still omnipresent. In this world where every problem is assigned to a Phase, it's no wonder the practitioners of spying and killing claim dominion over shaping everything from Ferguson to climate change.
So here's what I plan to do: Expose. Explain. Secrecy and euphemisms are carpet-bombing us into submission. I'm sick of the parameters of the sanctioned debate. So instead I will try to treat the secret world like a sports league: There are coaches, players, commentators, bookies, and marketing geniuses. We'll have something to say about all of them, something to reveal every week. The teams are the NSA, the CIA, FBI, Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, Department of Homeland Security, TSA, ICE; and that's just Division I. There's a Division II playing somewhere else, far more obscure but nevertheless influential and odious, populated by billion-dollar institutions like the Counter-Narcoterrorism Program Office or the Defense Threat Reduction Agency or U.S. Army North, real parasites on the American spirit, survivors because what they do festers in the dark. Each has a history and personality, a lineup, a budget cap, a general manager, a narrative to sell.
Some of these teams so consistently miss the basket that one wonders how they even survive. Along the way, if someone makes a spectacular play or puts up a great defense, we'll report on that, too. But I want to tell you about the magnificent stadiums constructed for this little game, and I'll try to never lose track of the score. Nor the opponents: Are they 10 feet tall? Are they even in the same league? Are they even playing the same game?
Those entrusted with securing the American way of life have erected a fortress of secrets and codenames and off-the-books activities that serves as much to exclude Americans from influencing their own future as it does to enhance our safety. Do you know where the IRS's secret undercover unit is headquartered? What really goes on underground in Olney, Maryland? Has the new Kingfisher program started a slippery slide to spying on innocent Americans? We'll tell you about Zebra Gold and Covenant Guard (Google them!) and why you should be worried. We'll explain why there's a new secret acronym—ODTACC, for Outside Designated Theaters of Active Armed Conflicts—to describe tomorrow's battlefields (and secret ones today).
I hope to get inside the SAPs, inside the SCIFs, inside Mercury and DELTA (and I don't mean the Army's Delta Force; I mean the FBI's, and not the HRT). I'll explain to you ABI, biometrics, and GEOINT, fusion and persistence, CHIRP and CIP, watchlists and target lists. If some of these acronyms or phrases are unfamiliar to you, sometime in the near future we'll explain why they're vitally important in shaping our future. But for now, I want to focus on why you're a part of the problem.
A little less than two years ago, Edward Snowden attempted to seismically shake up the intelligence regime with unprecedented disclosures that the NSA was penetrating every cyber nook and cranny. There was outcry from the usual quarters, but nothing has changed substantively in the infinite collection and processing of data.
Again, we'll disagree about why, or even if. It's secret, you say. They control everything. It's a conspiracy. It's all corporate-owned and -run. Voting makes no difference. I've heard all of the arguments. But before the disengaged and ironic Gawker readers dismiss national security as the big game that they have no say in, I say apply some of that cynicism and tinkering and outrage to the physical world we live in. The attitude that the government knows everything, or that the NSA is even competent enough to supply wisdom, is patently wrong and ridiculously self-defeating. Sure, the permanocracy shapes the debate so that nothing changes. You have every right to let your eyes glaze over when you hear "reform," or "reorganization."
But when the American people (and particularly the generation reading Gawker) resigns and surrenders to the permanocracy's version of the world, that is the triumph of Phase Zero. We've permitted—encouraged, even—the proliferation of this world of perpetual war. Too many Americans, too many academics, too many of the silent majority, too many people who label themselves patriots, have given up on the political system. But they've also given up on being citizens—they're not involved, they don't understand the basics of government, they sheepishly stand in line, and then they complain about their lack of power. My ambition over the upcoming months is to offer a new option—the red pill in The Matrix, an alternative to capitulation or escape. Knowledge is that pill, as is our uncompromising, constant coverage of stories everyone else is too scared or too disinterested or too fucking lazy and ill-informed to report on. We are on the cusp of a new age, in journalism, in globalism, in citizen potential. Anyone who is not part of the system agrees that the system is broken. We need to shape the new rules.
I'm comfortable making boastful statements about making change for a number of reasons, the first being that I truly believe it. To use military-speak, this is a mission I've been pursuing since my days revealing the locations of nuclear weapons in the early 1980s—an act that nearly landed me in jail. All through the Cold War, I stuck with revealing fake government secrets; and then in the 1990s I worked on the rise of air power and the birth of our current machine-driven permanent system. After 9/11, I revealed the actual plan for the war in Iraq and incurred the wrath of Rumsfeld. I wrote a book revealing thousands of code names. I conceived and put together the data to expose Top Secret America in the Washington Post. And though I've worked for the U.S. Air Force and the United Nations secretariat in a quixotic endeavor to make them smarter, I've also worked with Greenpeace, Human Rights Watch, and the Natural Resources Defense Council. I'm proud to be an activist, a crusader, an enemy of the state. I'm proud because I've managed to change policy, real policies.
I'm not a journalist by training, but I've had front-page bylines in the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and, most recently, the New York Times. And I've been a long-time national security consultant and military analyst for NBC News. These venerable institutions have supported my investigative work, and for that I thank them. But I've come to recognize that they can only do what they can do. And on a personal note, I'm not one of them. I'm just not an institutional guy. I love to upset the applecart.
But before we shit all over the news media, let me say clearly that they are not my target. The world of spying and killing is. I'm aware that my colleagues who attempt to cover national security report on a world that's fucking secret—relentlessly so, vindictively so. I think many national security reporters do a pretty good job. But they are an extremely small group going up against the largest colossus on our planet, one that it is actively campaigning against those who would leak its secrets. Yes, some mainstream reporters are too beholden to the hand that feeds them (their "sources" and the official leak). And hopefully we can inspire our peers to be more confrontational. But picking on the media as the problem? That is a triumph for the permanocracy. I imagine champagne corks popping inside secret government when news media pees on news media.
So where does that leave us at Phase Zero? If the mainstream can't unmask and upset the permanocracy, how do I propose that we do that at Gawker? Well, just as the old media has its place in this world, so do we. We want to use the interactive components of Kinja and the blog platform to speculate, and ask questions, and report gossip-style items you don't see elsewhere—to focus on what it is they are doing right now. That, in a word, shapes what will happen tomorrow.
I want to challenge the careful, conservative conventions of journalism, and find the stories that aren't sanctioned or necessarily "confirmed" by some government hack. I'm willing to strike out a few times in doing so.
I believe in democracy and I hate Washington; and I claim that I can get together ten guys from my long-time home of South Pomfret, Vermont, and design as good of a policy on terrorism or the Middle East as the big brains can.
I am deadly serious and what I want to write about isn't funny or ironic and it might not garner a mass audience. (Well, some of it will be funny.) But all of this calls for your involvement, your conscious decision to read what we're putting out and carry out your civic duty. I'll be dropping the hints and the bombs, dependent to some degree on real patriots on the inside who are sick of the system's ways, but also calling upon the eagle-eyed and unwashed to tip me off and cue me when a faux secret slips by the security machine. Here at Gawker, we'll badger the government for documents, reveal the innermost workings of where you can't get, tell you things you're not support to know. And then, we'll do it again, and again, until what once was secret isn't secret anymore.
Finally, I hope that the existence of Phase Zero will prompt writers and editors—and citizen sleuths—to do better and understand more. And I want to bait the philanthropic community, which has completely and utterly dropped the ball since 9/11 in funding and building a cadre of experts and academics who can challenge the status quo.
And it's not just me that's doing this here at Gawker. The aforementioned Weinstein, a big guy and ex-Navy midshipman, will be co-pilot and hand holder and help me find my own sea legs. I hope to shanghai some of the amazing energy of Gawker's Sam Biddle and the always quasi-clandestine J.K. Trotter to write stories with consequence; and there's a war porn techno dweeb, Tyler Rogoway at Foxtrot Alpha, which as far as I can surmise, stands for fucking amazing but has the potential to be so much more. I will be helping all the sites to better cover national security. Sultana Khan, my assistant, will try to keep me from barking orders, and says she's making a sign that says "X days since Bill Arkin has called someone an idiot." It will permanently be on Zero.
If you want to read my bio, it's here, as is a complete bibliography of my writings. I've got a book on drones coming out in July —Unmanned: Drones, Data and the Illusion of Perfect Warfare—and I'll be writing about and promoting that. I want your input and your questions, tough questions. I hope it will be fun, this place; even though the subject matter is deadly serious.
Illustration by Jim Cooke.