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Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State

A decade of terrorism warnings about possible attacks in the United States has convinced us that we have much to fear.

The following is an excerpt from Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State by Dana Priest and William M Arkin (Little, Brown & Co, 2011).

A Perpetual State of Yellow

Though she could barely walk anymore at age seventy-six, Joy Whiteman remained calm as she fumbled to remove her new white tennis shoes, lift herself out of her wheelchair, and grab the side of the X-ray machine. She teetered slowly, in socks, through the security scanner at the Boise Airport in Idaho. Airport security guards folded her wheelchair and rolled it through the scanner, keeping an eye on the frail woman in a bright flowered jacket.

“Can you make it without pain?” a guard asked her.

“Oh, sure,” she replied.

Whiteman followed instructions, lifted her hands above her head, emptied her pockets of crumpled pieces of paper, then apologized for having left her driver’s license in her purse rather than having it in hand for the guards to examine with her plane ticket. The line slowed behind her. Some people sighed at the inconvenience. Others smiled in sympathy at the awkward sight. I grimaced. What were the odds that she was a terrorist?

But Whiteman didn’t mind at all. “I have no problem with it. I don’t want to blow up,” she said when I asked about the hassle. “I could be carrying a gun or something.”

“Yeah,” her husband, Bill, 72, said. “These people are always one step ahead of us.”

Whiteman’s smile faded. “Last time, they wheeled me through without looking at the X-ray,” she said. “I could have had a bomb or explosives.”

A decade of terrorism warnings about possible attacks in the United States had convinced Whiteman that she had much to fear. Walking through a body scanner without her wheelchair was a small price to pay for safety. Never mind that no terrorist had ever fit her profile or been foiled walking through a security scanner. Never mind that the Department of Homeland Security, which was responsible for setting airport security policy, was ridiculed by people at every other intelligence agency because it hadn’t learned to hone its focus and still saw threats everywhere.

The scene of Joy Whiteman holding herself up with the walls of the body scanner while a crew of security guards, paid by taxpayers, made sure she didn’t fall, seemed a perfect metaphor for what has transpired in the United States over the past ten years. Having been given a steady diet of vague but terrifying information from national security officials about the possibility of dirty bombs, chemical weapons, biotoxins, exploding airliners, and suicide bombers, a nation of men and women like the Whitemans have shelled out hundreds of billions dollars to turn the machine of government over to defeating terrorism without ever really questioning what they were getting for their money. And even if they did want an answer to that question, they would not be given one, both because those same officials have decided it would gravely harm national security to share such classified information— and because the officials themselves don’t actually know.

In the panic-filled chaos of late 2001 through 2002, this dragnet approach to terrorism was understandable, given how little the CIA, the FBI, and military intelligence agencies knew then about al-Qaeda. But in ten years, they have made vast strides in technical surveillance capabilities and intelligence analysis. They have killed so many al-Qaeda operatives that only hundreds are left in the world (in addition to the organization’s post-9/11 affiliates). The dragnet approach no longer makes much sense.

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