Al McCoy on the future of Government Intelligence Gathering and the American Imperium


Newport, RI: Spanish-American War Memorial (1923) 8/20/12

          The Spanish-American War Memorial in a carelessly tended small park in Newport, Rhode Island, bears these words:

‘Dedicated to the memory of the citizens of Newport who served in the war with Spain.  A brief war, but one where results were many, startling and of world-wide meaning.’

Few inscriptions so aptly summarize the significance of the events they memorialize.

           From this nearly forgotten war, Alfred W. McCoy has pointed out, sprang the America of today.  Our reliance on developing vast stores of information on enemies of the state — internal and external — was not its least significant effect.


          The Petraeus affair has provided a lot of amusement and distraction since news of it broke on Friday.  It’s wonderful to see one of the world’s most powerful, most intelligent men brought down by a zipper problem.

           Fun-ny!  Like Moe, Larry and Curly playing Adolf, Josef and Herman – except it’s not.

           The fallibility of the humans directing and responding to the ever-increasing mechanised intelligence sweeps beggars the imagination.  But the implications of the delusion of control our drones and electronic monitoring offer the President and the military/intelligence complex have eluded almost all commentators.

           Except Alfred W. McCoy, a History professor at the University of Wisconsin, an expert on the American government’s use of torture, a leading thinker on the connection between advanced telemetry and imperial decline, and an old friend.

           Twenty-four hours before President Obama announced General Petraeus’s resignation, Al published ‘Beyond Bayonets and Battleships:  Space Warfare and the Future of U.S. Global Power’ on

           I don’t like the title.  It suggests Al’s writing just another piece on ‘Star Wars’.  Rather, he’s telling us about ourselves, our willingness to believe information equals intelligence and intelligence yields victory.  Information – masses of it – inspires hubris, the delusion of control.

          A couple of months ago, I wrote about the newly transcribed and translated of interviews with and electronic surveillance of captured German soldiers.  What we thought we knew about ordinary Germans and the Shoah – what we told each other in books and magazines for 60 years – appears to have been largely wrong.

           The OSS and military intelligence gathered the information.  Someone, probably a number of someones, decided it wasn’t worth understanding or transmitting.  One can only wonder what someone looking back in 2082 at records from today will see that we ignored.

           But Al’s thesis is darker and deeper than that perennial question.  Intelligence gathering is not cost free.  Nor are the actions – drone strikes in Afghanistan, B-52 carpet bombing in Cambodia – dictated by flawed interpretations of sampled data dumps.  What have we invested in?  Will it retard the decline many Americans now sense, or accelerate it?

           Al has written an article that demands attention and reflection and action.