The Hit List

I'm thrilled to have two articles in the new issue of Domus, issue 948. One of those articles—on the list of "critical foreign dependencies" (page is very slow to load) released by Wikileaks in December 2010—is reproduced, below; the other is a short look at the Open Source Ecology movement.

Keep your eye out for a copy of the magazine, however, because the following text is accompanied by a fold-out world map, featuring many of the sites revealed by Wikileaks.

• • •

We might say with only slight exaggeration that the United States exists in its current state of economic and military well being due to a peripheral constellation of sites found all over the world. These far-flung locations—such as rare-earth mines, telecommunications hubs, and vaccine suppliers—are like geopolitical buttresses, as important for the internal operations of the United States as its own homeland security.

However, this overseas network is neither seamless nor even necessarily identifiable as such. Rather, it is aggressively and deliberately discontiguous, and rarely acknowledged in any detail. In a sense, it is a stealth geography, unaware of its own importance and too scattered ever to be interrupted at once.

That is what made the controversial release by Wikileaks, in December 2010, of a long list of key infrastructural sites deemed vital to the national security of the United States so interesting. The geographic constellation upon which the United States depends was suddenly laid bare, given names and locations, and exposed for all to see.

The particular diplomatic cable in question, originally sent by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to all overseas embassies in February 2009 and marked for eventual declassification only in January 2019, describes what it calls “critical foreign dependencies (critical infrastructure and key resources located abroad).” These “critical dependencies” are divided into eighteen sectors, including energy, agriculture, banking and finance, drinking water and water treatment systems, public health, nuclear reactors, and “critical manufacturing.” All of these locations, objects, or services, the cable explains, “if destroyed, disrupted or exploited, would likely have an immediate and deleterious effect on the United States.” Indeed, there is no back up: several sites are highlighted as “irreplaceable.”

Specific locations range from the Straits of Malacca to a “battery-grade” manganese mine in Gabon, Africa, and from the Southern Cross undersea cable landing in Suva, Fiji, to a Danish manufacturer of smallpox vaccine. The list also singles out the Nadym Gas Pipeline Junction in Russia as “the most critical gas facility in the world.”

[Image: A manganese mine in Gabon, courtesy of the Encyclopedia Britannica].

The list was first assembled as a way to extend the so-called National Infrastructure Protection Plan (NIPP)—which focuses on domestic locations—with what the State Department calls its Critical Foreign Dependencies Initiative (CFDI). The CFDI, still in a nascent stage—i.e. it consists, for now, in making lists—could potentially grow to include direct funding for overseas protection of these sites, effectively absorbing them into the oblique landscape of the United States.

Of course, the fear that someone might actually use this as a check list of vulnerable targets, either for military elimination or terrorist sabotage, seemed to dominate news coverage at the time of the cable’s release. While it is obvious that the cable could be taken advantage of for nefarious purposes—and that even articles such as this one only increase the likelihood of this someday occurring—it should also be clear that its release offers the public an overdue opportunity to discuss the spatial vulnerabilities of U.S. power and the geometry of globalization.

The sites described by the cable—Israeli ordnance manufacturers, Australian pharmaceutical corporations, Canadian hydroelectric dams, German rabies vaccine suppliers—form a geometry whose operators and employees are perhaps unaware that they define the outer limits of U.S. national security. Put another way, the flipside of a recognizable U.S. border is this unwitting constellation: a defensive perimeter or outsourced inside, whereby the contiguous nation-state becomes fragmented into a discontiguous network-state, its points never in direct physical contact. It is thus not a constitutional entity in any recognized sense, but a coordinated infrastructural ensemble that spans whole continents at a time.

[Image: The Robert-Bourassa generating station, part of the James Bay Project by Hydro Québec; photo courtesy of Hydro Québec].

But what is the political fate of this landscape; how does it transform our accepted notions of what constitutes state territory; what forms of governance are most appropriate for its protection; and under whose jurisdictional sovereignty should these sites then be held?

In identifying these outlying chinks in its armor, the United States has inadvertently made clear a spatial realization that the concept of the nation-state has changed so rapidly that nations themselves are having trouble keeping track of their own appendages.

Seen this way, it matters less what specific sites appear in the Wikileaks cable, and simply that these sites can be listed at all. A globally operating, planetary sovereign requires a new kind of geography: discontinuous, contingent, and nontraditionally vulnerable, hidden from public view until rare leaks such as these.

(Thanks to Domus for the opportunity to explore this topic).

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

The sites described by the cable—Israeli ordnance manufacturers, Australian pharmaceutical corporations, Canadian hydroelectric dams, German rabies vaccine suppliers—form a geometry whose operators and employees are perhaps unaware that they define the outer limits of U.S. national security.

And doesn't it make this an even more interesting issue to consider that these are not JUST the "outer limits of U.S. national security, but likely also the outer limits of the security of countless other nations? All in addition to how these companies and locations conventionally define their existence and purpose.

June 14, 2011 3:19 PM  
Anonymous sportsbabel said...

In other words, a topology.

To further Anonymous' comment, this is pretty much what Hardt and Negri were writing about 10 years ago in Empire, no? The integrated and moving meshwork that is only conveniently arrested and sliced up for projects such as CFDI?

June 14, 2011 4:29 PM  
Blogger Tal said...

Is it possible to purchase this issue online?

June 15, 2011 8:39 AM  
Blogger Alan Wiig said...

Excellent article, and congratulations on working with Domus. I especially like the concept of the network state.

The importance of digital communication infrastructure nodes, and their relatively anonymous impacts on the landscape speaks to the changing perceptions and utility of space. A dam is a dam, and it can be of a classical, high modernist design or an earthen structure, but regardless, it looks like a dam. These communication chokepoints such as submarine fiber optic cable landings, are likely housed in anonymous concrete bunkers that have no visual cues to signal the communicative utility that passes through their walls. A different way to ensure these spaces remain safe could be to celebrate them, to invest these spaces with the importance they contain. What if some of the design thinking that went into the iPhone was spent building cable landings and other parts of the global communication network into celebrated spaces instead of anonymous ones?

June 15, 2011 9:47 PM  
Anonymous Fred said...

Nice article!

You might be interested to lear that on the 8th June the European Parliament has passed recommendations to the Council of the European Union, which include a call on the EU’s foreign ministers to promote the establishment of a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly (UNPA):

The establishment of such a UNPA would be a first step towards democratic global governance by the people for the people. Not a radical approach, but maybe a feasible.

The biggest issue I have with the UNPA proposal is that it is pretty top-down. On the other hand it is extremly difficult to raise awareness and to build political will among ordinary citizens. Stories like yours will help explain how interconnected today's world is.

June 17, 2011 10:09 AM  

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