This article was published in Domus 948, June 2011
The Hit List
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 18 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
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".
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 US power and the geometry of globalisation.
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 US national security. Put another way, the flipside of a recognisable US border is this unwitting constellation: a defensive perimeter or outsourced inside, whereby the contiguous nation-state becomes fragmented into a discontiguous networkstate, its points never in direct physical contact. It is thus not a constitutional entity in any recognised sense, but a coordinated infrastructural ensemble that spans whole continents at a time. 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 armour, the United
States has inadvertently made clear a spatial realisation that
the concept of the nation-state has changed so rapidly that
nations themselves are having trouble keeping track of their own
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 non-traditionally vulnerable, hidden from public view until rare leaks such as these.
Geoff Manaugh, blogger