01/28/2013 02:07 pm ET Updated Mar 30, 2013

The Holy Trinity of Technology

Forty years after Richard Nixon's operatives broke into the Watergate Hotel, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein have returned to leaking tapes and exposing political scandals. This time the evidence documents an attempt by Rupert Murdoch to buy the U.S. presidency.

In case you missed the story -- which was easy to do, since the Washington Post buried Woodward's scoop in the "Style" section, and Bernstein's alarums about its significance did not appear until three weeks later in The Guardian -- someone leaked to Woodward the digital sound recording of a meeting, held in Afghanistan in the Spring of 2011, between Kathleen McFarland, acting as an emissary from Roger Ailes, founder of Fox News (the crown jewel in Rupert Murdoch's media empire) and General David Petraeus, who at the time was commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

On the tape, we hear McFarland, a former staffer for Henry Kissinger, pressing Petraeus to run for president in 2012. Here's the deal, she says. Ailes will quit Fox News to mastermind the campaign. Fox operatives will wallpaper Petraeus's image across the mediascape, and Rupert Murdoch will finance the arrangement. In McFarland's exact words, she says, "The big boss is bankrolling it. Roger's going to run it. And the rest of us are going to be your in-house."

Petraeus demurs, and the conversation turns to what, in my mind, is the second big scoop from this encounter. While discounting his chances of becoming president--even before the scandal that ruined his career -- Petraeus says there are only two jobs in Washington that interest him: becoming Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Department of Defense, or becoming director of the Central Intelligence Agency. The DOD budget is about $700 billion a year. The CIA budget is maybe one-hundredth this size, and the total budget for all sixteen U.S. intelligence agencies is maybe one tenth this size. Why is Petraeus interested in running a penny ante outfit like the CIA?

"We're not going to be going out and do much more," says Petraeus, referring to United States military missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. "We're going to be retrenching militarily," he explains to McFarland. But "the other folks," says Petraeus, referring to the CIA, "are going to be in a growth industry."

The CIA is fighting the United States's next wars (in northwestern Pakistan and Yemen) with the next generation of military technology (weaponized drones). After having dropped the pretense of being an intelligence agency and embraced their mission as a paramilitary force, the CIA is a test bed for new technology. With an estimated ten thousand drones in the U.S. arsenal, the CIA is the lead organization in building and operating the "smart" weapons that rely on the holy trinity of computer technology, GPS satellite tracking, and advances in camera lenses and mapping.

Our old weapons have not gone away. They are more lethal than the new technology, and more lethal still is the thermonuclear arsenal that stands poised to launch our "mutually-assured destruction" (the MAD scenario of Dr. Strangelove). The new arsenal is being overlaid on top of the old. It is fulfilling dreams of more precisely guided, more personal weapons, better suited for fighting the counterinsurgency wars that Petraeus knows so well, ever since he wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on "The American Military and the Lessons of Vietnam" at Princeton in 1987.

Our advances in camera lenses and mapping tools, our computers and GPS satellites are marvelous inventions. They are the necessary prelude to building the smart machines that will soon -- all on their own -- be moving across the surface of the earth and flying above us. But, as always with our technology, and especially the technology that trickles down from the military to civilians, we have to wonder if these inventions are being used to advance life or death. Which "growth industry" is the United States actually growing? Eros or Thanatos?