You Can't Vote Out National Security Bureaucrats: And They, Not Elected Officials, Really Run The Show

from the well,-that's-unfortunate dept

A year ago, we noted a rather odd statement from President Obama, concerning some of the Snowden leaks. He more or less admitted that with each new report in the press, he then had to go ask the NSA what it was up to. That seemed somewhat concerning to us — suggesting that the administration wasn’t actually aware of what the NSA was up to until after it leaked to the press. Combine that with our more recent story of how James Clapper is basically ignoring the substance of President Obama’s called for surveillance reforms, and you might begin to wonder who really runs the show when it comes to surveillance. And, indeed, according to a guy who knows quite well, the national security bureaucracy basically calls the shots, and the President has little to no power. That’s the basic summary of an interview with Michael Glennon under the title Vote all you want. The secret government won’t change in the Boston Globe.

Glennon is the author of a new book called National Security and Double Government, as summarized by the Boston Globe:

Though it?s a bedrock American principle that citizens can steer their own government by electing new officials, Glennon suggests that in practice, much of our government no longer works that way. In a new book, ?National Security and Double Government,? he catalogs the ways that the defense and national security apparatus is effectively self-governing, with virtually no accountability, transparency, or checks and balances of any kind. He uses the term ?double government?: There?s the one we elect, and then there?s the one behind it, steering huge swaths of policy almost unchecked. Elected officials end up serving as mere cover for the real decisions made by the bureaucracy.

Glennon cites the example of Obama and his team being shocked and angry to discover upon taking office that the military gave them only two options for the war in Afghanistan: The United States could add more troops, or the United States could add a lot more troops. Hemmed in, Obama added 30,000 more troops.

And, yes, of course, there have long been conspiracy theory books about the “shadow government” and the like, but this one’s from someone who actually worked on these issues.

He was legal counsel to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a consultant to various congressional committees, as well as to the State Department. ?National Security and Double Government? comes favorably blurbed by former members of the Defense Department, State Department, White House, and even the CIA. And he?s not a conspiracy theorist: Rather, he sees the problem as one of ?smart, hard-working, public-spirited people acting in good faith who are responding to systemic incentives??without any meaningful oversight to rein them in.

Basically, the story that Glennon describes is sort of an exact replica of the concerns that many people have about how lobbyists push legislators in a particular direction. While many like to ascribe nefarious intent to lobbying efforts, the reality is that oftentimes legislators don’t fully understand a particular or specific area, and the people they turn to are the lobbyists. And, to some extent that’s reasonable. You’d rather that regulators and legislators actually are informed about the issues they’re making decisions on, but too often they don’t understand those areas at all. The problem is that the “experts” who are readily available aren’t unbiased purveyors of truth, but are those who have a very specific agenda.

The same thing is true of government bureaucrats within the intelligence community. They’re going to advise elected officials in ways that continually push and expand their own capabilities and powers, rather than limit them. And while what happens with lobbyists is often not directly publicly viewable, there can at least be some public recognition of policies and regulations that come out of those discussions. When it comes to the intelligence community, many of the results are kept entirely secret, so there’s basically no pushback and no “other side” heard. The intelligence community acts as secret lobbyists for the expansion of the surveillance state, and the government basically says “okay.” And that doesn’t even begin to go down the road of recognizing how much of this “expansion” of the surveillance state also happens to massively benefit the private corporations that former intelligence officials jump to right after leaving the government. Glennon covers all that and more:

It hasn?t been a conscious decision….Members of Congress are generalists and need to defer to experts within the national security realm, as elsewhere. They are particularly concerned about being caught out on a limb having made a wrong judgment about national security and tend, therefore, to defer to experts, who tend to exaggerate threats. The courts similarly tend to defer to the expertise of the network that defines national security policy.

The presidency itself is not a top-down institution, as many people in the public believe, headed by a president who gives orders and causes the bureaucracy to click its heels and salute. National security policy actually bubbles up from within the bureaucracy. Many of the more controversial policies, from the mining of Nicaragua?s harbors to the NSA surveillance program, originated within the bureaucracy. John Kerry was not exaggerating when he said that some of those programs are ?on autopilot.?

And the end result is basically that elected officials don’t really have the power to do anything, even if they’re technically “in power.”

I think the American people are deluded… that the institutions that provide the public face actually set American national security policy. They believe that when they vote for a president or member of Congress or succeed in bringing a case before the courts, that policy is going to change. Now, there are many counter-examples in which these branches do affect policy…. But the larger picture is still true?policy by and large in the national security realm is made by the concealed institutions.

All the more reason why Snowden’s revelations were so important. They’ve helped expose just a tiny fraction of these policies being decided in near total secrecy by the intelligence community to further its own agenda — leading to some much needed sunlight, finally forcing at least a tiny bit of debate into that corner of the world that thrives on being able to expand in secret.

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Comments on “You Can't Vote Out National Security Bureaucrats: And They, Not Elected Officials, Really Run The Show”

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Jake says:

Re: Re:

I was about to mention that show. But the thing is, Yes, Minister is an example of how to do unelected bureaucrats right; Sir Humphrey is an experienced government employee who started as a mere clerk and slowly earned positions of greater responsibility, and also has a chain of command that can and will drop the hammer on him if he screws up or starts taking kickbacks. He also adheres strictly to the long-standing policy that the Civil Service should never, ever, under any circumstances take sides in any issue where electoral politics are involved.

Now I’m not saying the system is perfect by any means; for one thing, it has a way of producing senior officials who got their jobs not for competence at their job but their skill at the last true British blood-sport, Office Politics. But at its best, it produces under-secretaries who can advise and train elected officials the way a veteran NCO does for newly-commissioned officers in the armed forces.

Anonymous Coward says:

Apples to Oranges

Sorry, comparing lobbyists to bureaucrats reveals the intent of the screed.

Lobbyists are entirely outside of gov’t control – bureaucrats at the level being decried are APPOINTED by the gov’t. They can be replaced…by the very people we elect.

Now, just like Congress, they aren’t replaced with each election but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.

As an electorate, we get what we ‘pay’ for. If the sullen masses are more interested in the latest Kardashian exploits that doesn’t mean something can’t be done, just that it’s fairly difficult.

Take Super PACs (or some variation thereof) – the law says that they must be primarily social welfare oriented. The IRS ‘interpretation’ of the law clearly violates the letter and intent of the law. If a President appointed someone who clearly wanted to change that interpretation, it would be changed pretty quickly (as gov’t change goes anyway). But we don’t have/haven’t had that for a long time. Lots of us hoped Obama might be that, but sadly his inexperience allowed the status quo to reign.

Pragmatic says:

Re: Re: And even when the people know...

You’d be fighting friends and neighbors who would see you as a terrorist. The mainstream media is in the hands of 6 major corporations all intent on maintaining the status quo, remember.

…this “expansion” of the surveillance state also happens to massively benefit the private corporations that former intelligence officials jump to right after leaving the government

So let’s not be hearing any more about Socialism, okay? Unless you want to call it “Corporate Socialism,” in which case I agree with you.

And yes, they are a boogeyman and yes, they should be feared.

The solution is to vote people into office who will sort this mess out once and for all, and to support them no matter what the mainstream media says about them…

…so now you see what the problem is. Violence won’t clean this mess up, it’ll just make a bigger mess. The most effective revolution needs to happen within ourselves. That’s when things will change.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Elected officials become either corrupt or useless.

Vote all you want. It won’t change a thing.

No, the only way to manage the situation is to recognize the disenfranchisement and consider other options.

Some of those options involve blood and fire.

But we’re not going to get any reform through elections.

Revolutions, even ones against immeasurable firepower, are remarkably effective. Our historical experts on counter-insurgency point out there is no real cure for it, except to win the hearts and minds of the people i.e. through clemency of the people and good governance. It is grievance that fuels an insurgency despite any power of the oppressors.

And yes those friends and neighbors who regard the insurrection as terrorists just haven’t been touched yet by the government’s loving hand. Sympathizers come from those who know people who’ve been disappeared, or beaten or robbed or shot. Revolutionaries come from the victims or their families. Often, they’re people with nothing left to lose.

If managed carefully this could be handled without blood. Often, revolutions begin with actions of sabotage. The government retaliates by taking (more) lives, and then the civil war becomes bloody.

Pragmatic says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Elected officials become either corrupt or useless.

Show me a revolution that hasn’t ended with an almighty bloodbath followed by power vacuum, followed by a paranoid, repressive regime.

Hearts and minds are the problem; not enough of them are voting third party, and as I said before your acts of sabotage will be treated as terrorism and PEOPLE YOU KNOW will be turned against you when the media portrays you as a fanatical terrorist hell-bent on causing trouble.

It’ll take a while to arrive at the critical mass required to turn our friends and neighbors; there’s a lot of disbelief and partisanship to overcome and the media keeps it that way because united we stand, divided we fall.

Maintaining those divisions keeps us too busy fighting with each other to take on the powers that be.

So as I said, we need to work on hearts and minds and persuade them to vote third parts in enough numbers to make a difference. If a Socialist can get elected in Seattle, a Pirate can, too. Get enough Pirates in, and things will change.

Vidiot (profile) says:

Status quo rules

I’ve heard this repeated for at least twenty years… that it doesn’t matter an awful lot who gets elected, since policy is effectively shaped by tens of thousands of mid-level bureaucrats, and they pretty much don’t care who got elected, what party and what their campaign promises were. I haven’t seen it disproved yet… bad news for progress, but good news in the sense that dimwitted partisans can’t get much done to advance their agendas either.

Anonymous Coward says:

Of course they do. They probably have dirt on every politician in the country, if not the world.

I don’t think there is any doubt they use what they collect.

I certainly don’t believe a word that Clapper says. After all, he blatantly lied to Congress. He has no credibility and yet he is still in charge. That’s telling in my mind.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Jail

I certainly like the idea of jailing the ones who have acted illegally, but from a procedural point, you don’t even need to do that. Dissolve/defund the agency and you get one of two positive outcomes:

– Employees keep coming to work and acting against the will of the people, but can’t legally get paid. Eventually, they have to go get a job that provides an income.
– Employees stop coming to work (whether or not they quit) and thus stop acting against the will of the people.

Either way, any further actions that rely on “qualified immunity” to keep them out of court would lack immunity since their employer has no legitimate purpose under the amended law, so whether or not they are fired, anything they do “in the course of their job” that exceeds what a private citizen can do would expose them to the same liability as an overreaching private citizen.

David says:

Re: Re: Jail

– Employees keep coming to work and acting against the will of the people, but can’t legally get paid.

Uh, you haven’t read the news? Keith Alexander has retired from the NSA but keeps close ties to it. Banks can hand him a literal million dollars a month in return for not getting hacked by the NSA.

This outsourcing of blackmail leads to tax-deductible ways of paying the extortion fees and keep the money flowing into the NSA.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Jail

Uh, you haven’t read the news? Keith Alexander has retired from the NSA but keeps close ties to it. Banks can hand him a literal million dollars a month in return for not getting hacked by the NSA.

That only works on a tiny scale, and there’s no indication that banks buying it view it as extortion money rather than a more generic security blanket against the Evil Foreign Cyber-Terrorists. If the entire NSA is stripped of its funding and its mission, then, as I said above, they lose any pretense of “qualified immunity” and can be pursued for any further damage they cause.

New Mexico Mark says:

My .02 (literally)

If we keep feeding the beasts, they will only grow larger and more dangerous.

There may not be any effective granular accountability or transparency. However, enough consensus in Congress to change the funding of entire departments to $.02 per year would (painfully) fix the problem. I’m betting defunding an organization like the NSA would cause other agencies to fall over themselves in an effort to ensure they are not next in line.

If something is really important, re-fund it at a drastically reduced rate, and with serious changes in management (and tighter restrictions against influence peddling of exiting officials). Ensure there is a charter and controls in place to prevent this dangerous debacle again for our lifetimes, at least.

As a suggestion, any charter should have elements that immediately end funding without the requirement for a Congressional vote should violations occur. Primacy of the U.S. Constitution (and clearly forbidding “Constitution fee zones on U.S. soil) above all other laws, executive orders, and treaties should be one of them.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: My .02 (literally)

Perhaps because Reagan didn’t actually do much of that tax-cutting. Although he did reduce the overt tax rate percentages, he offset those by reducing tax exemptions. Two bills he supported in 1982 and 1984 had the net effect of being the largest tax increases made during peacetime in US history even to this day.

Whoever says:


Glennon cites the example of Obama and his team being shocked and angry to discover upon taking office that the military gave them only two options for the war in Afghanistan: The United States could add more troops, or the United States could add a lot more troops. Hemmed in, Obama added 30,000 more troops.

Of course Obama had other options. He just does not have the backbone to force them through. He doesn’t have the backbone to stand up to the intelligence community or the military. IMHO, he is a great orator, but ultimately a weak leader.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Backbone

As bad as Obama has been, odds are our next president is going to be worse. If Hillary Clinton is elected, she will likely expand the surveillance to go on a witch hunt for anyone who has had anything to do with wikileaks. Remember, she was embarrassed by the huge document dump and I’m sure she holds a grudge.

If a republic is elected, he will likely route money to his partner companies via the NSA et al.

IMO, Hillary will be worse, since she will be convinced she is doing the right thing.

I currently intend to vote for Mickey Mouse in the next election.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Backbone

Of course Obama had other options. He just does not have the backbone to force them through.

Yeah, except I’m not sure it’s “backbone” so much as a lack of experience. I don’t think it’s that he’s afraid to promote his plan – it’s that he doesn’t HAVE a plan.

In the end, it all comes back to Obama. He is the commander in chief and has the final word in all military operations – and the NSA is a military organization – if he chooses to wield that power. The cabinet heads were all appointed by him. If the Justice department decides to prosecute whistleblowers, that’s on him (doubly so because he also has the power to pardon.) If the CDC decides bicycle helmets are more important than epidemic control, that’s on him (unless there was a specific earmark in the budget, in which case it’s on him AND Congress.)

Anonymous Coward says:

If there is any hope left for change...

it would be that some good soul pretends to be an evil bastard pretending to do good for the public for a couple of decades until he finally gains enough power to stop pretending, without getting corrupt enough in the time between to actually become an evil bastard.
That is exhausting just thinking about, let alone do in real life.

Anonymous Coward says:

Its worse that this book thinks. The elected office holders are not just impotent figureheads – they are often actively complicit. As soon as some politician figured out that ‘keep the public fearful and they will reelect me’ worked, we were lost to the unholy alliance of a secret bureaucratic security shadow-government and a cabal of elected officials who realize that the key to reelection is maintaining the public in fear of threats internal and external – Ebola, terrorists, radical Islam, terrorists, drug cartels, domestic terrorists. Each threat is used for political posturing and electioneering (have politicians been “tough on crime” forever…?) and all these threats have served to entrench a secret security bureaucracy with intrusive surveillance and police powers far beyond what the Constitution would ever allow. We are told, over and over, that ‘these measures, these laws, are needed to keep the public safe’ – as if the fundamental safety of the nation were at risk from every external force and anyone who isn’t wholly within the control of the security state. As long as the public is kept fearful and ignorant (“national security” requires absolutely everything be kept classified, even from elected officials…) the power of the bureaucracy grows. And as long as running as being ‘strong on defense, and strong for national security’ is a political winner, we’ll continue to see it. Look most recently at the eager rush by some politicians of both parties to jump on the ‘quarantine all returning healthcare workers for Ebola’ bandwagon. That’s another attempt to play off public fearmongering, and clearly political grandstanding.

GEMont (profile) says:

Re: Re:

If the ability to vote out (s)elected officials proved itself to be effective, it would be outlawed immediately.

The onliest reason you are still allowed to Vote, is simply because the whole process has been thoroughly compromised to such an extent that those playing the Great Game know they have nothing to worry about from the pointless votings of the general public.

Since all that matters is that a Player gets the Majority of Total Cast Votes, it really does not matter how many people actually cast their votes or how many of their votes are actually counted.

Recent legislation in many states to eliminate the voting rights of a vast swath of Americans will lead to even fewer votes still and this trend will continue because its the cheapest way to legally cheat the Vote.

Eventually, a politician will be electable by winning 50+ percent of a total vote that equates to less than ten percent of Americans. Whether you like it or not, that is definitely NOT how a democracy was supposed to work.

You’re being managed.

GEMont (profile) says:

Re: Re:

…by the sword…

Methinks they’re actually hoping that the general rabble will indeed rise up and revolt against the masters – as they obviously see themselves now.

After all, the technology you see is at the very least ten years old and more likely twenty years old. Couple that with the fact that corporate government has had a nearly unlimited (taxpayers) budget for Crowd Control Research for the last fifty years and you might get an inkling of why they might want the gen-pub to do the revolution thing.

In one foul swoop, using devices that nobody even knew existed and thus could not build any defense against, the corporatocracy would wipe out almost all the active dissenters in America, in a single motion, leaving only the sheep.

Just a thought. ๐Ÿ™‚

GEMont (profile) says:

Oops! There goes another one!!

Barely a day goes by now that does not prove that all those wack job conspiracy nutters were right on the money all along.

At the rate we’re exposing the corporate government’s daily cover-ups and criminal conspiracies, there won’t be a single secret left in Washington by the year 2020.

I can hardly wait till we finally get to the aliens cover-up! ๐Ÿ™‚

Are they real or are they simply an Ace-in-the-hole false flag for that “outside threat from beyond, whether real or promulgated, that threatened our very existence.”, that Kissinger proposed to scare the world’s civilian populations so badly that “individual rights will be willingly relinquished for the guarantee of their well being, granted to them by their world government.”

So much to learn, so little time.


Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Conspiracy nutters

A recent article on the JFK assassination anniversary acknowledged that even though the nutters had nutty ideas doesn’t mean they were uninspired. At the time, government was rife with conspiracies and power plays going on, and we could only guess at exactly what they were.

These days we have a better look at that time in history (but not all the puzzle pieces).

It may not be lizard men, but the gazillionaires and the military-intelligence-industrial complex can look and act pretty reptilian at times.

And we DO have our police state. We DO have our corporate-dominated cyberpunk dystopia. We’re just missing the flying cars and orbital habitats.

GEMont (profile) says:

Re: Re: Conspiracy nutters

The Flying Cars and Orbital Habitats are specifically for the wealthy only, so first they have to work out some way to literally separate themselves from the rabble, or, as is more likely the case, eliminate the rabble altogether, save those few minions needed to fill any positions that robots cannot handle… and of course some lobotomized sex slaves.

The orbital habitats are normally designed simply to keep the poor working masses and the industrial factory ruined and polluted atmosphere of the Mad Max earth, away from the clean computerized and environmentally controlled homes of the wealthy and well placed, who own the factories and industries below.

With the advent of the computer and robotics, this whole scenario may no longer even be needed, as the whole idea of human slave labor becomes obsolete when one has access to the ability to manufacture a mechanical slave for any purpose, at will, that needs no food or water and never gets paid a dime.

With the advances in genetics soon to come, the wealthy can then create a properly engineered “pet” human species for fun and recreation and pretend to be gods.

Nothing says Superior Race better than one’s own Inferior Pet Race. ๐Ÿ™‚

A fascist’s wet dream come true.

Of course this means that the whole idea of keeping huge poor populations trapped in cities so they have no choice but to work in the factories of the wealthy, is also obsolete.

Walking along that same path, this means that most of us are now obsolete – mere eaters consuming the limited food and water supplies that could be enjoyed by the worthy wealthy were we no longer here.

I don’t think we’ll ever see orbital cities around this planet.

On the other hand Flying Cars are not allowed yet because we unwashed eaters are still here in vast numbers and in order to make us useful to our various owners, borders and language barriers and customs/dress barriers need to remain in place, so the wealthy masters can keep tabs on their private horde of impoverished workers 24/7.

The modern Tower of Babylon concept – Divide and conquer.

Flying cars would allow the public far too much mobility and access to the planet at large, with far too little control over the public’s movement by the Boys in Power.

Can you say No Fly List?
I knew you could. ๐Ÿ™‚

So Flying Cars, Antigravity, Vortex Energy Devices, even Hydrogen fuel – among a slew of other public enabling gizmos – simply have to wait till the Final Solution is complete and only the wealthy and worthy are left to enjoy them.

At least, that’s how I read the tea leaves. ๐Ÿ™‚


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