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.