It has long been the province of conspiracy theorists to claim that the real power of government is not wielded by the obvious practitioners of statecraft — presidents, members of Congress, the judiciary — but by secret or semi-secret entities, real wizards whose hidden machinations send us to war, sell us out to enemies, siphon public treasure into private hands. Depending on your talk show or paranoia of choice, these are the bankers, oil barons, one-worlders, war profiteers, Bilderbergers, Masons, Catholics, Jews, or Trilateralists. Our formal institutions, in this scenario, are stage sets, Potemkin villages; our officials are puppets; we are an unsuspecting audience.
Michael Glennon, a respected academic (Tufts’s FLETCHER SCHOOL) and author of a book brought to us by an equally respected publisher (Oxford University Press), is hardly the sort to indulge in such fantasies. And that makes the picture he paints in “National Security and Double Government” all the more arresting. Considering Barack Obama’s harsh pre-election criticisms of his predecessor’s surveillance policies, for example, Glennon notes that many of those same policies — and more of the same kind — were continued after Obama took office. “Why,” he asks, “does national security policy remain constant even when one President is replaced by another, who as a candidate repeatedly, forcefully, and eloquently promised fundamental changes in that policy?”
The answer Glennon places before us is not reassuring: “a bifurcated system — a structure of double government — in which even the President now exercises little substantive control over the overall direction of US national security policy.” The result, he writes, is a system of dual institutions that have evolved “toward greater centralization, less accountability, and emergent autocracy.”
If this were a movie, it would soon become clear that some evil force, bent on consolidating power and undermining democratic governance, has surreptitiously tunneled into the under-structure of the nation. Not so. In fact, Glennon observes, this hyper-secret and difficult-to-control network arose in part as an attempt to head off just such an outcome. In the aftermath of World War II, with the Soviet Union a serious threat from abroad and a growing domestic concern about weakened civilian control over the military (in 1949, the Hoover Commission had warned that the Joint Chiefs of Staff had become “virtually a law unto themselves”), President Truman set out to create a separate national security structure.
By 2011, according to The Washington Post, there were 46 separate federal departments and agencies and 2,000 private companies engaged in classified national security operations with millions of employees and spending of roughly a trillion dollars a year. As Glennon points out, presidents get to name fewer than 250 political appointees among the Defense Department’s nearly 700,000 civilian employees, with hundreds more drawn from a national security bureaucracy that comprise “America’s Trumanite network” — in effect, on matters of national security, a second government.
Glennon’s book is not a breezy read: It’s thick with fact and not unappreciative of conundrum (“The government is seen increasingly by elements of the public as hiding what they ought to know, criminalizing what they ought to be able to do, and spying upon what ought to be private. The people are seen increasingly by the government as unable to comprehend the gravity of security threats.”). Nor is he glib with proposed solutions: to adequately respond to the threats posed by a below-the-radar second government will require “a general public possessed of civic virtue,” which prompts Glennon to cite retired Supreme Court justice David Souter’s bemoaning of a “pervasive civic ignorance.” Not all of the problem can be laid at Truman’s feet. And if we ourselves are part of the zeitgeist that allows invisible governments to flourish, repair will be difficult. As Glennon puts it, “the term Orwellian will have little meaning to a people who have never known anything different, who have scant knowledge of history, civics, or public affairs, and who in any event have never heard of George Orwell.”
This is no secret conspiracy nor a plot to deprive Americans of their civil liberties. It is the unintended consequence of a thoughtful attempt to head off the very threats that those attempts have inadvertently created. But if Glennon’s book is enlightening it is also scary. And it’s not fiction.
Mickey Edwards, who served in Congress from 1977 to 1993, is the author of “The Parties Versus the People: How to Turn Republicans and Democrats Into Americans.”