Many people have been confused and even angered that the military and foreign policies of the Bush administration — policies of which the current president and administration were once so critical — have been adopted by them, almost in full.
Has President Obama simply changed course, or is someone else setting our national security policy?
In this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, Prof. Michael Glennon argues that somebody else is calling the shots, members of what he calls the “Double Government.” Initially created under the Truman administration, this unelected layer has grown into a hyper-secret and difficult to control network with over 46 separate federal departments and agencies, and over 2,000 private companies engaged in classified national security operations that costs roughly a trillion dollars a year.
It all started, Glennon argues, with the National Security Act of 1947 that created the CIA, the NSA and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The result is a “second government,” that has no oversight, no checks and balances, and is incentivized to perpetuate itself.
Glennon is a Professor of International Law at Tufts, Fletcher School and a former legal counsel to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He is the author of the book, National Security and Double Government.
Here’s our podcaster, Jeff Schechtman, in conversation with Professor Glennon.
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JEFF SCHECHTMAN: Thanks for joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I’m Jeff Schechtman. Particularly in this political season many are a bit confused and even angered as to why the policies of the Bush administration — policies that the current president and administration were so critical of — have been adopted almost in total by them. Has President Obama simply changed course or is someone else setting our national security policy? My guest, Professor Michael Glennon, argues that in fact we have a double government. He argues that we have a bifurcated system, as he says the structure of double government in which even the president now exercises little substantive control over the overall direction of US national security policy. Michael Glennon is a professor of international law at Tufts Fletcher School of Government. He is a former legal counsel to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. His articles about American intelligence and torture have appeared in The Economist, The New York Times and the Financial Times. His most recent book is National Security and Double Government. It is my pleasure to welcome Michael J. Glennon to Radio WhoWhatWhy. Thank you much for joining us.
PROFESSOR GLENNON: Jeff, thank you very much for having me on.
JEFF: This notion, this idea of a double government is not something that’s new. In fact you talk about, early on in the book, the origins of the idea, really the British origins of the idea. Tell us about that.
GLENNON: You are quite right. It’s a famous theory actually, that was formulated in 1867. The author was Walter Bagehot, of Economist fame. He is one of the founding editors of The Economist. He wrote a book called The English Constitution in which he tried to explain how England moved from a monarchy to a republic. And his answer was exactly as you suggested in your very good and succinct summary of his theory. England had developed a set of dual institutions. One, a public institutional structure consisting of the monarchy, and the House of Lords. And the second, a set of concealed institutions that operated behind the scenes and ran the day-to-day operations of government: the prime minister the cabinet, the leadership of the House of Commons. The dignified institutions, the public institutions, Bagehot suggested, were intended and had the effect of generating legitimacy. They had great public show, they generated public respect, the public believed that they were physically calling the shots. But the public was wrong. The shots were really called by these concealed institutions that moved England very quietly from a monarchy to, as he said, a concealed republic.
JEFF: And in fact it was the evolution of this and seeing this which was one of the things that drove the founders of this Republic to prevent that from happening. The idea was that it would be much more transparent. That it wouldn’t be a government in the shadows.
GLENNON: That is, of course, precisely the point, that the founders of the Republic believed that the public institutions would be accountable and that the public institutions, the presidency, the congress and the judiciary would actually make not simply a domestic policy but what is now called national security policy. That is essential to accountability and principles of democratic responsibility, that people have to be able to identify who it is who’s calling the shots and hold them accountable by voting them out of office when they don’t like the policies. But when the policies are made behind the scenes, it’s very hard to identify who is actually responsible.
JEFF: What did the founders see as the countervailing force? I mean, we’ll talk later about how it’s changed, particularly in the postwar period, but at the time of the founders what did they see as the forces aligned against this kind of transparency?
GLENNON: Of course they came from a history and context of monarchy. A history in which power was centralized in the specifically, obviously of course the throne of George the Third, and they were profoundly skeptical of that concentration of power in the executive, particularly the power to make war and other things that again we think of as national security issues. Therefore they set up a tripartite system of government in which the three public branches of government would come to an equilibrium by contesting for power. The theory was that the Congress would resist encroachments by the executive, the executive would resist encroachments by the courts etc. etc. and that equilibrium would protect the people from autocracy. The point of the book of course is that with the structure of double government that equilibrium collapses and the government moves towards autocracy and away from democracy and accountability.
JEFF: You argue that this changed dramatically in the post-World War II period. But talk a little bit about before that and the ways in which this double government as you describe it really was creeping into the system long before World War II.
GLENNON: I think it’s more accurate to say that we didn’t see all that much double government in the United States before World War II. As you know, Jeff, I identify the real Genesis, the birth of double government, with the Truman administration. Of course the militarization of the war effort which was entirely understandable, indeed necessary, during the Roosevelt administration, formed the foundation. But it was really in the Truman administration that double government, as I say, had its genesis. It was Truman who, in an executive order, or secret executive order, established the National Security Agency. It was Truman who presided over the foundation of the National Security State with the enactment of the National Security Act of 1947, which set up the National Security Council. It established the Central Intelligence Agency. It consolidated the power of the military and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which was intended to cut down on intra service internecine warfare but really had quite the opposite effect. And this this little national security apparatus — little in 1947 — became in the fullness of time a behemoth that now consists of 46 different intelligence agencies that are located at 2000 places around the country with 10,000 different private entities corporations that participate as private contractors. And it oversees a budget that is probably around $1 trillion a year. The exact amount is classified. And over 5 million people in the United States now have security clearances, about 3 million of them top-secret clearances so that the manpower and the budgets of these agencies are enormous.
JEFF: Who were the people within the Truman administration at the time who really pushed for these changes, who wanted to see essentially the creation of this double government? Was it people like Allen Dulles and people around him? Where did the impetus for this come from?
GLENNON: It was people like Dean Acheson and the so-called wise men, the Dulles brothers, who were perennial fixtures in Washington. As you know I noticed that you had the author of the book on the Dulles brothers on your show a few weeks ago. It was these frankly members of the Eastern establishment who had a profound distrust of democracy and who believed that if you wanted to have a sensible foreign policy removed from the oscillations of democratic idiosyncrasies, you had to have an elite insulated from the political process that was responsible for foreign policy formulation. These people look back for example at American isolationism prior to World War II; they look back on the rejection of the covenant of the League of Nations by the Senate in 1919; and how the democratic institutions they thought had bungled American foreign policy; and the conclusion was that this just has to be done more capably, more efficiently, and more expertly, that was the key thing. So they established these institutions that would have the institutional memory and be manned by experts and they are as a matter-of-fact.
JEFF: And Acheson and the Dulles brothers and others understood that these institutions could operate arguably outside the control of whoever was president at the time.
GLENNON: You know, it’s an interesting thing, the politics were very much reversed in the 1940s during the Truman administration than they are today. That warning was sounded by, not liberal Democrats, but by conservative Republicans. The conservative Republican leaders in the Senate and House of Representatives warned that Truman’s reforms would lead to what they said the establishment of an American Gestapo of a general staff at the head of the armed forces comparable to that of the Wehrmacht that we had just defeated, of the Pentagon that was out of control with the objective of padding its budgets and manpower. They warned of the United States moving into what they called a garrison state, and it was liberal Democrats like Paul Douglas, the senator from Illinois, Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota, who sided with Truman and said “we’ve got to be on guard of the Soviet Union and recognize that Stalin could strike at any moment. Democracy threatened anywhere in the world is a threat to the United States and we’ve got to build up this huge national security apparatus.” It was the liberal Democrats who were behind that.
JEFF: It didn’t take long for this apparatus to begin to take on a life of its own. In fact, the Hoover commission in 1949 talked about the joint Chiefs being virtually unaccountable.
GLENNON: That’s quite right and I think Truman recognized exactly what he had had created.As Clark Clifford, his aide and later to become defense secretary said, Truman was profoundly distrustful of the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover. But he thought this was the best way of both ensuring the security of the American people and protecting civil liberties. Nonetheless at the end of his presidency after Eisenhower was elected, before Eisenhower was sworn in, Truman recognized what had happened. He said Eisenhower, you know, the great architect of the invasion of Normandy, the supreme Allied Commander of NATO in Europe, Eisenhower’s going to be so surprised. He’s going to say ‘do this, ‘do that’ and nothing will happen. He’ll be so disappointed.’ That was Truman’s experience and of course that’s the experience of presidents today. Somebody asked the second President Bush what most surprised him about being president and he said at the end of this term “how little authority I actually have.”
JEFF: There is an aspect of this that is kind of counterintuitive in that one could argue that the sheer size of this double government, the sheer size of this institutional government, really would make it impossible for it to have any kind of effective control on its own counter to, in opposition to whoever was president. But in fact that’s not proven to be the case.
GLENNON: Well, you’re quite right and it’s counterintuitive because most Americans have an image of the presidency that is anachronistic. They have a Jeffersonian image of the presidency. They think of the president as sitting at the top of the pyramid giving orders that trickle down. Jefferson, when he was president of the United States in 1802 presided over an executive branch that included 132 nonmilitary staff of people. The whole executive branch outside of the military in 1802 consisted of 132 federal employees and the White House staff consisted of one person beyond Jefferson. So we still have this image of the president is giving orders, and those orders being picked up and carried out immediately. The presidency today is vastly more complicated than that. The president of course presides over an executive branch of millions of people there only out of all those millions of people 3000 to 4000 presidential appointees. And in the realm of national security that number is down to roughly around 600 individuals people who run the military intelligence, security law enforcement agencies in the United States and who instead rely very very heavily on their subordinates who of course continue in the same positions from one administration to the next. That more than anything else is what accounts for the strange continuity in American national security policy. You pointed this out at the beginning of the podcast but you look at the number of drone strikes, offensive cyber weapons, whistleblower prosecutions, the non-persecution of torturers, CIA covert operations, NSA surveillance, claiming the state secrets privilege, you go on and on and on. Virtually nothing has changed from the Bush administration to the Obama administration. It is the result of the structure of double government and the reliance of necessarily the presidency itself on the bureaucracy that has come to gargantuan proportions over the last 50 years.
JEFF: Which really raises the question how can this institution of double government with such size move in such consistent lockstep?
GLENNON: That’s the $64 million question. Why does it persist, even in the face of an electoral mandate that insists upon change we can believe in. The short answer is that there is a series of incentives baked into the American political system that is responsible for this continuity. You look at one element in the system after the next and you can see what those incentives are. Members of Congress for example secretly have an incentive to please very powerful constituencies and their incentive is to seek reelection above all else. Judges are inclined to decide in favor of the people who appointed them. The president and his staff defer to the expertise of the military and intelligence communities. They don’t want another terrorist attack to happen on their watch so the bureaucracy tends to define national security and military terms. And it’s not just the military. It’s the civilian appointees as well. Madeleine Albright famously turned to Colin Powell and said – when Powell was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — “Why do we have this marvelous military if we don’t use it?” That is the incentive that the civilian employees have because the military — let’s face it — is widely respected and extremely proficient at what it does. The press has an incentive to pull punches rather than lose access. Access for the presses is everything. And the people themselves have an incentive to remain uninformed and passive because there’s nothing that they can do to affect these policies. So this pervasive political ignorance continues and at the same time there is a negative feedback loop. The national security apparatus therefore has less and less incentive to want the people to participate because they don’t know, the people in government think the people don’t know enough about policies to make intelligent recommendations. Therefore the bottom line is all these different structural incentives come together in a kind of perfect storm. There’s an overarching incentive not to challenge the status quo, not to change things, to acquiesce in what the intelligence and military and law enforcement bureaucracy want to do. The result is double government. It’s more complicated than that but that’s basically the dynamic.
JEFF: We talk about World War II, post-World War II 1947 national security act is really an inflection point in this: to what extent was 9/11 and the actions post 9/11 another inflection point?
GLENNON: Well, that’s a good question. It was a public inflection point. In fact many of the programs that were instituted after 9/11 were in the works before 9/11 and the bureaucracy frankly was just looking for an opportune moment to push them. A bulk surveillance by the national security agency of the sort that was revealed in the Snowden leaks, is one of those examples of this. It’s not a new idea that was hatched after 9/11, but 9/11 tended to accelerate all these programs and the reason is obvious. You know, when the people feel threatened, when danger is the principal public motivator, the incentive is to shortcut democratic procedures and move to a streamlined efficient way of needing threats. It’s this element and combination of fear and emergency and shortcutting democratic procedures that is as much as anything responsible for the great acceleration of the movement towards double government.
JEFF: To what extent is this double government vulnerable to someone really specifically and directly moving it in a certain direction other than the inertia that you’ve been talking about?
GLENNON: Well, it would be pretty tough to move it backwards at this point. It would be almost impossible, I believe. And the reason is that the people, because they are so disengaged and so uninformed, do not provide the energy that has to come from outside the system to reform those institutions. You can’t look for broken governmental institutions to fix themselves. We can’t look for these institutions that we just finished talking about that lack the energy to do the jobs that Madison and the framers intended them to perform. You can’t expect them to fix themselves because it would require the very energy that they lack. Now your question is, I think, most important asking how a dangerously autocratic president could move this structure very quickly forward or
JEFF: Or a dangerous secretary of defense or anybody else that really had a handle on how this structure works.
GLENNON: That’s right, that’s exactly right, and I think the answer is, it’s a very serious risk. You know the lots of supporters of President Obama tend to give him and his people a break. Take one example, drone strikes. They think, well, we trust Obama not to abuse drone strikes and target for assassination individuals that shouldn’t be killed. We trust that he’ll target individuals who pose an imminent threat to the United States. Well, what happens if you suddenly have a head of the CIA and Defense Department and perhaps a National Security advisor to the president who decides that the rules are to be a little more lax, who even knows that the rules have been reformulated because it’s all done in secret. This is the tremendous danger. There is an incentive because of the structure that I refer to a moment ago to have a not- on-my-watch mentality and the attacks … the important objective is that no attacks occur on my watch. If you create huge risks in preventing the occurrence of those attacks and those risks are pushed off to the future, nobody notices. And that’s exactly what the Obama administration has been doing.
JEFF: Talk a little bit about who really wields the most power and influence in this double government now? Besides the institutional power, the inertia that we’ve been talking about, if we had to identify either positions or individuals, where would we look?
GLENNON: That’s a very frustrating question. You cannot identify individuals. The quote ‘national security team’ is leaderless and faceless. It all operates behind the scenes. There are several hundred individuals in what I refer to as the Truman night network that manages the national security apparatus. These are the bureaucratic heads of the military, law enforcement, intelligence and security agencies who are smart, hard working dedicated public spirited people. They are interested in advancing their careers, they are interested as all bureaucrats are, frankly, supporting the status quo because their bosses frequently were the authors of those programs and there is no career benefit to trying to undo what your bosses came up with, the way to stay on the conveyor belt that’s leading your career ever upward is to make your bosses happy and so the upshot is that the programs that they come up with — what economists call sticky down — they’re much, much harder to end than to continue. And that accounts for the status quo and the effort to expand existing programs even when they’re not working.
JEFF: Not to make this political but in a general sense as you look at this, are we better off as a nation electing presidents who understand this double government, who understand the system and who are walking into something they know, as opposed to those who are more naive about it?
GLENNON: I’m not sure it makes much difference, Jeff, and the reason is — and I hate to sound so pessimistic — that I don’t know that there is a whole lot that any president can do about it. I’m not so sure that for national security double government purposes it makes a whole lot of difference whether the next president is Hillary Clinton or named the Republican. yes at the margins the choices will be different, but the momentum that is created by this structure is so great that it would require an extraordinarily unusual and highly improbable confluence of events to lead to the election of a president. You can hypothesize, look in the past. May be somebody like say, for example, a Bobby Kennedy who was tremendously popular with the public, who understood the national security bureaucracy from the inside out, who was tough-minded, who would not take no for an answer, who would stand up to the managerial network, may be somebody like that who could grab these institutions by the lapels and tell them ‘look, this is what you’re going to do’, maybe somebody like that could turn things around. It would be a very difficult task. You wouldn’t have Congress or the courts behind him and the public, you know, is fearful that these institutions are protecting them and fearful of taking their power away. The ultimate answer is that in a democracy people get the quality of government they deserve and they’ve got to be able to pick a leader who is able to stand up to it and I don’t see any evidence that they’re prepared to do that.
JEFF: When Eisenhower talked about the military-industrial complex, is this what he was talking about?
GLENNON: Yes, but it’s evolved since then. Eisenhower gave this incredibly important speech, his farewell address, which was overshadowed by the euphoria of Kennedy’s inaugural address. But Eisenhower gave this speech that you refer to only a few days before Kennedy’s inauguration and so it’s been largely forgotten. But Eisenhower very presciently warned of the emergence of a military-industrial complex that was his … He suggested a serious threat to democracy and Eisenhower, as I say, having been in a position to know having spent his life in the military since he graduated from West Point presided over all this is president he knew better than anybody what the risk was that the nation was confronting, and that risk, I must say, if anything has expanded since January 1960 when Eisenhower gave that speech. Because the agencies in the intelligence and law enforcement community now operate with far less accountability and the manpower and payrolls are far, far beyond anything Eisenhower could’ve imagined so his warning of force was not taken seriously.
JEFF: Professor Michael J. Glennon’s book is National Security and Double Government. Michael, thank you so much for spending time with us today.
GLENNON: Jeff, those were great questions. Thanks so much for having me on.
JEFF: Thank you for listening and joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you’ll join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help other people find it, rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to WhoWhatWhy.org/donate.
Related front page panorama photo credit: President Barack Obama (U.S. Department of Defense / Flickr),
President George W. Bush (U.S. Air Force), President Bill Clinton (U.S. Department of Defense / Wikimedia)