Blaming Government Surveillance on the Government Ignores the Plutocrats Behind the Curtain

Both the Obama and Bush administrations have displayed astonishing continuity with regard to national security policies that sanction measures like mass surveillance, pervasive secrecy and covert operations. According to Tufts professor Michael J. Glennon, a leading critic on these matters, this is the result of government bureaucracies like the Department of Defense consolidating so much clout and autonomy that they essentially answer to no one, not even the President.

Yet careful scrutiny of the public record reveals the exact opposite. Far from being out of control, the apparatchiki of the military-industrial complex dutifully follow mandates transmitted on behalf of profound sources of influence outside of government. What ostensibly appears to be a conspiracy of government officials is actually the broader systemic problem of state capture by a Deep State. The United States government is beholden to a corporate ruling class and the national security apparatus is a logical expression of their power.

Michael J. Glennon is a professor of international law at Tufts University and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He’s written a book, National Security and Double Government, which has garnered the attention of news outlets like the Boston Globe. The book is an expanded edition of a journal article which is available online

Glennon’s thesis is based on the ideas of Walter Bagehot, an English writer from the 19th century who was an editor-in-chief of the Economist. The Economist is currently owned by the Economist Group, a private company whose primary shareholders include “the Cadbury, Rothschild, Schroder and other family interests.”

Back in 1867 Bagehot wrote a book titled The English Constitution where he coined the phrase “double government” to argue that the British government had stopped being receptive to external public pressure. Instead Bagehot proposed that policy was formulated largely in response to less visible internal forces. Specifically he claimed that, “The old notion that the Government is an extrinsic agency still rules our imaginations, though it is no longer true, and though in calm and intellectual moments we well know it is not.”

Glennon likewise posits that the United States is also afflicted by a double government, and that in domains related to national security presumably extrinsic agents like the President and Congress have very little say in matters. Glennon states that “judicial review is negligible, congressional oversight dysfunctional, and presidential control nominal.[i]

In Glennon’s worldview real power lies elsewhere: down in the bureaucracy where actual decision making is conducted by “several hundred executive officials who manage the military, intelligence, diplomatic, and law enforcement agencies[ii].” According to Glennon this explains the striking continuity in national security policy despite the transition from the Bush administration to the Obama administration.   

An op-ed piece about the CIA’s torture program in the New York Times echoes this sympathy: “In post-9/11 America, when it comes to momentous matters of national security, democratic tradition and the rule of law, there is precious little disclosure and no justice and accountability. It’s a bipartisan affliction.”

The Myth of Rogue National Security Services

Glennon’s analysis relies heavily on the concept of rogue government agencies “slowly tightening centralized power, growing and evolving organically beyond public view[iii].” Yet history offers fairly convincing evidence to the contrary.

In the mid-1970s Seymour Hersh published a New York Times article about the CIA’s involvement in domestic surveillance. This blockbuster report prompted Congress to establish two committees —the Church Committee and the Pike Committee— to investigate various abuses by American intelligence. Both reports underscored the crucial role of the chief executive.

In its final report, page 427, the Church Committee found that, "In general the President has had, through the National Security Council, effective means for exerting broad policy control over at least two major clandestine activities — covert action and sensitive technical collection… The Central Intelligence Agency, in broad terms, is not ‘out of control.'"

Similarly page 189 of the Pike Report states, “All evidence in hand suggests that the CIA, far from being out of control, has been utterly responsive to the instructions of the President and the Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs.”

Public commission reports have been corroborated by insiders like former CIA officer Phillip Agee: “All evidence in hand suggests that the CIA, far from being out of control, has been utterly responsive to the instructions of the President and the Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs.”

In other words President Eisenhower approved the overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq and President Kennedy sanctioned the Bay of Pigs. More recently there’s a clear evidentiary trail linking President Bush to the CIA’s torture program. Former Vice President Dick Cheney even stated“The notion that the committee is trying to peddle that somehow the agency was operating on a rogue basis and that we weren't being told—that the president wasn't being told— is a flat-out lie.”

The reality is that POTUS wields a significant amount of authority within the executive branch. In fact the President has been known to summarily dismiss high-level officials that fall out of favor. CIA director George Tenet and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel are well-known instances.

When the “rogue agency” metaphor is wielded it usually serves an institutional purpose. Remember how White House apparatchiki used this notion to build a wall around President Reagan during the Iran-Contra affair? Noam Chomsky spells things out explicitly[iv]:

“What the record shows is that the C.I.A. is just an agency of the White House, which sometimes carries out operations for which the Executive branch wants what’s called ‘plausible deniability'; in other words, if something goes wrong, we don’t want it to look like we did, those guys in the C.I.A. did it, and we can throw some of them to the wolves if we need to.”

How else could the Director of the CIA, after the agency was found to have illegally monitored the Senate Intelligence Committee, be granted the full confidence of the President? Brennan has been absolved for the same reason that U.S. telecom firms were given immunity for assisting the NSA. They were simply doing what they were asked to do.

Who Rules?

If the concept of rogue government agencies is an expedient fabrication then who is setting policy? A succinct answer to this question has been proffered by iconic American philosopher John Dewey[v]:  “Power today resides in control of the means of production, exchange, publicity, transportation and communication. Whoever owns them rules the life of the country,"

The people who control the resources are those that have the power. Again, Noam Chomsky describes the logical implication of Dewey’s contention: “The United States has essentially a one-party system and the ruling party is the business party.”

This has been an enduring aspect of American history. For instance, in 1937 a journalist named Ferdinand Lundberg documented the nature of American power in a book titled America’s Sixty Families. Lundberg based his analysis on tax records published via the Revenue Act of 1924. Lundberg explains:

“These families are the living center of the modern industrial oligarchy which dominates the United States, functioning discreetly under a de jure democratic form of government behind which a de facto government, absolutist and plutocratic in its lineaments, has gradually taken form since the Civil War. This de facto government is actually the government of the United States informal, invisible, shadowy. It is the government of money in a dollar democracy.”

Almost two decades later in 1956 a sociology professor at Columbia, C. Wright Mills, wrote a book titled The Power Elite. Mills describes national policies as being defined by corporate, political, and military leadership bound together by shared class interests. His work has been validated by contemporary sociology researchers like G. William Domhoff at U.C. Santa Cruz:

“Today, Mills looks even better than he did 50 years ago in his characterization of the benefactors of American capitalism as a corporate rich led by the chief executives of large corporations and financial institutions, who by now can be clearly seen as the driving force within the power elite.”

Government bureaucrats respond to incentives provided by organized groups that have the ability to reward them or punish them. This explains the empirical utility of the Investment Theory of Party Competition, a scheme introduced by political scientist Thomas Ferguson. Ferguson’s theory describes the political process as being dominated by constantly shifting corporate alliances which leverage their resources to influence policymaking.

Researchers Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page published a journal article that offers hard quantitative confirmation of Ferguson’s model: “Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.”

On an aside, there’s a tendency in American politics to view elections as contests between individuals. It appeals to the American mythology of the rugged individual. But real political competition takes place on an organizational level. And while political mobilization is typically associated with social movements like women’s suffrage or civil rights, professors Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson explain that corporations have successfully used collective strategies to implement large-scale policy changes.

“What has really changed is the organization of American politics, particularly the organizations that represent the deepest pocketed members of American society. What we've seen as an organizational revolution over the last 30 years that has meant that business, and Wall Street, and ideological conservative organizations that are pushing for free market policies have all become much more influential.

"And at the same time, a lot of the organizations that once represented the middle class, labor unions, broad-based civic organizations and, sort of, organizations at the local and grassroots level, including social movements, have all lost enormous ground.”

The spectacle of corporate influence examined by Gilens and Page isn’t limited to the United States. It’s an emerging global manifestation that’s reflected by the transnational sets behind the Bilderberg Meetings and the annual World Economic Forum conference at Davos. Transnational Corporations (TNCs) are superseding national governments. A research team from the University of Zurich notes:   

“We find that transnational corporations form a giant bow-tie structure and that a large portion of control flows to a small tightly-knit core of financial institutions. This core can be seen as an economic ‘super-entity’… Nearly 4/10 of the control over the economic value of TNCs in the world is held, via a complicated web of ownership relations, by a group of 147 TNCs in the core, which has almost full control over itself.”

From the vantage point of the corporate elite, who jump continents on a daily basis, the concept of a state sovereignty is a historical artifact: governments exist to enable business operations. Indigenous political leaders are often viewed as hired help.

The Deep State

How do heavily entrenched elites, with little or no constitutionally vested authority, purchase influence in matters of government? Former congressional staff member Mike Lofgren explains that the corporate elite go through what’s known as a Deep State.

The American Deep State is an extension of the visible state, an institutional layer of intermediaries composed of lobbyists (e.g. Chamber of Commerce, National Federation of Independent Business), media outlets (e.g. Comcast, Time Warner, News Corp), dark money groups (e.g. Crossroads GPS, Americans for Prosperity), private sector contractors (e.g. Boeing, Lockheed Martin, SAIC), and non-governmental organizations (e.g. National Endowment for Democracy, Ford Foundation). These intermediaries interface with official government organs (e.g. Department of Defense, Intelligence Community) in a manner that enables the creation of informal backchannels and revolving doors through which profound sources of wealth and power outside of government can impose their agenda.

Here’s an important example: during the course of World War II the Council on Foreign Relations, on behalf of the U.S. State Department, conducted what was known as the War and Peace Studies Project. This campaign, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation and involving nearly 100 people over a six-year period, was explicitly intended to influence the government’s foreign policy and integrate “an expanded Grand Arena into a United States dominated world order.[vi]” In short, the War and Peace Studies produced a blueprint for post-war American hegemony.

It’s not surprising that since the end of World War II this is essentially the path that U.S. leadership has followed, motivated by an ideology which emphasizes opening up new markets and acquiring access to resources at any cost. In doing so the “shining city on the hill” sacrificed its alleged values for a narrow set of economic interests by launching coups, organizing  death squads, and directly supporting a procession of brutal dictatorships

The American political class is fairly open about their exceptionalism with regard to military invasions, drone attacks, torture, and mass surveillance. During an interview on NBC in 1998 former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright announced to the world that, “If we have to use force, it is because we are America; we are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future.”

Behind the veneer of propaganda, which focuses on America’s unwavering commitment to freedom and democracy, is the face of empire. In a fit of candor former presidential advisor Karl Rove conceded as much to the New York Times: "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors....and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

Project Censored at Sonoma State University performed a study that identified 161 executive directors who comprise the financial inner core of the global elite. The study describes the nature of the aforementioned corporate empire:  

“The billionaires inside the TCC [Transnational Capitalist Class] are similar to colonial plantation owners. They know they are a small minority with vast resources and power, yet they must continually worry about the unruly exploited masses rising in rebellion. As a result of these class insecurities, the TCC works to protect its structure of concentrated wealth. Protection of capital is the prime reason that NATO countries now account for 85 percent of the world’s defense spending, with the US spending more on military than the rest of the world combined. Fears of rebellions motivated by inequality and other forms of unrest motivate NATO’s global agenda in the war on terror.”

Hence the sprawling national security apparatus is no accident. It’s a vital part of resource extraction. Plans for an economy based on heavy military spending were proposed at the end of WWII by leading executives like General Electric’s Charles Edward Wilson. Such an arrangement ultimately serves as a tool of social control, one that channels vast resources to the patronage networks of the defense industry, it’s offshoots in hi-tech, and the companies that venture into conquered territory to rebuild what’s been destroyed.  

Professor Glennon would have you believe that what ails us is the result of government bureaucracy run amok. As he remarks during an interview with the Boston Globe, “Government is very much the problem here.” Yet Glennon fails to recognize that government officials actually do answer to a higher power. It’s just that in the absence of overwhelming public sentiment it’s typically not voters.

Why a professor from a university like Tufts would neglect this is an interesting question. Based on material presented herein the answer is left as an exercise for the reader.

The quandary of corporate state capture reveals Bagehot’s double government trope as conspicuously incomplete. National security services like the CIA and Department of Defense are obedient arms of the executive. The public record demonstrates time and again that they merely do what they’re told. Traveling up the chain of command the same basic dynamic holds. The President and his subordinates dutifully adhere to a framework that’s transmitted from those who can punish and reward them: oligarchic corporate factions that coalesce in the environs of the American Deep State.

[i] Michael J. Glennon, National Security and Double Government, Oxford University Press, 2014, Page 114.

[ii] Ibid Page 113.

[iii] Ibid Page 116.

[iv] Noam Chomsky, Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky, The New Press, 2002, Page 349.

[v] John Dewey, The Later Works of John Dewey, 1925-1953, SIU Press, 2008, Page 76.

[vi] Laurence Shoup and William Minter, Imperial Brain Trust: The Council on Foreign Relations & United States Foreign Policy, 2004, Authors Choice Press, Pages 121, 162.

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