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From Imperial Presidency to Double Government

In the wake of US attacks on ISIS elements in Syria, the continuity in US national security policy has become ever more apparent. American presidents, whatever their politics or campaign rhetoric, over and over stick with essentially the same security programs as their predecessors. President Obama is but the most recent example. He has continued or even expanded numerous Bush administration policies including rendition to third countries, military detention without trial, denial of legal counsel to prisoners, drone strikes, offensive cyber-weapons, and whistleblower prosecutions.

Even seasoned insiders profess bewilderment. As a candidate, the President extolled the virtues of a nuclear-free world and promised to vigorously pursue disarmament. Yet he has recently approved plans for enormous new expenditures in a major ramping-up of the US nuclear arsenal. “A lot of it is hard to explain,” former Senator Sam Nunn told the New York Times. “The president’s vision was a significant change in direction. But the process has preserved the status quo.” The playbill changes, but the play does not.

The conventional explanation lies in the phenomenon described by the late historian Arthur Schlesinger—an imperial presidency. A series of overly-assertive chief executives, according to the theory, have dominated legislators and judges, knocking America’s carefully-balanced separation of powers out of kilter. Vietnam, Watergate, domestic CIA spying and other abuses all were attributed to this outsized presidency. The presumed remedy was to try to tie down the executive Gulliver with a web of new constraints, such as the War Powers Resolution, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, and a watchful new court and oversight committees.

It didn’t work. Forty years later, the United States has moved beyond an imperial presidency to a system in which the gargantuan US security apparatus not only has broken free of constraints but has engulfed even the presidency itself. Contemporary US security policy is seldom formulated in the Oval Office and handed down to compliant managers in the military, intelligence, and law enforcement agencies. Instead, nerve-center policies ranging from the troop buildup in Afghanistan to ABM deployment to NSA surveillance percolate up from the Pentagon, Langley, Fort Meade, and myriad Beltway facilities with no public names. With rare exceptions, that is where options originate, plans are formulated, and strategy ultimately defined.

Aerial photograph of the National Security Agency by Trevor Paglen. Commissioned by Creative Time Reports, 2013. CC0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Aerial photograph of the National Security Agency by Trevor Paglen. Commissioned by Creative Time Reports, 2013. CC0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The resulting programs take on a life of their own, feeding on caution, living off the bureaucratic land, run by an entrenched and elaborate network of well-meaning careerists and political appointees who are invested in the status quo, committed to increased payrolls and broader missions, and able to outlast the shifting preferences of elected officials. The programs are, in economic terms, “sticky down”—easier to grow than shrink.

Thus when the CIA asked for authority to expand its drone program and launch new paramilitary operations, President Obama famously told his advisers, “The CIA gets what it wants.” Security managers elsewhere also get what they want. During deliberations on the Afghanistan troop surge, the President complained that the military “are not going to give me a choice.” The admirals and generals, his staff said, were “boxing him in.” More recently, the White House claimed that President Obama was unaware of NSA spying on world leaders; Secretary of State John Kerry explained that some US surveillance activities are “on autopilot.” The President in response formed a supposedly independent panel to safeguard civil liberties and restore public confidence—which, it turns out, operated under the auspices of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who oversees the NSA.

America’s new security system is best captured by an earlier concept: “double government.” The term is Walter Bagehot’s, the celebrated scholar of the English Constitution, who in 1867 described how Britain’s government had slowly changed in substance but not in form as it moved to a “disguised republic.” The monarchy and House of Lords, he suggested, provided the grand public façade needed to generate public deference, while another set of institutions—the House of Commons, the cabinet, and prime minister—efficiently worked behind the scenes to carry out the actual work of governing.

In the realm of national security, the US government also has changed in substance but not in form—but American double government has evolved in the opposite direction, toward greater centralization and away from democracy. Congress, the presidency, and the courts appear to exercise decisional authority, yet their control is increasingly illusory. The real shaping of security policy is carried out quietly, in highly classified facilities, by anonymous managers the public never sees.

As the NSA’s ubiquity gradually has been unveiled, the Watergate-era questions were asked again: “What did the President know and when did he know it?” The answers to those questions now matter little, however. The remedies of earlier times have proven ineffectual, and the structural forces that eroded accountability and empowered the security elite remain strong. The system’s vaunted capacity for self-correction is therefore severely limited. In this new epoch of American double government, the disquieting question is: Who really is in charge? Unless the United States confronts that question squarely, Congress, the judiciary, and the presidency itself will continue, slowly and quietly, to fade into museum pieces.

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