The objective of this research post is to continue the examination of how the U.S. political class has homogenized. The focus of this post will be on the executive branch of the U.S. government as it relates to how it practices the religion of state power.
My previous post addressed the nature of how the U.S. Legislative branch practices the religion of state power. That post leveraged Michael Glennon’s work on “National Security and Double Government” at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and this post will do the same. Let’s now explore how the U.S. executive branch practices the religion of state power in the name of serving the public interest.
How does the U.S. Executive branch practice the religion of state power?
One might suppose, at this point, that what is at issue is not the emergence of a double government so much as something else that has been widely discussed in recent decades: the emergence of an imperial presidency.(1) After all, the Trumanites work for the President.(2) Can’t he simply “stand tall” and order them to do what he directs, even though they disagree?(3)
In a prior post I touched on the notion of an imperial presidency, the answer is complex.(4) It is not that the Trumanites would not obey; it is that such orders would rarely be given.(5) Could not shades into would not, and improbability into near impossibility; President Obama could give an order wholly reversing U.S. national security policy, but he would not, because the likely adverse consequences would be prohibitive.(6)
Put differently, the question whether the President could institute a complete about-face supposes a top-down policy-making model.(7) The illusion that presidents issue orders and that subordinates simply carry them is nurtured in the public imagination by media reports of “Obama’s” policies or decisions or initiatives, by the President’s own frequent references to “my” directives or personnel, and by the Trumanites own reports that the President himself has “ordered” them to do something.(8) But true top-down decisions that order fundamental policy shifts are rare.(9) The reality is that when the President issues an “order” to the Trumanites, the Trumanites themselves normally formulate the order.(10) The Trumanites “cannot be thought of as men who are merely doing their duty.(11) They are the ones who determine their duty, as well as the duties of those beneath them.(12) They are not merely following orders: they give the orders.(13) They do that by “entangling” the President.(14) This dynamic is an aspect of what one scholar has called the “deep structure” of the presidency.(15) As Theodore Sorensen put it, “Presidents rarely, if ever, make decisions – particularly in foreign affairs – in the sense of writing their conclusions on a clean slate….. [T]he basic decisions, which confine their choices, have all too often been previously made.”(16)
Justice Douglas, a family friend of the Kennedy’s, saw the Trumanites’ influence first-hand: “In reflecting on Jack’s relation to the generals, I slowly realized that the military were so strong in our society that probably no President could stand against them.”(17) As the roles of the generals and CIA have converged, the CIA’s influence has expanded – aided in part by a willingness to shade the facts, even with sympathetic Madisonian sponsors.(18) A classified, 6,000-word report by the Senate Intelligence Committee reportedly concluded that the CIA was “so intent on justifying extreme interrogation techniques that it blatantly misled President George W. Bush, the White House, and Justice Department and the Congressional intelligence committees about the efficacy of its methods.”(19) “The CIA gets what it wants,” President Obama told his advisers when the CIA asked for authority to expand its drone program and launch new paramilitary operations.(20)
Sometimes, however, the Trumanites proceed without presidential approval.(21) In 1975, a White House aide testified that the White House “didn’t know half the things” intelligence agencies did that might be legally questionable.(21) “If you have got a program going and you are perfectly with its results, why take the risk that it might be turned off if the President of the United States decides he does not want to do it,” he asked.(22) Other occasions arise when Trumanites in the CIA and elsewhere originate presidential “directives” – directed to themselves.(23) Presidents then ratify such Trumanite policy initiatives after the fact.(24) To avoid looking like a bystander or mere commentator, the President embraces these Trumanite policies, as does Congress, with the pretense that they are their own.(25) To maintain legitimacy, the President must appear to be in charge.(26) In a narrow sense, of course, Trumanite policies are the President’s own; after all, he did formally approve them.(27) But the policies ordinarily are formulated by Trumanites – who prudently, in Bagehot’s words, prevent “the party in power” from going “all the lengths their orators propos.”(28) The place for presidential oratory, to the Trumanites, is in the heat of a campaign, not in the councils of government where cooler heads prevail.(29)
The idea that presidential backbone is all that is needed further presupposes a model in which the Trumanites share few of the legitimacy-conferring features of the constitutional branches and will easily submit to the President.(30) But that supposition is erroneous.(31) Mass entertainment glorifies the military, intelligence, and law enforcement operatives that the Trumanites direct.(32) The public is emotionally taken with the aura of mystery surrounding the drone war, Seal Team Six, and cyber-weapons.(33) Trumanites, aided by Madisonian leaks, embellish their operatives’ very real achievements with fictitious details, such as the killing of Osama bin Laden or the daring rescue of a female soldier from Iraqi troops.(34) They cooperate with the making of movies that praise their projects, like Zero Dark Thirty or Top Gun, but not movies that lampoon them, such as Dr. Strangelove (an authentic F-14 beats a plastic B-52 every time).(35) Friendly fire incidents are downplayed or covered up.(36) The public is further impressed with operatives’ valor as they are lauded with presidential and congressional commendations, in the hope of establish Madisonian affiliation.(37) Their simple mission – find bad guys and get them before they get us – is powerfully intelligible.(38) Soldiers, commandos, spies, and FBI agents occupy an honored pedestal in the pantheon of America’s heroes.(39) Their secret rituals of rigorous training and preparation mesmerize the public and fortify its respect.(40) To the extent that they are discernible, the Trumanites, linked as they are to the dazzling operatives they direct, command a measure of admiration and legitimacy that the Madisonian institutions can only envy.(41) Public opinion is, accordingly, a flimsy check on the Trumanites; it is a manipulable tool of power enhancement.(42) It is therefore rarely possible for any occupant of the Oval Office to prevail against strong, unified Trumanite opposition, for the same reasons that members of Congress and the Judiciary cannot; a non-expert president, like a non-expert senator and a non-judge, is intimidated by expert Trumanites and does not want to place himself (or a colleague or a potential political successor) at risk by looking weak and gambling that the Trumanites are mistaken.(43) So presidents wisely “choose” to go along.(44)
The drone policy has been a case in point.(45) Vali Nasr has described how the Trumanite network not only prevailed upon President Obama to continue its drone policy but succeeded in curtailing discussion of the policies broader ramifications: (46)
When it came to drones there were four formidable unanimous voices in the Situation room: the CIA, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Pentagon, and the White House’s counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan (Brennan is now Director of the CIA). Defense Secretary Robert Gates … was fully supportive of more drone attacks. Together, Brennan, Gates, and the others convinced Obama of both the urgency of counter terrorism and the imperative of view America’s engagement with the Middle East and South Asia through that prism. Their bloc by and large discouraged debate over the full implications of this strategy in national security meetings.
What Nasr does not mention is that, for significant periods, all four voices were hold-overs from the Bush Administration; two Bush Administration officials, Michael J. Morell and David Petraeus, headed the CIA from July 1, 2011 to March 8, 2013.(47) The Director of National Intelligence, Dennis C. Blair, had served in the Bush Administration as Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Pacific Command and earlier as Director of the Joint Staff in the Office of the Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff; John Brennan had been Bush’s Director of the National Counter terrorism Center; and Robert Gates had served as Bush’s Secretary of Defense.(48)
Gate’s own staying power illuminates the enduring grip of the Trumanite network. (49) Gates was recruited by the CIA while attending Indiana University in 1965 after spending two years in the Air Force, briefing ICBM missile crews.(50) He went on to become an adviser on arms control during the SALT talks in Vienna.(51) He then served on the National Security Council staff under President Nixon, and then under President Ford, and again under the First President Bush.(52) During the 1980’s, Gates held positions of increasing importance under Director of Central Intelligence William Casey; a colleague described Casey’s reaction to Gates as “love at first sight.” (53) Casey made Gates his chief of staff in 1981.(54) When Casey died of a brain tumor, President Reagan floated Gate’s name for Director, but questions about his role in the Iran-Contra scandal blocked his nomination.(55) Gates continued to brief Reagan regularly, however, often using movies and slides (though Nancy Reagan was annoyed because he “ate all the popcorn”).(56) Fellow CIA officers almost succeeded in blocking his nomination when it was revived by President Bush, recalling again his role in the Iran-Contra affair.(57) Gates nonetheless got the job and escaped indictment, though Independent Counsel Lawrence E. Walsh reported that his statements during the investigation “often seemed scripted and less than candid.”(58) He took office as President Bush’s Secretary of Defense in 2006, overseeing the aftermath of the Iraq War, and continued in that position in the Obama Administration until July 2011.(59)
It is, of course, possible to reject the advise of a Gates, a Brennan, or other prominent Trumanites.(60) But battle-proven survivors normally get their way, and their way is not different from one administration to the next, for they were the ones who formulated the national security policies that are up for renewal.(61) A simple thought experiment reveals why presidents tend to acquiesce in the face of strong Trumanite pressure to keep their policies intact.(62) Imagine that President Obama announced within days of taking office that he would immediately reverse the policies detailed previously.(63) The outcry would have been deafening – not simply from the expected pundits, bloggers, cable networks, and congressional critics but from the Trumanites themselves.(64) When Obama considered lowering the military’s proposed force levels for Afghanistan, a member of his National Security staff who was an Iraq combat veteran suggested that, if the President did so, the Commander of U.S. and International Security Assistance Forces (“ISAF”) in Afghanistan (General Stanley McChrystal), the Commander of U.S. Central Command (General David Petraeus), the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Admiral Michael Mullen), and even Secretary of Defense Gates all might resign.(65) Tom Donilon, Obama’s National Security Advisor and hardly a political ingénue, was “stunned by the political power” of the military, according to Bob Woodward.(66) Recall the uproar in the military and Congress when President Bill Clinton moved to end only one Trumanite policy shortly after taking office – the ban on gays in the military. (67) Clinton was quickly forced to retreat, ultimately accepting the policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”(68) A president must choose his battles carefully, Clinton discovered; he has limited political capital and must spend it judiciously.(69) Staff morale is an enduring issue.(70) No president has reserves deep enough to support a frontal assault on the Trumanite network.(71) Under the best of circumstances, he can only attack its policies one by one, in flanking actions, and even then with no certainty of victory.(72) Like other presidents in similar situations, Obama thus “had little choice but to accede to the Pentagon’s longstanding requests for more troops” in Afghanistan.(73)
Presidential choice is further circumscribed by the Truamnites’ ability to frame a set of options from which the President may choose – even when the President is personally involved in the decision making process to an unusual degree, as occurred when President Obama determined the number of troops to be deployed to Afghanistan.(74) Richard Holbrooke, the President’s Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, predicted that the military would offer the usual three options – the option they wanted, bracketed by two unreasonable alternatives that could garner no support.(74) “And that is exactly what happened,” Nasr recalled. (75) It was, as Secretary Gates said, “the classic Henry Kissinger model…..You have three options, two of which are ridiculous, so you accept the one in the middle.”(76) The military later expanded the options – but still provided no choice.(77) “You guys just presented me with four options, two of which are not realistic.”(78) The other two were practically indistinguishable.(79) “So what’s my option?” President Obama asked.(80) “You have essentially given me one option.”(81) The military was “really cooking the thing in the direction they wanted,” he complained. “They are not going to give me a choice.”(82)
This is, again, hardly to suggest that the President is without power.(83) Exceptions to the rule occur with enough regularity to create the impression of overall presidential control. (84) “As long as we keep up a double set of institutions – one dignified and intended to impress the many, and other efficient and intended to govern the many – we should take care that the two match nicely,” Bagehot wrote. (85) He noted that “this is in part effected by conceding some subordinate power to the august part of our polity….” Leadership does matter, or at least it can matter. (86) President Obama’s decision to approve the operation against Osama Bin Laden against the advice of his top military advisers is a prominent example.(87) Presidents are sometimes involved in the decisional loops, as Bagehot’s double government theory would predict.(88) Overlap between Madisonians and Trumanites preserves the necessary atmospherics.(89) Sometimes even members of Congress are brought into the loop.(90) But seldom do presidents participate personally and directly, let alone the Madisonian institutions in toto.(91) The range of presidential choice is tightly hemmed in.(92) As Sorensen wrote in 1981, “even within the executive branch, the president’s word is no longer final…” When the red lights flash and the sirens wail, it is the Trumanites’ secure phones that ring.(93)
Another way in which the executive branch exercises the religion of state power is in announcing committees and review panels to examine and confer issues. The NSA Review Panel report commissioned by Obama post the Snowden leaks was not intended to be a deep interrogation into the NSA and its surveillance programs in question or their constitutionality. The job and mandate for the NSA review panel was an attempt to make the public more comfortable with the level of surveillance that was uncovered. In my own discussion with members of the NSA review panel and progressive liberal legal scholars, it is quite clear the prevailing belief by those who practice the religion of state power, that unfettered access to our information is paramount to securing the power of the government over the governed.
Do you think meaningful change protecting your rights and representing your interests will come from the executive branch? If a person, business, organization, government etc. have a specific prejudice and discriminate or antagonize against someone of a different race based on the belief than one’s own race is superior; that is generally referred to as racism, bigotry, or xenophobia. If your digital life and real life are effectively one in the same, but do not share the same set of human rights and civil liberties. Can laws, policies, and regulations that infringe on our digital lives be considered racist in nature? I will explore that question in my next post.