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The Independent Institute
Commentary

U.S. Security Agencies Are Out of Control


Many recent indicators point to a U.S. national security bureaucracy running roughshod over the sad remnants of the founder’s republican vision. As in the Roman world, empire is gradually snuffing out the republic.

The U.S. government’s more than $1 trillion dollar annual spending on security—for a country that may very well be the most intrinsically secure great power in world history—should be the first hint that something is amiss. The United States has two great ocean moats, weak and friendly neighbors, and the world’s most potent arsenal of nuclear weapons, which threatens annihilation of the territory of any potential attacker. Such nuclear weapons cost only a small portion of the $1 trillion in security spending.

First of all, according to Winslow Wheeler on Truthout, the largest agency in this multi-agency spending total, the Department of Defense (DoD), which alone spends almost $600 billion per year, cannot pass an audit to determine where all the money is going. Wheeler reports that this horrendous and long-standing financial management debacle will not be solved anytime soon. Yet both Democratic and Republican presidents and Congresses long have kept shoveling money at DoD, because it apparently has been deemed patriotic to waste tons of citizens’ cash. The Department of Homeland Security, set up because the Department of Defense didn’t...well...defend the country very well and which accounts for about $50 billion of the $1 trillion total, also has had severe financial management problems. In fact, the Department of Defense should be renamed the Department of Defending Other Countries or the Department of Offense, since most of its spending goes toward projecting power offensively around the globe. In the case of both of these massive departments, being able to shield with secrecy their activities from the taxpayer begets waste and arrogance.

Other recent indications also abound of the security agencies’ haughtiness in the United States and abroad. At home, in a clear violation of the U.S. Constitution’s implicit ban on general (rather than specific) government searches and its requirement that searches are allowed only when probable cause exists that a crime has been committed, the National Security Agency (NSA) has collected phone records of Americans en masse, the vast majority of whom are not terrorists and are not suspected of perpetrating any crime. Moreover, Edward Snowden, the whistleblower who exposed this unconstitutional spying on Americans is running from the government’s criminal charges, while Director of National Intelligence Lt. Gen. James Clapper, who lied to Congress about snooping program’s existence, didn’t even get a congressional reprimand.

The congressional hawks, like the always “mad-as-hell” Sen. John McCain, believe in strong action to let other countries, such as Russia or Syria or Iran, know that America is still boss of the world but are much less enthusiastic about deterring our own spy agencies from bad behavior. Maybe that will change after the CIA recently was caught obstructing justice in a congressional investigation of its obstruction of justice. The CIA, in another case of likely illegal domestic spying and unconstitutional interference with the separation of powers, broke into the Senate Intelligence Committee’s storehouse of electronic documents for a congressional oversight investigation of the CIA’s torture of inmates at secret prisons and destruction of video records of it.

In addition, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a treaty that the Senate ratified in 1992, prohibits torture, unfair trials, detention without judicial review, and arbitrary killings. Contrary to a memo in 2010 by the then-State Department legal adviser, which declared that the U.S. government’s legal interpretation of the treaty—that it only applied to people inside U.S. territory and not people abroad under U.S. control—was legally untenable, the U.S. military and intelligence agencies have resisted changing the U.S. interpretation. The resistance comes, because a wider interpretation might complicate their imperial operations when occupying or attacking other countries, such as unconstitutional indefinite detentions without trial at the U.S.-run Guantanamo prison in Cuba, the unconstitutional kangaroo trials by U.S. military commission there, and targeted killings by drones abroad. The “liberal” Obama administration, as it usually does, ran scared of the security agencies and reaffirmed their desired narrower interpretation.

Finally, in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military has demanded, as it has in other countries where U.S. forces are stationed, that its personnel are exempt from local laws. Fortunately, this unreasonable demand resulted in the Iraqi government’s refusal to allow a significant residual U.S. military presence in that country. The same demand has also played a role in Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s reluctance to sign an agreement for a similar residual U.S. troop presence in his country past 2014.

All of these recent examples of security agency arrogance demonstrate that the security state is slowly replacing the founders’ vision of the republic, which was suspicious of standing armies and designed to keep an intrusive federal government at bay.


Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, and he spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. He is author of the books Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq, and Recarving Rushmore.


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