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Voting Only is a Path to Failure: Stopping Mass Spying Takes More

As we stand on the cusp of the latest incarnation of the “most important election of our lifetime,” I’ve got some bad news for you.

When it comes to ending mass spying, it won’t matter.

If your party keeps or gains control of Congress, it won’t matter.

If your party loses control of the House or Senate, it won’t matter.

Go vote in federal elections to your heart’s content.

It won’t matter.

The bums you vote in or out don’t run the show.

In a new book titled National Security and Double Government, Tufts University political scientist Michael J. Glennon argues that that our elected officials have very little control over national security and defense. He asserts that agencies like the NSA, Homeland Security, the CIA and the Department of Defense largely govern themselves with virtually no accountability or oversight. Glennon describes the current American political landscape as a “double government.” As Boston Globe columnist Jordan Michael Smith put it, “There’s the one we elect, and then there’s the one behind it, steering huge swaths of policy almost unchecked. Elected officials end up serving as mere cover for the real decisions made by the bureaucracy.”

Glennon does not merely approach the subject as an academic. He possesses “insider” credentials, having served as legal counsel to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He also worked as a consultant to several congressional committees and the Department of State. He said the fact the Obama policy looks identical to Bush policy, despite all of the promises of change, sparked the book.

“I think the American people are deluded,” Glennon said in an interview with the Globe. “They believe that when they vote for a president or member of Congress or succeed in bringing a case before the courts, that policy is going to change. Now, there are many counter-examples in which these branches do affect policy…But the larger picture is still true—policy by and large in the national security realm is made by the concealed institutions.”

This reality has important ramification for those working to reform NSA surveillance programs and rein in the spy state. It indicates that the traditional strategies of working through Congress and the federal court system will create good political theater, but have little chance of concrete success. As Glennon explains it, the bureaucracies essentially set the policy and the political class defers to their “expertise.”

Members of Congress are generalists and need to defer to experts within the national security realm, as elsewhere. They are particularly concerned about being caught out on a limb having made a wrong judgment about national security and tend, therefore, to defer to experts, who tend to exaggerate threats. The courts similarly tend to defer to the expertise of the network that defines national security policy.

The presidency itself is not a top-down institution, as many people in the public believe, headed by a president who gives orders and causes the bureaucracy to click its heels and salute. National security policy actually bubbles up from within the bureaucracy. Many of the more controversial policies, from the mining of Nicaragua’s harbors to the NSA surveillance program, originated within the bureaucracy. John Kerry was not exaggerating when he said that some of those programs are “on autopilot.”

Glennon said this dynamic “can result in some very dire consequences.”

But that doesn’t mean we should just throw in the towel and give up. We just need to alter our strategies. Glennon points out that reform has to come from the American people. Not from the government.

“Government is very much the problem here.”

The OffNow strategy ignores D.C. and involves a sort of “institutional civil disobedience.” By using other existing power centers, specifically state and local governments, we will disrupt and pressure these concealed institutions. It took public agitation to advance the civil rights movement. It took public agitation to end the war in Vietnam. And it will take public agitation to bring substantive change to the surveillance state.

Replacing politicians in Washington D.C. will have zero effect unless those in office feel the pressure of the American people. Casting a vote won’t do it. But shutting off the water to an NSA facility just might. Pressuring corporations so they will stop cooperating with agencies engaging in unwarranted spying just might. Pulling the plug on university partnerships with the NSA just might.

When OffNow rolled out its strategy last year, many praised it for its boldness, but wrote it off as “too radical” and “too aggressive.”

I disagree. We need to act aggressively. Mounting evidence affirms this view.

Radical violations of your rights call for radical measures, not just votes.

Won’t you join us?

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