Back to News & Commentary

How to Think About the National Security State

Jay Stanley,
Senior Policy Analyst,
ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project
Share This Page
September 5, 2013

The United States has grown a gigantic national security state. According to one analyst, our overall annual security budget is now more than $1.2 trillion. And we now know that includes at least $75 billion for “intelligence.” In the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations that the NSA has been operating well outside any reasonable reading of the statutes on which it relies, and outside any national consensus over the proper limits to domestic spying, what are we to make of this behemoth? How we think about our national security state is a very important question, not least because it suggests what direction we ought to take moving forward.

In my mind, there are three different (but not mutually exclusive) explanatory approaches that one can take when it comes to explaining the behavior of our national security state. They are:

  1. The Personal
  2. The Political
  3. The Institutional

Americans tend to gravitate toward personal explanations. James Bamford, the author of several important books and articles on the NSA, recently published a piece in Wired focusing on General Keith Alexander and the growth of a US capacity for offensive cyberwar. Of Alexander Bamford writes,

Never before has anyone in America’s intelligence sphere come close to his degree of power, the number of people under his command, the expanse of his rule, the length of his reign, or the depth of his secrecy. A four-star Army general, his authority extends across three domains: He is director of the world’s largest intelligence service, the National Security Agency; chief of the Central Security Service; and commander of the US Cyber Command. As such, he has his own secret military, presiding over the Navy’s 10th Fleet, the 24th Air Force, and the Second Army.

Similarly the Washington Post recently publisheed a profile of Alexander noting that “In his eight years at the helm of the country’s electronic surveillance agency,” Alexander “has quietly presided over a revolution in the government’s ability to scoop up information in the name of national security.” There has also been a certain amount of discussion of President Obama since the NSA scandal broke: what the scandal says about him, how he has departed from much of what he said during his 2008 presidential campaign, and so forth.

Such reporting is certainly very valuable, and to some extent the focus on Alexander is just a framing device used by these pro reporters to make their story concrete. It’s natural for us humans to seek to personalize the policies and directions of giant faceless bureaucracies.

But it’s important to be clear on the nature of the beast that we’re dealing with, and it goes far beyond any individual personalities. Stepping back from the specific personalities at issue at our particular moment in time, there are some much larger, more abstract dynamics that govern how the national security state operates. We need to keep an eye on the leaders, who can certainly have dramatic effects, but we also need to learn to think a little bit like political scientists.

Generally, it can be more useful to think of government agencies not as expressions of the personalities of particular government leaders, but as independent organisms with their own distinctive characteristics and behaviors. Those include:

1) Mindless pursuit of mission

The mindlessness and irrationality of bureaucracies has long been recognized, from Catch-22 to Kafka to Brazil to the frustrations of many an average citizen dealing with City Hall or the DMV. This mindlessness can take the form of a refusal to recognize or correct errors. It can also take the form of a blind application of general rules even when, inevitably, circumstances arise where those rules don’t make sense. Perhaps the most important manifestation of this essential lack of intelligence is the mindless manner in which a bureaucracy’s essential mission is pursued.

Once a bureaucracy is brought into being to achieve a goal, it often exhibits an approach to that mission that brings to mind nothing so much as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. To take just one example, officials from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency showed up in Wisconsin this past February to test competitors for performance-enhancing drugs at the World Ice Fishing Contest—a competition in which people huddle around holes cut in a frozen lake to see who can catch the most pounds of fish in three hours. Competitors in such activities as darts, miniature golf, and chess have also been subject to tests from the Anti-Doping Agency.

2) Perpetuation, protection, and expansion of self

Like all life forms, bureaucracies seek to perpetuate themselves, and just as species seek to spread their genes, bureaucracies seek to expand their budgets, payrolls, powers, and domain, as political scientists have long noted. The FBI and NSA push for new surveillance powers such as the Patriot Act and the FISA Amendments Act. TSA seeks to expand its airport role into other areas of American life. Agencies relentlessly overdramatize the threat of cybersecurity in order to grab more power and bigger budgets.

By the same token, bureaucracies will generally do whatever it takes to protect their core interests and will rarely if ever be seen sacrificing themselves. Not for principle, or truth, or justice, or morality.

3) Amorality

Amoral is not the same as immoral. A tiger that eats a small child, for example, is not immoral or malicious—it is just acting according to its nature. Amoral just means that morality is not a reliable restraint on the organism’s behavior—that when its nature dictates, morality will fall by the wayside. (We can consider that a form of evil if we wish; in any case it can certainly produce evil results.) The gigantic machinery of the War on Drugs, for example, sentences millions of people to prison for nonviolent drug offenses, creating the moral monstrosity that is our current justice system. This unthinking machine is willing, for example, to give a Texas grandmother a sentence of life without parole for a nonviolent first-time drug offense. (She had never even touched any drugs, and says she was duped into working as a drug courier.)

4) Reflexive secrecy

Bureaucracies are reflexively prone to secrecy. On February 3, 1959, for example, a plane carrying 72 passengers and crew plunged into the East River outside of New York City, killing most of those on board. One week later, the FAA announced that it was ordering the replacement of the altimeters on all aircraft of the type that crashed. The agency cited vague “operational difficulties” with the original instrument design—but refused to release any more details about the problem, including reports of mechanical malfunctions it had previously received about the altimeters. This impulse toward secrecy has been partly overcome in civilian agencies thanks to passage of the Freedom of Information Act (which the FAA’s behavior in that case helped inspire). But this impulse toward secrecy, which is partly a matter of power, and partly of self-preservation, remains largely unrestrained in the national security agencies.

Obviously there is nothing magical about human beings organized together into a bureaucracy. Policies are formed, prosecutions are pursued, lies are told by individual human beings. Yet something about gathering people together in bureaucracies causes those human beings to behave in ways that we can predict at least as easily, and probably more easily, by thinking of those bureaucracies as mindless life forms. How does that work? More on that soon.

(First in a series)

The second post in this series is here.

Learn More About the Issues on This Page