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What Makes Presidents Turn Into Hard Core Defenders of the Security State? Seven Possible Explanations

Jay Stanley,
Senior Policy Analyst,
ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project
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September 12, 2013

I recently wrote about how it can be useful to think of our national security state in institutional rather than personal or political terms—as a gigantic organism that displays certain consistent behaviors. And I speculated about how this organism can be both less intelligent and less moral than the individuals who make it up.

At the same time, it is undoubtedly true that some individuals within the national security state—the leadership—have great direct power to alter its character and direction. So why don’t they? Those individuals come from a wide variety of political and life backgrounds. But despite that fact, the overall behavior of the security establishment seems to be relatively consistent.

This is true up to the presidential level. In interviews about his whistleblowing decision, Edward Snowden has talked about his disillusionment with President Obama when it comes to reining in the national security state. This is a disillusionment that we share. Before he took office Obama seemed sympathetic to the criticism of the Bush Administration over the excesses of the national security state. So what happened?

One possibility is that the president, while echoing the unpopularity of Bush’s policies among Democratic primary voters, was always a hawk on these matters and never really believed that checks and balances on the national security agencies are important—and that anyone who thought otherwise was projecting their own beliefs onto him (which is natural with any candidate one finds appealing and sympathetic).

When we look back at history, however, it appears that most presidents, regardless of their ideology or origins on the political spectrum, end up supporting vigorous, often unconstitutional security powers. As historian Samuel Walker concludes in his book Presidents and Civil Liberties from Wilson to Obama: A Story of Poor Custodians,

The most consistent pattern in the assaults on civil liberties by American presidents involves national security, during shooting wars, cold wars, and the current war on terrorism… The preference for security over liberty is almost inherent in the office of the presidency. The world looks very different from the Oval Office than it does from the campaign trail or other elective office, and Obama is only the latest president to experience this radical change of perspective….

So what is it about the presidency that causes so many men with such varying political views to all embrace the national security state once they’re in office? I have often wondered about that question, and in my speculations I have settled on seven possible factors that I think are most likely behind this phenomenon:

The “Weight of Responsibility” explanation.
I once knew a college professor who was a former sixties radical. After teaching for a number of years, he eventually became a dean at the college where he taught. “Boy,” he remarked, “I’ve always been sympathetic to all these anti-authoritarian protesters, but it’s amazing how different the world looks once you’re actually the guy who’s responsible.” This is Walker’s explanation for why presidents are so willing to brush aside civil liberties when they believe security is at stake:

No president wants to be blamed for another Pearl Harbor or 9/11 attack, and the dynamics of the office push them toward what they regard as the “safe” position regarding potential threats against the country…. On a purely human level, presidents feel the awesome responsibility of the office to defend the country and protect American lives. [p. 504]

Insofar as we accept this explanation, we should just note that it bears further interrogation. Presidents must certainly feel the weight of responsibility of their office, but that doesn’t answer the question of why they feel more responsibility for some things than others. One can certainly understand the weight that the Cold War presidents must have felt when faced with nuclear Armageddon, or that Roosevelt faced while locked in a worldwide war on two continents for the future of the world. Today, on the other hand, it’s not self-apparent that presidents would feel an equally keen weight of responsibility when faced with threats such as a homemade bomb going off in Times square, compared to the weight of their oath to protect and defend the Constitution, and all the other tragedies, crimes, and atrocities that take place on a daily basis in the vast nation over which the president presides.

The “If You Knew What I Knew” explanation
Another theory is that the president knows so many things more than the rest of us—that there is so much happening that is known to him but not to the rest of us—that his perception of the world and values are irrevocably changed once he learns those things. Megan McArdle offered something like this explanation in a 2011 piece in the Atlantic on President Obama’s treatment of Bradley Manning: “The president has access to more information than the rest of us, and … that changes how you think.” In many ways this explanation can be a dangerous version of the “argument from authority” fallacy, in that it’s based on the attitude, “who are we to question the president with his superior knowledge?”

The authoritarian and anti-democratic bent of that position highlights the inherent contradiction between democracy and secrecy. McArdle, though, quotes Daniel Ellsberg warning Henry Kissinger that once he gets access to all this classified information, it will make him discount the judgment of those who don’t know what he knows, and arrogant, and unable “to learn from anybody who doesn’t have these clearances.” He warns that it will take him several years to realize that all this secret information can be selective and inaccurate and can lead you astray just as easily as any public misinformation.

The Stockholm Syndrome
Imagine you’ve been elected president and you’re sitting in the Oval Office on your first week on the job. In comes a troop of officials from the intelligence community, serving up a 15-page document containing descriptions of various possible threats that the intel agencies have gotten wind of. Day after day you receive this briefing—and often others like it. These briefings come from agencies whose lifeblood is threats—their powers, prestige, payrolls, and budgets all depend on threats. While there are no doubt many talented and straightforward analysts working within the U.S. intelligence community, there must inevitably be a gravitational pull towards threat inflation—especially in the post-9/11 era where the threat of terrorism has become the primary justification for the giant intelligence apparatus originally constructed to spy on the Soviets.

So as president, you are bombarded on a daily basis by information about threats. Only one President’s Daily Briefing has been released—the famous 2001 article, “Bin Ladin Determined To Strike in US.” However, each day’s briefing is made up of “a series” of articles, according to former CIA Director George Tenet (“a series of short, one- or two-page articles printed on heavy paper and contained in a leather binder”). So it may be that you receive numerous dark, portentous warnings each month, and that after months or years of this, you lose perspective, you begin to think like a security bureaucrat, with all the values that represents, rather than as an overseer of the intelligence community, with the leadership responsibility of balancing their needs against society’s other needs.

The Newbie President
As a new president, you are dropped into the center of a giant vortex made up of numerous complex institutions, and you are surrounded by people who have been doing their jobs for years, know how things work and have always worked, and can explain that to you. Bureacracies always gain power from their institutional memory and new leaders are always dependent on staff.

Not only are you as president dependent on your national security staff, but it must take an enormous amount of self-confidence to buck all those people and those longstanding institutions and try to make changes—a degree of confidence that even presidents may lack, especially early in their tenure. President Kennedy trusted his military advisors at first, though after the Bay of Pigs fiasco that trust was much diminished. He withstood pressure from his generals for a military response to the Cuban Missile Crisis, later observing, “The first advice I’m going to give my successor is to watch the generals and to avoid feeling that just because they were military men their opinions on military matters were worth a damn.” It’s probably no coincidence that the most negative thing ever said in public about the national security establishment by a president came from the president with the most experience with that establishment, Dwight D. Eisenhower.

A variant of this explanation, emphasizing the need to maintain the loyalty and morale of one’s national security staff, seems to be the explanation that Gary Wills turned to in a 2009 piece decrying the Obama Administration’s embrace of various of its predecessor’s policies:

A president is greatly pressured to keep all the empire’s secrets. He feels he must avoid embarrassing the hordes of agents, military personnel, and diplomatic instruments whose loyalty he must command. Keeping up morale in this vast, shady enterprise is something impressed on him by all manner of commitments. He becomes the prisoner of his own power. As President Truman could not not use the bomb, a modern president cannot not use the huge powers at his disposal. It has all been given him as the legacy of Bomb Power, the thing that makes him not only Commander in Chief but Leader of the Free World. He is a self-entangling giant.

The Day Care Effect
When you watch a group of small children play, it’s natural to be charmed by how small and cute they all are. Sure, once in a while one of them will do something bad like slug another one or pull her hair, but they are essentially harmless and innocent and just so cute.

They are harmless to you, of course—but to each other, they can be terribly frightening. Because you tower over them, secure from any threat they can pose you, wielding complete power, it is easy for you to forget what it can be like to be a peer of one of these little monsters. Your little puppy may be a loyal and adorable bundle of love, but to a squirrel he’s a terrifying predator.

This same dynamic often seems to operate within social hierarchies. When you securely wield a lot of power, it is easy to view those under your power as benevolent and harmless—to forget how evil they can be to each other or to those under them. After all, they are all certainly nice to you, and even on the rare occasions when they might not be, it’s just kinda cute because you don’t feel threatened.

When you’re president, you’re surrounded by national security officials—and they are all so solicitous of your views, and eager to follow your orders, and overflowing with good intentions. You know intellectually that humans are a unruly bunch, prone to all manner of misbehavior, but when you hear talk about “scary” government power, it just doesn’t comport with your experience—such worries lose their punch once you get to know those guys.

More broadly, what may be happening is that through the experience of being in the trenches with your people dealing with life-or-death issues, however large or small, you begin to lose any sense of separation from the national security side of the government. A story is told that when an airman escorted Lyndon Johnson across a tarmac in Vietnam saying, “this is your helicopter Mr. President,” Johnson replied, “Son, they’re all my helicopters.” Perhaps each president comes to feel that no matter its faults, the national security establishment is his national security establishment.

Similar to the Day Care Effect, only applied to yourself. You know that you’re not a bad guy, that you can be trusted and won’t abuse any information. Megan McArdle also gestured toward this explanation in her same 2011 Atlantic piece:

I mean, I used to think that Janet Reno was evil—SWAT teams and tanks in child custody disputes? Really? Then we had a succession of new Attorneys General who all seemed to err on the side of megalomaniacal overreach. At which point I decided that it probably wasn’t the person; it was the office. When you’re sitting up there in that lofty perch, hearing about all the bad things that are happening in the country, and you know that you could do a lot more to fight them if you just had a little bit more power—well, sure, maybe it’s not a good idea in abstract, but you’re not going to abuse it, you’re just trying to solve problems. Et voila, Waco.

So too, I suspect, with tormenting prisoners, and civil liberties.

As an unnamed former NSA official quoted in this profile of Keith Alexander says of the NSA director, “I think he has a little bit of naiveté about this controversy. He thinks, ‘What’s the problem? I wouldn’t abuse this power. Aren’t we all honorable people?'” Of course you aren’t out to do evil, you’re just trying to solve problems. The problem is that when you’re president, an awful lot of problems come your way. Sometimes the problems get so bad you may tell yourself, “This isn’t totally right but I’m just going to have to be tough here,” an attitude that is probably necessary for every president from time to time in the course of campaigning and governing—but which has also been the primary psychological pillar on which all manner of evil behavior has long rested.

Privacy Amnesia
When it comes to privacy in particular, it’s possible that some things about being president makes you especially prone to lose respect for it as a value. I see two reasons that may be so.

First, you are the most powerful person in the world, so privacy really doesn’t matter as much to you as it might to other people. Privacy invasions are most threatening to the vulnerable—those who can be discriminated against economically or in hiring or insurance decisions, or whose reputation can hinge on the revealing of particular small facts about them. None of that applies to presidents, who are at the top of the social hierarchy almost no matter what they do, and whose reputations rise or fall on much weightier matters (and who post-Clinton are probably unlikely to even try to engage in private sin).

All of the dynamics I’ve been describing so far would probably apply to other government leaders—agency or division heads—as well as to the president. But there is one that applies to the president in particular: as president you lose most or all of your privacy anyhow. If “losing love is like a window through your heart,” as the song has it, so is running for president, with every aspect of your life, behavior, and personality placed under a microscope and pored over by a scandal-hungry press corps. By the time you enter office, privacy is probably a distant memory, and I imagine it only gets worse from there.

As always, the truth in our complicated world probably lies is some combination of all of the above (as well as other dynamics I may not have thought of). Of course, it may be that in seeking to explain presidential behavior through systematic psychological and institutional factors, I’m looking in the wrong place—that in fact we need not look any further than politics. More on that later.

(Fourth in a series; part three is here)