In his Farewell Address in 1961, President Dwight Eisenhower issued a stark warning that must have shocked Americans at that time. He said that the vast U.S. “military-industrial complex” constituted a grave threat to their democratic processes.
Eisenhower’s successor, John Kennedy, was so concerned about the power of the military in American life that he recommended that the novel Seven Days in May, which was about a military coup in America, be made into movie to serve as a warning to the American people about how powerful the military establishment had become in the United States.
Thirty days after Kennedy was assassinated, the Washington Post published an op-ed by the former president Harry Truman pointing out that the CIA had become a dark and sinister force in American life.
Since the Kennedy assassination, however, not a single president and very few members of Congress have dared to challenge the existence of what we now know as the national-security state. On the contrary, since 1963 every president and every Congress have showered the Pentagon and the CIA with money, weaponry, power, luxury, and influence.
Moreover, the federal judiciary made it clear a long time ago that it would never enforce any constitutional restrictions against the military and the CIA once “national security” or “state secrets” were invoked.
The national-security state, especially the military and the CIA, has become a permanent part of American life. In fact, with their overarching mission to protect “national security,” their dominant role in the American economy, and now their supremacy over the American citizenry, the Pentagon and the CIA are arguably the most important and most powerful parts of the federal government.
The national-security state has transformed American life. The military now wields the power to take people into custody, transport them to a military dungeon or concentration camp, torture them, keep them incarcerated for life, assassinate them, or execute them, perhaps after a kangaroo military tribunal. All this can now be done without any semblance of due process of law or jury trial.
In fact, as a practical matter the establishment of the national-security state effectively amended the Constitution, without anyone’s going through the formal amendment process. The two most important words in the lives of the American people for almost 60 years — “national security” — have been used to effect the most radical transformation in America’s governmental system in U.S. history. Ironically, the two words aren’t even found in the Constitution.
Combined with the quest for empire, which began more than 100 years ago, the national-security state invades and occupies countries that haven’t attacked the United States and kidnaps people suspected of terrorism anywhere in the world and “renditions” them to friendly dictatorial regimes for the purpose of torturing them. Or it simply assassinates them. When it comes to terrorism, the U.S. national-security state is the judge, jury, and executioner. Its determination is final and nonreviewable. As a practical matter, both the military and the CIA have total immunity from criminal prosecution and from liability for killings and other acts of violence committed in the name of national security.
We shouldn’t forget that it wasn’t always terrorism that justified the ever-growing expansion of the warfare state. Before 1990 communism was the official bogeyman that justified U.S. intervention worldwide. Indeed, the overwhelming weight of the circumstantial evidence suggests that national security was behind the assassination of John Kennedy, especially in light of his secret negotiations with the Soviets and Cuban leader Fidel Castro to end the Cold War, which would have meant that the vast national-security state could have been dismantled as far back as 1963.
In the name of national security, U.S. officials have installed, supported, and partnered with dictatorships renowned for their brutal suppression of their own citizenry, especially with torture. In fact, the U.S. “war on terror” might easily have been modeled on the so-called dirty war in Argentina and the Pinochet reign of state terror in Chile. After all, many of the military officials in those countries who used their powers to smash people whom they suspected of being communists or terrorists had received their training in torture under the auspices of the Pentagon, specifically at the School of the Americas (renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation) or as people in Latin America label it, “School of the Assassins.”
The distressing fact is that both the Pentagon and the CIA have favored totalitarian types since the very beginning of the national-security state, when they began recruiting Nazi intelligence operatives into their fold, with the aim of confronting the Soviet Union — America’s World War II ally and partner — in the new Cold War that would last for decades, thereby ensuring the continuation and expansion of the vast military and intelligence establishment.
During the Cold War the national-security state intentionally destroyed Iran’s experiment with democracy by ousting the elected prime minister and replacing him with a brutal pro-U.S. dictator, whose secret police were trained by the CIA.
One year later the U.S. government ousted the democratically elected president of Guatemala and installed a succession of brutal military dictators in his stead, setting off a civil war that would last decades and result in the death, torture, and rape of hundreds of thousands of people.
It invaded Cuba, attempted to assassinate its president, imposed an embargo against its people, and engaged in acts of state-sponsored terrorism within that country.
It participated in the ouster of the democratically elected president of Chile and his replacement by a brutal military dictator. During that coup the national-security state helped to murder two young Americans who committed the dastardly mental crime of subscribing to socialist ideology. Owing to the power of the military and the CIA, however, no one has ever been called to account for the murder of those two Americans.
The national-security state also supported, with cash and armaments, the brutal military dictatorship in Egypt, thereby solidifying the power of the dictatorship over the Egyptian people.
The list goes on and on.
The American people have walked through it all in what seems to be a state of permanent numbness. That’s one of the national-security state’s greatest accomplishments — the subordination of individual conscience to the military and the CIA. If national security required an attack on a country that had never attacked the United States, so be it. If it required cruel and inhumane sanctions or embargoes that squeezed the lifeblood out of innocent people, so be it. If it required an assassination of some foreign ruler or just some private citizen somewhere, so be it. If it required 75 years of secrecy in the Kennedy assassination, so be it. If it required the execution of American citizens in Chile or elsewhere, so be it. If it required kidnapping, torture, indefinite incarceration, execution, or assassination, so be it. If it required supporting brutal dictatorships, so be it. If it required drug experiments on unsuspecting Americans, so be it. If it required the recruitment of Nazis into the national-security state, so be it.
All that mattered was that national security be preserved at all costs. No one was supposed to question or challenge what the state had to do to protect national security. Everyone was expected to simply keep his head down, go about his business, and remain silent and trusting.
Thus no one was supposed to notice that the national-security state was embracing many of the policies and programs that characterized totalitarian states. Since it was all being done in the name of “national security” and to “protect our freedoms and values,” it was all considered justified. In fact, it was all considered part of our “freedom.”
The worst choice
Perhaps the most willing form of blindness came with the 9/11 attacks. U.S. officials immediately announced that the terrorists had struck America out of anger and hatred for America’s “freedom and values,” a line that would immediately be embraced by many Americans. Yet time and again, terrorists who struck America before and after 9/11 made it clear that their anger and hatred were rooted in what the U.S. national-security state had been doing and was continuing to do to people overseas, especially in the Middle East.
One of the best examples of the horror of U.S. foreign policy occurred in Iraq, where 11 years of brutal sanctions, which began after the 1991 Gulf War, contributed to the death of half a million Iraqi children. When the U.S. ambassador to the UN, Madeleine Albright, was asked about that by Sixty Minutes, she said the deaths were “worth it.”
Her answer reflected the official view of the national-security state. Given the lack of outrage among the American people, the episode also showed how horribly the national-security had warped the values, principles, and conscience of the American people. That callous indifference to the sanctity of human life would be repeated after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Not only was there little demand for an official investigation into whether U.S. officials, including the president, had intentionally misled Americans with claims that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and that they posed a threat to U.S. national-security interests, all too many Americans willingly accepted the alternative rationale — the spread of democracy — to justify the continuation of the killing, torture, and maiming of the Iraqi people. No one was supposed to notice that the U.S. national-security state had actually partnered with Saddam in his war against Iran or that it was actively supporting other dictatorships at the time it was supposedly engaging in “democracy-spreading” in Iraq.
It was such policies that motivated anti-American anger and hatred, not hatred for America’s “freedom and values.”
People like to say that “9/11 changed the world.” It actually didn’t change U.S. foreign policy at all. Instead, it gave national-security state officials the excuse to invade both Iraq and Afghanistan in the hope of installing friendly pro-U.S. regimes. It also enabled the national-security state to adopt by decree the same “temporary emergency” powers that characterized the brutal dictatorships that the national-security had long supported and partnered with, especially in the Middle East and Latin America.
The worst thing the American people ever did — worse even than embracing the welfare state — was to permit a permanent warfare state to come into existence. The national-security state has warped American values and stultified Americans’ conscience. It has engendered anger and hatred for America all over the world. It is a major factor contributing to the out-of-control federal spending and debt that threaten the economic security of the nation. The national-security state is a cancer on the body politic. It’s time to dismantle it. It’s time to close all the bases, bring the troops home and discharge them, and abolish the CIA. It is a necessary prerequisite for a free, prosperous, harmonious, and secure society.
This article was originally published in the March 2013 edition of Future of Freedom.