Spying and the Administrative State   1 comment

History can teach us a lot if we study it. For example, the current administration’s spying on American citizens is not new.

I honestly had planned to end my series on the administrative state with my last post, but this came up and it’s timely. The National Security Agency (NSA) has a long history … a Woodrow Wilson history. That’s right. The Great Administrator was responsible for creating the predecessor of the NSA, the Cipher Bureau in 1917 as part of the First World War effort. It was part of Military Intelligence – an executive branch. However, and this is the salient part, the Department of State partially funded it.

Remember what I said about the administrative state’s hallmark features? Whenever you see a department that doesn’t quite fit under one department, you’re looking at the administrative state.

At least as far back as Franklin Roosevelt, the United States presidency has used national security and law enforcement offices to spy on their domestic enemies. Following the close of World War II, President Truman’s administration became concerned that there might be Soviet sympathizers in the United States, and so he extended the purview of military intelligence organizations that had previously operated only in wartime and entangled them with law enforcement agencies like the FBI. At one point, in 1946, the Federal Bureau of Investigation actually joined the NSA for a brief time. Around the same time, the Joint Chiefs of Staff – previously only convened during wartime – because a permanent fixture. Before Truman’s administration was done, there were proposals for a centralized security agency under the control of the Central Intelligence Agency. The idea was that military and non-military intelligence would be comingled and given even weight. Truman’s plan isn’t completely a reality now, but agencies like Homeland Security, the NSA, the FBI and the CIA often blur the lines between protecting the homeland from outside enemies and investigating domestic concerns that can and do sometimes dig up dirt on American citizens for political rather than law-enforcement or national security reasons. In other words, whatever the official delineation might be, the reality is that there’s a multi-armed kracken of intelligence agencies operating more or less autonomously and remaining in place from one administration to the next.

The Kennedy administration FBI wire-tapped Martin Luther King Jr.’s phone, Lyndon Johnson spied on Barry Goldwater’s president campaign, and Nixon had Watergate as the tip of his iceberg. Iran-Contra reflected badly both on Ronald Reagan and the first President Bush, who was former CIA, let us remember. The Clintons were famous for the dirt they collected. Bush 43’s administration conceived of the current spying system, so they bear equal responsibility for it even if it was the Obama administration that started keeping data on all of us.

At the risk of sounding like I have a one-track mind, it’s not about politics. It’s about the administrative state. Operating largely independent of the elective branches of government, bureaucrats in organizations like the FBI, the NSA, and ATF continue with their primary goal of consolidating their own power regardless of the goals of the politicians in power at the moment or the people who elected them to represent us. If these organizations didn’t exist or at least were called to account by our elected representatives, when a president wanted to dig dirt on political enemies, he’d quickly find himself being told – uh, we don’t do that and if we did, we’d all lose our jobs after the next Congressional review. And 200 million Americans would cheer robustly, I’m sure.

Washington has tried to deal with this penchant for constitutional violations in the past – most notably after the Watergate mess – but – from a non-partisan perspective – these efforts have been hindered by their partisan nature. It’s usually the party not in the White House that objects to the misuse of government authority and that lasts until their party gets into the White House and then it stops until their guy does something that gets the other party to investigate, which lasts until ….

It’s no wonder the American people are cynical. I can’t help thinking that the reason we’re confused is that the ones calling the steps aren’t elected officials at all, but career bureaucrats who operate just outside of our field of vision.

The current anti-corruption effort in Congress might be a little different because it is championed by the “civil liberties caucus” of Republican libertarians such as Sen. Rand Paul and Rep. Justin Amash and ACLU-type Democrats like Sen. Ron Wyden and Rep. Jared Polis, raising hopes for a transpartisan challenge to the national security state and its defenders in both major parties. By scrambling the usual partisan lines, the current effort may be more than just a red/blue food fight. Whether that small alliance can overcome the entrenched DC apparatus allied with a president who acts as if he has a voter mandate is still questionable. The reforms that were put in place after the Watergate mess are proof that reform is a tough show that has historically only had short-term effects.

“[Public scandals are] ritual moments in which the sacrifice of the reputation of one or more individuals allows many more to continue their scandalous ways, if perhaps with minimal safeguards and protocols that are meant to ensure that the terrible excess of the past will not occur again”. Nicholas Dirks (anthropologist)

The greatest challenge to transforming the system is to assure that we accomplish more than a political blood sacrifice. The Patriot Act was passed with a general consensus about what it meant or what it allowed. Twelve years later, we learn that the law Congress passed has been interpreted by the executive branch into something very different from that intention.

So what do we the people plan to do about it?

One response to “Spying and the Administrative State

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  1. Reblogged this on aurorawatcherak and commented:

    So, I pulled this up from four years ago and thought “I might have written this today.” The administrative state didn’t go anywhere and the puppet masters are still pulling strings. Lela


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