Privacy SOS

When it comes to fighting the ‘double state’, knowledge is power

What's to explain President Obama's monumental shift from staunch civil liberties advocate to fierce defender of warrantless, dragnet surveillance? Some people believe he changed when, as commander in chief, he became responsible for the nation's defense. The 'threat' reports he reads every morning must have eroded and overcome his constitutional law training, the theory goes.

But as I've argued here before, there's another, much more sinister and frightening explanation: the President isn’t really running the show. While this theory isn't mutually exclusive from the possibility that President Obama was scared away from civil liberties by alleged Somali threats against his life, it's much more dangerous. Such a theory is frightening because if true, it means that an elected leader’s personal desires and political views are actually only marginally relevant to determining the size, shape, and boundaries of the National Security State. And if that's so, democracy is in grave peril. If we are to accept this view, it means we must reorient our advocacy efforts to undermine autocratic systems. It means, in short, that we may be barking up the wrong tree.

A new essay advances the conversation considerably by examining the deep state's origins in the United States and identifying its sources of power. Michael Glennon's 'National Security and Double Government' describes the deep state phenomenon in the US as a 'double state', with 'efficient' institutions like the National Security Council and the CIA running the show, while the 'dignified' institutions—the courts, congress, and the elected members of the executive branch—play a supporting, public relations role. The efficient institutions use their secret knowledge (which translates into power) to advance the proposition that only they can protect democracy, and argue that they need near limitless authority and money to do it.

Large segments of the public continue to believe that America’s constitutionally established, dignified institutions are the locus of governmental power; by promoting that impression, both sets of institutions maintain public support. But when it comes to defining and protecting national security, the public’s impression is mistaken. America’s efficient institution makes most of the key decisions concerning national security, removed from public view and from the constitutional restrictions that check America’s dignified institutions. The United States has, in short, moved beyond a mere imperial presidency to a bifurcated system—a structure of double government—in which even the President now exercises little substantive control over the overall direction of U.S. national security policy.

Instead of some carefully plotted conspiracy on the part of the nation's well-heeled elites, this state of affairs has come about, the author argues, as an unlucky coincidence.

Members of America’s efficient institutions have not secretly colluded in some dark plot aimed at wresting control over national security from its dignified institutions. What may appear in these institutions’ collective motivation as conscious parallelism has in fact been a wholly open and, indeed, unabashed response to incentives deeply rooted in the legal and political structures in which they operate.

In light of its numerous, costly failures, what protects the efficient institutions from the wrath of a truly democratic public? For Glennon, it's all about information. Knowledge starved citizens stand no chance of fighting the supremacy of the efficient state. When people do not know basic facts about either the history or the present, they are easily managed. "There is, accordingly, little need for purposeful deception to induce generalized deference [to the will of the efficient institutions]; in contemporary America…, a healthy dose of theatrical show goes a long way."

In an effort to eat away at some of that ignorance, Glennon's essay provides an important history of post-WWII United States government, illustrating how the deep or efficient institutions developed. Harry Truman’s role in the creation and promotion of efficient institutions like the CIA and NSC was so central that the author uses 'Trumanite' to describe the opposite of 'Madisonian'. The Trumanite institutions function in the dark; they privilege knowledge and insider-ness. Madisonian institutions, meanwhile, while serving as the public face of democratic government, have less and less influence in critical decision making.

Fast forward into the present, more than twelve years after the 9/11 attacks. The secrecy and power of the efficient institutions have been compounded by over a decade of global war. The 'Global War on Terror' state of exception has become the new normal. And, to a greater extent than ever before in US history, the efficient or deep state has begun to trickle out of the Washington, DC metropolitan area down into major urban areas nationwide. The national securitization and federalization of local police departments and the relatively new Department of Homeland Security are the bearers of this power shift. Today, city council officials are likely to be as ignorant of the so-called 'counterterrorism' measures and expenditures at their local police departments as rank and file congress members are about the inner workings of the NSC and CIA. Along with this shift comes billions of dollars, new secrecy regimes, and the bifurcation of state and local government into the Knowers and the Unknowers.

How did this happen? Glennon's description of the incentive structure establishing security arrangements at the federal level fits the local manifestations, too:

Overprotection of national security creates costs that the Trumanite network can externalize; under-protection creates costs that the network must internalize. The resulting incentive structure encourages the exaggeration of existing threats and the creation of imaginary ones. The security programs that emerge are, in economic terms, “sticky down”—easier to grow than to shrink.

The Trumanites sacrifice little when disproportionate money or manpower is devoted to security. The operatives that they direct do not incur trade-off costs. The Trumanites do, however, reap the benefits of that disproportionality—a larger payroll, more personnel, broader authority, and an even lower risk that they will be blamed in the event of a successful attack.

Therefore local officials demand more 'homeland security' money, more surveillance cameras, spy drones, and expanded powers after the Boston marathon attack. No matter that the surveillance cameras dotting the finish line at Boylston street had zero deterrent effect to the bombers. Like the CIA after 9/11, the local fusion centers and counterterrorism task forces reap the benefits, but there are no trade-off costs for failure.

Meanwhile, workplace accidents and industrial disasters in the United States kill tens of thousands of people per year. Terrorism against Americans doesn’t rank among the top threats to life or security in the United States—not even close. But the survival and growth of the efficient institutions depends on the maintenance of a culture of fear. And if fear is the oxygen that sustains the secretive national security state, secrecy is its lifeblood.


The Trumanites have [many] incentives to keep information to themselves. Knowing that information in Washington is power, they are, in the words of Jack Balkin, both information gluttons and information misers. They are information gluttons in that they “grab as much information as possible”; they are information misers in that they try to keep it from the public. Potential critics, power competitors, and adversaries are starved for information concerning the Trumanite network while it feasts on information concerning them. The secrecy of Trumanite activities thus grows as the privacy of the general public diminishes and the Trumanites’ shared “secret[s] of convenience” bind them more tightly together.

Five years into the Barack Obama presidency, six months after Edward Snowden’s NSA disclosures, we must look squarely at the shape and size of the security bureaucracy in the United States, and sharpen the ax. We shouldn’t expect the president to do what’s necessary to establish equilibrium and check the power of the ‘Trumanite’ institutions, no matter who she is or what she may have once believed. That check will only come when people demand it, en mass.

As Glennon argues in the Harvard National Security Journal, the danger in the United States is likely not the sudden takeover of government by an authoritarian monster like Hitler. The very real and present danger is the slow erosion of the Madisonian institutions, and the untouchable and growing supremacy of the efficient ones. Like frogs boiling in a pot, the danger is that by the time a large number of us realize what’s happened, it will be too late to turn back the clock.

What can we do to avert this disaster in the making? If the efficient institutions thrive when the public is ignorant, we must speak out loudly and more often. If the deep state can only sustain its power under cover of darkness, we must open the closets and turn on the lights. And if its excesses can only be justified to a fearful population, we must reject fearmongering and the Islamophobia that serves as its carrier.

So no matter who is the president, let's resolve to speak out against government secrecy and autocracy; support and defend the courageous whistleblowers who risk life and limb to tell the public the truth; and call out anti-Muslim racism and discrimination everywhere we see it. All of that might not avert this disaster in the making, but if we fail to do these things we can be sure that the country our children inherit will be a democracy in name only, no matter what the Bill of Rights has to say about it.

© 2022 ACLU of Massachusetts.