"Dominated" by the CIA: The national security state is more entrenched than ever — and leakers like Edward Snowden are its only obstacle

We Americans have put "all our faith in the intelligence agencies," author and historian Lloyd Gardner warns Salon

By Elias Isquith
Published February 13, 2016 12:12AM (UTC)
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President Barack Obama sits with FBI director James Comey (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Earlier this week, FBI Director James Comey spoke before the Senate Intelligence Committee, and provided an example of the national security state's tendency to respond to evidence of its own failures with demands for greater power.

"We still have one of those killers' phones that we haven’t been able to open," Comey said, referring to the terrorists who murdered 14 people in San Bernardino in late-2015 before they were dispatched by law enforcement. ""It has been two months now and we are still working on it."

Comey's remarks were likely intended to strengthen the government's claim that tech companies should make it easier for law enforcement to unlock their products. But regardless of the specifics of this particular case, the general dynamic of the San Bernardino attack and its aftermath — the national security industrial complex cannot fail, it can only be failed (by a civilian government that refuses to give it the necessary "tools") — is longstanding. And in the minds of many proponents of civil liberties, it is dangerous.

That is by no means the sole focus of "The War on Leakers: National Security and American Democracy, from Eugene V. Debs to Edward Snowden," the new book from Lloyd C. Gardner, professor emeritus of history at Rutgers University. As the book's subtitle indicates, Gardner's treatment is far more sweeping, looking at the entire history of the national security apparatus as we know it, not just one of its defining political quirks.

At the same time, though, it's that depressingly familiar process by which the national security state's failures become political assets, that makes leakers like Debs, Ellsberg, Manning, and Snowden, to name just a few, so important. Without their providing the public with invaluable — and generally inaccessible — information from within the system, the national security state's authority can go essentially unchallenged. Look no further than the past 15 years of U.S. security policy to see the results.

Recently, Salon spoke over the phone with Gardner about the book and the national security state more generally. Our conversation is below and has been edited for clarity and length.

Why did you decide to write this book?

I had been writing a number of books on American policy in the Middle East in recent years and I kept running into this sort of question, particularly in terms of John Brennan and drone warfare. I think that was part of the key to writing it. Secondly, I had always been interested in this whole question of the use of the Espionage Act. Since this became such a tool of the Obama Administration in dealing with leakers, I decided to go into it and look at it very seriously and see where this all originated.

Now of course I had worked on American Foreign policy in World War One and it had come up then, and it had also come up in the [Daniel] Ellsberg case. I just sort of wanted to tie these things together and see where we were headed.

So how did that history of the Espionage Act lead us to how it's used today?

It was the question of what Eugene Debs was arrested for. It wasn't with any indication of him dealing with a foreign agent, but in opposing the war and speaking out against the draft. By use of the Espionage Act in the case against Eugene Debs, you also have the beginning of profiling. Because by its very nature when you accuse someone under the Espionage Act you assume that that's treason - that's the implication of it. Now, they deny this. Everyone who defends the position would deny that that's the case, but in fact that is the case.

And the same thing with when they came down to the Ellsberg case in the 1970s and the Pentagon Papers. There was no indication that he was dealing with enemy agents. All the indications are that Nixon was simply so furious that he ordered John Mitchell to find some way to prosecute Ellsberg, and he came upon and hit upon, almost ad hoc, the Espionage Act, which had been kind of a dead letter for many years. So then that tied in with the way the Bush and then Obama administrations began using the Espionage Act.

Why has the Espionage Act been wielded so much more frequently in recent years after a long period of dormancy?

The basic reason is what I tried to identify in the book: we don't have an official secrets act. The reason we don't have an official secrets act - compared to some European countries, particularly the British - is that the Constitution guarantees freedom of the press. We have a written constitution, and that's unlike the situation, say, in Great Britain, where there is no written constitution. And we also have the Fourth Amendment, which defends against searches that don't have warrants. The Espionage Act, in a sense, provides a way to get around that First Amendment exemption for free speech.

What's particularly devastating about it is that it places the burden upon the leaker rather than the information. The sentences which come out under the Espionage Act are much more serious and long-lasting than those under an official secrets act. So I think that's why it was adopted: it avoids the problem of the First Amendment and it gives you a very powerful deterrent tool to use against people.

What is the impetus behind the national security state's war on leakers and how has that war changed over the years?

I think that the national security state is as much a liberal invention as it is a conservative invention. I think Garry Wills had it right - it begins with the atomic bomb. Wills' much underappreciated book "Bomb Power" suggests that now the American people put their faith in the president and in that little football shaped thing that has the atomic codes that his aides carry around. The bomb at first was supposed to give us absolute security, in 1945 when Truman announced that this could only be done in the United States. But it turned out only four years later that that was not the case. So immediately attention turned onto foreign agents, onto spies, and so on.

What had happened was that our first line of defense moved from Los Alamos and Hiroshima to Langley and Fort Meade, and we'd now placed all our faith in the intelligence agencies. That gave them a leg up in terms of their presence in the executive branch, and at the same time provided the impetus for the concern about leaking. Anything that's leaked somehow becomes equivalent to aiding the enemy, whoever the enemy is at the moment.

In the Snowden case, we saw so many mainstream journalists take the side of the government in vilifying Snowden and his cause. Is this a new phenomenon, journalists being hostile to whistleblowers?

If we look at the history of, say, Glenn Greenwald and Snowden or Chelsea Manning, the first line of attack by journalists has been on their personality, on their supposed character, on their eccentricities, and not focused on what the debate is really about. Particularly, that goes for liberal journalists who see the Snowden attacks - if you want to call them attacks - as attacks on the modern liberal state as it has evolved.

This has made them blind to some of the key issues about what's going on here and about the tremendous expansion of the national security state and the power that it wields. I like to think of it this way: we no longer have an imperial president to worry about, but an imperial presidency. And the presidency is dominated, increasingly, by the intelligence community.

How much control do you think any individual president has over the drift of the national security state?

I think the dilemma was put perfectly by Eric Holder when some of the pending indictments in the Bush administration were renewed by the Obama administration. Holder said that to quash these, to do without them, would be to undermine the work of all these people who had started their loyal work, so it was very difficult to shut these off. I thought this was a very strange kind of defense, because it does exactly what your question implies: it makes it more difficult for any individual president to change something as fundamental as that when he starts out.

There isn't much indication that the Obama administration really made a serious effort to examine what went wrong over the previous eight years.

Obama opted right away in 2009 to say that he didn't want to do anything to undermine the strength or character of people who were charged with protecting our security. All the proposals for establishing some sort of look backwards to set up a commission to judge what was done under the previous administration, he just brushed aside and said we're going to change what the Bush administration did and there's no point in going back and trying to revisit all of those situations.

So I think that's the answer, that the president, from administration to administration, is now constantly bombarded from the moment he's elected to the time he takes office with, "Well, you can't change this because of this." That's the old "if you knew what we knew" argument. And now you know, so you'll have to follow the protocol they've established. So it's very difficult for any new president to make a clean break. And in Obama's case he didn't make things any easier for himself by bonding with John Brennan, for heaven's sakes, who was involved in the very acts that were under criticism.

Some have gone so far as to argue that by providing bipartisan cover for actors like Brennan, Obama did even more than his predecessor to entrench and perpetuate the national security state.

Well yes, I think that's true. I think there is bipartisan agreement, with some important exceptions like Patrick Leahy and Rand Paul, and even, curiously, Ted Cruz on the NSA program. This is a very powerful driving force. It's impossible to exclude all of the things that go on in the world and some that happen at home, like the most recent one out in California. But [Richard] Clarke, the man Obama appointed to be in charge of the commission to look into this said there's no indication that the programs that were instituted have actually prevented any terrorist attacks. However well-intentioned their motive, to the government, as a hammer, everything looks like a nail. This is a really serious problem, in terms of trying to blunt or change the force of this powerful thing that's only getting more powerful all the time.

Do you think we're less likely to see another Snowden in the near- to medium-term because of the chilling effects of the prosecutions we've seen? Or is it possible that we might see more high profile leakers as the distance between government narrative and reality widens?

I don't know. I can't predict. There seem to be signs in both directions, but as long as you have this constant stimulus of supposed contacts between Americans and ISIS - homegrown terrorists, as they're called - that's going to be a detriment in terms of anybody actually trying to change very much. That's clear.

Time and time again, as we see, had there not been the NSA programs, it wouldn't have made any difference. The ways that people communicated with one another were outside this net, no matter how big they made the haystack and no matter how fine they thought they were sifting through it.

I don't see that [these attacks] very likely are going to stop. There will continue to be incidents like these and they will continue to be seized upon as justification for improving the reach of the national security state whether it would have anything to do with that or not. And then the temptation is exactly as we have seen. As James Bamford has pointed out, the ability of the Five Eyes to communicate with one another and to shift evidence of wrongdoing by individual people over to Israeli intelligence, for example, for their uses in their own foreign policy - all of these things now are global in their impact. That's a very distressing thought, from a civil liberties perspective.

Going back to Garry Wills' book, it seems undeniable that the rise of the national security state is inextricably linked to the rise of America's global influence after World War Two. 

If we go back to "Wild" Bill Donovan and the beginning of the OSS and then the CIA, I tried to point out in the book that the whole debate over the creation of the CIA is one of the more interesting ones. Obviously there were both opponents on the right and on the left. On the right, J. Edgar Hoover was afraid that it would impinge on his FBI policies, and on the left, a fear of an American gestapo. Whether you call it that or not, the rise of the CIA is no different than the famous intelligence services that the imperial powers used in the heyday of the great second wave of imperialism at the end of the 19th and early 20th Centuries. The ability to use codes, all of these things that become the tradecraft of James Bond or John Le Carré carried over into American policy. There's absolutely no question that it has to do with the rise of America as a global power.

Does that suggest that it would be impossible to reduce the influence of the national security state without an accompanying diminishment America's preeminent standing as a global power?

I don't think that automatically follows. Obviously there is a role for intelligence gathering.

Former President Harry Truman, in 1963, after the assassination of Kennedy, became quite concerned that the CIA had grown beyond what he had imagined. At that point Allen Dulles, who had recently been fired after the Bay of Pigs but still retained all of his contacts, came out to Independence, Missouri and argued with the former president that, "You, sir, initiated some of this with American intervention in the Greek crisis and in the Italian elections and so on, so who are you to say that this is all something that you hadn't intended?"

And Truman allowed that he had done that, but he tried to draw a line between that sort of aid in elections and so on, compared to what had happened in Iran in 1953 and then Guatemala in 1954. In fact, Harry Truman's letter of 1963 to the Washington Post a few weeks after the Kennedy assassination, which appeared only briefly in the Post and then was withdrawn from other editions, was perhaps the most insightful and prophetic critique of the CIA that we have.

Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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