THE VOTERS WHO put Barack Obama in office expected some big changes. From the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping to Guantanamo Bay to the Patriot Act, candidate Obama was a defender of civil liberties and privacy, promising a dramatically different approach from his predecessor.
But six years into his administration, the Obama version of national security looks almost indistinguishable from the one he inherited. Guantanamo Bay remains open. The NSA has, if anything, become more aggressive in monitoring Americans. Drone strikes have escalated. Most recently it was reported that the same president who won a Nobel Prize in part for promoting nuclear disarmament is spending up to $1 trillion modernizing and revitalizing America’s nuclear weapons.
Though it’s a bedrock American principle that citizens can steer their own government by electing new officials, Glennon suggests that in practice, much of our government no longer works that way. In a new book, “National Security and Double Government,” he catalogs the ways that the defense and national security apparatus is effectively self-governing, with virtually no accountability, transparency, or checks and balances of any kind. He uses the term “double government”: There’s the one we elect, and then there’s the one behind it, steering huge swaths of policy almost unchecked. Elected officials end up serving as mere cover for the real decisions made by the bureaucracy.
Glennon cites the example of Obama and his team being shocked and angry to discover upon taking office that the military gave them only two options for the war in Afghanistan: The United States could add more troops, or the United States could add a lot more troops. Hemmed in, Obama added 30,000 more troops.
Glennon’s critique sounds like an outsider’s take, even a radical one. In fact, he is the quintessential insider: He was legal counsel to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a consultant to various congressional committees, as well as to the State Department. “National Security and Double Government” comes favorably blurbed by former members of the Defense Department, State Department, White House, and even the CIA. And he’s not a conspiracy theorist: Rather, he sees the problem as one of “smart, hard-working, public-spirited people acting in good faith who are responding to systemic incentives”—without any meaningful oversight to rein them in.
How exactly has double government taken hold? And what can be done about it? Glennon spoke with Ideas from his office at Tufts’ Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. This interview has been condensed and edited.