Dwight Eisenhower, after commanding Allied forces in World War II and serving eight years as U.S. President, came to appreciate the power of political and economic infrastructure, leading to his famous warning about the threat to the American Republic from a “military-industrial complex.”
Yet, in the years since Eisenhower’s Farewell Address in 1961, the U.S. political system has allowed the “military-industrial complex” to continue growing and, indeed, to evolve into a sophisticated organism that collaborates with a supportive propaganda arm of think tanks, political apologists and media outlets, further distorting American democracy.
This infrastructure expanded sharply in the early 1980s when President Ronald Reagan secured a massive military buildup (despite the fact that America’s Soviet adversary was already crumbling) and pushed for a “pro-democracy” apparatus using both public and private funds.
Though Reagan’s “democracy” promotion ostensibly worked to undermine anti‑U.S. governments abroad, the apparatus – ranging from the federal National Endowment for Democracy to the quasi-private Freedom House – became, in effect, a jobs program for neoconservatives, giving them a base of income, access and respectability within Official Washington.
Also, coinciding with Reagan’s presidency was the construction of a right-wing media machine that propagated Reagan’s political philosophy and attacked public figures, both in politics and in journalism, who refused to get in line. In the three decades since Reagan came to power, this media machine has grown into one of the most feared forces in American political life.
Reagan’s creation and expansion of these interlocking and self-interested institutions set the stage for the next explosive growth of the national security bureaucracy, after the 9⁄11 terror attacks.
Cheered on by influential neocons (and think tanks) and supported by the right-wing news media, President George W. Bush had no trouble erecting a new national security infrastructure that rose quickly from the already well-funded foundation of the U.S. intelligence community.
The expansion was dramatic. In less than a decade, the estimated $30 billion a year intelligence budget more than doubled to $75 billion, a figure that doesn’t count many related military and counter-terrorism operations.
In a landmark investigative article, the Washington Post attempted to quantify this mind-numbing expansion. According to Post reporters Dana Priest and William M. Arkin, this “Top-Secret America” represents “an alternative geography of the United States” with clusters of highly classified government agencies scattered around the country though concentrated most heavily in the Washington area.
The first article, entitled “A hidden world, growing beyond control,” highlighted the key findings:
* The top-secret world the government created in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has become so large, so unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it or exactly how many agencies do the same work. …
* After nine years of unprecedented spending and growth, the result is that the system put in place to keep the United States safe is so massive that its effectiveness is impossible to determine.
The investigation’s other findings include:
* Some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States.
* An estimated 854,000 people, nearly 1.5 times as many people as live in Washington, D.C., hold top-secret security clearances.
* In Washington and the surrounding area, 33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work are under construction or have been built since September 2001. Together they occupy the equivalent of almost three Pentagons or 22 U.S. Capitol buildings — about 17 million square feet of space.
* Many security and intelligence agencies do the same work, creating redundancy and waste. For example, 51 federal organizations and military commands, operating in 15 U.S. cities, track the flow of money to and from terrorist networks.
* Analysts who make sense of documents and conversations obtained by foreign and domestic spying share their judgment by publishing 50,000 intelligence reports each year — a volume so large that many are routinely ignored.”
In other words, President Bush launched a crash program to create a massive infrastructure dedicated to fighting the so-called Long War against Islamic militancy. But the size of the endeavor was so vast and its construction so hasty and haphazard that it may not actually be adding to the national security.
But what this Top-Secret America is sure to do is to fight aggressively to maintain its jobs, money and power. In that, it will be aided by its key allies in the complementary institutions of the old “military-industrial complex,” the neocon “democracy” infrastructure, and the right-wing media. Other potent groups, such as the Republican Party and the Israel Lobby, will help, too.
The combination of these factors – especially when weighed against the relatively weak and severely underfunded counter-forces of America’s progressives and independent media – suggests that a meaningful democracy may no longer exist in the United States.
Many on the Left have fumed about President Barack Obama’s failure to reverse Bush’s national security policies. However, if one examines the relative power factors, it would probably amount to political suicide for Obama or any national leader to try to dismantle these interlocking infrastructures.
On an individual level, fewer and fewer professionals in Washington will dare take on this fearsome complex of infrastructures, what might be called a new Iron Triangle comprised of wealthy military/intelligence contractors, neocon ideologues and right-wing media outlets.
Official Washington – both in media and politics – will become even more deaf to the needs of average Americans. After all, a corollary to Eisenhower’s “military-industrial-complex” warning could be Upton Sinclair’s old truism that “it is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”
With so much money on one side and so little on the other, few professionals would be willing to put principles over their pocketbooks.
As noble as it might be to fight the good fight without resources, in the real world, that is simply a recipe for failure – especially when the other side has a war chest in the billions of dollars and growing by the day.
This article was originally appeared at Consortium News.