Skip to content Skip to footer

The National Security Elites Are Co-Opting Democracy

Throughout history executives have used the administration of justice as a tool to intimidate and pressure legislators.

(Image: Nation Books)

In Lords of Secrecy, award-winning journalist and lawyer Scott Horton, a contributing editor at Harper’s Magazine, exposes the threat to democracy of an ever-expanding shadow government. When public policy is made by unaccountable individuals and institutions in the name of “national security,” voters are left in the dark. Click here to get the book now with a contribution to Truthout!

The following is an excerpt from the prologue to Lords of Secrecy: The National Security Elite and America’s Stealth Warfare by Scott Horton:

A fundamental concept underlying the American Constitution is the delicate rapport established between Congress and the various agencies of the executive. The massive government apparatus, including the ballooning intelligence community, is controlled by the executive. Yet the individual agencies, including the CIA – called into existence and defined by acts of Congress – operate using money that Congress gives them, subject to any limitations Congress may apply. The legislative branch exercises specific powers of oversight and inquiry into the work of agencies of the executive, including the right to conduct investigations, to require documents to be produced and employees of the government to appear and testify before it, and to issue reports with its findings and conclusions.

Throughout history executives have used the administration of justice as a tool to intimidate and pressure legislators. To protect legislators against this sort of abuse, the Constitution’s speech and debate clause provides a limited form of immunity for members of Congress. The Supreme Court has confirmed that this immunity extends to congressional staffers, such as Senate committee staffers, when they are supporting the work of their employers, and protects them against charges of mishandling classified information.

Feinstein’s suggestion that CIA activities had violated the Constitution and several federal statutes was on point. Eatinger’s decision to refer allegations against committee staffers to the Justice Department also reflected an amazing lack of understanding of the Constitution and the respective roles of the two institutions. And so did Brennan’s public statements. Brennan first pushed back against Feinstein’s account, strongly suggesting it would be proven inaccurate: “As far as the allegations of CIA hacking into, you know, Senate computers, nothing could be further from the truth. We wouldn’t do that. That’s just beyond the scope of reason in terms of what we would do.” He also suggested that the Justice Department would be the arbiter of the dispute between the CIA and the Senate: “There are appropriate authorities right now both inside of CIA, as well as outside of CIA, who are looking at what CIA officers, as well as SSCI staff members did. And I defer to them to determine whether or not there was any violation of law.”

This formulation was of course nonsense – the CIA had turned to the Justice Department as a dependable ally, not as an independent fact finder. The department was the second government agency likely to be excoriated by the report. Its national security division, to which Eatinger had turned, was little more than the CIA’s outside law firm.

But when an internal probe by the CIA’s inspector general vindicated Feinstein and found that CIA employees had likely misled the Justice Department, Brennan was compelled to issue an apology to the Senate committee; when he again appeared before the committee, Brennan refused to identify the responsible CIA agents or provide other details. The incident prompted bipartisan calls for Brennan to be fired, but President Obama went before the cameras to express his ongoing confidence in his CIA director.

The CIA, in its frenzied maneuvering to suppress an essential Senate report, had made predictable use of secrecy as its chief weapon – against its own congressional overseers. The agency cast itself as an intrepid force protecting American democracy from its enemies. But in this case, the agency had unambiguously emerged as the enemy of democracy.

One century ago, the brilliant German sociologist Max Weber, looking at the calamity of World War I and the wide-ranging struggle it had spawned between intelligence services and parliament, drew a series of far-reaching conclusions about the effects that secrecy would have on democratic government. Tenacious parliamentary oversight of the operations of intelligence agencies was essential, he concluded, if democracy was to survive. The experiences recounted by Sen. Feinstein provided a rare glimpse into precisely the struggle that Weber predicted.

One commentator quipped, “This is death of the republic stuff.” Hyperbole? Maybe not. More precisely it is what Hannah Arendt labeled a “crisis of the republic.” At the peak of popular discontent over the Vietnam War, as the Pentagon Papers were published and highly classified news about the war effort was regularly splashed across the pages of American newspapers, Arendt focused on the use of secrecy and its close ally, the political lie, to impede public discussion of vital national security issues. However, Arendt had high confidence that the crisis would pass – America’s democratic institutions were sound, its press was resilient, and politicians who made bad mistakes regularly saw accountability at the polls.

Forty years later, America faces another crisis of democracy. But now the dynamics have shifted considerably in favor of national security elites. They have carefully calculated the points likely to alarm the public and stir it to action. More effectively than before, they use secrecy not only to cover up their past mistakes but also to wrest from the public decisions about the future that properly belong to the people. Increasingly, Congress seems no match for them.

The Senate committee had emerged from a long period of somnolence to finally ask meaningful questions about a hideous CIA project involving torture and secret prisons. And the lords of secrecy were striking back.

Full footnotes to this excerpt can be found at the back of Lords of Secrecy.

Excerpted from Lords of Secrecy: The National Security Elite and America’s Stealth Warfare. Copyright (2015) by Scott Horton. Reprinted with permission from Nation Books.