The U.S. National Security State

excerpted from the book

Brave New World Order

by Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer

Orbis Books, 1992, paper


Formation of a National Security State

The U.S. National Security Establishment firmly took root in the aftermath of World War II. The United States emerged from the war as the global power. Its economy and military were intact in a world largely destroyed by war. The United States used its privileged position to establish a massive network of foreign military bases and to shape a world order conducive to its economic interests.

U.S. national security interests became increasingly global in scope, and they were closely identified with maintaining existing global inequalities. George Kennan, who headed the State Department's planning staff in 1948, warned that the United States would be "the object of envy and resentment" because it had "about 50% of the world's wealth, but only 6.3% of its 2 population." The goal of the United States in the emerging 5 world order, Kennan stated, was "to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security." In order to maintain this disparity and defend U.S. national security, the United States had "to cease to talk about vague and . . . unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of living standards and democratization." Instead, he noted, the United States had "to deal in straight power concepts."

The United States, according to Kennan's description of the prevailing worldview, was a global power in a hostile world. The enemies of the United States included all those forces who challenged the inequities of the U.S. dominated post-World War II order. The "communist threat" became a generic symbol for all enemies, real and imagined. A secret report prepared for the White House in 1954 stated:

It is now clear that we are facing an implacable enemy whose avowed objective is world domination.... There are no rules in such a game. Hitherto accepted norms of human conduct do not apply.... If the United States is to survive, long-standing American concepts of fair play must be reconsidered.... We must learn to subvert, sabotage and destroy our enemies by more clever, sophisticated, more effective methods than those used against us.

The U.S. Congress established new institutions to defend the country's expanding "national" interests following World War II. In 1947 it passed the National Security Act, which created a National Security State apparatus centered around the National Security Council (NSC) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). These organs of the National Security State were dangerous for two reasons. First, national security is a vague term, often cited and easily abused. Defending national security became the standard justification for new weapons systems and huge military expenditures. It also rationalized numerous U.S. interventions in third-world countries and justified U.S. support for repressive National Security States throughout Latin America. In 1953 Dwight D. Eisenhower, former general and World War II hero, called attention to the inherent conflict between "guns" and "butter." "Every gun that is made," he said in his now famous quotation, "every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, is a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed." However, the actual policy of the United States during the Eisenhower administration was to encourage military-run states that bought guns instead of butter while defending U.S. interests. In 1954 most of the thirteen Latin American presidents who were military officers were receiving military assistance from the United States. That same year Eisenhower authorized the overthrow of a democratically elected government in Guatemala that was committed to land reform, and he presented the Legion of Merit award to two Latin American dictators-Perez Jimenez of Venezuela (for his "spirit of friendship and cooperation" and his "sound foreign investment policies"), and Manuel Odria of Peru.

Thirty years later President Reagan justified disastrous and deadly U.S. policies in Central America by telling the U.S. Congress that "the national security of all the Americas is at stake." He went on to frame the choice confronting members of Congress in a manner consistent with most debates about "national security": support administration policy or risk the nation's destruction. "Who among us," he asked, "would wish to bear responsibility for failing to meet our shared obligation?

National Security State institutions like the NSC and CIA are also dangerous because they greatly expand the power of the executive branch and thereby threaten the constitutional system of checks and balances. The institutions that make up the National Security State apparatus are supposedly set up to defend national security and the integrity of the state. However, they often abuse power, violate national and international laws, and may actually erode the democracy they supposedly defend. Senate investigations led by Frank Church in 1975 detailed numerous illegal activities conducted by the CIA against U.S. and foreign individuals and groups. The recent Iran-Contra scandal, discussed below, offers frightening testimony to abuses of power by the National Security Council, including numerous violations of the U.S. Constitution.

The CIA and the NSC are but two elements in the U.S. National Security Establishment. The post-World War II world order established by the United States required huge military expenditures, constantly updated and improved weapons systems, and costly interventionism. Important sectors of the U.S. economy, lured by huge and easy profits, became dependent on military contracts and the Pentagon. This led, in President Eisenhower's phrase, to a "military-industrial complex," a loose network of military officers, industrial managers, and legislators who all had a vested interest in permanent, high military expenditures. This military-industrial complex together with national security agencies such as the NSC and CIA make up what I call the National Security Establishment.

The features of a National Security State so evident in El Salvador now threaten the integrity of U.S. democracy and the long-term health of the U.S. economy. The preoccupation with internal enemies at various points in our nation's history has seriously limited the parameters of domestic debate and dissent. U.S. politics, in many ways, still take place under McCarthy's shadow. The focus on external enemies led to the formation of a National Security Establishment. This group not only helped the United States to create and support National Security States throughout much of the Third World but came to exercise tremendous influence over U.S. domestic economic and political affairs. It has a vested interest in finding new enemies and fears the prospect of a peace dividend. Unfortunately, it is now powerful enough to determine the overall direction of U.S. society.

"In the councils of government," President Eisenhower warned in his 1961 farewell speech to the nation, "we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist."

Disturbing Signs of a U.S. National Security State

Throughout the 1980s El Salvador clearly manifested the features of a National Security State. The military was the most powerful sector of the society; it dominated political and economic life and used its power to maximize its institutional privileges; its power was sufficient to delay or derail negotiations that threatened its political and economic power; its obsession with enemies militarized the society; the tactics it used to fight perceived enemies eroded democracy within; and the National Security State it defended dramatically clashed with progressive sectors of the church.

Many of these features of a National Security State are also evident in the United States, although they sometimes find expression in different ways. One area of difference ... is the relationship between the church and the National Security State. Segments of the church in El Salvador have challenged the National Security State and therefore have been persecuted. Although U.S. government agencies have infiltrated churches involved in offering sanctuary to Central American refugees, the church in the United States is generally an institution of the dominating culture, which wittingly or unwittingly supports the U.S. National Security State. The church is seduced rather than repressed as religious critics are marginalized in a climate of genuine embrace between church and state.

The role of the media is another apparent difference between the National Security States of El Salvador and the United States. The Salvadoran state uses violence and terror to intimidate or silence major progressive information outlets such as El Diario or the presses at the Catholic University. The mainline media in the United States, like the church, are instruments of conformity within the dominating society. This conformity isn't achieved through terror and intimidation, as in El Salvador, but there is conformity nonetheless. This can be illustrated by a look at coverage of the Gulf War.

The war in the Gulf was probably the most censored and media-managed war in U.S. history. The Pentagon launched the war to coincide with the evening news, forced reporters into escorted press pools, banned coverage on U.S. soldiers returning in coffins, blacked out the first forty-eight hours of the ground war, provided selective footage of "smart bombs" hitting their targets with precision, exercised the right of approval over final copy and footage, and flew local reporters in to cover selected "hometown troops." "I've never seen anything to compare to it," said New York Times war correspondent Malcolm Browne, "in the degree of surveillance and control the military has over the correspondents."

Heavy-handed government censorship was only part of the problem confronting U.S. citizens wanting to make informed judgments about the war. They also faced biases in the U.S. media. According to Colman McCarthy, twenty-five of twenty-six major U.S. newspapers supported the Gulf War. The print and other media uncritically adopted Pentagon phrases such as "collateral damage" and "smart bombs." After the war it was reported that only 6,520 of 88,500 tons of bombs dropped on Iraq and Kuwait were "smart," and even these often hit targets that were important to the civilian population. The media ,) throughout the war helped to sanitize civilian casualties and reduced the war to a glorified video game. A report by Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) describes the conflict of interest of major TV news channels that are owned by major corporations tied to military weapons production and oil:

Most of the corporate-owned media have close relationships to the military and industry: The chair of Capital / Cities/ABC . . . is on the board of Texaco, and CBS's board includes directors from Honeywell and the Rand Corporation. But no news outlet is as potentially compromised as NBC, wholly owned by General Electric.... In 1989 alone GE received nearly $2 billion in U.S. military contracts for systems employed in the Gulf War effort ... NBC's potential conflicts go beyond weaponry. The government of Kuwait is believed to be a major GE stockholder, having owned 2.1 percent of GE stock in 1982, the last year for which figures are available.... Having profited from weapons systems used in the Gulf, and anticipating lucrative deals for restocking U.S. arsenals, GE is also poised to profit from the rebuilding of Kuwait. GE told the man Street Journal (3/21/91) it expects to win contracts worth "hundreds of millions of dollars."

Conflict of interest may help explain the results of a FAIR survey of sources for ABC, CBS, and NBC nightly news. The survey "found that of 878 on-air sources, only one was a representative of a national peace organization." This, FAIR noted, contrasted with the fact that "seven players from the Super Bowl were brought on to comment on the War.''

The role of the U.S. mass media and government censorship in the Gulf War is a frightening illustration of an important aspect of the new world order. In general, the major media served as an uncritical channel of information from the Pentagon to the U.S. people while catering to the emotions and patriotism of a public concerned about the well-being of U.S. troops. Media cooperation with Pentagon news management was so effective it prompted former Reagan administration official Michael Deaver to comment: "If you were going to hire a public relations firm to do the media relations for an international event, it couldn't be done any better than this is being done.''

The coverage of the war conveniently ignored critical underlying issues, including the relationship of the Gulf War to the institutional imperatives of the U.S. National Security Establishment. Even before the Gulf War there were disturbing examples of a U.S. National Security Establishment out of control. Each of five examples, which the reader can explore in greater detail through cited sources, illustrates how the U.S. National Security State's propensity for secrecy and covert activities has seriously compromised U.S. democracy.

The first example of a National Security State crisis is the Iran-Contra affair, in which proceeds from illegal arms shipments to Iran were diverted to the Nicaraguan Contras during a Congressional ban on such funding. Illegal arms sales and money transfers were only the tip of the iceberg in a disturbing scandal. Segments of the National Security Establishment, with leadership from the White House, the National Security Council, and the head of the Central Intelligence Agency, had taken over many aspects of U.S. foreign policy, subverted the Constitution, and bypassed the U.S. Congress. "My objective all along," former National Security Advisor John Poindexter testified, "was to withhold from the Congress exactly what the [National Security Council] was doing in carrying out the President's policy." Oliver North told Senate Chief Counsel Arthur Liman that CIA director William Casey was setting up "an off-the-shelf, self-sustaining, stand alone entity, that could perform certain activities on behalf of the United States."

This "off-the-shelf" entity, according to the Christic Institute, has been operating in one form or another for twenty-years. It constitutes a kind of "shadow government," in which "U.S. military and CIA officials, acting both officially and on their own, f have waged secret wars, toppled governments, trafficked in drugs, assassinated political enemies, stolen from the U.S. government, and subverted the will of the Constitution, the Congress, and the American people.''

It is disconcerting that most of the guilty parties involved in the Iran-Contra scandal were never tried or received little or no punishment for their crimes. Their defense lawyers successfully argued that information vital to their clients' defense could not be made public because it would compromise national security. In other words, the subversion of the Constitution by members of the U.S. National Security State Establishment became relatively risk free because "national security interests" could not be jeopardized. Even more disturbing, in the aftermath of the Iran-Contra scandal the U.S. Congress took steps to increase presidential powers to wage covert wars. Bill Moyers, in a Frontline special, "High Crimes and Misdemeanors," underscores the Constitutional crisis inherent in a National Security State:

What happened in Iran-Contra was nothing less than the systematic disregard for democracy itself. It was, in effect, a coup.... Officials who boasted of themselves as men of the Constitution showed utter contempt for the law. They had the money and power to do what they wanted, the guile to hide their tracks and the arrogance simply to declare what they did was legal.... The frightening thing is ... that it could happen again.... The men responsible for Iran-Contra, except a few, have been absolved, exonerated or reprieved.... The Government continues to hide its dirty linen behind top secret classifications.... With little debate and scant attention from the media, the House and Senate agree on a new intelligence bill giving , the President wider power than ever to conduct covert operations using any agency he pleases.

A second example of a National Security State crisis within the United States is the number of crucial decisions made by presidential directive without Congressional approval or public scrutiny. President Reagan issued at least 280 secret National Security Decision Directives during his two terms in office. The content of most of these directives remains a mystery to the U.S. people. However, one was leaked and later described by the Christic Institute. In April 1986 President Reagan issued a secret directive that authorized the creation of ten military detention centers within the United States capable of housing 400,000 political prisoners. These detention centers were to be used "in the event that President Reagan chose to [suspend the Constitution and] declare a 'State of Domestic National Emergency' concurrent with the launching of a direct United States military operation into Central America.'' This example, describing only one of 280 secret National Security Decision Directives, should raise serious questions about what else is being planned in secret and by whom in the name of "national security."

A third pre-Gulf sign of a U.S. National Security State crisis is the relationship between the international drug trade and U.S. foreign policy. Elements of the National Security State Establishment from Indochina to Afghanistan to Central America have tolerated and even facilitated the drug trade in exchange for support for U.S. covert operations. "Far from considering drug networks their enemy," Peter Dale Scott and Jonathan Marshall write in Cocaine Politics: Drugs, Armies and the CIA in Central America, "U.S. intelligence organizations have made them an essential ally in the covert expansion of American influence abroad."

Senator John Kerry conducted extensive investigations of U.S. foreign policy links to the illegal drug trade. "The narcotics problem," Senator Kerry's report Drugs, Law, and Foreign Policy notes, "is a national security and foreign policy issue of significant proportions." He documents how foreign policy considerations predominated so that "each U.S. government agency which had any relationship with Manuel Noriega turned a blind eye to his drug smuggling as he was emerging as a key player on behalf of the Medellin cartel." Kerry also stated that there "was substantial evidence of drug smuggling through the war zones" on the part of the Contras and their supporters. U.S. Iinks to the Contra drug trade included direct "payments to drug traffickers by the U.S. State Department [from] funds authorized by the Congress for humanitarian assistance to the Contras, in some cases after the traffickers had been indicted by federal law enforcement agencies on drug charges." The Kerry report summarizes the relationship between U.S. foreign policy and the drug trade as follows:

Foreign policy considerations have interfered with the United States' ability to fight the war on drugs. Foreign policy priorities ... halted or interfered with U.S. Iaw enforcement efforts to keep narcotics out of the United States. Within the United States, drug traffickers have manipulated the U.S. judicial system by providing services | in support of U.S. foreign policy. U.S. officials involved in Central America failed to address the drug issue for fear of jeopardizing the war effort against Nicaragua.

"I find it useful to think of the whole country as a family system that has this dirty secret that we're ashamed to admit," says Father Bill Teska, an Episcopalian priest who has worked to expose the relationship of U.S. foreign policy and drugs. "Our government has actually cooperated with drug dealers and has assisted in the importation of drugs into this country when it suited its purposes . . . such as national security or overthrowing the government of Nicaragua.

A fourth example that gives credence to concerns about a National Security State taking hold in U.S. society is related to charges of impropriety during the 1980 U.S. presidential election. According to Gary Sick, a member of the Carter administration's National Security Council, there is substantial evidence suggesting that the Reagan-Bush team arranged to keep the hostages in Iran until after the 1980 election in exchange for future arms shipments to Iran. The inability to free the hostages insured the electoral defeat of a beleaguered Jimmy Carter. "The hostages were released on January 21, 1981," Gary Sick writes, "within minutes after Reagan was sworn in as president. Almost immediately thereafter ... arms began to flow to Iran in substantial quantities." Former Iranian President Bani-Sadr, in his book My Turn to Speak. Iran, the Revolution and Secret Deals with the U.S., verifies that a deal was made. The "sole purpose" of negotiations between the Reagan campaign and Iran "was to handicap Carter's reelection bid by preventing the hostages' release" before the November election. It was announced in August 1991 that Congress planned to investigate these charges of impropriety during the 1980 election.

A fifth sign of a U.S. National Security State crisis is a 1987 meeting of the Conference of American Armies held in Argentina. The meeting brought together military commanders from Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Paraguay, Bolivia, Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Panama, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and the United States. The conference focused on the threat that liberation theology and the progressive churches posed to the national security of the Americas. It linked liberation theology to an international communist conspiracy and called for a strategy of continental security measures, which included the coordination of military intelligence and operations. The conference report specifically named Ignacio Ellacuria, a Jesuit priest who directed the Catholic University in El Salvador until his brutal murder in November 1989, as a person who consciously manipulated "the truly liberating Christian message of salvation to further the objectives of the Communist revolution." Such language in the context of National Security States is a license to kill. According to an article in the National Catholic Reporter the generals, in addition to targeting liberation theology as an enemy, also supported use of elections as a cover for their own de facto rule. The generals, apparently including U.S. participants, indicated that they opposed a new wave of military coups throughout the Americas, preferring instead "a permanent state of military control over civilian government, while still preserving formal democracy."


The United States ... demonstrates many features of a National Security State. Democracy(in both countries) is now seriously compromised by the powers vested in the military and broader National Security Establishment. In the United States this establishment includes the military-industrial complex and institutions such as the National Security Council and the Central Intelligence Agency. It is largely unaccountable to the U.S. people.

The five examples of a National Security State crisis discussed above collectively add weight to my thesis that behind the Gulf War and the so-called new world order are the priorities of the National Security Establishment. President Eisenhower's warning of "the disastrous rise of misplaced power" is truly prophetic in the context of the Gulf crisis. The end of the Cold War, as the next two chapters illustrate, offered the possibility of U.S. economic renewal but not without reordering priorities away from the military sector. As in El Salvador, the U.S. National Security Establishment fought to preserve its institutional privileges. It was well-positioned to do so after forty years of growing influence within U.S. society.

The quotation from the Washington Office on Latin America which I used earlier to describe the Salvadoran military's hostility to a negotiated settlement of El Salvador's civil war is reprinted below. It captures well a similar dynamic operating within the U.S. National Security Establishment as it confronted the dangerous prospect of institutional decline in light of the end of the Cold War:

Despite the presence of some moderate officers ... successful pursuit of a negotiated settlement would directly threaten the interests of individual officers as well as those of their institution.... Within the officer corps ... the arguments against negotiations remain persuasive: First, any reduction in troop size as a result of negotiations would necessitate a corresponding reduction in the officer corps.... Second, as the Armed Forces have expanded in size and wealth because of the war, so too has their influence. By any estimate, the military stands as the country's single most powerful social and economic institution.... Consequently, any progress toward a negotiated settlement would challenge the military's privileged position within the government and society.

Brave New World Order

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