Glennon discusses ‘double government,’ problems with American bureaucracy

Glennon shines a light on the murkier aspects of American politics in his recently finished book, "National Security and Double Government." Glenn Kulbako for Tufts University

Michael Glennon is a professor of international law at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. His most recent book, National Security and Double Government (2014), explores the true relationship between America’s “visible” institutions, and the ones that really manage national security affairs, away from the public eye. The Tufts Daily sat down with Michael Glennon to discuss his new work.

Tufts Daily: What is ‘double government?’ What does it imply?

Professor Michael Glennon: Well, ‘double government’ refers to the bifurcated system that the United States has fallen into. We now have one set of institutions for show — for public display — and another that actually manage national security policy. People believe that the public institutions — Congress, the presidency and the courts — manage national security policy, but in fact, that policy is defined and implemented by a network of several hundred managers of the intelligence, law enforcement and military departments and agencies of the government, and those agencies are largely immune from democratic accountability.

TD: This other network of people – who are they?

MG: They consist of careerists, and also political appointees and so-called “in-and-outers,” including people who move from one agency to another throughout the national security apparatus. It’s a diverse mix of individuals.

TD: So essentially, you have the elected public government that everyone sees, and they have a separate group of people they’re consulting. Is that accurate?

MG: They do more than simply consult. They try to remain in sync with the … expert managers of the national security apparatus because the public institutions aim at maximizing legitimacy, and they can’t do that if they get into frequent fights with the experts who run the national security machinery.

Similarly, those experts recognize that if they play too public a role by crossing the public officials whom the public believes run the show, the experts themselves will lose legitimacy. So both sets of institutions have an interest in maintaining public harmony.

TD: Why is this a bad thing? If public officials are consulting experts – don’t experts know what they’re doing?

MG: Well first, it is not an unmitigated bad thing, because obviously it does provide the American people with security. The managers of the national security apparatus have deep institutional memory, significant expertise, the ability to move quickly and the opaqueness of that machinery is useful in dealing with adversaries.

Unfortunately, these benefits do not come without a cost, and the cost lies in democratic accountability. The courts have ceased to operate as checks on the national security apparatus, congressional oversight is dysfunctional and the president himself more often than not presides rather than decides when it comes to national security decision making.

TD: Are lobbyists involved in this machinery? If so, how do they play a role in this?

MG: That’s an extremely good question and a difficult one, and I don’t really address that in the book. One of the objects in writing the book was to set an agenda for future research by myself and others, so any answer that I give would be speculative because that’s not the question that I looked at systematically. My study was a study basically of the bureaucracy itself, not external influences on the bureaucracy such as arms manufacturers, foreign governments, domestic lobbies, banking interests, etc.

One possibility is that it turns out to be a wash when it comes to lobbies because the very opaqueness of the national security apparatus at once makes it difficult for lobbyists to influence what goes on behind closed doors.

And yet on the other hand, it may be that very sophisticated lobbies are able to penetrate that opaqueness and exercise a level of influence that the mom and pop lobbyists who operate out of little town houses on Capitol Hill could never hope to … match.

TD:  If Obama, or Congress, feels very strongly about something, why do they continually go against it? What goes on between the two sides of government to keep this happening?

MG: This element of the bureaucracy, like the bureaucracy itself, has developed a life of its own and a momentum of its own. It’s much easier for the bureaucracy to continue doing what it’s always done rather than change course. And there are many reasons for that studied by organizational behaviorists, and the book talks about this issue at some length, but the idea that electing a new president will cause programs that have been in effect for decades suddenly to be rethought is a bit naïve.

This more than anything else explains the strange continuity in U.S. national security policy from one administration to the next. Even where there’s a change in the political identity of the presidency, national security policy remains constant, and it’s because that policy is made largely by unelected bureaucrats who are not responsive to electoral constraints.

TD: Does this concept of double government apply to other areas other than national security? If so, how?

MG: That’s also a good question and the answer is yes, clearly. The problem at large is the problem of technocracy and the challenge posed by technocrats to democratic accountability. We saw the same problem during the financial crisis when congressional leaders were forced to shrug their shoulders when they were confronted with the plea to appropriate hundreds of millions of dollars to save the economy from imminent collapse. They had no expertise in these complex financial matters and were forced to, in effect, accept the word of technocrats in the financial community that either they acted or else.

There are other areas also where … the technocracy reigns supreme. In global warming, for example, and climate change, the debate is largely among those who are experts in one computer model versus another and what appropriately gets coded in one program versus another. Legislators are too busy to become experts in that, so they have no choice but to defer to experts.

All this ultimately undermines the ability of democratically-elected representatives to be generalists and make independent judgments. But there is one key difference, and it’s an extremely important difference — in the area of national security, the departments and agencies in question have the power to radically and permanently alter the legal and political contours of our society, and if they are not kept in check, the potential risk is significant.

TD: How can we go about changing this? What kind of change could happen within the government?

MG: The thesis of my book is that the government is the problem and cannot be the solution … We cannot look to the hollowed out institutions, the hollowed out public institutions — the congress, the judiciary and the presidency — to exercise the very power that they lack to remedy this situation. The energy must come, if at all, from the outside, which means from the people, and that has to come in the form of renewed energy and dedication to play a meaningful role in governance.

The framers of our constitution thought [about] all this in terms of civic virtue. They believed that the equilibrium of power would collapse without a body politic possessed of the energy and information needed to be good citizens. And unfortunately, the trajectory has been in the opposite direction. As former Justice David Souter has said, ‘pervasive civic ignorance’ — his phrase — is an extremely significant problem today, and it’s getting worse. And until it starts to get a lot better, our nation doesn’t really have any hope of returning to the system that James Madison had in mind.

This interview has been edited and abridged.


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