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Importing the National Security State

Bill Moyers

Bill Moyers’ 1987 documentary

SNA (Tokyo) — The people who wrote this constitution lived in a world more dangerous than ours. They were surrounded by territory controlled by hostile powers, on the edge of a vast wilderness. Yet they understood that even in perilous times the strength of self-government was public debate and public consensus. To put aside these basic values out of fear, to imitate the foe in order to defeat him, is to shred the distinction that makes us different. In the end, not only our values but our methods separate us from the enemies of freedom in the world. The decisions we make are inherent in the methods that produce them. An open society cannot survive a secret government. Constitutional democracy, you see, is no romantic notion; it’s our defense against ourselves, the one foe who might defeat us.

These were the final words of journalist Bill Moyers’ 1987 PBS documentary The Secret Government – The Constitution In Crisis. Moyers was responding most immediately to Colonel Oliver North and the Iran-Contra Affair, but he presented a narrative which traced the development of the American secret government back to President Harry Truman’s National Security Act of 1947, which “established the framework for a national security state” and institutionalized “a mentality of permanent war; a perpetual state of emergency.”

The documentary explains that the National Security Act not only created the Central Intelligence Agency, but also the National Security Council which is “so concerned about the nation’s security that we are always looking for threats and looking how to orchestrate our society to oppose those threats,” as Admiral Gene La Rocque explained to Moyers.

Viewing Moyers’ documentary after a quarter century, it’s impossible to say any other than that the issues he raised at that time are even more relevant to our world today. The national security state that was perceptibly undermining American democracy in the 1980s has a much firmer grip on our lives today, as even a cursory examination of the Wikileaks cases or the Edward Snowden affair reveals.

Both at the time of Truman’s National Security Act of 1947 and at the time Moyers produced his documentary four decades later in 1987, the American people were told that the permanent state of fear and the secret state were necessary because half the world lived under Communist tyranny and that they would lose their freedoms unless they remained vigilant against this insidious foreign enemy, especially the Soviet Union.

Underwriting it all was the nuclear terror, the palpable fear of human extinction inherent in the post-Hiroshima and Nagasaki era; a time when two great superpowers aimed thousands of nuclear warheads at each others’ civilian populations.

But then, the Soviet Union collapsed and the existential threat disappeared with it.

Sure, there were still rivals out there, but American mastery of the world was so broad and so secure that there was no real threat to speak of. The way was open for the United States to demobilize and to return to peace, just as it had always done in its pre-national security state history.

But as Moyers warned, and as President Eisenhower warned many years before him, it was the United States and its governing institutions that had radically altered into something new; something that wasn’t quite under the control of its people any longer.

The decisions we make are inherent in the methods that produce them.

Indeed, since American institutions – government, media, culture – had been so enormously successful in creating that “mentality of permanent war,” it was not peace that followed the demise of the Soviet Union, but rather a search for new enemies that could justify the perpetuation of the existing national security state institutions.

None of those “threats” to the American people were particularly plausible in the 1990s, but sufficient drama was created by conjured bogeymen like Manuel Noriega and, especially, Saddam Husain (both of whom were Cold War-era CIA creations before they became designated as the first Post-Cold War enemies) that the muted public demands for military demobilization were effectively stymied.

After a decade on the defensive, however, the American national security state was finally unleashed once again by another former CIA asset, Usama bin Ladin, whose dramatic suicide attacks on September 11, 2001, allowed the Bush-Cheney regime to declare an open-ended War on Global Terrorism, which ostensibly requires the US government to be everywhere, to watch everyone, and to listen to everything.

The people who wrote this constitution lived in a world more dangerous than ours. They were surrounded by territory controlled by hostile powers, on the edge of a vast wilderness.

When Bill Moyers said that in 1987, there was a perfectly admissible argument to make that he was simply wrong: The Soviet Union had a vast arsenal of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles aimed at the American public which could have devastated the entire population in a few hours. In 1789, potential continental enemies like the British, the French, and the Spanish would have needed months or perhaps a few years to conquer the United States, even if they acted in combination.

But there is a deeper validity to what Moyers was trying to say. Every generation seems to argue insistently that “today’s threat” is much worse than the threats that were faced in the past, even when such claims are demonstrably untrue.

In the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, the US national security state was facing off against a Soviet Union which easily had the capability to extinguish hundreds of millions of lives with its nuclear arsenal. And how about today’s Al-Qaida and friends? Realistically, the September 11 attacks are probably the biggest offensive they’ll ever be able to launch. Even very large terrorist attacks tend to be measured in dozens or perhaps hundreds of victims. Tragic? Yes. An existential threat to governments? No.

Time and again, the most serious damage being done by terrorism in the 21st century is not the direct carnage created by any terrorist bomb, but the destruction of the fabric of democratic society by those who pose as the “anti-terrorists.” It’s not the actions we need most to fear, but the reactions.

Constitutional democracy, you see, is no romantic notion; it’s our defense against ourselves, the one foe who might defeat us.

The failure to adhere to the wisdom inherent in this single sentence, we fear, may very well become the real tragedy of the early 21st century. Terrorism in itself poses no fundamental threat to democracy. Indeed, some level of violence and instability is probably inherent in all human societies in which people are allowed to make free choices. Governments, on the other hand, are the only groups with the resources and the reach to truly threaten the existence of free societies. As Moyers said, we ourselves are the only foe that can defeat us.

But, really, it shouldn’t be necessary to rely on Moyers to understand warnings like this one. If it weren’t for the abysmal state of American political education, it would be universally understood that this is one of the fundamental bases of constitutional government itself, and that the American founding fathers had given warning enough.

Well over two centuries later, it’s still difficult to find a better statement than that of James Madison in Federalist Paper No. 51:

If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.

We are clearly in an age in which the balance sought by the framers of the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights has been lost. We have governments that can control the governed with tools of surveillance that reach inside everyone’s home, but the restraints that are supposed to bind the governments themselves to the will of the people have become dangerously loose.

An open society cannot survive a secret government.

Bill Moyers put his finger on a crucial element of the problem in his 1987 documentary. If supposedly democratic governments arrogate to themselves the right to formulate, execute, and evaluate major public policies in secret rooms with neither the consent nor even the knowledge of the people, then the very claim that these are indeed democratic governments rather some kind of soft dictatorship must be put in doubt. How can constitutional checks and balances function in secret chambers?


Shinzo Abe and the Perpetual State of Emergency

All that has been written until now has applied to the United States, but it is not only about the United States. As the world’s only remaining superpower, American strengths as well as its weaknesses are transmitted in some form or another to every nation, often exerting a powerful influence for better and ill. Japan is without a doubt one of the world’s nations most amenable to taking its policy cues from Washington DC. For one thing, appropriating and assimilating selected knowledge from abroad has always been the way of Japanese civilization. Moreover, Japan’s military defeat at American hands and its unquestioned status as the most powerful nation in the world provides the United States with the highest level of prestige in Japanese eyes.

In that sense, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s desire to create a Japanese version of the National Security Council fits in with the standard pattern and is relatively unremarkable. Also, compared to some of Abe’s peculiar notions about the legitimacy of the Japanese constitution and his apparent desire to alter its meaning at will without consulting the wishes of the broader public, the National Security Council initiative seems relatively benign. Whether he achieves his desire to establish such an organization or not, it’s clearly not going to have anything near the impact of President Harry Truman’s original National Security Act of 1947. For one thing, there is still no genuine Japanese counterpart to the Central Intelligence Agency.

The main cause for concern about this particular initiative, it seems to us, is the way in which it may help to institutionalize in Tokyo that growing culture of “a perpetual state of emergency.” In other words, the American disease of organizing a worldview in terms of a hierarchy of threats may take deeper hold within the hitherto rather easygoing Japanese post-1960 Hayato Ikeda political culture focused primarily on building an affluent lifestyle for the Japanese people.

Of course, for conservatives of Shinzo Abe’s stripe who romanticize the 1930s and see the postwar Ikeda culture as a national emasculation, it is precisely a cultural revolution that they wish to induce. They have their own version of Cold War / War on Terrorism politics and indeed see the outside world as a hierarchy of threats, with China and Korea standing at the pinnacle. They believe that the Japanese people must readopt a mentality of permanent war because, in their view, that’s just how the world really is.

After all, doesn’t America and all of the global instability prove it?

It remains to be seen how far the Abe administration will succeed in reorienting Japanese institutions from a peace footing to a war footing. Their efforts are still fragile and events could either derail them or push them right along their preferred path.

But make no mistake about it, to the extent that the Abe government succeeds with creating its own National Security Council, enacting stricter government secrets laws, and appointing allied officials to reverse long-held legal restraints on security policies, this is the nascency of Japan’s very own secret government and the progressive decay of its constitutional democracy.

Sure, the United States got there first, but Abe is eager to see that his nation starts to catch up with the leader.

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