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No Limited Government Under a National Security State


Conservatives have long professed to be advocates of “limited government.” They often employ the phrase in their favorite mantra, “free enterprise, private property, and limited government.”

As I pointed out in my blog post yesterday, “Conservatives and the Free Market,” conservatives also profess to be advocates of free enterprise but then endorse practically every statist program that comes down the pike, including Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, farm subsidies, education grants, the drug war, immigration controls, and much, much more.

Needless to say, all of those statist programs add up to something other than limited government. But the deception in which conservative engage goes far beyond their devotion to the welfare state.

Much worse is their undying devotion to the national-security establishment part of the federal government. That’s because that’s the part that is the very opposite of limited government.

In fact, as our American ancestors, who rejected a national-security state for more than 150 years, understood so well, you can’t have limited government when you have a national-security state grafted onto it, since the national-security state inevitably wields and exercises powers that are the very antithesis of limited government.

What is the national-security establishment? It consists of the Pentagon, the enormous standing, permanent military establishment, including thousands of domestic and military bases, the CIA, and the NSA.

The national-security state is a totalitarian structure. That is, it is a governmental apparatus that is inherent to totalitarian regimes. Consider North Korea, Cuba, China, Egypt, and Iran. They are all totalitarian states, and all of them are also national-security states, just like the United States is now.

Why do totalitarian regimes insist on enormous, permanent military establishments, super-secret intelligence agencies, and agencies that operate secret surveillance schemes over the citizenry?

The answer is a simple, and it has nothing to do with defense against foreign danger. Instead, the national security apparatus provide those in power with the ability to maintain their totalitarian grip over the citizens of the nation.

If the citizens begin complaining about how the government is being run, about the high taxes needed to sustain the ever-growing government, or about the tyranny to which they are being subjected, that’s when the national-security establishment comes in handy. The surveillance agencies watch what people are saying and doing and the intelligence agencies go out and pick up and incarcerate the critics, oftentimes secretly. If more firepower is needed, that’s where the military comes in.

For example, in China today dissidents are simply arrested and disappeared into the maws of the giant national-security establishment. There are no grand-jury indictments and no jury trials. Just incarceration for as long as the government deems it necessary, with some torture thrown into the process. If things get out of hand, the Chinese government is always prepared to use the military, just as it did at Tiananmen Square.

It’s not a coincidence that many of the Pentagon’s and CIA’s policies and practices in places like Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib would fit perfectly in places like China, Egypt, Iran, and North Korea.

So, how did the United States end up as a national-security state? How did a government that began as limited in nature under the Constitution end up with a totalitarian-like structure attached to it?

The change came after World War II, when Americans were told that it was necessary to graft a national-security apparatus onto America’s federal governmental system in order to oppose America’s World War II partner and ally, the Soviet Union, in a “cold war.” U.S. officials said that in order to defeat totalitarianism, it was unfortunately necessary for the United States to graft a totalitarian structure onto its original governmental structure. Limited government was insufficient, they maintained, to prevent the Soviet Union and communism from overcoming America.

Both Democrats and Republicans enthusiastically endorsed this monumental change in America’s government structure. Filled with fear over the threat of international communism, they eagerly converted  America to a national-security state during the Democratic administration of Harry S. Truman.

Thus, America ended up with an enormous, permanent military establishment, just like the Soviet Union. It also ended up with the CIA, a secret intelligence agency that had omnipotent powers, like assassination and regime-change operations, just like the KGB. It also ended up with the NSA, by which the government maintains secret surveillance on the citizenry, just like the Soviet Union was doing.

The overarching mission, of course, of the national-security state was the protection of “national security.” One big problem was that no one has ever been able to come up with any objective definition of “national security.” It became whatever the national-security establishment felt it was.

It didn’t take long before the national-security part of the federal government became the most powerful part. That’s not surprising given that that’s where the predominant force of the federal government is located. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that when differences occur, the other three branches, more often than not, defer to the overarching power and influence of the Pentagon, the CIA, and the NSA — or what President Eisenhower called the “military-industrial complex.”

President Eisenhower sure got it. He called the military-industrial complex, which he observed was a new way of life for the American people, a grave threat to the liberties and democratic processes of the American people. President Kennedy sure got it. He was waging war against the national security establishment through most of his administration and was even trying to end the Cold War through secret negotiations with the communists up until the day he was assassinated. President Truman sure got it. Thirty days after the Kennedy assassination, he pointed out in the Washington Post that the CIA, which he had brought into existence, had become a sinister part of the federal government and one whose powers far exceeded the intelligence-gathering mission he had intended for it. And, of course, the Framers sure got it, which is why America lived without a national-security establishment in peacetime during the first century-and-a-half of America’s existence.

Consider assassination. The CIA and the Pentagon, working with the president, wield the totalitarian power to assassinate anyone they want. All they have to do is label the victim a “terrorist.” No one, Congress and the federal courts second-guess their judgment as to who needs to be assassinated. Their decision is final.

And it’s not just since 9/11 that the CIA has been assassinating people. Its assassination schemes stretch all the way back to at least 1954, when the CIA had kill lists as part of its regime-change operation in Guatemala, where they ousted the democratically elected president of the country and installed a brutal military dictator in his stead. There were the numerous assassination attempts against Fidel Castro, notwithstanding the fact that Cuba had never attacked the United States or even threatened to do so. The CIA was a partner in Operation Condor, the international assassination ring that terminated the lives of tens of thousands of innocent people, including former Chilean official Orlando Letelier on the streets of Washington, D.C. Even President Lyndon Johnson referred to the CIA as a “damned Murder, Inc.”

It’s the same with round-ups of Americans and their placement in concentration camps or military dungeons, along with any means of torture that the national-security state wishes to employ. Neither Congress nor the judiciary interfere with such actions if they involve “national security.” That’s because in a national security state, “national security” is considered to be everything.

In the post-Cold War era, both President Bush and President Obama (a Republican and a Democrat) and the national-security establishment have pointed to the “war on terrorism” as the justification for wielding and employing temporary, emergency totalitarian powers.

Yet, neither Democrats nor Republicans want to face why there is so much anti-American terrorism because that would entail criticizing the national-security establishment, which they have effectively made their god. There is anti-American terrorism because of all the death and destruction that the U.S. national security state brought the Middle East after it lost the Soviet Union as a Cold War enemy — including the Persian Gulf War, the sanctions on Iraq that killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children, the illegal no-fly zones over Iraq, the unconditional support of the Israeli government, partnerships with dictatorial regimes, the stationing of U.S. troops over Islamic holy lands, and more.

So, they initiate the actions that produce the enemies, which are then used as the excuse for maintaining their totalitarian-grip over the citizenry, in the name of protecting “national security” and “keeping us safe” from the enemies they have produced.

Consider NATO, which like the U.S. national-security state, is a Cold War dinosaur. As soon as the Cold War was over, NATO began absorbing Warsaw Bloc nations until the U.S. national security state was about to absorb Ukraine, which is right on Russia’s border. The absorption of Ukraine would have placed Crimea under the control of the U.S. national-security state, something that Russia was never going to allow.

But notice the great advantage to the strategy: a new crisis with an old official enemy is produced, which then is used as the justification for expanded powers and budgets for the national security part of the federal government. People become afraid and are willing to let the national-security establishment have anything it wants.

The worst mistake Americans ever made was to adopt a totalitarian structure as part of their limited-government structure. A free and democratic nation uses freedom and limited government to oppose communism and totalitarianism. It is impossible to have freedom and limited government when a branch of the government has totalitarian powers.

In any event, the Cold War is long over. American would be wise to dismantle their Cold War-era, dinosaur national-security establishment before it’s too late. It would go a long way to restoring freedom and limited government to our land. But don’t expect federal politicians and bureaucrats to lead the way. The leadership must come from the American people themselves.

This post was written by:

Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation. He was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and received his B.A. in economics from Virginia Military Institute and his law degree from the University of Texas. He was a trial attorney for twelve years in Texas. He also was an adjunct professor at the University of Dallas, where he taught law and economics. In 1987, Mr. Hornberger left the practice of law to become director of programs at the Foundation for Economic Education. He has advanced freedom and free markets on talk-radio stations all across the country as well as on Fox News’ Neil Cavuto and Greta van Susteren shows and he appeared as a regular commentator on Judge Andrew Napolitano’s show Freedom Watch. View these interviews at LewRockwell.com and from Full Context. Send him email.