“Where lies the security of the people?”

by zunguzungu

Glenn Greenwald is right:

It is a “scandal” when the Government conceals things it is doing without any legitimate basis for that secrecy.  Each and every document that is revealed by WikiLeaks which has been improperly classified — whether because it’s innocuous or because it is designed to hide wrongdoing — is itself an improper act, a serious abuse of government secrecy powers.  Because we’re supposed to have an open government — a democracy — everything the Government does is presumptively public, and can be legitimately concealed only with compelling justifications.   That’s not just some lofty, abstract theory; it’s central to having anything resembling “consent of the governed.” But we have completely abandoned that principle; we’ve reversed it.

But principles are cheap; how many divisions has the pope got? It helps to have Gin and Tacos put it in context:

…the Cold War, and particularly the American misadventure in Vietnam, irrevocably altered the paradigm for government secrecy. “Classified” documents are supposed to be, according to the government’s own definition, information which would damage national security if released. Confidential, Secret, and Top Secret are merely ways of categorizing the extent to which the release of information would damage national security. Somewhere along the line, however, “national security” became synonymous with “stuff that embarrasses the government.” What were the Pentagon Papers, after all, except evidence that the military and government were lying on a massive scale – to Congress, the public, and themselves – about American involvement and the conditions on the ground in Vietnam? Information proving that our elected and unelected leaders are lying to us is not, on that basis alone, a matter of national security. They are a matter of political security. Maintaining state secrets has become an expedient way of protecting the government, not the nation.

Nuclear codes are a matter of national security. This crap isn’t. The “secrets” betrayed by this diplomatic cable dump range from the gossipy (“Prime Minister so-and-so has too much plastic surgery and a drinking problem!”) to the “Are you kidding? Everyone already knows that!” variety. The Russian mafia is intertwined with the government? My word! That is simply shocking. The effect of the most recent information dump is not, as Obama and Hillary have so idiotically warned, that “lives will be lost.” This isn’t blowing the cover of any double agents in the Kremlin. This is just making the government look stupid. If you think “We don’t want to be embarrassed” is a sufficient reason for the government to withhold information about its activities from the public, you have a very curious understanding of how this country is supposed to work.

Which is really the point. The cold war changed how the country is supposed to work, not because we were “at war” but because it came to be normal, banal, and unquestionable that we would be permanently in a state of military preparedness, that “security” came to be synonymous with a standing army. And when that process goes on long enough, it acquires a momentum of its own: when the Soviet Union ended, we lost the existential enemy that we needed to justify the existence of a permanent security state, but it was barely a decade before we found another one. Whew!

It can be difficult to get your head around how perverse this transformation has been, in the grand constitutional scheme of things. But it is. I’ve been reading Edmund Morris’ Colonel Roosevelt, and one of the naggingly strange things that strikes you in the lead up to WWI is how relentlessly pacifist the USA was (at least until Wilson’s decision to enter the conflict). One of Wilson’s 1916 campaign slogans was “He kept us out of the war,” while Roosevelt’s anti-Wilson whisper campaign was all about “Preparedness”: on the one hand, keeping us out of war was, as such, a winning electoral strategy; on the other hand, the US was almost completely unprepared for military conflict of the sort that had just broken out. We had a very insubstantial standing army and we liked it that way.

This is a very simplified version of a complicated story, of course, but taking an impressionistic Roosevelt-shaped snapshot of 1915 and comparing it to the present at least allows us to get a sense for how dramatically and unrecognizably different this nation has become, how far our daily political practice has moved from the presumptions and principles that inform its constitutional framework. People who claim to be “originalists” without expressing concern about the effect of a standing army on democracy are either disingenuous or uninformed, or both.

You probably already knew that. But one of the things people tend not to realize is that the founders weren’t just worried about standing armies because they felt like a powerful army would make civilian rule impossible (though certainly this was part of it). They also worried — and the irony of this kills me — that a standing army would be dangerous to a democracy because it would produce and necessitate Big Government. A permanent army requires a permanent transformation of the state: while a civilian militia could be mobilized in times of need, they believed* that the good thing about such a defense structure was precisely that it wouldn’t require the kind of permanent tax structure that a permanent standing army does. And the founders were not a little bit concerned about taxation, remember?

Which is why, for example, military appropriations were given a particular, special little feature in the constitution: unlike all other forms of appropriation, army funding was only to last two years. Which meant that every two years, when the nation direct-elected an entire new House of Representatives (and remember, the direct-elected two-year-term-serving “the People’s House” was to be a populist counterbalance to the aristocratic, appointed-for-six-years Senate), the populist House would have to actively choose to re-appropriate for the Army.  If the burden had instead been placed on congress to repeal the army’s appropriation, a single element (say, an aristocratic senate) would be able to prevent such action from being taken. But the founders eventually settled on a design that was aimed to prevent exactly that scenario: by weighting the inertia of the system against a standing army — making it automatically expire every two years — the people were intended to have as direct a check on the military’s financial existence as possible, precisely because of the anti-democratic effect that a standing army was seen to have.

As John Dewitt put it:

“Where lies the security of the people? What assurances have they that either their taxes will not be exacted but in the greatest emergencies, and then sparingly, or that standing armies will be raised and supported for the very plausible purpose only of cantoning them upon their frontiers? There is but one answer to these questions. — They have none.”