The worst mistake that the American people have made in the entire history of the United States was to permit the conversion of the federal government into a national-security state. That conversion has played a major role in the destruction of our liberty, privacy, and economic well-being.
What is a national-security state? It is a totalitarian-like governmental structure that consists of an enormous military-intelligence establishment with extraordinary powers, such as indefinite detention, torture, secret surveillance, and even assassination of both citizens and foreigners.
To put the matter in a larger context, North Korea is a national-security state. So are Egypt, China, Cuba, and Russia. And the United States. All of the regimes in those countries wield totalitarian-like powers.
It wasn’t always that way in the United States. Our nation was founded as a limited-government republic and remained that way for nearly 150 years. No Pentagon, no CIA, and no NSA. There was an army but it was relatively small — big enough to win battles against Indian tribes or a neighboring weak and impoverished country such as Mexico, but nowhere near big enough to engage in wars around the world.
That was how our American ancestors wanted it. The last thing they wanted was a federal government that possessed a large permanent military-intelligence establishment. That’s because they believed that type of governmental system would inevitably destroy their liberty and their well-being.
When the delegates met at the Constitutional Convention, their task was simply to modify the Articles of Confederation, a third kind of governmental structure, under which the states had been operating for more than a decade. Under the Articles, the federal government’s powers were so weak that — get this — it didn’t even have the power to tax. Imagine: for more than ten years, Americans lived under a government that was prohibited from levying any taxes whatsoever.
But there were problems with the Articles, and the purpose of the Constitutional Convention was to come up with solutions to those problems through modifications. Instead, the delegates to the convention, who met in secret, came up with an entirely different proposal, one that called for a different type of governmental system — a limited-government republic, one in which the federal government would have more powers, including the power to tax.
Americans were extremely leery. They believed that the greatest threat to the freedom and well-being of a citizenry lay not with some foreign regime but rather with their own government. They also understood that the way governments throughout history had destroyed the freedom of their citizens was, in large part, through the power of their military forces. If people dissented or rebelled against what the government was doing, officials could employ military force to quell the rebellion. But if they didn’t possess a powerful military, they lacked the means to do that, which would inhibit them from doing bad things to the citizenry.
Consider the protests that are currently taking place in Hong Kong. What has the Chinese government done to send a message that such protests will be tolerated only up to a certain point? It has sent a large military contingent to the Hong Kong border. If Chinese officials want to quell those protests, they will do so through military force. And make no mistake about it: the Chinese soldiers in those units will faithfully and loyally follow the orders of their superior officers.
Suppose the proponents of the Constitution had said to the American people,
The Constitution will bring into existence a federal government that will include a vast, permanent, and ever-growing military-intelligence establishment, with military and intelligence bases all over the United States and the world. Together with the president, the military will have the power to embroil the nation in war anywhere in the world without congressional consent. It will possess the power to spy on and keep files on the American people, in order to keep them safe. It will have the power to take Americans into custody and place them in military dungeons or secret intelligence prison camps, where they can be tortured. It will also have the power to assassinate Americans.
If the American people had heard that from the delegates at the Constitutional Convention, they would have died laughing. They would have thought it was a joke. When they later learned that the delegates were totally serious, the American people would have summarily rejected the deal and instead would have continued operating under the Articles of Confederation.
In fact, the reason Americans were so leery of the proposal offered by the proponents of the Constitution was that they were concerned that they might be bringing into existence a government that wielded those types of omnipotent powers. That’s why they were so opposed to what they called a “standing army,” which was their term for a large, permanent military-intelligence establishment.
The proponents of the Constitution assured Americans that that could never happen. The reason was that the charter bringing the federal government into existence also, at the same time, delineated its powers. If a power wasn’t listed in the Constitution, then it simply didn’t exist, which meant it couldn’t be exercised against the citizenry.
On the basis of that assurance but still leery, the American people approved the deal, but only on the condition that the Constitution would be amended immediately after being approved. The amendments would provide express restrictions on the powers of federal officials to destroy the liberty and well-being of the people.
Some proponents of the Constitution responded that such restrictions were unnecessary, because if a power to destroy people’s liberty and well-being wasn’t listed in the Constitution, it couldn’t be exercised. A bill of rights, such proponents said, would be superfluous.
But Americans were not willing to settle for that principle. Knowing that people who are attracted to political power inevitably come up with good excuses for destroying people’s liberty, Americans wanted to make it doubly clear that federal officials lacked the power to do tyrannical things to them. That’s why they expressly prohibited them from destroying people’s freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, the right of assembly, the right to keep and bear arms, and others.
That wasn’t all, however. The Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Eighth Amendments expressly restricted the power of federal officials to kill both Americans and foreigners. The government couldn’t kill anyone or deprive anyone of liberty or property without “due process of law,” a term that stretched back to that Magna Carta in 1215, when the barons of England forced their king to acknowledge that his powers over them were limited.
Due process required formal notice of charges and a trial before the government could kill someone or take away his liberty or his property. If a person was targeted, the Bill of Rights guaranteed that he could elect to be tried by a jury of ordinary citizens rather than by a judge or a tribunal. Recognizing the inherent power of government, the amendments also guaranteed that a person being targeted could have an attorney represent him. The government was also prohibited from conducting searches without judicially issued warrants based on probable cause that a crime had been committed. They also prohibited federal officials from inflicting what they called “cruel and unusual” punishments on people.
Our American ancestors had brought into existence a limited-government republic, a type of political system in which the government was delegated very few powers and then expressly forbidden by the Bill of Rights from exercising totalitarian-like powers. Although backroom political deals would be made, the overall operations of the government were open and transparent. That was the governmental system under which Americans lived for nearly 150 years.
At the same time, America adopted a noninterventionist foreign policy, one in which the federal government would not embroil the nation in foreign conflicts, wars, disputes, revolutions, or coups. This foreign policy was summed up in a speech that Secretary of State John Quincy Adams delivered to Congress on the Fourth of July, 1821. Entitled “In Search of Monsters to Destroy,” the speech pointed out that America’s founding foreign policy was not to send military forces abroad to save foreigners from the monstrous conditions in their countries, including dictatorships, famines, wars, and revolutions. If America were ever to abandon that noninterventionist foreign policy, Adams warned, US officials would start behaving like dictators.
Does that mean that Americans were indifferent to the plights of foreigners? Quite the contrary. It just meant that they wouldn’t help them by bringing death and destruction through military force to their lands. Instead, America would open its borders to anyone who managed to escape his conditions, with no possibility that he would be rejected and forcibly returned to his homeland.
The shift toward empire and intervention began in 1898, during the Spanish-American War. Certain Spanish colonies were waging a war of independence against Spain. The US government intervened on their behalf. As soon as Spain was defeated, however, the US government assumed control over some of the former colonies. That’s how the United States acquired Puerto Rico, control over Cuba (and the US military base at Guantanamo Bay), Guam, and the Philippines. In the Philippines, US forces killed hundreds of thousands of Filipinos who continued to fight for their independence, this time from the United States. There was the notion that in order for the United States to become a great nation, it needed to become an empire and acquire colonies, just as the Spanish and British Empires had.
After that came US intervention in World War I. Woodrow Wilson maintained that US intervention would bring about an end to all war and make the world “safe for democracy” by totally and completely defeating Germany. Despite the loss of tens of thousands of American men, Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and Joseph Stalin later rose to power in Germany, Italy, and Russia.
Once World War II broke out, Americans were overwhelmingly opposed to intervening again. But Franklin Roosevelt succeeded in provoking Japan to “fire the first shot” with its attack on Pearl Harbor, which brought about the US entry into the deadliest and most destructive war the world has ever seen.
When the war finally ended in 1945, Americans were ecstatic that the Nazi regime and the Japanese Empire had been defeated, and that their lives could return to normal. Not so fast, US officials told Americans. They said that even though the Axis Powers had been defeated, the United States now faced another enemy, one that was arguably more dangerous than the Axis. That enemy was communism or, to be more exact, an international communist conspiracy to take over the world that was based in Moscow, Russia. The communists were coming to get us, US officials said, and take over the US government and the nation.
Therefore, they maintained, it would be necessary to intervene in hot wars to stop the Reds from advancing toward America, and to wage a “cold war” against the Soviet Union. That’s how tens of thousands of US soldiers got sacrificed in civil wars in Korea and Vietnam. US officials said that if the United States failed to intervene in those conflicts, the Reds would be at our doorstep before too long.
That cold war is what brought about the conversion of the federal government from a limited-government republic into a national-security state, which was what the Soviet Union was. US officials maintained that a limited-government-republic type of governmental system would be no match for a national-security-state system, given that the latter placed no constraints on agents to do whatever they needed to win. In order to prevent a communist takeover of the United States, it would be necessary to convert the federal government into the same type of governmental system the Soviet Union had. The implication, of course, was that as soon as the United States won the Cold War, Americans could have their limited-government republic back.
Soon after the CIA was established in 1947, ostensibly as an “intelligence-gathering” agency to provide secret information to the president, it began specializing in the art of assassination, including the preparation of a top-secret “assassination manual” that explained various methods of assassination and, equally important, how to keep people from discovering that it was a state-sponsored assassination. The Fifth Amendment was eviscerated. In the name of protecting national security, the federal government, through the CIA, now wielded the power to secretly deprive anyone of life that it wanted.
In 1953, the CIA secretly initiated a coup in Iran that ousted the democratically elected prime minister of the country, Mohammad Mossadegh, from power and replaced him with the shah of Iran, one of the world’s most brutal dictators. The notion was that Mossadegh was leaning communist. In 1979, fed up with the US-supported tyranny under which they had suffered for twenty-five years, the Iranian people revolted and ousted the shah from power. Unfortunately, they were unsuccessful in restoring the democratic system that the CIA had destroyed, leaving them suffering under a different type of dictatorship. The CIA’s coup is the root of the bad relations between Iran and the United States today.
One year later, 1954, the CIA secretly initiated a coup in Guatemala, which succeeded in ousting the democratically elected president of that country, Jacobo Árbenz, who was a socialist, and replacing him with a pro-US military dictator. Árbenz was lucky that he was able to escape the country, because the CIA had prepared an assassination list that undoubtedly had him at the top. That coup incited a thirty-year-long civil war that killed more than a million Guatemalans.
After the Cuban Revolution (1959) brought a communist regime into power, the Pentagon and the CIA, along with other US officials, went apoplectic. America couldn’t survive with a “communist dagger” pointed at its throat from only ninety miles away, they said. Thus, the CIA launched an unsuccessful invasion of the island, several unsuccessful assassination attempts against Cuban president Fidel Castro, and a brutal economic embargo that, in combination with Castro’s socialist system, has squeezed the economic lifeblood out the Cuban people. The national-security establishment’s incessant quest to effect regime change in Cuba also brought the United States and the Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear war.
The fact is that there was never any possibility that the communists were coming to get us and take over the federal government and the country. The Cold War was one great, big racket, one that enriched countless people, including an army of “defense” contractors and subcontractors who got rich feeding at the public trough. Most importantly, the Cold War and the national-security-state form of government that came with it succeeded in destroying the rights and liberties of the American people.
The Middle East
Suddenly and unexpectedly, the Cold War ended in 1989, when the Soviet Union, which had gone bankrupt, called it quits. The Berlin Wall came down and Russian troops exited Eastern Europe.
Needless to say, the national-security establishment was concerned about its future. No more cold war obviously meant that Americans were entitled to have their limited-government republic back. But the Pentagon, the CIA, and the NSA were not eager to be dismantled. Soon after the end of the Cold War, they intervened in the Persian Gulf War against their former partner and ally, Saddam Hussein, which began a thirty-year US campaign of death, destruction, and humiliation against people in the Middle East.
It is no surprise that that campaign engendered deep anger and rage among the people who were targeted for death and destruction. That’s when the anti-American terrorist blowback began. It started with the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, which was followed by the attacks on the USS Cole, on the US embassies in East Africa, and the 9/11 attacks.
The 9/11 attacks gave the federal government what our American ancestors had feared when the Constitution was being proposed to them — a government consisting of a massive, ever-growing military-intelligence establishment with omnipotent, totalitarian powers to keep the nation “safe” from the terrorist blowback that U.S. officials had produced with their interventionism.
That’s how Americans have ended up with a government that wields the power to take them into custody and throw them indefinitely into a military dungeon, and torture them to any extent whatsoever. It is how Americans have ended up with a government that wields the power to conduct secret surveillance on them, just like government officials do in China, North Korea, and Cuba. It is how Americans have ended up with a government that wields the power to assassinate them.
Anyone who lives under a national-security-state governmental system cannot possibly be considered free. Our ancestors understood that. Their successors living today have yet to figure it out. Or if they have figured it out, they have chosen to trade liberty for the pretense of safety and security.
For Americans who want freedom, a necessary prerequisite is the restoration of a limited-government republic and a noninterventionist foreign policy, which necessarily entails the dismantling, not the reform, of the Pentagon, the military-industrial complex, the CIA, and the NSA.
This article was originally published in the November 2019 edition of Future of Freedom. Author:
Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation.
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