Conflict & Justice

Obama limits US spying on the anniversary of Eisenhower's warning about the military-industrial complex

President Obama didn't mention it, but he chose an interesting day to deliver his speech on the future of government surveillance. 

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Fifty-three years ago Friday, President Dwight Eisenhower delivered his Farewell Address, which became famous for this warning:

"In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes."

Eisenhower was talking about the massive accumulation of economic and political power by the new "national-security" state that arose in America in the 1950s.

"This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience," he said. "The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every Statehouse, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications."

Implications that are still relevant today. Boston University professor Andrew Bacevich wrote a piece for the Atlantic on the 50th anniversary of Ike's speech, titled "The Tyranny of Defense Inc." Bacevich — who lost his son in Iraq — argued that the potential for the abuse of power continues. He warns that the national-security state might put its own institutional goals ahead of the national interest.

As Eisenhower was indicating: You can't rely on Congress to set aside parochial concerns; corporations can't be expected to put patriotism ahead of profit; and you can't expect military leaders not to launch new careers selling armaments — or cyber-technology — on behalf of those corporations.

The modern intelligence industry is vast. By the best official estimate, the nation's 17 official intelligence agencies absorb $80 billion of taxpayers' money. That's roughly equivalent to the Department of State and the Department of Homeland Security combined.

All institutions, it's argued, are prone to develop their own self-interest. That can lead to a problem highlighted by Eisenhower: the calculated manipulation of public opinion.   

In the 1950s, there was deliberate "threat inflation." There were repeated crises over "bomber gaps" or "missile gaps" with the Soviets. Most historians now agree they didn't exist. These days, we hear of the need to prevent a cyber-gap from opening up with our competitors. Of course, no one is saying this is "threat inflation" — we're talking of future threats.

To avoid abuses of power, Eisenhower himself proposed a solution: the people. "We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together."

Just one more thought. In 1755, at the start of the French and Indian War — a war of existential survival for the 13 colonies — the colony of Pennsylvania was considering extraordinary measures. One intellectual, Benjamin Franklin, wrote to the Governor: "They who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety." 

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