The Best Defense

Three questions with William Arkin, author of the new book 'American Coup'

Best Defense: Hi! An "American Coup"? Oy. Bill, have you joined the ranks of the extremist nut jobs?

William Arkin: I call my book American Coup because I wanted to distinguish between what we normally think when we think of a coup (a military takeover deposing civilian government) and what we live under today, which is security above all else, a shadowy and impenetrable elite in Washington making profound decisions that affect us domestically and internationally, an absence of any kind of effective civilian oversight from Congress, and a contempt for (if not a profound fear of) the citizenry. When one of the most liberal presidents in our lifetime can come into office and keep the Republican secretary of defense, the undersecretary for intelligence, and three retired holdover four stars as the core of his national security team, you know that there is a continuity of national security policy more powerful than the elected. And now, almost a term and half later, all of our grave national security problems in Washington -- cutting defense spending, Syria's WMD, Snowden -- have a similar genesis in real decisions not being made, no assumptions being questioned. 

I'm not arguing that any of these things aren't real problems, but WMD? It just fits the skill set of the elite -- still. And trumps everything else, but brings with it all the Cold War habits of deterrence, absolutism, and the ultimate trump card. Is it really worth dropping everything over? What happened to Obama's speeches about getting rid of our own (and Russia's) WMDs to instill an international norm?

And Snowden? With the Navy Yard attack, everyone's saying tighten up the system of security clearances, look more seriously at contractors. Like Major Hassan wasn't enough, or our Top Secret America series in the Washington Post, or even Snowden? The American coup is precisely that the corporate world (and it isn't an industrial complex anymore; it's an information complex) and the civilian experts and those in uniform are practically interchangeable. And they need armies of technicians and others to fight the forever war, the premise and the effect hardly even questioned.

BD: Sure, the Constitution has been under attack by well-meaning if wrong-minded secret policemen, but do you really think we are that far over the line?

WA: The subtitle is "How a Terrified Government is Destroying the Constitution" and I mean it. To label anything unconstitutional is to just play the game have-your-lawyer-call-my-lawyer (a game in which Washington always wins), but the relationship of the federal government to the states and the erosion of state control over law enforcement (all under the name of homeland security and whole of government/whole of nation) is real. Even the National Guard ("the militia of the several states"), which is an institution that predates the Constitution and the United States itself, has subtly been transformed since 9/11, not because of its exhaustion in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but more because the very reason to have a Guard -- ensure that a "local" response is first, a response almost always seen as more effective and more sensitive, and a guard against federal power and encroachment ("tyranny," in old style words) -- is being undermined by its enlistment in "regional" and national domestic response schemes. Even as bad as Katrina was in 2005, I show in American Coup beyond a shadow of a doubt that the local responders were the most effective, understanding the culture and geography and recognizing that there was no insurrection going on, while Washington (and the Washington agencies) practically saw it as an American battlefield. The inside story of how the Bush administration tried to wrest control from the Louisiana governor should be instructive. Again, in the unique design of the American coup, it was the federal military commander on the ground (Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré) who opposed takeover. The coup was fostered in the White House and in the shadows of permanent government.

BD: So what should we do?

WA: People in Washington don't even understand the totality of what goes on in Washington, naturally leaving the experts -- wonks, SMEs, SESs, contractors -- in charge. They can outwait any administration, explain away any program as "legal," reviewed, and in accordance with our policy. The only thing that is going to change that is if that stranglehold is broken. I think public anxiety over the NSA and domestic drones, which is greater than public anxiety about WMD or the Middle East, says a lot about how much Washington pursues a thrust that just isn't reflecting American interests or concerns. From Tea Party to Occupy, everyone hates Washington and the ever-growing and isolated DC elite. I would even venture to guess that the poles of the gun control debate are as much about a sense that Washington wants to control everything as it is about the Second Amendment.

It all boils down to accountability. A Snowden emerges, or a Navy Yard shooting and who is fired? What is really changed other than the strengthening of the security apparatus, the very one that failed in the first place? I know it's an exaggeration, but with Americans already restricted from walking on certain streets in Washington, with overlapping police departments and intelligence jurisdictions and homeland security 10 years later still desperately searching for a mission, we're not that far away from checkpoints, or national ID, or some kind of universal biometrically-driven control system. If we just demanded that people in government did their basic jobs, we'd be a lot closer to a better system.

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