The U.S. National Security State
excerpted from the book
Brave New World Order
by Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer
Orbis Books, 1992, paper
Formation of a National Security State
The U.S. National Security Establishment firmly took root
in the aftermath of World War II. The United States emerged from
the war as the global power. Its economy and military were intact
in a world largely destroyed by war. The United States used its
privileged position to establish a massive network of foreign
military bases and to shape a world order conducive to its economic
U.S. national security interests became increasingly global
in scope, and they were closely identified with maintaining existing
global inequalities. George Kennan, who headed the State Department's
planning staff in 1948, warned that the United States would be
"the object of envy and resentment" because it had "about
50% of the world's wealth, but only 6.3% of its 2 population."
The goal of the United States in the emerging 5 world order, Kennan
stated, was "to devise a pattern of relationships which will
permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive
detriment to our national security." In order to maintain
this disparity and defend U.S. national security, the United States
had "to cease to talk about vague and . . . unreal objectives
such as human rights, the raising of living standards and democratization."
Instead, he noted, the United States had "to deal in straight
The United States, according to Kennan's description of the
prevailing worldview, was a global power in a hostile world. The
enemies of the United States included all those forces who challenged
the inequities of the U.S. dominated post-World War II order.
The "communist threat" became a generic symbol for all
enemies, real and imagined. A secret report prepared for the White
House in 1954 stated:
It is now clear that we are facing an implacable enemy whose
avowed objective is world domination.... There are no rules in
such a game. Hitherto accepted norms of human conduct do not
apply.... If the United States is to survive, long-standing American
concepts of fair play must be reconsidered.... We must learn
to subvert, sabotage and destroy our enemies by more clever,
sophisticated, more effective methods than those used against
The U.S. Congress established new institutions to defend the
country's expanding "national" interests following World
War II. In 1947 it passed the National Security Act, which created
a National Security State apparatus centered around the National
Security Council (NSC) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
These organs of the National Security State were dangerous for
two reasons. First, national security is a vague term, often cited
and easily abused. Defending national security became the standard
justification for new weapons systems and huge military expenditures.
It also rationalized numerous U.S. interventions in third-world
countries and justified U.S. support for repressive National Security
States throughout Latin America. In 1953 Dwight D. Eisenhower,
former general and World War II hero, called attention to the
inherent conflict between "guns" and "butter."
"Every gun that is made," he said in his now famous
quotation, "every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies,
in the final sense, is a theft from those who hunger and are not
fed, those who are cold and are not clothed." However, the
actual policy of the United States during the Eisenhower administration
was to encourage military-run states that bought guns instead
of butter while defending U.S. interests. In 1954 most of the
thirteen Latin American presidents who were military officers
were receiving military assistance from the United States. That
same year Eisenhower authorized the overthrow of a democratically
elected government in Guatemala that was committed to land reform,
and he presented the Legion of Merit award to two Latin American
dictators-Perez Jimenez of Venezuela (for his "spirit of
friendship and cooperation" and his "sound foreign investment
policies"), and Manuel Odria of Peru.
Thirty years later President Reagan justified disastrous and
deadly U.S. policies in Central America by telling the U.S. Congress
that "the national security of all the Americas is at stake."
He went on to frame the choice confronting members of Congress
in a manner consistent with most debates about "national
security": support administration policy or risk the nation's
destruction. "Who among us," he asked, "would wish
to bear responsibility for failing to meet our shared obligation?
National Security State institutions like the NSC and CIA
are also dangerous because they greatly expand the power of the
executive branch and thereby threaten the constitutional system
of checks and balances. The institutions that make up the National
Security State apparatus are supposedly set up to defend national
security and the integrity of the state. However, they often abuse
power, violate national and international laws, and may actually
erode the democracy they supposedly defend. Senate investigations
led by Frank Church in 1975 detailed numerous illegal activities
conducted by the CIA against U.S. and foreign individuals and
groups. The recent Iran-Contra scandal, discussed below, offers
frightening testimony to abuses of power by the National Security
Council, including numerous violations of the U.S. Constitution.
The CIA and the NSC are but two elements in the U.S. National
Security Establishment. The post-World War II world order established
by the United States required huge military expenditures, constantly
updated and improved weapons systems, and costly interventionism.
Important sectors of the U.S. economy, lured by huge and easy
profits, became dependent on military contracts and the Pentagon.
This led, in President Eisenhower's phrase, to a "military-industrial
complex," a loose network of military officers, industrial
managers, and legislators who all had a vested interest in permanent,
high military expenditures. This military-industrial complex together
with national security agencies such as the NSC and CIA make up
what I call the National Security Establishment.
The features of a National Security State so evident in El
Salvador now threaten the integrity of U.S. democracy and the
long-term health of the U.S. economy. The preoccupation with internal
enemies at various points in our nation's history has seriously
limited the parameters of domestic debate and dissent. U.S. politics,
in many ways, still take place under McCarthy's shadow. The focus
on external enemies led to the formation of a National Security
Establishment. This group not only helped the United States to
create and support National Security States throughout much of
the Third World but came to exercise tremendous influence over
U.S. domestic economic and political affairs. It has a vested
interest in finding new enemies and fears the prospect of a peace
dividend. Unfortunately, it is now powerful enough to determine
the overall direction of U.S. society.
"In the councils of government," President Eisenhower
warned in his 1961 farewell speech to the nation, "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."
Disturbing Signs of a U.S. National Security State
Throughout the 1980s El Salvador clearly manifested the features
of a National Security State. The military was the most powerful
sector of the society; it dominated political and economic life
and used its power to maximize its institutional privileges; its
power was sufficient to delay or derail negotiations that threatened
its political and economic power; its obsession with enemies militarized
the society; the tactics it used to fight perceived enemies eroded
democracy within; and the National Security State it defended
dramatically clashed with progressive sectors of the church.
Many of these features of a National Security State are also
evident in the United States, although they sometimes find expression
in different ways. One area of difference ... is the relationship
between the church and the National Security State. Segments of
the church in El Salvador have challenged the National Security
State and therefore have been persecuted. Although U.S. government
agencies have infiltrated churches involved in offering sanctuary
to Central American refugees, the church in the United States
is generally an institution of the dominating culture, which wittingly
or unwittingly supports the U.S. National Security State. The
church is seduced rather than repressed as religious critics are
marginalized in a climate of genuine embrace between church and
The role of the media is another apparent difference between
the National Security States of El Salvador and the United States.
The Salvadoran state uses violence and terror to intimidate or
silence major progressive information outlets such as El Diario
or the presses at the Catholic University. The mainline media
in the United States, like the church, are instruments of conformity
within the dominating society. This conformity isn't achieved
through terror and intimidation, as in El Salvador, but there
is conformity nonetheless. This can be illustrated by a look at
coverage of the Gulf War.
The war in the Gulf was probably the most censored and media-managed
war in U.S. history. The Pentagon launched the war to coincide
with the evening news, forced reporters into escorted press pools,
banned coverage on U.S. soldiers returning in coffins, blacked
out the first forty-eight hours of the ground war, provided selective
footage of "smart bombs" hitting their targets with
precision, exercised the right of approval over final copy and
footage, and flew local reporters in to cover selected "hometown
troops." "I've never seen anything to compare to it,"
said New York Times war correspondent Malcolm Browne, "in
the degree of surveillance and control the military has over the
Heavy-handed government censorship was only part of the problem
confronting U.S. citizens wanting to make informed judgments about
the war. They also faced biases in the U.S. media. According to
Colman McCarthy, twenty-five of twenty-six major U.S. newspapers
supported the Gulf War. The print and other media uncritically
adopted Pentagon phrases such as "collateral damage"
and "smart bombs." After the war it was reported that
only 6,520 of 88,500 tons of bombs dropped on Iraq and Kuwait
were "smart," and even these often hit targets that
were important to the civilian population. The media ,) throughout
the war helped to sanitize civilian casualties and reduced the
war to a glorified video game. A report by Fairness & Accuracy
In Reporting (FAIR) describes the conflict of interest of major
TV news channels that are owned by major corporations tied to
military weapons production and oil:
Most of the corporate-owned media have close relationships
to the military and industry: The chair of Capital / Cities/ABC
. . . is on the board of Texaco, and CBS's board includes directors
from Honeywell and the Rand Corporation. But no news outlet is
as potentially compromised as NBC, wholly owned by General Electric....
In 1989 alone GE received nearly $2 billion in U.S. military
contracts for systems employed in the Gulf War effort ... NBC's
potential conflicts go beyond weaponry. The government of Kuwait
is believed to be a major GE stockholder, having owned 2.1 percent
of GE stock in 1982, the last year for which figures are available....
Having profited from weapons systems used in the Gulf, and anticipating
lucrative deals for restocking U.S. arsenals, GE is also poised
to profit from the rebuilding of Kuwait. GE told the man Street
Journal (3/21/91) it expects to win contracts worth "hundreds
of millions of dollars."
Conflict of interest may help explain the results of a FAIR
survey of sources for ABC, CBS, and NBC nightly news. The survey
"found that of 878 on-air sources, only one was a representative
of a national peace organization." This, FAIR noted, contrasted
with the fact that "seven players from the Super Bowl were
brought on to comment on the War.''
The role of the U.S. mass media and government censorship
in the Gulf War is a frightening illustration of an important
aspect of the new world order. In general, the major media served
as an uncritical channel of information from the Pentagon to the
U.S. people while catering to the emotions and patriotism of a
public concerned about the well-being of U.S. troops. Media cooperation
with Pentagon news management was so effective it prompted former
Reagan administration official Michael Deaver to comment: "If
you were going to hire a public relations firm to do the media
relations for an international event, it couldn't be done any
better than this is being done.''
The coverage of the war conveniently ignored critical underlying
issues, including the relationship of the Gulf War to the institutional
imperatives of the U.S. National Security Establishment. Even
before the Gulf War there were disturbing examples of a U.S. National
Security Establishment out of control. Each of five examples,
which the reader can explore in greater detail through cited sources,
illustrates how the U.S. National Security State's propensity
for secrecy and covert activities has seriously compromised U.S.
The first example of a National Security State crisis is the
Iran-Contra affair, in which proceeds from illegal arms shipments
to Iran were diverted to the Nicaraguan Contras during a Congressional
ban on such funding. Illegal arms sales and money transfers were
only the tip of the iceberg in a disturbing scandal. Segments
of the National Security Establishment, with leadership from the
White House, the National Security Council, and the head of the
Central Intelligence Agency, had taken over many aspects of U.S.
foreign policy, subverted the Constitution, and bypassed the U.S.
Congress. "My objective all along," former National
Security Advisor John Poindexter testified, "was to withhold
from the Congress exactly what the [National Security Council]
was doing in carrying out the President's policy." Oliver
North told Senate Chief Counsel Arthur Liman that CIA director
William Casey was setting up "an off-the-shelf, self-sustaining,
stand alone entity, that could perform certain activities on behalf
of the United States."
This "off-the-shelf" entity, according to the Christic
Institute, has been operating in one form or another for twenty-years.
It constitutes a kind of "shadow government," in which
"U.S. military and CIA officials, acting both officially
and on their own, f have waged secret wars, toppled governments,
trafficked in drugs, assassinated political enemies, stolen from
the U.S. government, and subverted the will of the Constitution,
the Congress, and the American people.''
It is disconcerting that most of the guilty parties involved
in the Iran-Contra scandal were never tried or received little
or no punishment for their crimes. Their defense lawyers successfully
argued that information vital to their clients' defense could
not be made public because it would compromise national security.
In other words, the subversion of the Constitution by members
of the U.S. National Security State Establishment became relatively
risk free because "national security interests" could
not be jeopardized. Even more disturbing, in the aftermath of
the Iran-Contra scandal the U.S. Congress took steps to increase
presidential powers to wage covert wars. Bill Moyers, in a Frontline
special, "High Crimes and Misdemeanors," underscores
the Constitutional crisis inherent in a National Security State:
What happened in Iran-Contra was nothing less than the systematic
disregard for democracy itself. It was, in effect, a coup....
Officials who boasted of themselves as men of the Constitution
showed utter contempt for the law. They had the money and power
to do what they wanted, the guile to hide their tracks and the
arrogance simply to declare what they did was legal.... The frightening
thing is ... that it could happen again.... The men responsible
for Iran-Contra, except a few, have been absolved, exonerated
or reprieved.... The Government continues to hide its dirty linen
behind top secret classifications.... With little debate and
scant attention from the media, the House and Senate agree on
a new intelligence bill giving , the President wider power than
ever to conduct covert operations using any agency he pleases.
A second example of a National Security State crisis within
the United States is the number of crucial decisions made by presidential
directive without Congressional approval or public scrutiny. President
Reagan issued at least 280 secret National Security Decision Directives
during his two terms in office. The content of most of these directives
remains a mystery to the U.S. people. However, one was leaked
and later described by the Christic Institute. In April 1986 President
Reagan issued a secret directive that authorized the creation
of ten military detention centers within the United States capable
of housing 400,000 political prisoners. These detention centers
were to be used "in the event that President Reagan chose
to [suspend the Constitution and] declare a 'State of Domestic
National Emergency' concurrent with the launching of a direct
United States military operation into Central America.'' This
example, describing only one of 280 secret National Security Decision
Directives, should raise serious questions about what else is
being planned in secret and by whom in the name of "national
A third pre-Gulf sign of a U.S. National Security State crisis
is the relationship between the international drug trade and U.S.
foreign policy. Elements of the National Security State Establishment
from Indochina to Afghanistan to Central America have tolerated
and even facilitated the drug trade in exchange for support for
U.S. covert operations. "Far from considering drug networks
their enemy," Peter Dale Scott and Jonathan Marshall write
in Cocaine Politics: Drugs, Armies and the CIA in Central America,
"U.S. intelligence organizations have made them an essential
ally in the covert expansion of American influence abroad."
Senator John Kerry conducted extensive investigations of U.S.
foreign policy links to the illegal drug trade. "The narcotics
problem," Senator Kerry's report Drugs, Law, and Foreign
Policy notes, "is a national security and foreign policy
issue of significant proportions." He documents how foreign
policy considerations predominated so that "each U.S. government
agency which had any relationship with Manuel Noriega turned a
blind eye to his drug smuggling as he was emerging as a key player
on behalf of the Medellin cartel." Kerry also stated that
there "was substantial evidence of drug smuggling through
the war zones" on the part of the Contras and their supporters.
U.S. Iinks to the Contra drug trade included direct "payments
to drug traffickers by the U.S. State Department [from] funds
authorized by the Congress for humanitarian assistance to the
Contras, in some cases after the traffickers had been indicted
by federal law enforcement agencies on drug charges." The
Kerry report summarizes the relationship between U.S. foreign
policy and the drug trade as follows:
Foreign policy considerations have interfered with the United
States' ability to fight the war on drugs. Foreign policy priorities
... halted or interfered with U.S. Iaw enforcement efforts to
keep narcotics out of the United States. Within the United States,
drug traffickers have manipulated the U.S. judicial system by
providing services | in support of U.S. foreign policy. U.S.
officials involved in Central America failed to address the drug
issue for fear of jeopardizing the war effort against Nicaragua.
"I find it useful to think of the whole country as a
family system that has this dirty secret that we're ashamed to
admit," says Father Bill Teska, an Episcopalian priest who
has worked to expose the relationship of U.S. foreign policy and
drugs. "Our government has actually cooperated with drug
dealers and has assisted in the importation of drugs into this
country when it suited its purposes . . . such as national security
or overthrowing the government of Nicaragua.
A fourth example that gives credence to concerns about a National
Security State taking hold in U.S. society is related to charges
of impropriety during the 1980 U.S. presidential election. According
to Gary Sick, a member of the Carter administration's National
Security Council, there is substantial evidence suggesting that
the Reagan-Bush team arranged to keep the hostages in Iran until
after the 1980 election in exchange for future arms shipments
to Iran. The inability to free the hostages insured the electoral
defeat of a beleaguered Jimmy Carter. "The hostages were
released on January 21, 1981," Gary Sick writes, "within
minutes after Reagan was sworn in as president. Almost immediately
thereafter ... arms began to flow to Iran in substantial quantities."
Former Iranian President Bani-Sadr, in his book My Turn to Speak.
Iran, the Revolution and Secret Deals with the U.S., verifies
that a deal was made. The "sole purpose" of negotiations
between the Reagan campaign and Iran "was to handicap Carter's
reelection bid by preventing the hostages' release" before
the November election. It was announced in August 1991 that Congress
planned to investigate these charges of impropriety during the
A fifth sign of a U.S. National Security State crisis is a
1987 meeting of the Conference of American Armies held in Argentina.
The meeting brought together military commanders from Argentina,
Uruguay, Chile, Paraguay, Bolivia, Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia,
Venezuela, Panama, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and the United
States. The conference focused on the threat that liberation theology
and the progressive churches posed to the national security of
the Americas. It linked liberation theology to an international
communist conspiracy and called for a strategy of continental
security measures, which included the coordination of military
intelligence and operations. The conference report specifically
named Ignacio Ellacuria, a Jesuit priest who directed the Catholic
University in El Salvador until his brutal murder in November
1989, as a person who consciously manipulated "the truly
liberating Christian message of salvation to further the objectives
of the Communist revolution." Such language in the context
of National Security States is a license to kill. According to
an article in the National Catholic Reporter the generals, in
addition to targeting liberation theology as an enemy, also supported
use of elections as a cover for their own de facto rule. The generals,
apparently including U.S. participants, indicated that they opposed
a new wave of military coups throughout the Americas, preferring
instead "a permanent state of military control over civilian
government, while still preserving formal democracy."
The United States ... demonstrates many features of a National
Security State. Democracy(in both countries) is now seriously
compromised by the powers vested in the military and broader National
Security Establishment. In the United States this establishment
includes the military-industrial complex and institutions such
as the National Security Council and the Central Intelligence
Agency. It is largely unaccountable to the U.S. people.
The five examples of a National Security State crisis discussed
above collectively add weight to my thesis that behind the Gulf
War and the so-called new world order are the priorities of the
National Security Establishment. President Eisenhower's warning
of "the disastrous rise of misplaced power" is truly
prophetic in the context of the Gulf crisis. The end of the Cold
War, as the next two chapters illustrate, offered the possibility
of U.S. economic renewal but not without reordering priorities
away from the military sector. As in El Salvador, the U.S. National
Security Establishment fought to preserve its institutional privileges.
It was well-positioned to do so after forty years of growing influence
within U.S. society.
The quotation from the Washington Office on Latin America
which I used earlier to describe the Salvadoran military's hostility
to a negotiated settlement of El Salvador's civil war is reprinted
below. It captures well a similar dynamic operating within the
U.S. National Security Establishment as it confronted the dangerous
prospect of institutional decline in light of the end of the Cold
Despite the presence of some moderate officers ... successful
pursuit of a negotiated settlement would directly threaten the
interests of individual officers as well as those of their institution....
Within the officer corps ... the arguments against negotiations
remain persuasive: First, any reduction in troop size as a result
of negotiations would necessitate a corresponding reduction in
the officer corps.... Second, as the Armed Forces have expanded
in size and wealth because of the war, so too has their influence.
By any estimate, the military stands as the country's single
most powerful social and economic institution.... Consequently,
any progress toward a negotiated settlement would challenge the
military's privileged position within the government and society.
New World Order