Secret Government

A few weeks ago, the Boston Globe ran an article that should be required reading for all of the activists–left and right–proposing deceptively simple”fixes” for what ails government.

The article began by noting candidate Obama’s promises to reign in the NSA, close Guantanamo, and roll back portions of the Patriot Act.

But six years into his administration, the Obama version of national security looks almost indistinguishable from the one he inherited. Guantanamo Bay remains open. The NSA has, if anything, become more aggressive in monitoring Americans. Drone strikes have escalated. Most recently it was reported that the same president who won a Nobel Prize in part for promoting nuclear disarmament is spending up to $1 trillion modernizing and revitalizing America’s nuclear weapons.

Why did the face in the Oval Office change but the policies remain the same? Critics tend to focus on Obama himself, a leader who perhaps has shifted with politics to take a harder line. But Tufts University political scientist Michael J. Glennon has a more pessimistic answer: Obama couldn’t have changed policies much even if he tried….

In a new book, “National Security and Double Government,” he catalogs the ways that the defense and national security apparatus is effectively self-governing, with virtually no accountability, transparency, or checks and balances of any kind. He uses the term “double government”: There’s the one we elect, and then there’s the one behind it, steering huge swaths of policy almost unchecked. Elected officials end up serving as mere cover for the real decisions made by the bureaucracy.

The article describes what Glennon came to recognize from a career that included stints as  legal counsel to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and consultant to various congressional committees and the State Department: in a number of policy areas, but especially national security, the people we elect have limited ability to effect policy change. Bureaucrats–and the systems within which they operate–call the shots far more than most of us realize. As he notes,

It hasn’t been a conscious decision….Members of Congress are generalists and need to defer to experts within the national security realm, as elsewhere. They are particularly concerned about being caught out on a limb having made a wrong judgment about national security and tend, therefore, to defer to experts, who tend to exaggerate threats. The courts similarly tend to defer to the expertise of the network that defines national security policy.

The national security apparatus is probably the most extreme example, but the phenomenon that Glennon describes operates, albeit to a lesser extent, in virtually all large bureaucracies, public or private. (There’s a reason business schools and schools of public affairs offer classes in organizational culture—systemic dynamics make change far more daunting than those on the outside realize.)

When you add policy complexity and specialized expertise to systemic inertia, the barriers faced by would-be “change agents” become even more daunting.

This phenomenon is why well-meaning calls for term limits aren’t just naive, but dangerous. When a newly elected Congressman or Senator takes office, he is utterly dependent upon (nameless, unelected) staff to show him the ropes. With term limits, by the time he  learns enough about how it all works to actually be effective, he’s gone. The result is to place even more power in the hands of staff members who have staying power and know how the system works—anonymous functionaries that voters cannot hold accountable.

It would be far better to use the original mechanism for limiting terms: the ballot box. Unfortunately, rampant gerrymandering has removed that option by ensuring that far too many districts are uncompetitive.

It’s a problem.


  1. Sorry, Sheila, but I must disagree with you. If they can’t learn their job in two terms, they don’t need to be there.

  2. Mr. Smith, as a retired teacher, my feeling is that learning a job is a lifelong process — at least in the general way of defining it. Four years is not nearly enough time to learn the mastery of anything, let alone something as complex as government.
    You may not remember the knowledge and experience of the leaders who led us through the most tense times of the Cold War, but speaking as an observer of it (one who lived through it), I must say I’m glad they weren’t amateurs who were there for four to 6 years, and then had to turn it over to another amateur.

  3. Neal; I have said before and will repeat for your benefit. Sheila’s blog contains the details, you need to read and try to comprehend them.


    Until and unless we can remove as many Republicans from office as possible – upcoming elections at all levels of government beginning with the primary – will save or continue to destroy America and Americans. The state of Indiana cannot be held up as an example of working for democracy; our pitiful conditions will continue and deteriorate further unless we get off our asses in May and November and vote. I will be 79 before the May election, am deaf and disabled but will drive my 19 year old car to the polls or walk more than a mile with my walker if necessary to cast my vote. Until those election days we must donate what we can when we can as I do from my barely above federal poverty level income to support the weak Democratic party to strengthen it for our self preservation.

  4. On topic of secret government, have you seen this TED talk by Will Potter about secret CMU in Terre Haute, IN federal prison?
    “The secret US prisons you’ve never heard of before”
    “Investigative reporter Will Potter is the only journalist who has been inside a Communications Management Unit, or CMU, inside a US prison. These prisons were opened secretly, and radically alter how prisoners are treated — even preventing them from hugging their children. Potter, a TED fellow, shows us who is imprisoned here and how the government is trying to keep them hidden. “The message was clear,” he says. “Don’t talk about this place.” Find sources for this talk at

  5. I imagine this applies to all levels of government where the work has been divided up into departments or divisions. Long time employees would become entrenched in systems of doing things, dealing with the same “outside” people, and hold knowledge that their superiors did not. From this comes yet another influence on the bureaucracy… recognition, tokens, and even bribery from businesses and organizations that “do business” with the government on a regular basis. Building and maintaining a high level of honesty and integrity within a bureaucracy is a never ending task of political leadership. One thing is for sure, if the political leader is not honest and has integrity, we should not expect those working in government to pick up the slack.

  6. JoAnn, the Club for Growth, which I have mentioned before, proudly claims that their power and money pushed John Boehner out of his job.

  7. I’m convinced there’s a little room where they store the truly scary secrets that none of us want to know. Only newly elected preaidents are allowed to see it. That’s why Obama (and every other president) has aged so dramatically.

  8. Nancy; I Googled Club for Grown after your earlier comments. Below I copied and pasted the first two paragraphs from their official site – they do a lot of chest-beating but we haven’t seen changes due to their “enormous influence on economic policy.” or their name mentioned in connection with the economy. If they did influence ousting Boehner, he was simply replaced by a slimier, slicker version who will spend less time before the cameras reporting his success at halting President Obama and the Democratic party. Sorry to say; the current party is weak so it took little effort to succeed at halting them, giving Boehner more time on the golf course working on his tan. I wish the Club for Growth was as successful as they claim but just don’t see it. I had never heard of it till your comments; thanks for the info, I do wonder why they are not better known if they are such a successful organization? Haven’t seen them on Facebook; where every political organization and their supporters and/or detractors appear regularly.

    “Club for Growth is the leading free-enterprise advocacy group in the nation. We win tough battles and we have an enormous influence on economic policy.

    In fact, we are the only organization that is willing and able to take on any Member of Congress on policy who fails to uphold basic economic conservative principles…regardless of party.”

  9. Stacy,

    “I’m convinced there’s a little room where they store the truly scary secrets that none of us want to know.”

    It’s called the “JOHN.” The following is from “The Power Game” by Hedrick Smith (Random House, NY, 1988) pp. 70-71:

    “(Robert) Strauss is a high stakes political player who knows the ins and outs of the power game and can laugh at them even while he’s playing the game.”

    “You know, power is an interesting thing,” Strauss grinned at me one day, his face flushed with a mid-winter Florida tan. “I used to think political power was going to a political dinner. And then I thought political power was helping put on a political dinner. And then I thought it was being invited to stay at the candidate’s hotel in a convention city. And then I used to stand in the hall outside of Sam Rayburn’s suite at the political convention, and I thought that was something. And then I got to go into the living room of the candidate’s suite, and I thought that was something. And then I found out there that the decisions were all made back in the bedroom. And finally, I was invited to the bedroom with the last eight or ten fellas, and I knew I was in the inside—until I finally learned that they stepped into the john. In the end, just me and Jimmy Carter and Hamilton Jordan made the final decision in the john.”

  10. JoAnn, I agree with you about Paul Ryan. You are fortunate that you already receive Social Security. Four or five years ago he came up with a plan to eliminate SS for those of us under 55 at the time. I called his office in WI and let them know my opinion of his outrageous idea. Why should younger generations keep paying for a program that they would never receive any benefit from? Paul Ryan is now in a stronger position to attempt to privatize SS and everything else that he and his backers can think of.

  11. Just finished reading “Cuba Confidential” by Ann Louise Bardach, an account of US policy related to Cuba. It’s a disturbing account, among other things, of the CIA (a terrorist organization?) and how it is able to operate independently from our elected government.

  12. What’s a “bureaucrat”? “An official in a government department, in particular one perceived as being concerned with procedural correctness at the expense of people’s needs” says one source. So if one is part of any large complex organization, and is not a “bureaucrat” what are they? A loose cannon?

    In my experience, one who works in the complex society of today, especially in a large organization be it religious, business, or government, has to be a bureaucrat.

    Perhaps one who doesn’t have to be is a sole proprietor of a small business who can decide issue by issue how he/she wants to deal with friend/customers – make the rules for herself as they go along.

    So, in the last couple of centuries the complexity of life has demanded that organizations establish process control – a standard of all of the steps by which things get done that’s necessary when getting things done involves many people each accomplishing a small step which only in total satisfy the customers and mission of the organization.

    Not good or bad only necessary.

    Does that make the organization slower to change? Yes it does. It acts just like culture in non-work society. It standardizes behavior so that everyone doesn’t have to figure out everything for themselves for each situation and therefore can concentrate on doing things rather than learning things.

    As I posited before an example of the both necessary and frustrating nature of process control is Common Core.

    So the second of the “double” government is the one defined by process control or institutional government that’s absolutely necessary to mission and customer satisfaction. Again, not good or bad just necessary.

    It merely is what it is.

    Much of Sheila’s thesis concerns the military. One thing that only business is close to the military as is a hierarchical, authoritarian organization, a dictatorship – a type that literally worships process control.

    That’s a good and necessary thing in the military where very often people have to do what nobody wants to do.

    Double government is reality. Every politician must learn to accept that. Did Oresident Obama? He’s pretty bright so I suspect so.

  13. I’m thinking term limits would work if all the people were to invest their time in citizenship. On the other hand, they never ,since 1777, have.

  14. An observation. Hillary is a bureaucrat, Bernie less so. Who would be more effective in a bureaucratic world?

    Good question.

  15. While many policy decisions are indeed made by bureaucrats, a recent decision by the Governor of Michigan was clearly made by an elected official. And the result is a poisoned water system for a large city and physical damage to countless children. When the voters in America look beyond the hype and ideological rantings of political candidates and begin to take into account the integrity and “lived out” values of those candidates, this might change.

  16. Sheila’s description of Congress people and their staffs remind me of the subplot in virtually all of the WWII movies that I ever saw.

    In the beginning a new typically educated officer is put in charge of a battle weary platoon kept together in spirit by a hardened cigar chewing non commissioned sarge.

    It’s clear who gets things done and many of them fall outside of process control. Sometimes even the law.

    Staff people get things done. Typically they’re good at it because experience has taught them the ropes.

    I’m not a fan of term limits because they are anti democratic. We the constituents should decide who represents us not rules from the past. And we may well decide that experience beats change only for the sake of change.

  17. This gives one much to consider. However, I am not totally in the camp that believes that all staff members and so-called bureaucrats are subversive. Perhaps because I was one and my daughter works as an adviser at the Department of State. It is too easy to lump people together in America and it far too easy to make judgement calls on people – like some of you immediately did with Neal who was the first poster. Everyone is entitled to their opinion and he is correct in saying, essentially, that we are electing idiots who do not understand the government process and if they cannot learn it and know it they should be gone. It should not take a lifetime to learn how to do ones job adequately. If that were the case then I would not want some of you operating me in the OR! We elect people to represent US. They have advisers to read, study and learn the indepth material they do not have time for but ultimately it is their decision to make. If they are not strong enough, wise enough, capable enough to make those decisions on their own then they should be out – term limits or the ballot box. The problem is NOT the policy advisers, the government workers, the staff. The problem is the lobbyists, the money that has infiltrated our system. Stop that and you stop the problem.

  18. The secret government or shadow government does exist. When is the last time any Council Member or Mayor has publicly and loudly opposed all the Corporate Welfare the Colts and Pacers receive?? Not one that I can think of.

    During the era of the Soviet Union there was the Nomenklatura. From Wiki – The nomenklatura referred to the Communist Party’s governance to make appointments to key positions throughout the governmental system, as well as throughout the party’s own hierarchy. Vladimir Lenin wrote that appointments were to take the following criteria into account: reliability, political attitude, qualifications, and administrative ability.

    We have here in the USA the establishment our own Nomenklatura . Tragically, we have seen our two main political parties morph into one at many levels. When is the last time the Democrat Party that championed itself as the party of people stood up for the Unions??

  19. In any large organization whether a large private organization or being a local, state, or federal government, there are the formal leaders who are highly visible as per being at the very top of the organization and then there are the informal leaders, those not visible but those who maintain the organization’s operation and ultimately and indirectly control the direction of the organization by virtue of nothing more than holding the ropes for the time-honored bag of tricks for implementation of the formal leaders’ visions. Visionary leaders seldom have the skillset, the inclination, or the time for dealing with the details of implementing their visions.

    All organizations have both a climate and a culture, two entirely different things. It took me years as a career educator to discover the difference between the two. I use an iceberg as an analogy for understanding the differences. Organizational climate is that 1/3 of the iceberg that is visible to the public and is measured by an oberserver’s first impression of the organization and how it ‘appears’ to align with the the group’s stated mission and vision. On the other hand, organizational culture is that 2/3 of the iceberg that is concealed beneath the surface, never put into writing, and only discovered when an unsuspecting person suddenly bumps against that unspoken culture. My first introduction to organizational culture was via a co-worker entering my designated office area and telling me, “This is not the way we do things.”

  20. Ghost of Eisenhower indeed. What really grinds my gears is that these bureaucrats don’t really have the interests of the country at heart. They’re interested in that nice two million dollar house in northern Virginia, the timeshare in St Kitts, and the retirement home in Scottsdale. Completely amoral.

  21. Having worked in government (as a librarian) I know that the elected officials, especially in city and county governments, ask for input from the people who are actually running a department, for instance on budget figures, before they make decisions. They rarely have enough information to completely change a department. And if they do make major changes the people in the department fight tooth and nail to keep changes from taking place.

    On the other hand, the elected officials can be highly responsive to the public, even if it is just one loud voice, to prevent a reasonable policy from being put in place.

    I don’t know what the answer is but the secret government is not all bad or all good as Sheila’s most recent blog post shows.

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