How Obama Expanded the National Security State


During his election campaign in 2008, Barack Obama promised to close the prison at Guantánamo, repeal the Patriot Act of 2001 that authorised new domestic surveillance, and protect military and intelligence whistleblowers against government reprisals. It was a pledge to rein in much of the security state apparatus that had been expanded after 11 September 2001 into an enormous, often unaccountable, bureaucracy.

But four years later, Guantánamo is still open, its military tribunals have resumed and Obama has approved the renewal of the Patriot Act. His Department of Justice has launched six Espionage Act prosecutions of security whistleblowers — twice as many as all previous administrations combined. Also the no-fly list of individuals prohibited from air travel — a designation that is often arbitrary and always opaque — has more than doubled since last year, to 21,000. In 2011, the president signed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which gives the federal government the power to imprison indefinitely US citizens accused of terrorism, a major erosion of habeas corpus rights. The administration has authorised the assassination of an unknown number of US citizens abroad who are not directly engaged in armed hostilities but who have been designated as “terrorists”, with minimal legal process. Last September, American drones in Yemen hunted and killed radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and Al-Qaida propagandist Samir Khan; two weeks later, a separate American drone strike killed Awlaki’s 16-year old son: all were US citizens. Obama has also radically expanded the ostensibly “secret” killing of non-US citizens by drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia; as many as a third of the victims are non-combatant civilians, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

What happened? The expectation that Obama would reduce the national security state was not wholly naïve, nor without historical precedent. In the 1970s, after Watergate and Vietnam, an emboldened Democratic majority in Congress rose up against Republican president Gerald Ford to curtail intrusive police powers and domestic spying at home while limiting the executive’s war-making powers, including covert operations, abroad. Many voters expected similar changes, in accordance with Obama’s campaign promises, after the 2008 election.

They have been disappointed. Airport security is ever more intrusive, with the introduction of body-imaging “porno-scanners,” now in 140 airports. These time-consuming and irritating practices are “security theatre” and initial reports by the Transportation Security Administration show that the scanners — which have cost $90m — are not difficult to elude (1). Those who refuse to be scanned go through pat-downs more like sexual groping.

Alphabet Soup of Fiefdoms

Most striking is the normalisation of domestic surveillance under Obama. The federal government now employs 30,000 people to monitor phone conversations in the US; the Department of Homeland Security, formed only in 2002, is now the third-largest federal bureaucracy, surpassed only by the Pentagon and the Department of Veteran Affairs. The construction of a 1m sq ft (93,000 sq m) domestic surveillance data centre costing $2bn has just been started in Bluffdale, Utah (2).

It is difficult to discern exactly how much the national security state has grown. Since 9/11 an alphabet soup of bureaucratic fiefdoms, all with ballooning budgets (supplemented by secret funding allocations), has fuelled a construction boom in the Washington area: 33 complexes, nearly 17m sq ft (1.58m sq m). Dana Priest, national security correspondent at The Washington Post, estimates that the post-9/11 “security spending spree” has topped $2 trillion. There is no overarching authority: the new cabinet-level position theoretically in charge of these agencies, the Director of National Intelligence, is in practice powerless.

At the same time government secrecy has intensified. Washington classified an amazing 92m documents in 2011, almost double the number made secret in 2009. The classification process costs $10bn annually, according to William Bosanko, a former director of the federal Information Security Oversight Office. Declassification of secret material is glacially slow; not until last year did the National Security Agency (NSA) finish releasing material from the war of 1812. Only well-funded advocacy groups with experienced lawyers are able to use the Freedom of Information Act to gain access to information about the security state — and with only limited success.

This well-funded security apparatus is not an airtight vessel for keeping secrets. The exponential proliferation of clearances — 854,000 Americans now hold “top secret” security authorisation, and some 4.2 million others have lower order clearance — redefines “secrecy”. Though enforcement of information security laws is often strict, it is just as often sketchy and erratic. Classified material frequently passes from government laptops to publicly accessible websites via peer-to-peer file-sharing technology, usually installed by the children of middle-aged officials lacking in technological know-how (3). Matthew M Aid, a historian of American intelligence, has found US military computers on sale in the bazaars of Kabul, with their classified hard drives still intact (4).

Despite the crackdown on leaks, elite Washington officials continue to provide journalists with top-secret information without fear of repercussions: the top-secret National Intelligence Estimate on Afghanistan was leaked this January, and leaks about the administration’s “secret” drone strikes in Pakistan are common. Overall, high government officials are generally safe from the new regimen of national security laws.

Silence of the Liberals

During the George W Bush administrations, many liberals found the expansion of the security state a grave threat to Americans’ civil liberties. No longer. Since the second world war, the US civil libertarian agenda gains traction only when the Democratic Party is in opposition, as in the early 1970s. As soon as the Democrats occupy the executive branch, such concerns evaporate. Today, many Democrat-oriented intellectuals assure the public that their objection is not to government intrusiveness itself but only to such techniques being in the hands of the wrong political party — “a common response by liberals who cannot bring themselves to denounce Obama as they did Bush,” wrote the jurist Jonathan Turley (5). Former officials of the Bush-Cheney administration have applauded Obama’s normalisation of the post 9/11 security state. (Dick Cheney has been particularly effusive.)

At the start of his presidency, Obama seemed intent on making good on campaign promises, but faced hostility in Congress. His failed attempt to close Guantánamo is emblematic. On 21 May 2009 Congress refused to allocate the $80m needed. Attorney General Eric Holder suddenly announced that five Guantánamo prisoners would be transferred into the federal court system for civilian trials in New York. But the Obama administration had failed to secure prior approval from local politicians in New York, who balked amid local controversy. The Obama administration, sidetracked by other crises, quickly lost the initiative and since then, support for the Guantánamo complex and all it entails (indefinite imprisonment, military tribunals) has grown in Congress, especially among Democrats. The federal judiciary, always cautious as to how it expends its limited authority and prestige, has been reluctant to intervene. It would be wrong to regard Obama’s entrenchment of these emergency security measures as the “imperial presidency” bulldozing legislative and judicial restraints.

The rapid expansion of the US security state is not new. Its greatest expansion was after the second world war, under Democratic president Harry Truman, spurred by anti-Communist military build-up abroad and a “red scare” at home, and there were major growth spurts under John F Kennedy (1961-1963) and Ronald Reagan (1981-1989). In the post-war era, the security state has generally got all the budget and autonomy it asked for.

Limits of American Libertarianism

Though the US is hostile to government intervention in private life, conservative libertarians (a minority faction in the Republican Party) had hoped that the rightwing populist Tea Party movement might trim the security state, as well as decrease the growing number of foreign military interventions. But the Tea Party’s militant libertarianism is fixated almost exclusively on property rights, and the Congressional representatives affiliated with the movement voted overwhelmingly to renew the Patriot Act’s surveillance measures in 2011. For all its anti-Washington rhetoric, the Tea Party is well at ease with the security state.

Today, resistance is fragmented across the left-right political divide. The American Civil Liberties Union, centre-left, is an established and well-funded NGO that has for decades litigated against illegal surveillance, extreme government secrecy and other encroachments of state power. Yet the only presidential candidate this year to voice any opposition is Ron Paul, a Texas Republican who, while fervently civil libertarian and anti-imperialist, is also a rightwing ultra. Bipartisan efforts to protect civil liberties have all been defeated, despite getting frequent Democratic majorities in the House of Representatives. The civil libertarian message has more electoral appeal in the mountain states and Southwest and Upper Midwest than in the coastal metropolitan regions. California and New York’s Democratic senators are in harmony with the security establishment and the large telecom corporations that collaborate with surveillance programmes.

Domestic expansion of the national security apparatus has historically accompanied US military interventions overseas. Now that the US has a severe budget crisis, a few in the Republican Party and a larger group of Democrats favour reducing the military budget. But no matter who wins the election, the budget and power of the domestic national security state are likely to expand even further.

Chase Madar is a lawyer in New York and author of The Passion of Bradley Manning, (OR Books). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. Hopeless is also available in a Kindle edition.


(1) David Kravets, “Homeland Security Concedes Airport Body Scanner ‘Vulnerabilities’”, Wired,7 May 2012;

(2) James Bamford, “The NSA is Building the Country’s Biggest Spy Center (Watch What You Say)”,Wired, 15 March 2012.

(3) Dana Priest and William M Arkin, Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State, Little Brown, New York, 2011, p 234.

(4) Matthew M Aid, Intel Wars, Bloomsbury, New York, 2012, p 77.

(5) “10 Reasons Why the US Is No Longer the Land of the Free”, Jonathan Turley, The Washington Post,4 January 2012.

This article appears in the excellent Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.


Clearance Sale of Vintage
CounterPunch T-Shirts!

We’ve marked down some of CounterPunch’s most popular t-shirts to only $8.00,including the CP shirt featuring Alexander Cockburn’s own scrawl.

October 07, 2015
Nancy Scheper-Hughes
Witness to a Troubled Saint-Making: Junipero Serra and the Theology of Failure
Luciana Bohne
The Double-Speak of American Civilian Humanitarianism
Joyce Nelson
TPP: Big Pharma’s Big Deal
Jonathan Cook
Israel Lights the Touchpaper at Al-Aqsa Again
Joseph Natoli
The Wreckage in Sight We Fail To See
Piero Gleijeses
Jorge Risquet: the Brother I Never Had
Andrew Stewart
Do #BlackLivesMatter to Dunkin’ Donuts?
Rajesh Makwana
#GlobalGoals? The Truth About Poverty and How to Address It
Joan Berezin
Elections 2016: A New Opening or Business as Usual?
Dave Randle
The Man Who Sold Motown to the World
Adam Bartley
“Shameless”: Hillary Clinton, Human Rights and China
Binoy Kampmark
The Killings in Oregon: Business as Usual
Harvey Wasserman
Why Bernie and Hillary Must Address America’s Dying Nuke Reactors
Tom H. Hastings
Unarmed Cops and a Can-do Culture of Nonviolence
October 06, 2015
Vijay Prashad
Afghanistan, the Terrible War: Money for Nothing
Mike Whitney
How Putin will Win in Syria
Paul Street
Yes, There is an Imperialist Ruling Class
Paul Craig Roberts
American Vice
Kathy Kelly
Bombing Hospitals: 22 People Killed by US Airstrike on Doctors Without Borders Hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan
Ron Jacobs
Patti Smith and the Beauty of Memory
David Macaray
Coal Executive Finally Brought Up on Criminal Charges
Norman Pollack
Cold War Rhetoric: The Kept Intelligentsia
Cecil Brown
The Firing This Time: School Shootings and James Baldwin’s Final Message
Roger Annis
The Canadian Election and the Global Climate Crisis
W. T. Whitney
Why is the US Government Persecuting IFCO/Pastors for Peace Humanitarian Organization?
Jesse Jackson
Alabama’s New Jim Crow Far From Subtle
Joe Ramsey
After Umpqua: Does America Have a Gun Problem….or a Dying Capitalist Empire Problem?
Murray Dobbin
Rise Up, Precariat! Cheap Labour is Over
October 05, 2015
Michael Hudson
Parasites in the Body Economic: the Disasters of Neoliberalism
Patrick Cockburn
Why We Should Welcome Russia’s Entry Into Syrian War
Kristine Mattis
GMO Propaganda and the Sociology of Science
Heidi Morrison
Well-Intentioned Islamophobia
Ralph Nader
Monsanto and Its Promoters vs. Freedom of Information
Arturo Desimone
Retro-Colonialism: the Exportation of Austerity as War By Other Means
Robert M. Nelson
Noted Argentine Chemist Warns of Climate Disaster
Matt Peppe
Misrepresentation of the Colombian Conflict
Barbara Dorris
Pope Sympathizes More with Bishops, Less with Victims
Clancy Sigal
I’m Not a Scientologist, But I Wish TV Shrinks Would Just Shut Up
Chris Zinda
Get Outta’ Dodge: the State of the Constitution Down in Dixie
Eileen Applebaum
Family and Medical Leave Insurance, Not Tax Credits, Will Help Families
Pierre-Damien Mvuyekure
“Boxing on Paper” for the Nation of Islam, Black Nationalism, and the Black Athlete: a Review of “The Complete Muhammad Ali” by Ishmael Reed
Lawrence Ware
Michael Vick and the Hypocrisy of NFL Fans
Gary Corseri - Charles Orloski
Poets’ Talk: Pope Francis, Masilo, Marc Beaudin, et. al.
Weekend Edition
October 2-4, 2015
Henry Giroux
Murder, USA: Why Politicians Have Blood on Their Hands
Mike Whitney
Putin’s Lightning War in Syria