The idea of a secret government is nothing new. Conspiracy theories have circulated since the beginning of elected representation that the public has held only an illusion of power – that the real government of unnamed officials conduct operations behind closed doors and wield more power than anyone could hope to know.

It may come across as a bit nutty. However, to Michael J. Glennon, a Tufts University political scientist and author of the new book “National Security and Double Government,” such theories hold some truth. While the amount of power the public may actually have is subject to debate, Glennon says there is undoubtedly a form of “double government” taking place right before the eyes of the U.S. public. A quick Boston Globe profile of Glennon’s views reveals that the author and former legal counsel to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee believes the national security and defense sectors of the U.S. Federal Government operate outside the normal checks and balances of which the public is familiar.

Glennon described the foundation of double government to the Ideas department of the Boston Globe. He told Ideas that the idea of double government began with a theory from Walter Bagehot in the 1960’s. Bagehot, a scholar who presided over the birth of the Economist magazine, wrote in his book “The English Constitution” about how the British government’s “dignified institutions” were separate from the “efficient institutions” – respectively, the monarchy and the House of Lords were separate from the House of Commons, prime minister, and British cabinet.

double government white house

What do you think? Could there really be a “double government?”

This same sort of split now takes place within the U.S. government, Glennon continues.

“I was curious why a president such as Barack Obama would embrace the very same national security and counterterrorism policies that he campaigned eloquently against. Why would that president continue those same policies in case after case after case? I initially wrote it based on my own experience and personal knowledge and conversations with dozens of individuals in the military, law enforcement, and intelligence agencies of our government, as well as, of course, officeholders on Capitol Hill and in the courts,” he said in his interview with Ideas.

Glennon warns that the effect the national defense institutions have could be disastrous. There are certainly large bureaucracies in the public and private sector that are hard to change; multinational corporations, for instance, can sway worldwide production of certain goods and services. The power of defense and national security, however, is one that can change the very nature of a democracy. It could pull it straight from the hands of the public and into the hands of a few insiders. Some may argue that that reality is fully upon the U.S. as these words are read.

In that case, one must ask: Is there any way back from the autopilot that Glennon supposes is the current military sector of the U.S. Federal Government? He plainly states that the biggest problem is a general public ignorance. If reform is to arise, he says, it must come from the American people who exist outside the government itself. Government officials cannot do it.

“Government is very much the problem here,” he says. “The people have to take the bull by the horns. And that’s a very difficult thing to do, because the ignorance is in many ways rational. There is very little profit to be had in learning about, and being active about, problems that you can’t affect, policies that you can’t change.”

News organizations and the public have said much about the revelations regarding the National Security Agency. Discussed previously at Industry Buzz, outcry against bulk data collection has hit the ears of members of Congress and the White House. Changes, one may argue, followed the path that Glennon suspects it must: they originated outside government. Citizens have demanded privacy, and demands have made waves within the structure of government itself.

If that sort of action is to continue further against the power of the NSA and other government institutions, the public will need to continue to inform themselves. In large numbers and with the correct information in hand, public can wield their own form of power. They may be the only ones who can turn the problems they can’t affect and the policies they can’t change into problems and policies that are directly under their control.

Image courtesy of Andreas Praefcke via Wikimedia Commons