Bloated

06.12.13

The Military-Industrial Complex Is Real, and It’s Bigger Than Ever

President Eisenhower was ridiculed as a conspiracy theorist for his famous remark about the “military-industry complex.” But Edward Snowden’s leaks have reminded us it’s real, it’s bigger and more wasteful than ever, and its bloat can even threaten our national security.

Ike was right.

In January 1961, President Dwight D. Eisenhower famously warned about the growth of the “military-industrial complex” in his farewell address.

Ed Snowden, late of Booz Allen Hamilton, is just one small expression of its rise. The rest is evident throughout the Gilded Age of the metro Washington area, a boom time of corporate cronyism in the wake of 9/11 that has led to fat contracts amid the outsourcing of national security, complete with the proliferation of top security clearances to private contractors like Snowden.

As the iconic Washington Post investigation detailed, there are 1,931 private companies working on counterterrorism, homeland security, and intelligence. Throughout the D.C. area, 33 buildings containing 17 million square feet of office space have been built since 9/11—the equivalent of 22 Capitol buildings. But despite the growth of government national-security workers, some 500,000 private contractors also have top security clearances.

This might be defensible if private contractors actually saved taxpayer dollars, but they don’t. According to a 2008 study by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, contractors made up 29 percent of intelligence agency workforce but cost the equivalent of 49 percent of personnel budgets. Consider the fact that Snowden made $122,000 a year in his brief Hawaii-based gig for Booz Allen Hamilton, offering evident tech savvy but only a GED. The average annual salary for a person with a GED is only $37,200. This isn’t an industry interested in belt-tightening.

The proliferation of military-industrial complex contractors has helped propel the D.C. metro area to include seven of the top 10 wealthiest counties in the United States. Contra Snowden’s formal education, five of the top six counties for college-educated workers are in the D.C. metro area. The overlap between the two is not surprising: Loudoun, Arlington, and Fairfax counties in Virginia are particularly plush places to be in 2013.

If you want to find out what’s really happening in politics and government, follow the money. When it comes to national security, civic concerns compete with financial self-interest—and guess which often wins the tug of war?

The problem, of course, is not just a matter of money. It is the amount of overlap and inevitable turf battles that occur when multiple organizations—both private and public—all strive to prove their relevance to protect their self-interest. To use another example from the Post’s “Top Secret America” series, there are 51 federal organizations and military commands tracking the flow of money in terrorist networks. This just can’t be the most effective way to accomplish the mission.

But the military-industrial complex has a trump card to play with members of Congress and the public: nobody wants to argue with national security, especially when the very real threat of terrorism exists. This ain’t no phantom menace: more than 45 jihadist terror plots had been stopped before the 10th anniversary of 9/11. But the combination of real threat and opaque multibillion-dollar budgets leads inevitably to a lack of transparency and accountability. That’s where the risk of not just information-dragnet overreach but also the risk of leakers like Ed Snowden comes in. With this level of complexity in the system, security is ironically almost impossible to maintain.

There is no debate that Snowden’s unlikely access to the nation’s security secrets is a reflection of the overextended partial privatization of our intelligence operations.

Better to streamline a still-robust national-security community, leading to strict lines of accountability while minimizing consultants and their 500,000 top-secret clearances. If too much is top secret, then nothing is, especially in the digital age when documents can be accessed by any low-level staffer. Moreover, the tsunami of metadata collected might ultimately be utilized by our enemies, hacking into our system servers, rather than the inevitably disorganized tangle of private contractors and government workers.

Snowden wasn’t the danger Ike imagined in his Farewell Address, given from the Oval Office in the predawn of the computer age. Some might argue that Snowden represents the “alert and knowledgeable citizenry” that Eisenhower said would be the best check on the interests of military-industrial complex. 

But there is no debate that Ed Snowden’s unlikely access to the nation’s security secrets in the first place is a reflection of the overextended partial privatization of our intelligence operations. This is what Ike explicitly warned about more than a half-century ago: “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. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties.”

Ruminate on that, while we sort out all the facts.