Professor Michael Glennon on the Rise of the American System of Double Government

by Forum Staff

In his latest book, National Security and Double Government, Professor Michael Glennon challenges common understandings of American government institutions and provides daunting insights into the nature of the U.S. national security apparatus. Glennon claims that the “Trumanite network,” consisting of managers of the military, intelligence, and law enforcement agencies, guides and often makes key decisions on U.S. national security policy. He highlights the lack of oversight, accountability, and the mutually beneficial relationship between the public-facing “Madisonian” actors, such as the President and Congress, and this classified “Trumanite” network. The Fletcher Forum Editorial team sat down with Michael Glennon, Professor of International Law at the Fletcher School, to talk about his book and discuss the future of American democracy. 

FLETCHER FORUM: How did your experience on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and your continued work with the government inform your book?

GLENNON: When I worked for the Committee I was struck by the large number of Ford administration officials who continued on into the Carter administration. Many of these officials held significant policy-making roles in the realm of national security. I was also struck by the many programs and policies that also carried over from the earlier administration. Most of these related to classified intelligence and law enforcement activities. As a result the public believed that in many areas, things had changed much more than they actually had. What I was observing in closed meetings and in classified documents was not the civics-book model that the public had internalized. The courts, Congress, and even presidential appointees exercised much less influence over national security policy-making than people commonly believed. And the 1976 presidential election had had much less impact than people had expected. So it was pretty clear the data didn’t fit the conventional tri-partite, separation-of-powers paradigm, but I wasn’t sure what a more accurate paradigm would look like, or even whether there was one.

FLETCHER FORUM: When did you start thinking about this topic? How did you formulate this thesis and how did we get to this point?

GLENNON: Two years ago, I was struck again by the strange inalterability of U.S. national security policy. Before winning the 2008 presidential election, Barack Obama had campaigned forcefully and eloquently against many elements of the Bush administration’s national security policy. Yet rendition, military detention without trial or counsel, drone strikes, NSA surveillance, whistleblower prosecutions, non-prosecution of water-boarders, reliance on the state secrets privilege, covert operations, Guantanamo—you name it, virtually nothing changed. Obviously something more was going on than what the defenders of those policies claimed—which was that all those policies somehow happened to be the most rational response among all competing alternatives. The fact is that each of these policies presents questions on which reasonable people can differ—as indeed Obama himself had, as a Senator and as a candidate for the presidency. The epiphany occurred when I pulled a little book off the shelf and read it in amazement one rainy Sunday afternoon—Walter Bagehot’s The English Constitution.

FLETCHER FORUM: What are some components of this double government in the U.S. today? What are the key institutions and players?

GLENNON: Bagehot’s objective was to explain how the British government operated in the 1860s. He suggested that it had in effect split into two separate sets of institutions. The “dignified” institutions consisted of the monarchy and House of Lords. The British people believed that the dignified institutions ran the government. This belief was essential to foster the legitimacy needed for public deference and obedience. But that belief was an illusion. In fact, the government was run by the “efficient” institutions—the House of Commons, the prime minister, and the cabinet—which operated behind-the-scenes, largely removed from public view. Gradually and quietly, these efficient institutions had moved Britain away from a monarchy to become what Bagehot described as a “concealed republic.” My book’s thesis is that in the realm of national security, the United States also has unwittingly drifted into a system of double government—but that it is moving in the opposite direction, away from democracy, toward autocracy. With occasional exceptions, the dignified institutions of the judiciary, Congress, and the presidency are all on the road to becoming hollowed-out museum pieces, while the managers of the military, law enforcement, and intelligence community more and more come to dominate national security policy-making.

FLETCHER FORUM: You identify the pervasive political ignorance on the part of the American public as the root problem, and argue that reform must come from the people. How can this actually work in practice? Is there any hope that change is possible?

GLENNON: It’s a bit simplistic to focus exclusively upon the public’s “pervasive civic ignorance” (a term used by former Supreme Court Justice David Souter). As I point out in the book, the American people are anything but stupid. And while it’s true that they’re not terribly engaged or informed on national security policy, their ignorance is in many ways rational. Americans are very busy people and it doesn’t make much sense to expend a lot of effort learning about policies you can’t change. So we’re in a dilemma: because the dignified institutions can’t empower themselves by drawing upon powers that they lack, energy must come from the outside, from the people—yet as the electorate becomes increasingly uninformed and disengaged, the efficient institutions have all the more incentive to go off on their own. It’s telling and rather sad that the American public has become so reliant upon the government to come up with solutions to its problems that the public is utterly at loose ends to know where or how to begin to devise its own remedy. Learned Hand was right: liberty “lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it.”

FLETCHER FORUM: Does a lame duck President have a different relationship with the Trumanite Network? If President Obama were to read your book and ask for advice on changing the system, what would you tell him?

GLENNON: I’d suggest that he demonstrate to the American people that the book’s thesis is wrong. He could do that by changing the national security policies that he led the American people to believe would be changed. Among other things: (1) fire officials who lie to Congress and the American people, beginning with John Brennan and James Clapper, (2) appoint a special prosecutor to deal with the CIA’s spying on the Senate intelligence committee and Clapper’s false statements to it, (3) stop blocking publication of the Senate intelligence committee’s torture report, (4) stop invoking the state secrets privilege to obstruct judicial challenges to abusive counter-terrorism activities, (5) halt the bombing of Syria until Congress authorizes it, and (6) stop prosecuting and humiliating whistleblowers who spark public debates he claims to welcome.

FLETCHER FORUM: Are there any potential 2016 Presidential candidates that could challenge the Trumanite Network?


FLETCHER FORUM: Do you have any other recommended reading on this subject?

GLENNON: The English Constitution, by Walter Bagehot; President Eisenhower’s farewell address; The Power Elite, by C. Wright Mills; Why Leaders Lie, by John J. Mearsheimer; The Arrogance of Power, by J. William Fulbright; Top Secret America, by Dana Priest and William M. Arkin; the final report of the Church committee (S. Rep. No. 94-755, 1976); On Democracy, by Robert A. Dahl; The New American Militarism, by Andrew Bacevich; Groupthink, by Irving Janus

How to be a Better Ambassador: Nine Lessons from Singapore

Will Extremist Buddhism Undermine Myanmar’s Path to Democracy?