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Are the US defense department and related security agencies under democratic control and accountability, or are they completely out of control and under no accountability?

Perceptions of a Department of Defense unaccountable to the public are misguided. Every dollar the department, and the other agencies that collectively comprise the national security apparatus of the United States, receive is authorized by Congress per article I of the Constitution. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of Congress to provide oversight of the Department of Defense.

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When addressing questions regarding accountability on the part of the national security agencies of the United States, including the Department of Defense, it is a good idea to broaden the category just a bit to include a non-Defense Department agency, the Central Intelligence Agency. This is for two reasons: (1) The Department of Defense oversees most of what is called the “intelligence community,” which includes the National Security Agency and Defense Intelligence Agency, and (2) the series of congressional hearings held in 1975 into the activities of the Central Intelligence Agency directly touches upon the issue of accountability.

I will tackle the second of these two issues first. Following the Watergate scandal of the early to mid-1970s and revelations of so-called “dirty tricks” and covert activities, both the House of Representatives and the Senate convened special committees to look into the national security apparatus of the United States. It was during these hearings that Senator Frank Church famously suggested that the CIA had been “behaving like a rogue elephant on a rampage.” In other words, the chairman of the Senate committee authorized to investigate the intelligence agencies was arguing that these agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, a law enforcement agency that collects information (or intelligence) on domestic organizations deemed criminal in nature or a potential threat to national security, were out of control and unaccountable to the American public (and, by extension, to public’s elected representatives). As investigations continued, however, it became increasingly clear that the CIA was not a rogue elephant but was, in fact, acting in accordance with guidance from the Office of the President. Conspiracies to assassinate foreign leaders, especially Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, that were considered by the CIA had been authorized by the Kennedy Administration, just as the fiasco known as “the Bay of Pigs” had begun under the aegis of then-President Dwight Eisenhower. In short, misdeeds were a direct reflection of executive will.

I raise all of this because it is germane to the issue of accountability. Whether the CIA or the Department of Defense, careful study and analysis invariably leads back to the elected officials with responsibility for agencies under their purview. The Department of Defense is a perfect case in point.

Under article I of the Constitution of the United States, the Congress of the United States alone has the powers to do the following:

To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water;

To raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years;

To provide and maintain a Navy;

The Department of Defense, as with all federal agencies, is subject to oversight by Congress, and its budget does not exist until Congress passes it. Congress alone appropriates money. Presidents submit budget proposals to Congress, but those are just that: proposals. It is the Legislative Branch of government that ultimately determines how much money each agency receives and how that money is to be spent, and Congress is very practiced at micromanaging those budgets.

Departing the White House following his two terms as president, Dwight Eisenhower famously warned against complacency with respect to the Department of Defense and its relationship to the powerful industries that supplied it:

"In the councils of government, 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."

The relationship between the military and industry is a powerful one, and President Eisenhower was wise in his warnings about the prospects of a military-industrial complex run amok. In my opinion, however, this much-cited warning sort of misses a point. There is no question that the “complex” is powerful. It is powerful, however, because elected officials in the Legislative Branch of government allow it to be powerful. Congresspersons and senators represent districts and states, and those districts and states are populated by hundreds of thousands of people whose livelihoods are dependent upon the production of ships, aircraft, tanks, rifles, etc., legitimately required by the armed services. There is definite area for improvement, but I don't think the issue is not as simple as often supposed. Unless one is equipped to determine how many fighter jets the Air Force and Navy require, how many and what kind of ships the Navy should have, how many divisions the Army should have and how many of those divisions should have tanks and armored personnel carriers, and how much money should each soldier, sailor, airman and Marine receive, and how good should be the medical care they receive, and how many bases should they have and how much should be spent maintaining those bases, then one may not be equipped to question the budgets and oversight the armed services receive.

I spent 12 years as a military legislative assistant to senior members of the House and Senate Committees on Armed Services. I spent countless hours working on military budgets for those congresspersons and senators and on oversight of the Department of Defense and the uniformed services. The department has its flaws and its excesses, to be sure. Each branch of the uniformed services makes costly errors in judgement with respect to weapon systems, and some examples are legendary. It's my opinion, however, that accountability is not the problem. Congress must do its job and must do its job better. That has always been the case. When members of Congress are willing to say “no” to powerful constituencies—constituencies economically important to their districts and states—the issue of accountability can be greatly improved.

It is very difficult to draw the proper line between micromanagement and autonomy. Presidents are criticized for micromanaging military operations, yet the buck, as President Harry Truman observed, stops with them. Generals and admirals are fallible, as are those vested with responsibility for their oversight. The system works as well as it does because there are good people out there doing their jobs as well as they can. The national security apparatus of the United States is accountable to elected representatives. It is up to those representatives to exercise judgement and, occasionally, wisdom.

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