February 14, 2010 10:54 pm

Bomb Power

'Bomb Power' cover

Bomb Power: The Modern Presidency and the National Security State
By Garry Wills
Penguin Press, $27.95

It is a long and winding road from Hiroshima to Abu Ghraib but Garry Wills walks it straight in telling how America evolved over 70 years into what it now undoubtedly is – a national security state with far-reaching, unaccountable powers vested in the presidency.

Long a formidable chronicler of presidents, society and religion, he reveals here the forensic skills of a good investigative reporter. Neither is he above the polemical, as in a furious coda against the excessive accretion of authority under George W. Bush and a gloomy short afterword suggesting that, on early evidence, Barack Obama will mark no change.

The story begins with the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. This was run with an iron hand and total secrecy by Brig General Leslie Richard “Dick” Groves, in unlikely tandem with Robert Oppenheimer, its chief scientist. Groves was able to spend what he liked, recruit whom he wanted and reported to nobody except – and only when he felt like it – the president who appointed him. So closely held was the operation that Harry Truman, then vice-president, was only apprised of its very existence when he took over as president on Franklin Roosevelt’s sudden death.

But it worked, an end that justified all means. The difference this time was that while previous extraordinary wartime measures – Lincoln’s Civil War suspension of habeas corpus, FDR’s internment of Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor – eventually lapsed or were reversed, there was no interruption to the growth of the national security state.

The cold war, of course, provided a new justification, as Wills documents, with assorted presidential “findings” (staff-written opinions serving as policy guidance) and National Security Council directives, the clandestine activities of the Central Intelligence Agency, whose original mission was research and analysis, and the partial subversion of the Marshall Plan for intelligence purposes. Later there would be Iran-Contra and extraordinary rendition, to name but two other examples of operations off the books.

The cult of secrecy has afflicted every president since, not merely the paranoid, such as Richard Nixon. Even Jimmy Carter was not entirely immune – the abortive 1980 rescue mission to extricate the US hostages in Tehran was executed without advising even his secretary of state, Cyrus Vance, who resigned. Wills is particularly hard on the Kennedy brothers’ obsession with deposing Fidel Castro, a mindset so blinkered that it failed to acknowledge the reality that Cubans liked their president (ditto Salvador Allende in Chile, etc). That fits with Robert McNamara’s much later admission that the US knew nothing of Vietnamese culture even as it was losing nearly 60,000 troops in the war.

Presidents, Wills persuasively argues, have fallen into the trap of listening only to the official high priests of intelligence. Those without prized security clearance are somehow considered inferior, if not ignorant, even if proved right. That was the proposed sanction against Oppenheimer for opposing the development of the hydrogen bomb. To be in-the-know is to be omniscient. The Pentagon Papers, the in-house review of the Vietnam War published only after the Supreme Court so ordered, contained no state secrets. But they were highly classified and thus, for government, unfit for consumption by friend or foe.

But the organic growth of the national security state needed theoreticians and they comprise Wills’s large Hall of Infamy. It was the (ironically conservative) Reagan justice department, under attorney-general Edwin Meese, that developed the theory of the “unitary executive” – which basically says that the law is anything that the president says it is. This produced a welter of “signing statements” in which a president says he can disregard, for whatever reason, any section of a duly passed congressional bill he has just, er, signed.

That reached stupendous proportions under Bush the Younger, courtesy of Vice-President Dick Cheney and his cohorts, when the White House issued more then 1,400 such reservations, more than twice as many as the previous 42 presidents combined (Mr Obama has not abandoned the practice). But, then, this was a government that had declared the Geneva Conventions “quaint” and “obsolete”, and issued memoranda on torture that can only have been the product of tortured minds, and which led to Abu Ghraib and more besides.

In the end, Bomb Power is a hymn to the wisdom of the US constitution and an excoriation of those in authority who have so wilfully departed from it. Mr Cheney is but one voice in this sad congregation.

The writer is an FT columnist

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