Peace Researcher 39 – January 2010
A military or an intelligence agency embodies a concentration of power. At times, concentrations of power and their deployment may be necessary. However, a cautionary acknowledgement is that there is a potential for concentrations of power being used for unjust purposes. I take it to be an uncontroversial precautionary principle that we should bind concentrations of power with various checks and balances to minimise the possibility of their being used for unjust purposes.
With respect to the
1. What sorts of groups are likely to benefit most from
military intervention by the
2. Through which institutions are these interests able to have disproportionate influence on foreign policy?
3. Are there any institutional features that increase the
likelihood of a significant component of military and covert intervention in
4. Are there any institutions that reduce the ability of a relatively peaceful public majority to counter the influence of the relevant special interests?
In answering these four questions, I discuss various institutions. These include: lobbying and campaign finance pressure from the defence industry and from other industries on policy makers; “revolving door” appointments in the relevant industries and the relevant policy offices; the threat of reducing jobs in a Congressional district; the maintenance of a proliferation of US military bases abroad; the secrecy of various intelligence and military activities of agencies in the US and the lack of oversight by Congress; the poor performance of mass media; and the propaganda (or psychological operations) of the Defense Department. These institutions operate in various ways, as distinguished by the various subheadings above. Some of the institutions create a pressure on foreign policymakers to intervene politically or militarily, others make certain types of intervention more attractive in comparison to alternative ways to address a given problem. Some institutions make it easier for the identified special interest groups to shape policy without the critical attention of either Congress or of a significant proportion of the voting population.
Systematic pressures to deploy the military are likely to emerge from the defence industry (which supplies the Government with weapons and various services in the event of military action) and from large industries (especially extractive industries) that might benefit from using covert or overt military action that secures access to natural resources or to markets in foreign lands. With respect to pressure from the defence industry, this idea of the military-industrial complex has occupied popular discourse at least since former US President Dwight Eisenhower’s 1961 farewell speech upon leaving office. With respect to pressure from extractive industries, this idea has been discussed popularly in the context of colonialism and empire.
Traditional defence companies make the goods of war, such
as weapons, ammunition, aircraft, tanks, armoured vehicles and artillery. They
also provide technical services to maintain these weapons and services such as
logistics, training and communications support. The major
More recently, private intelligence gathering companies
have been contracted by Government intelligence gathering agencies. Major such
companies include Science Applications International Corporation, Booz Allen
Private military contractors or PMCs offer personnel (as
opposed to equipment) for combat zones. Their services include armed combat services,
retired officers to provide strategic advice and military training; logistics;
intelligence; maintenance services to armed forces; and tactical combat
There are problems peculiar to the growing PMCs and to the
intelligence gathering companies that are not shared by other aspects of the
defence industry. For instance, while US military personnel are accountable to
a system of laws defining acceptable conduct and to an institution for
enforcing these laws, private contractors hired by the Pentagon may not be.
These companies have significant interests tied to
There are also ways for the defence industry to profit
from US foreign policy other than by directly selling their products to the
Various industries (often extractive industries) would
like access to the natural resources of foreign countries. Cost minimising
motives predispose such companies to use means at their disposal to ensure the
cheapest possible access to these resources. A foreign political aspirant’s
declared intention to nationalise, say, the country’s oil industry or to raise
the royalties demanded for resources, would encroach on the cost minimising
motive of the company. If the company C from the US competes against a company
from foreign country F over access to natural resources in a third country T, C
might win the access to the resources if the political regime in T is
friendlier to the Government of the US than to the Government of F. These sorts
of considerations create an interest in influencing the
This is a matter of the means by which a special interest
group can influence the relevant foreign policymakers in the
A six year study (1998-2003) of Department of Defense contracts, found that the ten largest defence contractors all spent heavily on both campaign contributions (a combined $US35.7 million) and lobbying ($US414.6 million). The return on their investment was a combined $US340 billion in contracts over that time (Center for Public Integrity, 2004). Other major lobbying industries include the energy industry. Campaign contributions and lobbying are aimed both at Congresspersons and at the Executive. To influence the Executive branch, attention might be lavished on senior members of the relevant political parties, and on the Presidential candidates.
Former Defense Department military analyst, Franklin Spinney, describes the two techniques of front-loading and political engineering used by defence companies. Political engineering involves defence contractors spreading jobs and profits over as many Congressional districts as possible. Complex weapons systems often involve sub-systems that are sub-contracted to other firms. Such sub-contracting increases the ability to spread production across Congressional districts. This maximises the number of Congresspersons who stand to lose jobs and revenue for their district’s economy (and potentially stand to lose votes as a consequence) in case the defence contract is cancelled. Such pork barrel politics also allows Congresspersons to ingratiate themselves with constituents by “winning” defence contracts for their district.
Those approving a defence programme may have qualms about its cost. Front-loading is the idea of attaining this approval by quoting unrealistically low figures in order to get the seed money for the programme. Once the programme is begun, it is easier to get approval for the actual, higher, costs, since failure to approve the costs would leave nothing to show for the seed investment. The approval is also made easier by political engineering, as many Congresspersons stand to lose jobs and revenue in their district. By presenting an unrealistically low estimate of the cost, the contract is made easier to approve. By political engineering, the contract is made difficult to terminate. Individuals in the Pentagon or Department of Defense are happy with the setup as they get control over a growing volume of resources and weapons. Individuals in the Congress are happy because this funnels Government money (via Department of Defense and via defence contractors) to their districts. The contractors are happy as they ensure greater demand for their products (Spinney 1998 [originally 1990]).
An example of the institution of a revolving door is in private equity firms. A growing number of private equity firms are investing in defence companies in order to win contracts from the Department of Defense and the newly created Department of Homeland Security. This growth is understandable given the size of the potential pool available to contractors in this area. Half of the Defense Department budget (approximately $US900 billion between 1998 and 2003) has gone to contractors rather than paying for direct costs such as payrolls for the uniformed armed services (Center for Public Integrity, 2004). A 2004 report on private equity firms investing in defence companies revealed that such equity firms employ five of the past nine Defense Secretaries, two Secretaries of State, two National Security chiefs, two
Here is an example of a revolving door between the Defense Department and the defence industry. In 1992 Dick Cheney held the office of Secretary of Defense. In that year, the Defense Department paid the company Brown & Root a total of $US8.9 million to produce a classified report detailing how private companies could help provide logistics for American troops. In the same year, that company won a contract to provide logistics for American troops. Between 1992 and 1999 the Defense Department paid Brown & Root over $US1.2 billion for its work.
Cheney left the office of Secretary of Defense in 1992 and between 1995 and 2000 he was Chief Executive Officer of Halliburton (of which Brown & Root was a subsidiary). When Cheney began his tenure at Halliburton, the latter was doing less than $US300 million a year in business with the Defense Department. By 1999, this figure had grown to over $US650 million (Bryce 2000). The obvious worry is that these ex-officials will be able to gain influence with their former colleagues in Government and gain a competitive edge for their defence companies over competitor companies. Another worry is that if Government officials are promised lucrative careers in a company after retirement from office, they may be willing to pull strings to favour that company in the awarding contracts.
There are three institutional factors to discuss – the
proliferation of US military bases abroad, US training of foreign militaries
and pressure from the defence industry. The
Since this was
written, some more up to date figures have become available. “The global reach
The presence of overseas bases in geopolitically strategic
regions of the world potentially reduces the cost of at least small scale
interventions abroad as personnel and equipment may not need to be moved from
The growing influence of the Defense Department in foreign policy, exhibited for instance in the significant powers available to the regional UCCs, makes it more likely that at least a part of the US foreign policy position in relation to a country will be in the form of military intervention. At times this will be because of explicit policy decisions in the US Executive branch to deal with a perceived crisis not by diplomacy but instead by intervention in the form of arming of local military and paramilitary forces or influencing local militaries to enact US foreign policy by proxies or by other covert operations.
However, even in the ordinary course of events and in the
absence of any perceived crisis, arms sales and US training of foreign
militaries can be a potentially harmful form of
Here is an example. In 1991, Indonesian troops trained by
I discuss three institutions here – lack of democratic
accountability; the poor performance of the mass media; and Government propaganda.
Some of the military and covert interventions occur with little oversight by
Congress. In such cases, there is not even a formal
democratic check on the policy through Congressional representatives. The
intelligence agencies, for example, conduct projects that are not properly
identified on the budgets approved by Congress. Historically, projects by
The poor performance of the mass media means that when a
decision to militarily intervene is
publicly aired, much of the voting public does not receive a balanced account
of the issue. Academic analysis of the
Special Access Programs or SAPs are highly classified programmes funded in a way to keep the budget secret. The budgets for such programmes can be acquired through fake labels for projects or by channelling funds from other Government agencies to the Defense Department and the intelligence agencies. The Defense Department began this practice with the Manhattan Project during World War 2, which allowed the atomic bomb to be built without Congressional knowledge.
Such Special Access Programs (also known as black projects covered under a black budget) are extensively used and can be well funded. For some indication, in 1992, a Library of Congress report noted that the GAO (Government Accountability Office) had identified 185 such programmes and that recent estimates (since authoritative indicators are unavailable) suggest secret military spending of $US30 to $US35 billion per year (Caldwell, 1992). Since then, the black budget is thought to have expanded. In 2003, it was reported to be at its highest since 1988 (Morgan, 2003). Much of the programme involves research and development of expensive technology and weapons such as aircraft. However, the black budget also includes the budget for covert action by the many intelligence agencies.
Given the aim of plausible deniability for covert action,
it is often difficult to establish where the authorisation for a specific
covert action was initiated (Church Committee, 1975, p10). Since the 1970s’
Watergate scandal, there has been a requirement that
Moreover, in the absence of Presidential findings on a
specific issue, the
At times, a decision to intervene abroad is debated publicly before the intervention. One possible check on a representative government’s power to intervene is the action of a majority of the population exercising their democratic power over governmental policy. The majority public opinion about the justice of, or need for, a proposed intervention depends partly on the factual information available to the public, and on its consequent ability to assess the reasons advanced for the intervention by the Executive branch of the Government. The institution with primary responsibility and capacity for the dissemination of such factual information is the domestic mass media. 
In cases where the Government view has been captured by special interests who seek intervention, it is to be hoped that the news media would thoroughly assess the proposal to intervene to present the public with the requisite information to judge the cogency of the case for intervention. However, institutional analysis of US mass media suggests reasons that the news media’s discussion of a proposed intervention may tend to be insufficiently critical of Government pronouncements. Let me outline some of the relevant analysis.
The groups with the requisite wealth for making such free
press releases are, overwhelmingly, the corporate sector and the Government.
Thus, simply by the cost minimising imperative, news media have a tendency to
over-represent the views of the corporate sector and the Government. The
corporate sector has long pursued a strategy for influencing media coverage of
corporate issues by funding think tanks that can act as a nominally independent
(not explicitly representing a corporation) source for interviewees. A very
All this would not be so problematic if news outlets that were credulous and uncritical due to cost minimising pressures were balanced by other news outlets that are duly sceptical and that invest resources in independent research and scrutiny. We cannot hope to design a media institution that guarantees all and only the truth relevant to each important story. The best we can do is to design a system in which the poor performance of some news outlets is not too detrimental to the level of information available to the public, thanks to the better performance of competing news outlets. Informed by the diversity of voices, citizens can then make up their own minds as to what is best supported by evidence. This public good is undercut if a small number of voices dominates the relevant media and thus drowns out smaller voices. As a systematic consideration, it is desirable that the diversity of voices be relatively equal in power and reach in important respects, so that a more powerful competitor cannot drown out its rivals.
However, the mass media system in the
The power of the major media outlets lies not only in the fact that they are the direct source of news for a massive proportion of the public, but also in the fact that they set the agenda for many minor media outlets. Small news outlets that are not owned by the large media conglomerates must minimise costs like their competitors. They too try to cut spending on reporters and on investigative resources. As a result, much of their international and national news and analysis is taken from the major outlets. This is one way in which, the major outlets are agenda setters. What they choose to discuss, the facts they present in the discussion and the tenor of their coverage set the agenda for smaller outlets who do not have the resources to independently investigate stories while remaining competitive against the major companies.
A related problem that bears distinct mention is that of Government propaganda. The over-reliance on Government sources and a failure to seek out critiques of these or to fact-check them is made even more problematic when the Government sources engage in what is (euphemistically) called psychological operations or PSYOPS. In an article (19/2/02), the New York Times reported that the Pentagon’s Office of Strategic Influence was “developing plans to provide news items, possibly even false ones, to foreign media organisations”, the goal being to “influence public sentiment and policy makers in both friendly and unfriendly countries” (Hart, 2005). Amidst public outrage, the Pentagon closed the office, but Defense Secretary Rumsfeld quietly admitted that all of its tasks would simply be carried out by other agencies.
A relatively recent development in Government news
releases is the use of video and audio news releases (VNRs and ANRs). These are
produced to resemble news segments on television and radio. These have long
been in use by corporations to smuggle favourable coverage of their product
(i.e. advertisement), into news broadcasts. The segment is intended to pass as
news because it informs viewers of some technological or pharmaceutical
innovation. While the public relations (PR) firms producing these releases
generally take care not to make false claims, they have an imperative to avoid
dissenting views, downplay criticism, include paid testimonials and exaggerate
effectiveness as much as possible short of a lie. US government departments,
including the Defense Department also use such releases. The releases often
include reporting by former television news reporters and are in all other ways
indistinguishable from news clips. Given the cost cutting imperatives of the
media companies, they have an incentive to cut down on their staff of reporters
or on their budget for independent news gathering, and to resort to such news
releases as far as possible. Significant
Often the Government-produced releases are distributed to
international news organisations like
The Congressional Government Accountability Office has
released at least three reports stating that the use of such releases in news
may constitute “covert propaganda” on the part of the Government, despite
government pronouncements that the fault lay not with them but with the news
broadcasters who failed to disclose the origin of the video and audio segments.
The GAO has no enforcement abilities and the Government has, for the most part,
taken no note of the reports (
Another recent revelation about Defense Department
propaganda relates to retired military officials (
were not paid to echo the Government view. However, the analysts collectively
represent about 150 military contractors either as lobbyists, senior
executives, board members or consultants. Such military contractors derive an
advantage from inside information about the military’s needs that is
unavailable to their competitors. Analysts are of greater use to the military
contractors if they can boast inside access. The Defense Department offered
just such insider access. The analysts received hundreds of private briefings
from senior military leaders, officials from the White House, State Department
and Justice Department. They were taken on tours of
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 See National Security Archives
 For a longer
discussion of US mass media in relation to
 VNRs have been used
not only by corporations and by the