Don Robinson: The new world information order

Last modified: Wednesday, August 27, 2014

ASHFIELD — For those concerned about the health of democracy in America and around the world, this has been a deeply troubling summer. President Obama is faring reasonably well. He has had to defend himself against charges that he has not been nice enough to members of Congress, but otherwise, he has been pretty much free to do as he chooses in far-flung theaters of conflict.

That he has done well is reassuring — but also deceptive. Thirty months from now he will be gone from the White House. Will the next president, and those who come after, be as measured and prudent as Obama? Or might the war powers fall once again to people like George W. Bush and Dick Cheney?

The threat to constitutional democracy lies in the fact that our president controls not only the regime’s military might but also the whole apparatus of national security, including most ominously the so-called “Intelligence Community.” Confronting these newly focused, integrated powers are enraged militants, now demonstrably able to conduct asymmetrical warfare. Coupled with our well-grounded fears of terrorism, the challenge to our system is a perfect storm.

In a constitutional democracy, popular opinion is the ultimate sovereign. We have had a heartening example this summer of how democracy works, of what popular opinion can accomplish when properly mobilized. Gov. Deval Patrick’s dramatic “hold” on a project that would have carried fracked natural gas through our region showed constitutional democracy working at its best.

A summer of ferocious protests exposed this project, so deceptively promoted by one of the largest corporations in America, as ruinous for our region and harmful for the Commonwealth and for New England. Last week the governor ordered that the project be reconsidered. The struggle is not over, but already it is evident that, in this case, citizens were able to alter the course of policy-making.

Compare this case with the role that popular opinion plays in national security. I used to think that the refusal or inability of Congress to reclaim its rightful place in exercising the war powers was the principal threat to constitutional democracy in America. No more. The principal challenge to democracy in the U.S. today comes from the “Intelligence Community.” The IC, as it likes to call itself, includes such familiar agencies as the CIA and the NSA (the National Security Agency, “home to America’s codemakers and codebreakers,” according to its website), but it has found a lot more muscle in recent years through the Department of Homeland Security.

Established in 2002, DHS combined 22 different federal departments and agencies into a single cabinet-level department. When James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, spoke recently at the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 Commission, he credited the commission with having identified integration and coordination as the principal imperatives in the wake of that calamity. DHS embodies that integration.

How important is intelligence gathering? We need to know what these agencies seek to find out. No doubt about that. But how much more, at home or abroad, does DHS or the CIA know than the Washington Post and New York Times or other major print or broadcast organizations?

The situation has become enormously complicated since 9/11. It is now known that companies that collect data about us often store it off-shore (a lot of it, apparently, in Ireland), where it is beyond the reach of American law.

The awkwardness of the situation became evident at a White House meeting with telecom executives late last year. These companies cannot seem unresponsive to the government’s demands. On the other hand, they cannot be less zealous than their competitors in guarding their customers’ secrets. They need clear regulations — and that, of course, can come only from Congress. Enacting the statutory foundation for new regulations is the toughest thing, both technically and politically, that Congress does. These days, Congress cannot do even the simple things.

Having made such a snide remark, I need to acknowledge that Congress, to paraphrase Pogo, is us. Congress was designed to reflect the complexity of American culture, and it does that. That Congress is deadlocked should not surprise anyone who knows the make-up of this country.

Furthermore, in this new world, control over vital information is a global challenge, and it must be solved globally. And if we think our own Congress has become dysfunctional, imagine the challenge facing those who attempt to build an international system to monitor these capabilities.

Correcting the bind we are in here will be the most difficult challenge for institution-builders since the framing of the Constitution in 1787.

Don Robinson, a retired professor of government at Smith College, writes a regular column for the Gazette which appears on the fourth Thursday of the month. He can be emailed at


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