In a new book, Top Secret America, Washington Post reporters Dana Priest and William Arkin tell the story of the rise of the American security state following the terrorist attacks on 9/11. The authors detail the vast security apparatus developed by an alphabet soup of federal agencies. The thesis of the book is twofold. First, the authors explain, with numerous examples, how this security apparatus developed with little if any oversight, coordination or attempt to assess whether the new security state would better protect us from terrorist attacks. A second theme is that much of this security apparatus is being used not to fight terrorism, but to combat ordinary crime. The extremely sophisticated technologies that state and local law enforcement agencies now routinely use, make the thermal imaging device at issue in Kyllo v. United States seem like ancient technology.
In this era of endless budget battles and a competition between the major political parties as to which can show better fiscal restraint and responsibility, it is striking how little either party, particularly in Congress, is willing to question the need for such a vast and expensive security apparatus. The hesitancy of politicians of either stripe to question these programs is obvious: no politician wants to be seen as soft on terror or unwilling to do everything necessary to protect citizens. Hence, there has been virtually no effort in Congress to assert meaningful oversight of these programs, or even to become educated as to what programs actually exist. In one interview, the authors quote a senior Department of Defense official who says that only God knows the extent of the government’s security programs.
While Congress’ unwillingness to provide meaningful oversight is understandable, it is not excusable. There is, in fact, very strong precedent for Congress to perform necessary oversight and question the effectiveness and usefulness of important government programs even in time of war.
At the beginning of World War II Congress created a committee to investigate the nation’s defense program. The committee was headed by then Senator Harry Truman. Over the course of the next several years, Senator Truman’s committee held numerous public hearings, conducted investigations into defense spending programs, and visited countless military bases and factories. The Truman Committee became a powerful watchdog against fraud, waste and abuse. That committee is credited with saving the government billions of dollars, eliminating wasteful programs and saving American lives. All this, while the U.S. was fighting major wars on two fronts on opposite sides of the world. Where is the modern day Truman Commission?