William Arkin’s “American Coup”

In its endless pursuit of national security, the United States has compromised core Constitutional values including civilian control of the military and states’ rights, writes William M. Arkin in his new book “American Coup” (Little, Brown, 2013).

Since 9/11, a growing fraction of the population been mobilized and credentialed in support of homeland security — whether as law enforcement, first responders, or those who simply “see something and say something.”

“What is military and what is civilian is increasingly obscured,” Arkin writes. “The state and local police forces are militarized and networked into one; states have their own intelligence establishments; the big cities make their own foreign policies.”

What concerns Arkin, and what his book helps to illuminate, is what he describes as a parallel apparatus of executive authority that has developed outside of Constitutional norms (and beyond public awareness) to respond to national emergencies– catastrophic acts of terrorism, nuclear disasters, threats to presidential survival, or other extraordinary events.

Some of this is familiar ground, and has been previously described under the rubric of Continuity of Government, or Continuity of Operations, dating back to the Eisenhower Administration. But it has expanded and been formalized, Arkin says, in a series of classified Presidential Emergency Action Documents (PEADs) that assert all but unchecked executive power.  And while those administrative instruments are technically dormant most of the time, they exercise a baleful influence on the normal conduct of political life, he argues.

Despite its garish and off-putting title (and subtitle: “How a Terrified Government is Destroying the Constitution”), “American Coup” is not a manifesto, nor a call to action.

What makes the book interesting and valuable, rather, is its close reading of official documents in search of clues to undisclosed power structures. Arkin is a careful student and a subtle analyst of military doctrine, a neglected genre rich with insights waiting to be discovered.  For some readers, the 100 pages of endnotes will be the most rewarding part of the book.

Arkin observes, for example, that an official U.S. Army history states that martial law has only been declared once in United States history. But an Army field manual reports that martial law has been imposed four times. The Justice Department said there had been two such cases.  All of these are in error, he concludes, and reflect inconsistent definitions of the term. Meanwhile, he reports that the Army issued a new official definition of martial law in 2010 “for the first time in years.”

Arkin is the co-author (with Dana Priest) of “Top Secret America,” and many other works of research into national security policy.

“American Coup” was written prior to the revelations by Edward Snowden of unsuspected bulk collection of American telephone records by the National Security Agency, and such practices are not specifically discussed in the book. But Arkin would likely argue that the Snowden revelations are a special case of a more general phenomenon, in which national security is invoked to justify secret actions that exceed the bounds of public consent.

Arkin does not propose any kind of policy response to the political problems he perceives.  In fact, beyond some marginal steps that might be taken, he says that “bigger changes are blocked” by the powers that be.  Those who believe otherwise will need to look elsewhere.

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