We should have listened to Eisenhower

More than 50 years ago, Ike all but predicted the factors that led to the NSA's massive snooping enterprise

Dwight Eisenhower
(Image credit: M. McNeill/Fox Photos/Getty Images)

More than 52 years ago, Dwight David Eisenhower gave his final speech as president. Eisenhower had led the American fight in Europe during World War II, and played a major part in America's transformation from a nation of industrial might and relative isolation into the first superpower of the modern age. The U.S. filled the role played by the British Empire for the previous few centuries, especially when the Soviet Union seized eastern Europe and threatened to spread its totalitarian system around the globe. Eisenhower picked up the Cold War reins from Harry Truman, building upon the massive modern military that Eisenhower deployed to defeat the Nazis and safeguard pluralistic democracy in western Europe.

Eisenhower largely presided over a peacetime military, but one that grew large enough at the beginning of the Cold War to worry the war hero about the future of the nation. In his final speech, televised live on January 17, 1961, Eisenhower warned Americans on a broad range of topics. Most do not remember his warning on deficit spending, but Eisenhower implored Americans to "avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering for our own ease and convenience the precious resources of tomorrow." Eisenhower managed to partner with Congress on three balanced budgets out of eight, but the era after his would start us on massive deficit spending as a habit rather than something to be employed only in an emergency. We have, as Eisenhower predicted, "mortgage[d] the material assets of our grandchildren," and it remains to be seen whether that has risked "the loss of their political and spiritual heritage."

Most famously, Eisenhower warned the country about the rise of what he called the "military-industrial complex," a force that would eventually erode liberty and public policy choices. "In the councils of government," Eisenhower said, "we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist." The wealth that got spent on the defense sector would create enormous influence and power inside and outside of government, which would eventually pervert a free society into perpetual warfare for the sake of maintaining power, unless a free nation exercised exceptional vigilance.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

Eisenhower didn't limit this warning to the military-industrial complex, either. He made the same point about the perverting influence of federal money and power on science, warning that scientific discovery could be dominated by Washington, D.C. Conversely, Eisenhower also posited that there existed "the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite."

Fifty years later, Eisenhower's valediction looks less like a political speech and more like prophecy. In the NSA controversies, both with the continuous telecom metadata haul (since at least 2006) and the PRISM/BLARNEY efforts to sniff through massive amounts of content on the internet, we have examples of exactly what Ike foresaw. In fact, this looks much like a marriage between the military-industrial complex and what we could call the intelligence-industrial complex, both based on predicates of never-ending war in the age of terror.

The military-industrial complex is familiar enough, but the two NSA issues show the extent to which scientific-technological industries have insinuated themselves into the same position. Nine of the largest providers of internet services in the U.S. have acted against the interests of their clients' privacy to partner with the NSA — a Defense Department agency — in their search for clues on terrorism. This includes some tech-industry leaders, such as the founders and/or CEOs of Google and Facebook, who publicly supported Obama in 2008 while he campaigned against the very surveillance that appears to be taking place now, and then again in 2012.

The shift predicted by Eisenhower, of course, did not happen in a vacuum. The Cold War held real dangers to America and Americans, and the age of terror does now. The 9/11 attacks shocked the U.S. badly enough to create a huge demand for more security. We passed the PATRIOT Act and amended the FISA law to allow our intelligence and law-enforcement agencies to "connect the dots" before attacks took place, rather than seek evidence while the bodies were stacked afterward.

At the same time, we have culturally devalued privacy, in relationships with commercial as well as governmental entities. The internet companies involved provide the best evidence of this. US News' Robert Schlesinger argued that government surveillance on the internet followed corporate surveillance of Americans and others, a surveillance to which we acquiesced with hardly a murmur of protest. "It's not a given that corporations must collect vast amounts of information from and about us," Schlesinger writes. "But failing to do so wouldn't be good for business."

Take Google — one of the major pillars of PRISM and a giant in internet transactions. Clients use it for email services, maps and GPS navigation, document storage, and even some cell-phone services. But Google makes money by learning every piece of information it finds from clients who use these services and monetizing them, Schlesinger points out. "What Google is, in fact, is a data collection company: It collects data on you 15 ways to Sunday, sorts it, chops it up and sells it." And don't even get Schlesinger started on cell phones in general, devices that literally track your movements as long as the phones are powered up.

This is big business for internet providers. In 2011, the Wall Street Journal reported that both Google and Apple collected location data in order to grab a piece of the location-based services industry, which at the time was a $2.9 billion market. At that time, the Journal projected it to grow to $8.3 billion in 2014. Both of these internet providers participated in PRISM. Telecoms like Verizon sell location data to advertisers to allow them to more effectively position billboards, for instance. "Companies have an incentive to collect and keep user data," Schlesinger concludes, "and that trove proves an irresistible target for the government in its ongoing war on terrorists."

This may be why polls don't exactly show a high level of outrage over the NSA leaks. A Washington Post/Pew Center poll reported that a 56 percent majority of respondents supported the NSA survey of telecom metadata on phone calls, while only 41 percent objected. When it came to surveying internet content, a thin 52 percent majority opposed the NSA PRISM/BLARNEY effort if applied against Americans (a point which has yet to be clarified), but that 45 percent think the government should go further than it claims to do now to watch our online activities. For an electorate that has given up privacy for convenience to the commercial market, surrendering it to the government for security may be a smaller step than Eisenhower might have imagined.

The erosion of that "political and spiritual heritage" of liberty and limited government has other implications, too. Eisenhower presaged that the expansion of the government under pressure of the military-industrial complex would "endanger our liberties or democratic processes." One cannot help but to draw connections to that expanding and intrusive government and its unaccountable bureaucracies and the targeting of political groups opposed to the current administration by the IRS, the disparate treatment by the EPA on FOIA requests depending on the politics of the requesters, and the overall lack of accountability from an administration whose best defense on these and other scandals has been ignorance of the abuses taking place on their watch. Even if these incidents come from nothing more than a government so large as to be unmanageable, Eisenhower's admonitions are still prescient.

At his heart, though, Eisenhower was still an optimist. Despite foreseeing the dangers of a perpetual wartime government in a truly dangerous world, he told Americans that "only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together." We are now alert, and we need to become knowledgeable to ensure that we protect our political and spiritual heritage of liberty — even if that means acknowledging that we ourselves may in large part be the problem.

To continue reading this article...
Continue reading this article and get limited website access each month.
Get unlimited website access, exclusive newsletters plus much more.
Cancel or pause at any time.
Already a subscriber to The Week?
Not sure which email you used for your subscription? Contact us