Unger’s disappointment overlooks the fact that, in his narrative, Clinton, while committed to expanding America’s global dominance, does not invoke the more nefarious mechanisms of the national security state, such as implementing unconstitutional measures or encasing foreign policy in a never-ending web of secrecy. To maintain his position that all recent presidents have furthered excesses in the name of national security, Unger holds Clinton accountable not for constitutional violations or corruption, but largely for damaging America’s economy by ignoring foreign-policy-related economic challenges, refusing to curtail the military budget and failing to protect the domestic economy, which essentially “hollowed out the remaining competitive strengths of American industry.”
Unger gives disappointingly brief treatment to the two most recent presidencies and, in so doing, unfairly conflates them. One might criticize Obama for failing to make good on his promise to close Guantanamo or to restore rights generally in the war on terror. But to link his tactics to those of the Bush administration when it comes to foreign policy decisions obfuscates rather than enlightens. To give the most glaring example, Bush’s vice president, Dick Cheney, met repeatedly and secretly with intelligence officials to craft a deceitful story of WMDs in order to lead the country into war with Iraq. This seems a far cry from sanctions and diplomacy that the Obama administration is using in Iran. Here as elsewhere, one can only wonder whether Unger sluffs over distinctions that might make all the difference.
In contrast to Unger’s relentless pessimism, Kip Hawley and Nathan Means’s “Permanent Emergency” provides a more upbeat story by focusing on one piece of the national security apparatus. In memoir fashion, Hawley’s narrative traces the story of the the Transportation Security Administration, created in the immediate wake of Sept. 11, 2001, and charged with improving airport security. In matters of transportation, Hawley demonstrates, the trade-off is not security vs. American values and constitutional protections, but security vs. efficiency, effectiveness and public approval.
By 2004, TSA employees, routinely demoralized by passenger resistance, were overcome by “hopelessness.” Meanwhile, the public was fed up, tired of delays and seemingly indiscriminate searches. In 2005, Hawley inherited an agency whose workers were disgruntled and whose work was thankless.
Hawley’s solution was to professionalize the work by making intelligence a central part of the agency’s mission. After his promotion to administrator, the TSA was newly included in the Department of Homeland Security’s morning intelligence telephone call. Armed with insights into the updated plans of al-Qaeda, Hawley used this information in part to update the agency’s policies and practices.
Hawley’s defensive account of the importance of the TSA extols, among other things, the passions of patriotism as a useful counterterrorism tool. Throughout his narrative he brings to life details of incipient threats around the globe in an effort to justify his agency and to motivate its workers. He brings to the fore the way in which the emergency state that Unger describes trickles down to the average man: Security is a rallying cry for patriotism, however much it undermines the country’s legal and moral foundations.
Whether observed from the heights of the executive branch or the grittiness of the airport security line, the security agenda that defines 21st-century America continues to challenge the sense of safety and trust in its institutions that its citizens deserve.
Karen J. Greenberg
is the director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School and the author of “The Least Worst Place: Guantanamo’s First One Hundred Days. ”