Nixon’s Genesis of the Paranoid National Security State


Tom Engelhardt.  Introduction by William Astore.

And Nixon said, “Let there be tapes.”  And there was surveillance — and knowledge of good and evil — and a multitude of dirty tricks.  And Nixon thought it was good.  And American democracy was fallen, forevermore.

And after Nixon slew democracy, the Founders asked him where it was.  And Nixon replied, “I know not.  Am I democracy’s keeper?”  And so he was banished, somewhere east of San Bernardino.

In his powerful introduction to Tim Weiner’s new book, Tom Engelhardt argues that Richard Nixon was in a sense the progenitor of today’s national security and surveillance state.  That state seeks to sweep up everything, to know everything, because it mistrusts everyone, and because it seeks power over everyone, just as Nixon sought nearly half a century ago.  If today’s surveillance state has a Bible (highly secret, no doubt, so how would I know?), Nixon contributed some of the earliest passages to its Book of Genesis.

How did our government come to implement on a macro scale what Nixon implemented on a micro (and microphone) scale? How did “dirty tricks” become legion — for they are many — in our government?  Read on!  W.J. Astore

Nixon’s Genesis of the Paranoid National Security State

Tom Engelhardt (used with kind permission of the author)

Let me give you a reason that’s anything but historical for reading Tim Weiner’s remarkable new book, One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon. Mind you, with the last of the secret Nixon White House tapes finally made public some 40 years after the first of them were turned over to courts, prosecutors, and Congress, this will undoubtedly be the ultimate book on that president’s reign of illegality.

Still, think about the illegal break-in (or black-bag job) at the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist committed by a group of Nixon White House operatives dubbed “the Plumbers”; the breaking into and bugging of the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters at the Watergate office complex; the bugging, using warrantless wiretaps, of the phones of administration aides and prominent media figures distrusted by the president and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger; the slush funds Nixon and his cronies created for his reelection campaign; the favors, including ambassadorships, they sold for “donations” to secure a second term in office; the privatized crew of contractors they hired to do their dirty work; the endemic lying, deceit, and ever more elaborate cover-ups of illegalities at home and of extra-constitutional acts in other countries, including secret bombing campaigns, as well as an attempt to use the CIA to quash an FBI investigation of White House activities on “national security grounds.” Put it all together and you have something like a White House-centered, first-draft version of the way the national security state works quite “legally” in the twenty-first century.

As a bonus, you also get a preview of the kinds of money machinations that, with the backing of the Supreme Court four decades later, would produce our present 1% democracy. The secret political funds Nixon and his cronies finagled from the wealthy outside the law have now been translated into perfectly legal billionaire-funded super PACs that do everything from launching candidate ad blitzes to running ground campaigns for election 2016.

Read Weiner’s new book — he’s also the author of a classic history of the CIA and another on the FBI — and it turns out that the president who resigned from office in disgrace in August 1974 provided a blueprint for the world that Washington would construct after the 9/11 attacks. If Weiner’s vision of Nixon is on the mark, then we never got rid of him. We still live in a Nixonian world. And if you need proof of that, just think about his infamous urge to listen in on and tape everyone. Does that sound faintly familiar?

Nixon had the Secret Service turn the Oval Office (five microphones in his desk, two at a sitting area), its telephones, the Cabinet Room (two mics), and his “hideaway” in the Executive Office Building into recording studios. He bugged his own life, ensuring that anything you said to the president of the United States would be recorded, thousands and thousands of hours of it. He was theoretically going to use those recordings for a post-presidential memoir (from which he hoped to make millions) and as a defense against whatever Henry Kissinger might someday write about him.

But whatever the initial impulse may have been, the point was to miss nothing. No one was to be exempted, including Nixon’s closest companions in office, no one but the president himself. He would know what others wouldn’t and act accordingly (though in the end he didn’t). What was one man’s mania for bugging and recording his world has become, in the twenty-first century, the NSA’s mania for bugging and recording the whole planet; a president’s mad vision, that is, somehow morphed into the modern surveillance state. The scale is staggeringly different, but conceptually it’s surprising how little has changed.

After all, the NSA’s global surveillance network was set up on the Nixonian principle of sweeping it all up — the words, in whatever form, of everyone who was anyone (and lots of people who weren’t). A generation of German politicians, Brazilians galore, terror suspects as well as just about anyone with a cell phone in the tribal backlands of the planet, two presidents of Mexico, three German chancellors, three French presidents, at least 35 heads of state, the secretary general of the U.N., and so on. The list was unending. As with Nixon, only officials of the national security state were to know that all our communications were being logged and stored. Only they were to be exempt from potential scrutiny. (Hence their utter outrage when Edward Snowden revealed their racket to the world.) Like Nixon, they would, in the end, be left with the same hopeless, incriminating overload of words. They would sweep it all up and yet, drowning in data, they wouldn’t hear a thing.

So pick up Tim Weiner’s new book and don’t for a second imagine that it’s ancient history. Think of it as the book of Genesis for the American national security state’s Bible. In the meantime, thanks to the kindness of Weiner’s publisher, Henry Holt, TomDispatch offers a little taste of the lead-up to the last days of Richard Nixon from One Man Against the World — of the moment when his system began to cave in and threatened to bury him alive. Someday, we can only hope, the same thing will happen to those responsible for similar acts on an unimaginably larger scale in our own time.

10 thoughts on “Nixon’s Genesis of the Paranoid National Security State

  1. It needs to be borne in mind that Nixon inherited from his predecessors the practice of recording presidential conversations. He may have expanded the number of bugging devices, but he did not originate this practice. Let’s keep the historical record straight, please!

    • True, Greg. LBJ taped conversations, for example. But Nixon changed the tone as well as the scale. For Nixon, the purpose was more sinister, aimed as it was against enemies, real or imagined. And that inquisitor’s tone, as well as the scale, is something that has infected our government in a big way.

      You’re no longer innocent until proven guilty; rather the reverse.

  2. I remember thinking at the time that Congressional reaction to CREEP creeps ushered in an era of Oval Office accountability and transparency which might endure for a good long while. My optimism was blunted somewhat when the old UM offensive lineman pardoned the Trickster, but even so I would have scorned the suggestion I would be living in a security state remotely as comprehensive and sinister as ours within three short decades.

    Of course, in 1946 who in America would have ventured the opinion that in just a bit over fifty years from that date official U.S. Governmental policy would sanction some of the identical torture practices Axis civilian and military individuals were imprisoned and often executed for?

    For personal amusement, sometimes I fantasize how advocates of intrusive observation and control, and of water boarding, sleep deprivation, and other tortuous practices — let’s place solitary confinement at or near the top of this list, while I’m at it — explain to their children precisely what is and is not moral, and exactly why. I shudder to think about future judgements these unfortunate innocents may one day render, given the reasoning example their principal mentors provide.

  3. Yes. Nixon was another of the ‘ bad apples’ the American people have put into the oval office. But he certainly wasn’t the first. Democrats like Truman, used the FBI to not only spy on dissenting opinions but allowed them to harass citizens for their views. I have lived through about ten presidencys and have seen a steady increase in each occupant of the White House allowing more and more suppression, hidden or overt, of not just freedom of speech but of civil rights. Compared to Obama, Nixon was a visionary even with all of his faults. Nixon’s ‘opening to China’ matches and dwarfs Obama’s initiative on Iran considering that the Republican Party of his time had a very strong anti China grouping. Nixon passed the ‘Clean Water Act” without the kind of compromises Obama always caves in to. The author should also have noted that the first full scale use of computerization to spy on our citizens came under the Reagan administration, not Nixon. And not mentioning that Obama’s defense and codification of NSA .illegal spying is puzzling. At least Nixon was pushed out of office where the adroit Obama has sold our heritage for his own political advantage

    • NBC Evening News just highlighted Obama as the first US president to pay a visit to a (Federal or otherwise) prison. Oh, how we old-timers longed to see Nixon wearing stripes, walking the exercise yard back in the day! But of course he slithered out of office just in time and was promptly pardoned not just for his discovered crimes, but any that might be dug up after his departure from the Oval Office. Is this a great frickin’ country, or what?!?

  4. OK, I’ll concede that the old Soviet rule “Ugadat, ugodit, utselet” (“Sniff out, suck up, survive”) is a way of life in a tyranny, but someone explain how to formulate ‘effective’ policies (alternative actions/respones) without knowing your adversary, their motivations, strengths, weakness, plans etc.. Just how much spying (intelligence gathering), domestic and foreign, is needed and under what ‘controls’. How many countries today have nuclear weapons because the US didn’t prevent secrets being passed?

    • “But, everybody’s doing it!!” Right, that’s a perfect excuse for doing dirt, huh? Shall we apply it to genocide? In our modern world, it’s a pretty safe bet that “everybody’s spying on everybody else.” Our staunch “ally,” Israel, for instance was caught “red-handed” with spies in Washington, DC. Doubtless the UK, France, Germany–all the nations that lecture the less-developed world on morality–also keep tabs on US political developments, military tech and deployment plans, etc. I’ve lost count of how many different agencies here in the US are engaged in surveillance, analysis, etc. After the huge “Oops, did we miss something?” moment called 9/11 the number of such operations multiplied like cockroaches in a dark corner. And remember that when trigger fingers were itching to attack Iraq, “intelligence” about WMD was manufactured to order to “justify” launching a war (which barely merits the term war, since there was no real military on the opposing side). Nixon’s domestic dirty tricks are something of a special case. On his Enemies List was, as a general category, The Jews! (This despite that rightwing rabbi he had in his entourage.) I don’t recall verbatim what RMN was overheard to say (or it may have been on tape from his own internal surveillance mechanism), so I’ll paraphrase: “Stay away from the Arts! Dominated by the Jews, you know, and you know, they’re all liberals.” I won’t even get into COINTELPRO’s actions against anti-war and civil rights activists. Was this justified? Perhaps, if you buy into ‘Tricky Dick’s theory of a Vast Leftist Conspiracy aimed specifically to bring him down. He, the Heroic Great Man standing between God-fearing, apple pie- and mom-loving Americans and the Evil Communist Empire! And if you do, I suggest you check into the nearest mental health facility. [These have been general remarks, nothing “aimed” at “equote”!]

      In the realm of foreign affairs, a sovereign nation of course has the right to defend itself against attacks on its own soil. If said nation was to mind its own business and not try to claim huge swaths of the globe for its exclusive exploitation (James Monroe: “No one will exploit the New World but USA”; Barack Obama: “The US must be the dominant power in the Pacific.”), perhaps this bloated Military-Industrial-Intelligence Complex, this 900-pound monkey on the taxpayer’s back, could be put on a drastic reducing diet. The US has military bases on the soil of how many other nations? More than 150, if memory serves. This absurd situation only ensures future military confrontation, leading to more death and destruction–conveniently, on the soil of OTHER folks’ nations almost without exception–and the growth of future generations of America-haters. On the rare occasions when I get to visit other nations I make a point of not “advertising” my nationality. It would be nice if I could walk with pride and satisfaction over being an American citizen, but that is far, far from how I have felt since the Vietnam War years.

      • During the nuclear freeze movement of the 1980s, I recall a European spokesperson who said, “When they [the USA] speak of limited nuclear war, they mean limited to us.”

        The term “limited” war takes on a whole new meaning when you’re in the thick of that war.

      • ‘If man does find the solution for world peace it will be the most revolutionary reversal of his record we have ever known.” said George C. Marshall but he also said “The only way human beings can win a war is to prevent it.” I’ll concede the US foreign policy has not achieved ‘world peace’ but what policies would lead to a peaceful world? Describe how the US can promote peace. Pointing out the failures of the past is relatively easy, shaping the future is very hard.

      • “equote” has posed the $64 trillion question. I can only give you Step Number One: stop hypocritically lecturing the rest of the world on your “exceptionalism,” which gives you the “right” to send a drone or Special Ops troops anywhere, to kill anyone, anytime. Start closing your overseas bases and repatriating those troops, leading to personnel cuts and budget savings and apply said savings to humanitarian aid. Admit to the world your past transgressions (ouch, that’ll be a tough one for a US politician!). Pay up your full dues to the UN and tell them “Time for you guys to do some actual peacekeeping on this planet.” Withdraw from Cuban territory (Guantanamo Bay), quit trying to sabotage the economy of Venezuela and other countries whose regimes you dislike. Stop being Number One Arms Dealer to the world.

        Okay, that was an awfully compound Step One, eh? And of course I know these things will not get implemented in my lifetime (well, Gitmo may prove an exception). I was just whipping up some instant rhetoric, but in all seriousness.

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