Despite over six decades of reform initiatives, the overwhelming drift of security arrangements in the United States has been toward greater — not less — executive centralization and discretion. This lead article for the annual commentary issue explores why efforts to curb presidential prerogative have failed so consistently. It argues that while constitutional scholars have overwhelmingly focused their attention on procedural solutions, the underlying reason for the growth of emergency powers is ultimately political rather than purely legal. In particular, scholars have ignored how the basic meaning of “security” has itself shifted dramatically since World War II and the beginning of the Cold War in line with changing ideas about popular competence. Paying special attention to the decisive role of actors such as Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter and Pendleton Herring, co-author of 1947’s National Security Act, this Article details how emerging judgments about the limits of popular knowledge and mass deliberation fundamentally altered the basic structure of security practices.
Countering the pervasive wisdom at the founding and throughout the nineteenth century, this contemporary shift has recast war and external threat as matters too complex and specialized for ordinary Americans to comprehend. Today, the dominant conceptual approach to security presumes that insulated decision-makers in the executive branch (armed with the military’s professional expertise) are best equipped to make sense of complicated and often conflicting information about safety and self-defense. The result is that the other branches — let alone the public writ large — face a profound legitimacy deficit whenever they call for transparency or seek to challenge coercive security programs. Not surprisingly, the tendency of legalistic reform efforts has been to place greater decision-making power in the other branches and then to watch those branches delegate such power back to the executive.