It’s been a very long time since I read Dwight Eisenhower’s final presidential address to the nation, televised live on January 17, 1961 — two years before I was born.  Now it’s available on YouTube, based on a poor-quality Kinescope made at the time.  The speech became famous for its warning about the dangers to liberty posed by the “military-industrial complex,” which eventually became almost a cliché. Reading it now, it seems more like prophecy in more ways than one:

Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United States corporations.

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

In the councils of government, 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.

We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. 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. …

The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present and is gravely to be regarded.

Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.

It is the task of statesmanship to mold, to balance, and to integrate these and other forces, new and old, within the principles of our democratic system — ever aiming toward the supreme goals of our free society.

In my column for The Week, I compare Ike’s warning to what we know now about the NSA surveillance program.  In this case, the threat is the intelligence-industrial complex, and the manner in which we had already surrendered to it before the NSA took advantage of the complacency:

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.” …

This may be why polls don’t exactly show a high level of outrage over the NSA leaks. AWashington 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.

 Glenn Reynolds warns today that this broad surrender on limited government allows for abuse of power and unchecked corruption on a scale Americans have never before seen:

But, in fact, there’s a common theme in all of these scandals: Abuse of power. And, what’s more, that abuse-of-power theme is what makes the NSA snooping story bigger than it otherwise would be. It all comes down to trust.

The justification for giving the government a lot of snooping power hangs on two key arguments: That snooping will make us safer and that the snooping power won’t be abused.

Has it made us safer? Anonymous government sources quoted in news reports say yes, but we know that all that snooping didn’t catch the Tsarnaev brothers before they bombed the Boston Marathon — even though they made extensive use of email and the Internet, and even though Russian security officials had warned us that they were a threat. The snooping didn’t catch Major Nidal Hasan before he perpetrated the Fort Hood Massacre, though he should have been spotted easily enough. It didn’t, apparently, warn us of the Benghazi attacks — though perhaps it explains how administration flacks were able to find and scapegoat a YouTube filmmaker so quickly . But in terms of keeping us safe, the snooping doesn’t look so great.

As for abuse, well, is it plausible to believe that a government that would abuse the powers of the IRS to attack political enemies, go after journalists who publish unflattering material or scapegoat a filmmaker in the hopes of providing political cover to an election-season claim that al-Qaeda was finished would have any qualms about misusing the massive power of government-run snooping and Big Data? What we’ve seen here is a pattern of abuse. There’s little reason to think that pattern will change, absent a change of administration — and, quite possibly, not even then. Sooner or later, power granted tends to become power abused. Then there’s the risk that information gathered might leak, of course, as recent events demonstrate.

Eisenhower tried to warn us fifty-two years ago about this very outcome.  Maybe it’s time to start listening.