Quelle Surprise! National Surveillance State Companies Were Huge Obama Donors in 2012 Election

By Thomas Ferguson, professor of political science at University of Massachusetts, Boston, Paul Jorgensen, assistant professor of political science at the University of Texas, Pan American, and Jie Chen, university statistician at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. Edited by Lynn Parramore, senior editor at Alternet. Cross posted from Alternet

Long before President Obama kicked off his 2008 campaign, many Americans took it for granted that George W. Bush’s vast, sprawling national security apparatus needed to be reined in. For Democrats, many independents, and constitutional experts of various persuasions, Vice President Dick Cheney’s notorious doctrine of the “unitary executive” (which holds that the President controls the entire executive branch), was the ultimate statement of the imperial presidency. It was the royal road to easy (or no) warrants for wiretaps, sweeping assertions of the government’s right to classify information secret, and arbitrary presidential power. When Mitt Romney embraced the neoconservatives in the 2012 primaries, supporters of the President often cited the need to avoid a return to the bad old days of the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld National Security State as a compelling reason for favoring his reelection. Reelect President Obama, they argued, or Big Brother might be back.

But that’s not how this movie turned out: The 2012 election proved to be a post-modern thriller, in which the main characters everyone thought they knew abruptly turned into their opposites and the plot thickened just when you thought it was over.

In early June 2013, Glenn Greenwald, then of the Guardian, with an assist from journalists at The Washington Post, electrified the world with stories drawn from documents and testimony from Edward Snowden, an employee of Booz Allen Hamilton working under contract with the National Security Agency, who had fled the country. They broke the news that the U.S. government had been collecting vast amounts of information on not only foreigners, but also American citizens. And the U.S. had been doing this for years with the cooperation of virtually all the leading firms in telecommunications, software, and high tech electronics, including Google, Apple, Microsoft, Verizon, and Facebook. Sometimes the government even defrays their costs.

For most election analysts, the revelations came like a bolt from the blue, despite a whole series of warning signs. These included Obama’s rapid fire decision to step up the war in Afghanistan right after he took office, the alacrity and severity with which his administration prosecuted national security whistleblowers after promising greater transparency and the administration’s sweeping claims about the government’s right to hold citizens without trial for indefinite periods. Not to mention the Justice Department’s insistence that killing American citizens without any kind of court hearing is lawful, the efforts to prosecute journalists for simply posting links to leaked documents, the overkill that attended official responses to the Occupy movement and protests at the national party conventions, or the White House claims that press freedoms enshrined in the Bill of Rights do not cover bloggers in an era in which everyone, including the New York Times, uses blogs.

Even now, the suggestion that the Obama administration embodies a distinctively new form of extensively privatized National Security State organically linked with the famously contentious Bush-Cheney structures takes some getting used to. In particular, many readers are likely to wonder what a bitter, partisan stalemate such as the U.S. just witnessed over raising the debt ceiling can possibly mean in a situation where Big Brother and Big Money are working hand in hand through it all.

As the storm over surveillance broke, we were completing a statistical analysis of campaign contributions in 2012, using an entirely new dataset that we constructed from the raw material provided by the Federal Election Commission and the Internal Revenues Service (which compiles contributions from so-called “527”s). In light of what has transpired, our quantitative analysis of presidential election funding invites closer scrutiny, particularly of the finding that we had already settled upon as perhaps most important: In sharp contrast to endlessly repeated claims that big business was deeply suspicious of the President, our statistical results show that a large and powerful bloc of “industries of the future” – telecommunications, high tech, computers, and software – showed essentially equal or higher percentages of support for the President in 2012 than they did for Romney.

Though documenting the claim would take us far beyond this post, we believe that the emergence of these new industries is a key factor in transforming the old National Security State into its new, even more sinister twenty-first century model. They are not the only important influence in that transformation, of course. These would include not only 9/11, but the rapid growth of the rest of the homeland security “industry,” including private prison companies and many other non-obvious players focused on data collection in particular domains, such as the vast infrastructure built out to service and support U.S. interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. The policy of macroeconomic austerity, which made privatization of the old National Security State so seductively attractive to policymakers under pressure to cut government expenditures, has also played a significant role.

But the point that our findings document is perhaps most instructive of all. Many of the firms and industries at the heart of this Orwellian creation have strong ties to the Democrats. Bush and Cheney may have invented it, but national Democratic leaders are full-fledged players in this 21st century National Surveillance State and the interest group pressures that now help to sustain its defenders in Washington work just as powerfully on Democrats as on Republicans.

Over the next few weeks on AlterNet, we will explore what our data show about the 2012 election. But for now, we want to focus on the telecommunications, high tech, computers, and software industries, which contain many firms deeply involved in the surveillance programs.

We built two datasets for our research. One covers big business, meaning firms big enough to rank among the 350 largest on Fortune’s lists plus members of the Forbes 400 richest Americans. The second is a much larger sample containing every firm of every size, from the smallest to the largest.

We assess support by firms and their executives (our dataset is the first to integrate contributions from both, including “independent” expenditures and, of course, Super Pacs) in two ways: We count the percentage of firms that make any contribution at all to each candidates’ campaigns (and their party’s national committee) and we track the money split between the two candidates. For more details, see the preliminary version of our full length study, available here.

In our big sample, which pretty well approximates “business as a whole,” Obama trailed far behind Romney. 41 percent of all the firms (or, thanks to the Supreme Court, their executives) contributed to Romney; only 24 percent donated to Obama. But rates of contributions from big businesses were much higher for both candidates: Just over half (56 percent) contributed to Obama, while fully 76 percent donated to Romney. Our conclusion is straightforward: the traditional view that the Republicans are the party of business finds some support, but our results suggest much stronger backing for the President within big business than any account of the election suggests.

But the really significant findings emerge when you look at particular industries. Six industries where the President ran especially strongly attracted our attention: telecoms, software, web manufacturing, electronics, and computers, plus the defense industry. His support in these industries ran far above his average levels of support either for business as a whole or the rest of big business. In fact, it equaled or exceeded the backing these firms afforded Romney.

In subsequent posts we will look at other industries in which Romney showed particularly strongly and consider the now red hot question of support by business groups for Tea Party and “main line” Republican congressional candidates. But we think this finding is the most significant of all: Firms in many of the industries directly involved in the surveillance programs were relative bastions of support for the President.

It is a sobering conclusion. At the time President Obama took office, many of his supporters expected a radical change in course on national security policy. This did not happen. For sure, limitations on some of the worst excesses were put in place, but there was no broad reversal. The secret programs of surveillance expanded and the other policies discussed above, on indefinite detention, treatment of whistleblowers, and executive prerogatives relative to Congress stayed in place or broke even more radically with tradition.

Our analysis of political money in the 2012 election shines a powerful new light on the sources of this policy continuity. We do not believe that it would be impossible to strike a reasonable balance between the demands of security and freedom that accords with traditional Fourth Amendment principles and checks abuses of government surveillance rapidly and effectively. But a system dominated by firms that want to sell all your data working with a government that seems to want to collect nearly all of it through them is unlikely to produce that.

*The authors gratefully acknowledge support from the Working Group on the Political Economy of Redistribution of the Institute for New Economic Thinking for preparation of the database, but the paper represents the views of the authors, not the institutions with which they are affiliated. The entire Political Money Project database for this essay is to be freely available to the public

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  1. different clue

    So then, Big Brother Democrats (or I Spy Democrats for those who prefer) in one context, and Catfood Democrats in another.

    (By the way, the Obama Sells Insurance post comes up for 2 seconds and then erases itself leaving just a huge white field. Anyone else notice this?)

    1. curlydan

      noticed the issue on that healthcare post. Not sure why it’s happening, but I suspect it’s a issue with an ad or the browser we’re using. What I do is I load the page, then quickly click on the stop button (i.e. the red ‘X’ on Microsoft IE) after the text appears, and that keeps the content without letting Explorer have time to erase everything.

      1. different clue


        I can’t figure out your method to get it to work. (I am not very computer skilled). Hopefully it can be fixed so I and other unskilled people can read it.

  2. kimsarah

    FYI: When I open the link to this post:
    “•Obama’s Remarks on the ACA Rollout Debacle: From Selling Hope and Change to Hawking Insurance – 10/23/2013 – Lambert Strether,” the post appears, then quickly disappears from my computer screen. It happened this morning and again tonight. I suppose it’s just a glitch with my computer, although that hasn’t happened at this site before.

    1. LucyLulu

      No problems here at this time. The page shows up fine. Maybe Obama sicced the NSA on your computers?

          1. NotTimothyGeithner

            But given the efficiency of outfits with no oversight, its likely they would go to the wrong address.

      1. Lambert Strether

        The HTML in that post is quite complicated, because of the table. I think it’s far more likely that i have done made an HTML error than that the Stasi is sending us a message….

  3. Emma

    This only confirms the waning warm and fuzzy facade of the world of liberalism – that is, a facade which insists that liberalism delivers genuine freedom, democracy, and human rights.
    Evidently such woolly ideas have been dispatched into the immutable netherworld of insecurity, unfreedom, and coercion, just like cookies dropped in slickly-processed instant coffee.
    And now only the dregs of visceral toxicity remain in a two-into-one party machine employed by corporate ‘tycroominals’.

    1. Banger

      I would hope so. In terms of the national security state both parties are the same. We have to remember the CIA was created by Truman at a difficult time in history. Later he deeply regretted it and fully understood that giving a group of people the power to operate outside the law is asking for trouble.

    2. Ulysses

      I hope you don’t mind if I start using that wonderfully apt term “tycroominals” in my own conversation! The mask has definitely slipped, the true ugliness of our corporatist police state becomes more obvious every day.

      1. Emma

        “I hope you don’t mind if I start using that wonderfully apt term “tycroominals” in my own conversation!”

        Not at all – gives more sense to our world doesn’t it?!

  4. washunate

    The complete abandonment of notions like constitutional governance, rule of law, civil liberties, and human rights by Democratic leaning liberals once Bush was out of office was really an important turning point in showing how bankrupt ‘the left’ is in this country. The Democrats were involved in the authoritarianism of the Bush years, but they could always hide under the guise of ‘blame Bush’.

    If the 1990s showed the GOP was crazy, the 2000s showed that the Dems were equal partners in the show.

    Where we go from here is very interesting.

    1. Lambert Strether

      Why do you confused Democrats with the left, if any?

      Agree that both legacy parties form a single entity, and each party is equally culpable for the operations of that entity (which doesn’t make them “the same,” I might add as a troll prophylactic).

    1. obot1

      He’s flying undercover to head fake the Republicans. Just wait until he releases his super secret liberal agenda!

    2. obot2

      He only just arrived in office 5 years ago. It takes time to undo the terrible Bush legacy. Give the guy a chance!

  5. NotTimothyGeithner

    On a positive note, its amusing to see American ambassadors being questioned by foreign heads of state over surveillance. I imagine the American ambassadors are pretty miffed about being expected to do something other than living in a fancy house and attending exclusive parties.

  6. Brooklin Bridge

    Obama’s priorities naturally incline toward that which makes him more powerful, and spy software does just that. Indeed, from any rational point of view, Obama’s ruthless attacks on democracy, liberty, and the rule of law would be doomed from the start without this modern macro/micro granularity of control that is ominously called, homeland security.

    1. Banger

      I think it is very important to understand the permanent gov’t in Washington. Administrations come and go but Washington remains. Obama is not, in my view, gunning for personal power rather he is, as an agent of his backers, continuing to give the Executive branch more power particularly in the security sector which will eventually encompass everything.

      1. Brooklin Bridge

        Assuming we actually have a disagreement, I’m not sure how substantial or significant it is. I think you put too much emphasis on Obama as “agent” and Washington as “the firm”. Obama may indeed be an agent of “the firm”, in so far as his views and predilections correspond with theirs (we both agree he wouldn’t have been elected otherwise), but he is far more than simply a technocrat doing the job “the firm” hired him to do, and he certainly feels that way.

        Circumstances indicate he is personally deeply involved in all of this and proves it by putting his personal stamp on many of the incidents such as the Bin Laden killing, and administrative policy decisions that take place. Madoff was prosecuted and convicted for crimes under Bush, but under Obama absolutely no one of significance has been charged with a crime, much less convicted of one even though we are living in an ocean of corruption. Assassinations of American citizens happened strictly under the radar with Bush if they happened at all. With Obama, they were leaked out as part of his “tough guy” propaganda, but it is clear they are more than that. Obama has insisted that he be personally involved in every assassination decision. He, not the firm, sits on the throne and points his thumb up or down, and that is not the behavior of a simple agent following orders. Bush never attempted to control all the players to the amazing degree Obama does. Obama made clear in his own personal remarks on Bradley Manning that he personally does not believe in Habeas Corpus; he declared Manning guilty before trial. Over and over, Obama makes clear that these are his personal choices, his priorities, regardless of how closely they may parallel those of “the firm”, or if you prefer, the permanent government in Washington. Obama not only believes in his extra-constitutional powers, he has been so active in carving them out that it belies totally any notion he is simply following orders. It is not evident that his so called backers, TPTB, would find this behavior or these decisions advantageous in all circumstances, such as Obama’s ordering a plane down that was carrying the duly elected President of a foreign non threatening country simply because Snowden was possibly on board. It is far more likely that they put up with his arrogance and his desire to control all of the players and all the circumstances than that they give him a list things he must do or powers he must acquire.

        Is this reflected in Wall St? Is this reflected in the software written by the NSA? Is this reflected in the types and numbers of private contractors the NSA uses to spy on us? I would argue YES and my argument would rest on the significant differences we see from president to president. So yes, presidents come and go and Washington remains, but it doesn’t remain the same. I suspect that TPTB do everything in their power – and it is quite a lot – to put Presidents in place and to keep them there that agree and with their broad POV and are capable of moving things in that direction. But that does not negate the exceptional power of the office nor the fact that each president to a greater or lesser degree actively uses and/or abuses that power or has a direct interest in being the ruler of the imperial world power.

        1. Banger

          Ok, I don’t think you are wrong in anything you say. Certainly the Prez has something to do with policy and day-to-day decisions and even more to do with the propaganda efforts–the Obama people are much better than Bush in taht area. But policy choices lie within very narrow boundaries that are based on the consensus of the power-players in Washington or who meet in Washington including foreign powers.

          Note that the policies of Bush during his last two years were very similar to Obama’s policies. The Iraq Study Group and the discussions that came out of it changed Bush’s policy though Bush appeared to be staying the course there, in fact, the policy changed more dramatically after the 2006 elections than they did after 2008/9.

          I just believe we, in this country, take our Presidents to seriously and ignore the incredible power of the vested interests who are just that–vested. They determine policy more than Presidents or their advisers do.

          1. LucyLulu

            A new book has been released about the Bush-Cheney relationship. I haven’t read it but heard some of it discussed. During Bush’s second term his conscience allegedly began to bother him, and the loss of life in Iraq, along with the renditions and tortures, began to haunt him. He’d say things like “everyday is a bad day” and put his head in his hands when people would ask if he was having a tough day. His difficult relationship with Cheney became even more strained. Cheney was frustrated no end because he was itching to invade Iran next and Bush didn’t like playing war games anymore. It was speculated that the chronic tension with Bush the second term may have caused Cheney’s multiple cardiac issues. Bush and Cheney rarely talk since having left office. Nicole Wallace, Bush’s communications secretary, said she read the book and was surprised the author had learned information she thought nobody outside the WH would ever know about, and said she even learned things from the book that she didn’t know. Sounds like it might be a pretty good read for those who like biographical histories.

            I doubt Obama has been similarly plagued by his conscience.

  7. Banger

    Thanks to the Snowden revelations and the controversy over drones and the NDAA the left intelligentsia is taking at least a mild interest in a world that has not been taken seriously since the Church Committee hearings in the late 70s.

    Both political parties serve in the politics of this country at the pleasure of the national security state. Obama or any other President has virtually no power over this network that has had six decades to consolidate its power and power is the name of the game in Washington DC, another concept the pworgwessive intelligentsia has a hard time understanding. My point is that political donations are not an important part of this equation, rather, it is something with numbers on a spreadsheet that creates a possible linkage–I think it misses the point.

    Fortunately, the power of the national security state may be unravelling in part because of the Snowden revelations, in part, because of deep internal conflicts within that network of operatives and, more significantly, the fact the average American is tired of marching to the music of the Mighty Wurlitzer.

  8. juan

    The authors are right to focus on the campaign contributions from firms as the new style of voting. The old style of voting where people go to the polls is just a side-effect of the new style.

  9. Lambert Strether

    “… a distinctively new form of extensively privatized National Security State…”

    “… a distinctively new form of extensively privatized National Security State…” (for example)

    “… a distinctively new form of extensively privatized National Security State we might call “the Market State”. Just to ride my hobby horse for a bit.

    I’ve been toying with the slogan “feudal society, market state” for awhile. Because if you look at the State, I just don’t see how “neo-feudalism” holds water, although readers can correct me on that since my reading there is still deficient.

    UPDATE Adding, nobody said that the Market State had to conform to existing jurisdictional boundaries; see Stoller here.

    1. Banger

      The market state is exactly a neo-feudal state. The central government (the King) gives privileges to the powerful Barons of the particular nation-state, say private prison systems or school systems who, in their domains would rule. In case of conflict or need they would go to the state for redress of aid–in some cases the central state would have some power through its ability to leverage the Barons, in other cases the state would be weak and be subject to, say, multi-nationals.

      At the highest level would be a grand Empire ruled by a virtual Imperial Court that would rationalize power-relations through the what is now only a series of official and unofficial memoranda of understanding, trade agreements, treaties, international organizations and their regulations which would soon be managed by an emergent AI powered management regime.

      1. Lambert Strether

        All “central governments” (assuming us to be ruled by such) are Kings? Do tell. Sure, “Barons” is a good metaphor, exactly like “Robber Baron,” but that’s all it is.

        1. Banger

          The nation-state came from Kings asserting power over the nobility, free cities and the clergy by hook or crook. All I’m saying is that we are going from Louis XIV to Louis IX. The nation state devolving back towards feudalism and forwards into world empire at the same time.

  10. Jim

    This essay/research by Thomas Ferguson and friends raises some important issues.

    His investment theory of politics, has, over the years provided important insights into the role of Big Capital in American politics. This perspective assumed that the deeper political struggle in US politics was between Big Capital and a largely benevolent Big State(which had the interests of the general public as its main concern) and had solidified its power during the New Deal.

    But I believe that the dismantling/partial privatization of supposedly benevolent Big State, after 1975, has thrown Ferguson’s investment theory of politics into crisis. The political struggle is no longer between Bad Big Capital and Good Big State—both are now beyond repair.

    The essence of power today consists in a meshing together of Big State, Big Capital, Big Bank, Big Media, Big Entertainment and Big Surveillance through a largely decentralized network of private and public institutions that function collectively as a type of capillary glue which simultaneously guides and holds things together while denying any responsibility for such a role.

    Such a situation seems to require, for us, the general population to face the reality that we are, ourselves, in terms of our own personal knowledge, goals and desires, quite embedded in this capillary system and consequently need to develop a politics and culture which is capable of extracting us from this present web of corruption.

    The old form of political mobilization—class anger/rage and hatred linked to the hope of creating once again a somehow benevolent Big State, to me, seem totally inadequate to our task, especially taken the tragic history of the 20th century.

    Political transformation built around self-transformation and escape from passivity, however, opens up a huge constituency for mobilization but in ways that the classical left has never dared consider (for example think about the cultural politics of the TV show Biggest Loser)

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Have you not been paying attention?

      First, the state is not smaller, government spending as a % of GDP is where is was in the 1980s. And much of that now goes to contractors as opposed to government employees. You are seriously telling me corporations aren’t benefitting from this hollowing out?

      I don’t have the breakdowns, but I strongly suspect a good look will show various social welfare payments have been shrunk while military spending has increased. So that shift has also benefitted corps.

      Finally, as the financial sector has grown, it has various de facto guarantees, which are subsidies that don’t show up on budget. Fannie and Freddie. The still TBTF banks. The mortgage securitization market, which was effectively bailed out by various settlements.

      1. NotTimothyGeithner

        Don’t forget the shift of responsibilities to states or devolution which creates natural funding shortages to various programs and encourages a race to the bottom regulation and tax policy including the official corruption policy of public private partnerships.

      2. RoboCommenter

        Social welfare IS corporate welfare. Social welfare programs enable companies like Walmart (nations largest employer) to pay its employees less than a living wage. Social welfare picks up the tab for the necessities of employees lives so that Walmart et al don’t have to. Walmart couldn’t do that without welfare. Welfare is for Walmart not for Walmart employees. Welfare ensures that Walmart does not have to compete in a market place where the cost of doing business includes the nutritional needs of its employees, and the cost of housing, etc… Welfare enables Walmart to pay a dying wage and yet still have living workforce ( or should I say “workfarce”? ) It’s CORPORATE F*CKING WELFARE!

        Thank you! And have a Great Day!

      3. Jim

        I was suggesting that the structure of power that we are facing today has merged together–it has no real center–base and superstructure seem more and more interlocking and non-differentiable– which tends to undermine more traditional forms of political thought and action.

        It is no longer seems possible to simply storm the Winter Palace or Washington DC or NSA or the corporate headquarters of our major Banks and thereby institute regime change.

        The enemy seems more amorphous and more decentralized (with a public-private mix) that has no real outside to it.

        Consequently I believe we have yet to develop appropriate modes of struggle against this type of neo-liberalism although I am increasingly fascinated by how an examination of ones own life could become a political project.

        1. anon y'mouse

          this seems like a good analysis; outlaying why we are so locked in the web of “what to do?” and “how best to accomplish?” there IS no outside. we are being beset on all sides, like the million mice on the wheel of cheese. they don’t seem to stop day and night, multiple targets all at once. linked together, their dollars linking together in thinktanks, charitable institutions, social/political organizations, media, churches, schoolboards, etc. all targets are viable, and if they don’t get their way one day, with one bill or one board or one project, they come back again and try some other tack.

          are these darned people the Borg, or are they like a flesh-eating bacteria, or some combination? I also think you’re right partially–traditional protest won’t work. where do we begin? we WANT gov’t to work for us. it works for them. yet, as posted in the article about how libertarians get liberals to go along with their games, we fall for the tricks that allow disenfranchisement of people and empowerment of the parasites. strategy is everything with these people, and strategy appears to win against ‘superior’ moral impulse every time. in fact, it leads moral impulse to its own destruction.

          how to get around that, without every man/woman/child and dog lying down and refusing to move in the street, or work, or do anything else until things change (which is totally unlikely fantasy on my part) is beyond me. everything else seems like trying to build more track as the train derails at 120 MPH.

  11. RoboCommenter

    Ok, so where does this fit in? We started with crony capitalism and crony socialism and then moved on to crony populism. This appears to be just another variation of crony militarism ( which sort of fits half way between being under the headings of crony capitalism and crony socialism. ) I guess crony nazi-ism comes next. I wonder who’s campaign contributors are going to get the contract for the specialty lamp shades? My money’s on Hillary.

  12. different clue

    I offer a new meme in case anyone thinks it worthwhile to take up and launch.

    Richard Milhous Obama.

    I could imagine a person skilled with computers and photomorph morphing the faces of Obama and Nixon into a smooth whole with both ingredients easy to recognize.

    Maybe photos of Nixon flashing his 4 More Years finger signs with the morphed NixObama head smoothly photoshopped into place. Maybe one hand holding up only 3 fingers this year and titling the poster 3 More Years! Next year titling it 2 More Years! The year after that titling it 1 More Year! Maybe make Hare Krishna quality life size resin sculptures of President Richard Milhous Obama and demonstrate with them in front of the White House and other high visibility places.

    Maybe just a huge shoulders-up photomorph of NixObama captioned:

    Richard Milhous Obama
    Quit lying
    about your spying!

    1. different clue

      (Actually I meant “both” hands holding up a total of 4 fingers, then 3 fingers, then 2 fingers, then 1 finger with each passing year.)

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