"Public" Oversight of the National Security Apparatus

After spending a semester wrapping (and the past week cramming) my mind around the contours of national security law, my single dominating thought has been my sense that our entire security apparatus lacks meaningful, practical oversight.  Merely mechanical oversight is not the problem; after all, it is not that the courts or even Congress are utterly absent from the field of evaluating the executive's leadership.  There are inspectors general and all manner of institutional accountability mechanisms.  Still, I remained uncomfortable with the state of oversight in this arena.  

Then, just a week after criticizing the entirety of The New York Times op-ed columnist line-up, Ross Douthat generates a column discussing the similarities between the Bush and Obama Administrations' foreign policies that gets close to what bothers me most about our national security apparatus. 

Douthat suggests that behavior considered to be "creeping fascism" for Democrats under President Bush is thought to be right as rain under President Obama, and I think that's right.  While Douthat identifies a number of resulting benefits, e.g., that this is evidence that "the Democratic Party is growing up, putting away certain fond illusions, and accepting its share of responsibility for the messy realities of the post-9/11 world," I am given pause.

Through deft use of conciliatory rhetoric and a willingness to court Congress (and the international community), President Obama has perhaps done all the work needed to solidify the dramatic evolution of our national security law that President Bush initiated to at least token Democratic resistance.  As Douthat puts it, America's "overseas footprint" keeps expanding, but our national security apparatus has, as well.  While I might call for more oversight of this dynamic and suggest whether this is a good thing, the easy rebuttal now is that both parties have acquiesced to a state of affairs wherein a vast framework, global and domestic, legal and material, is needed to ensure our continued security.

The problem, which Douthat identifies, is that the "global war on terror isn't a free lunch" and somebody will one day present us with the bill.

Slowly but surely, defense spending is becoming a salient issue again, but the capacity of the Obama Administration to continue two wars and begin another is shocking when one considers the very real economic panic the general public is facing.  Disillusioned by stimulus spending, we're now turning to austerity measures, axing social services but still, as yet, paying little mind to the costs of the national security apparatus.

In the end, I suppose what I mean by oversight is a public price tag.  And not just the big, abstract numbers that people can hardly comprehend.  It is as difficult for me to truly understand the Pentagon's $700 billion budget as it is to understand the Supreme Court's detainee jurisprudence.

What exactly did the head of Osama bin Laden cost?  Every night, on the national news, the rise and fall of the stock market could be followed by a tally of the money spent on the day's missiles fired in Libya, drones into Yemen, and special forces operations into Pakistan.  We would see daily estimates of how much it costs for the NSA to monitor global communications.  

Then we might have the sort of oversight I think the national security apparatus really needs.  Legal and purely political oversight is not enough in a field that invites such expansive government power.  The public simply needs more information.