Friday, December 27, 2013
The currency of secrets
A case can be made . . . that secrecy is for losers. For people who don’t know how important information really is. The Soviet Union realized this too late. Openness is now a singular, and singularly American, advantage. We put it in peril by poking along in the mode of an age now past. It is time to dismantle government secrecy, this most pervasive of cold war-era regulations. It is time to begin building the supports for the era of openness which is already upon us.
That's Daniel Patrick Moynihan and this is an interesting essay by Jack Shafer about his book called Secrecy, which was written in the wake of a Senate investigation in the 1990s into the over-classification of government information. It's filled with very provocative and unusual insights into the issue. The book was written before the extremely rapid growth of the surveillance state in the post 9/11 internet era, so the concerns raised don't even begin to address the specifics of the data collection programs we are currently dealing with. I'm just going to pull out a few paragraphs that deal with the history of American government secrecy, one of which seems particularly relevant in light of the somewhat flamboyantly possessive behavior by the leaders of the NSA:
“Secrecy is a form of regulation,” Moynihan declares in his opening sentence, restricting what information citizens may possess about their government and the actions performed in their name. Unlike economic regulation, whose dimension can be gleaned from reading the US Code and scanning the Federal Register, the shadow cast by secrecy is fundamentally unknowable to few outside the government elite. Writing elsewhere, Moynihan stated, “Normal regulation concerns how citizens must behave, and so regulations are widely promulgated. Secrecy, by contrast, concerns what citizens may know; and the citizen is not told what may not be known.Nowadays we have judges declaring Islamic terrorism to be an existential threat, thus justifying even more secrecy than before.
On occasion, the national security establishment will even prevent the president of the United States from being read in on the secrets elemental to the performance of his office. In the late 1940s, the US Army’s Venona project cracked the codes the Soviet Union was using to communicate with its spy network in America, Moynihan reported. The decryptions were shared with fbi Director J. Edgar Hoover and other members of the national security brotherhood, but General Omar Bradley concealed them from President Harry S. Truman because his White House was known to leak.
Venona gave an accurate picture of Soviet penetration of the US. Had the secrets been made public—the Russians had learned by then that they’d been found out—the nation might have been spared the poisonous squalls about domestic communism exhaled by Senator Joseph McCarthy. Of the Venona decryptions, that were finally made public in the mid-1990s, Moynihan writes:
Here we have government secrecy in its essence. Departments and agencies hoard information, and the government becomes a kind of market. Secrets become organizational assets . . . . In the void created by absent or withheld information, decisions are either made poorly or not made at all. What decisions would Truman have made had the information in the Venona intercepts not been withheld from him?[...]Moynihan and Powers trace our government’s passion for secrets to the Wilson administration’s paranoiac views about dissent during World War I, and its passage of the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918, which established the secrecy bureaucracy and in its early incarnation dictated press censorship.
The Russian Revolution and Moscow’s establishment of the Communist International, pledged to world revolution, further rattled the American state. The domestic communist conspiracy, such as it was, never threatened the US government. The overreaction to the subversives, who never numbered more than a few thousand, ran through the Cold-War era, sustaining a culture of secrecy designed to keep the populace dumb and frightened. Excessive secrecy kept the public from learning that the United States suffered no “missile gap” with the Soviets; that the Bay of Pigs invasion was doomed; that the Vietnam War was built on lies and deceit; that the Soviet Union was disintegrating. Excessive secrecy, Powers wrote, gave bureaucratic cover to flawed policies and failed careers inside government.
It also gave the government a weapon to “stigmatize outsiders and critics.” Had Truman been able to draw on the secrets stash, he could have arrested America’s paranoia about the internal communist threat by speaking the truth about the pitiful weakness of Soviet spies. But because he was in the dark, too, he couldn’t directly refute the alarmists. “[McCarthy] was able to gain hearing for his fantastic charges only because he could claim that the evidence to support them was kept hidden by the executive branch,” wrote Powers. This damming up of information has created what Powers calls “postmodern paranoia, an aesthetic preference for ‘alternative’ modes of thought that leads to playful interest in conspiracy theories about government secrecy just for the hell of it.” In other words, the rationing (or regulation) of information creates a market for misinformation.
Surely anyone can see why it's important, at the very least, to be able to challenge this from time to time, especially when we see new technologies that have not been legally defined and thoroughly vetted for constitutional applicability. And we know the government will not do this voluntarily, don't we? Because, as Moynihan pointed out way back when, secrets are a bureaucratic currency that's hoarded and distributed by those who have access to it. Sometimes they don't share it even with our democratic leaders.
And as Shafer points out, this isn't just about protecting us from being surveilled for our porn habits. It's got much broader implications:
If, as Randolph Bourne famously wrote, war is the health of the state, then terrorists are the health of secret-keepers. The attacks of September 11 restored the American secrecy cult. The battlefield extends from home to foreign mountain ranges, and the war is fought in both real and virtual space. Your phone, your computer, your internet connection, the algorithms used to do your banking online have all been drafted into the state’s secret and escalating war on Al Qaeda. Thanks to Snowden, we now know about the government’s secret cyberattacks, its secret giant gulps of internet traffic, its secret databases of your data, and its secret cracking and compromising of encryption. Aided and abetted by a secret FISA court, the last two presidential administrations have normalized privacy intrusions and eavesdropping, with no end in sight as long as one fanatic plots to set off a bomb somewhere.
Presaging the government’s response to 9/11, Moynihan distilled this template for government’s action during and after wartime in a passage about America’s extravagant post-WWI spychasing:
Note the pattern set in 1917. First twentieth-century war requires or is seen to require measures directed against enemies both ‘foreign and domestic.’ Such enemies, real or imagined, will be perceived in both ethnic and ideological terms. Second, government responds to domestic threats with regulations designed to ensure the loyalty of those within the government bureaucracy and the security of government secrets, with similar regulations designed to protect against disloyal conduct on the part of citizens and, of course, foreign agents.Moynihan was no secrecy nihilist. He believed in “legitimate and necessary” military secrets, but wanted much of the culture of secrecy the spooks depended on to be replaced with open approaches to intelligence questions. “Analysis, far more than secrecy, is the secret to security,” he wrote. Open inquiries, in Moynihan’s view, independent of the bureaucracy’s control, and critiqued, debated, and verified by other open-source researchers, would produce the best results. Had we insisted on such an inquiry of Saddam’s weapon programs, perhaps we could have been spared the second Gulf War.
For all the hand wringing about the Snowden revelations making the country less safe, it's interesting how few ramifications there have been for those who used secrecy to push us into a war that ended up killing many thousands and creating millions of enemies we wouldn't have had otherwise. Imagine if the Bush administration hadn't been able to exploit (stove-pipe) the secrecy state to its advantage to sell a war they'd been waiting for an excuse to wage for political and economic reasons.
Shafer concludes with this depressing throught, but one with which I have to reluctantly concur:
As Moynihan repeatedly points out, war and the threat of domestic disorder, is the health of the secrecy state. “We make policy by crisis, and we particularly make secrecy policy by crisis,” scholar Mary Graham told The New York Times in early 2003, predicting that the temporary emergency powers then being approved would last at least for 20 years, “just as we lived with the Cold War restrictions for years after it was over.”
To read Secrecy now is to despair. As long as threats exist against America and opportunistic legislators hold office, there appears no practical way to roll back the secrecy bureaucracy. In the summer of 2013, when emotions against the NSA intrusions were highest, a bill to limit the agency’s powers to collect electronic information was voted down in the House of Representatives. Maybe I’m impatient, but if Snowden’s revelations aren’t enough to convince Congress to sand a corner off the secrecy establishment, I doubt if anything on his computer drives could.
digby 12/27/2013 11:00:00 AM