Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Secrets and Democracy

I know the timely issue is to make a response about Syria (I am opposed to military action for all the reasons that everyone has been), or, perhaps, to make fun of the new iphone while admitting quietly that I like pretty colors and the thumb print thing is cool.

But instead, I am going to talk about secrets and democracy. This is, of course, inspired by the NSA papers, and the broader issues of American and British pushback against journalism meant to undermine secrecy. I mean of course issues surrounding Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, the harassing of Glenn Greenwald's romantic partner and journalistic partner. I also mean the gag order against the activist journalist who could go to prison for over a century because of linking to information. And just today Johns Hopkins asked a professor to take down a blog post because he might have linked to classified material, which might be a crime (?!). I would like to add while I oppose the legal harassing, and the prosecutorial overreach in these incidents, such tools are far too common with prosecutors. It is just usually targeted at people flying well below our news radar.

Anyway, all of this brings me to the issue of secrets and democracy. I want to begin with a longish passage from Daniel Ellsberg's memoir Secrets. Ellsberg, of course, is the man who released the pentagon papers. This story takes place as Henry Kissinger, then just starting to work in government, comes to ask Ellsberg for advice.
 "Henry, there's something I would like to tell you, for what it's worth, something I wish I had been told years ago. You've been a consultant for a long time, and you've dealt a great deal with top secret information. But you're about to receive a whole slew of special clearances, maybe fifteen or twenty of them, that are higher than top secret.
"I've had a number of these myself, and I've known other people who have just acquired them, and I have a pretty good sense of what the effects of receiving these clearances are on a person who didn't previously know they even existed. And the effects of reading the information that they will make available to you.
"First, you'll be exhilarated by some of this new information, and by having it all — so much! incredible! — suddenly available to you. But second, almost as fast, you will feel like a fool for having studied, written, talked about these subjects, criticized and analyzed decisions made by presidents for years without having known of the existence of all this information, which presidents and others had and you didn't, and which must have influenced their decisions in ways you couldn't even guess. In particular, you'll feel foolish for having literally rubbed shoulders for over a decade with some officials and consultants who did have access to all this information you didn't know about and didn't know they had, and you'll be stunned that they kept that secret from you so well.
"You will feel like a fool, and that will last for about two weeks. Then, after you've started reading all this daily intelligence input and become used to using what amounts to whole libraries of hidden information, which is much more closely held than mere top secret data, you will forget there ever was a time when you didn't have it, and you'll be aware only of the fact that you have it now and most others don't....and that all those other people are fools.
"Over a longer period of time — not too long, but a matter of two or three years — you'll eventually become aware of the limitations of this information. There is a great deal that it doesn't tell you, it's often inaccurate, and it can lead you astray just as much as the New York Times can. But that takes a while to learn.
"In the meantime it will have become very hard for you to learn from anybody who doesn't have these clearances. Because you'll be thinking as you listen to them: 'What would this man be telling me if he knew what I know? Would he be giving me the same advice, or would it totally change his predictions and recommendations?' And that mental exercise is so torturous that after a while you give it up and just stop listening. I've seen this with my superiors, my colleagues....and with myself.
"You will deal with a person who doesn't have those clearances only from the point of view of what you want him to believe and what impression you want him to go away with, since you'll have to lie carefully to him about what you know. In effect, you will have to manipulate him. You'll give up trying to assess what he has to say. The danger is, you'll become something like a moron. You'll become incapable of learning from most people in the world, no matter how much experience they may have in their particular areas that may be much greater than yours."
....Kissinger hadn't interrupted this long warning. As I've said, he could be a good listener, and he listened soberly. He seemed to understand that it was heartfelt, and he didn't take it as patronizing, as I'd feared. But I knew it was too soon for him to appreciate fully what I was saying. He didn't have the clearances yet. (237-238)

As this makes clear, the state of national secrecy has a corrosive effect on the very idea of democracy. In this sense, there is no way to be taken seriously in discussions of policy, unless you already know the secrets. When we were discussing Wikileaks, I compared to this Philip K. Dick's novel The Simulacra.
The Simulacra tells the story of a totalitarian society ruled and centralized around a secret. As is described in the novel:
Any failure would have betrayed to the Bes [the underclass] the secret, the Geheimnis, which distinguished the elite, the establishment of the United States of Europe and America; their possession of one or more secrets made them into Geheimnisträger, bearers of the secret, rather than Befehlsträger, mere carry-outers of instruction. (p. 34)

Like the law with Kafka, the secret forms the very constitutive nature of society for Dick. And the society we are living in is not just Kafkaesque, but also Dickesque. Secret laws and lawful secrets drive to divide our society in the ways that Ellsberg understood: those who know the secrets, and those the knowers have to manipulate into caring out their instructions.