James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, evoked Monet when, in fine impressionistic form, he said under oath that the NSA does “not wittingly” collect any kind of data on millions of Americans. As with 19th century Impressionism, the idea is not to portray the details of the subject, but its essence. Details include cumbersome specifics like facts and figures, which would only aggravate the public’s inexplicable mistrust of government; the essence, on the other hand, is much safer for consumption by the masses.
Not content to rest on his laurels, Clapper would try to push the boundaries of Impressionism when he later hedged that he’d answered in the “least most untruthful manner”. Incorporating elements of dark surrealism, he also said that Senator Wyden’s question—whether or not the NSA collects data on millions of Americans—was similar to asking, “are you going to stop beating your wife”? This is a “kind of question which is…not answerable necessarily, by a simple yes or no.”
Unfortunately, Clapper’s work has not aged well: 26 senators sent him a letter objecting to the use of what they called a “body of secret law”. Congresspeople have also called for his prosecution for criminal perjury. Yet, as with so many artists, Clapper is perhaps his own worst critic, having conceded that his statement that the NSA does “not wittingly” collect data on Americans was “clearly erroneous.”
Clapper has always refused to endorse any specific interpretation of his work, as evidenced by his defense of his “not wittingly” comment: “there are honest differences on the semantics…when someone says ‘collection’ to me, that has a specific meaning, which may have a different meaning to him.”
In the modern art wing, we have Obama’s brilliantly nonsensical, Dadaist argument that Snowden isn’t a patriot because, among other equally schizophrenic reasons, “he is convicted of three felonies.” This is a leitmotif pervading Obama’s work: equating illegal with immoral. He notably employed this technique when asked about Bradley Manning, saying that “He broke the law.” (Scholars are trying to reconcile this technique with Obama’s professed admiration of MLK, Jr., who famously remarked that “I disobeyed an unjust law.”)
And then there’s chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Dianne Feinstein. Prominent among Dianne Feinstein’s work is her thunderingly indignant defense of the NSA: “It’s called protecting America.” This piece recalls the German Romanticism movement; in particular, the movement’s recurring invocation of importance of The Volk and the need to protect them. Just weeks after Snowden’s leak, Dianne Feinstein unveiled her magnum opus: a call for legislation that would narrow the definition of what a journalist is. One criterion would be that only salaried journalists could enjoy the legal privileges conferred on the press. Her motivation for this piece arose from concern that “those who are not reporters at all” are enjoying “special privilege”. Feinstein’s performance is being widely hailed by critics as an epochal moment in German Romanticism, reminiscent of the spine tingling, ultranationalist ballads of the Third Reich.
Ken Klippenstein lives in Madison, Wisconsin, USA, where he co-edits the left issues journal, whiterosereader.org He can be reached at Reader246@gmail.com