The Thrust Toward Opacity
“My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government. We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.”
– Barack Obama (1/21/2009 [This inaugural statement is still on the US Government website.])
“The very word ‘secrecy’ is repugnant in a free and open society; and we are as a people inherently and historically opposed to secret societies, to secret oaths and secret proceedings. We decided long ago that the dangers of excessive and unwarranted concealment of pertinent facts far outweighed the dangers which are cited to justify it.”
– John F. Kennedy (4/27/1961)
“Knowledge is power.”
– Francis Bacon (1561-1626)
Introduction: The Pervasiveness of Secrecy
Lately we’ve been bombarded by Secrets. We don’t know many of the details, but we do know of their existence, at least some of them. To this extent, we’re inhabiting Donald Rumsfeld’s realm of “known unknowns.” First we learned (when The New York Times, after sitting on the story for a year, condescended to inform us) that the Bush Administration was eavesdropping on us without warrants. Then we discovered, courtesy of Jeremy Scahill and others, that US Special Forces – especially JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command) – are or have been engaged in more than 100 countries around the globe. Following this revelation, by way of the Snowden Scandals, we learned that the spying on us was as total as possible – and the NSA is still striving to increase its coverage! As a corollary, we soon became aware that our government was also snooping on its closest European friends and their leaders, along with its best buddies in Latin America and their leaders, with the UN thrown in for good measure. Finally, we stumbled across two new sub rosa trade agreements that are being cooked up – one with countries across the Pacific, the other with countries across the Atlantic. (Are they contemplating trade deals with Mars and Venus?)
What are we to make of all this? I conclude that every important aspect of US policy – domestic and foreign, either the decision-making process or the parameters of the policy or both – is off-limits to the ordinary citizen. (By “important,” I mean issues that bear on corporate profits.) “Ah,” you say, “what about the new Health Care law? That’s important, isn’t it? And the debates about it are certainly public, aren’t they?” “Well,” I reply, “do you know who participated in the discussions which determined that the ‘single-payer’ option would be off the table? Was this an executive branch determination, or did legislators decide that? Or maybe they decided jointly? And what was their reasoning? Were health-care executives in on the discussions? And, above all, did you participate?”
The parameters of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) were predetermined by persons unknown. We’re as much in the dark about these machinations as we are about which countries JSOC is in or what is happening with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). We do know that ACA’s problems are a direct result of the attempt to create a self-contradictory mixed system – one that caters to the craving for profits of the health-care industry, while simultaneously trying to address the medical needs of the public.
Let’s look at another issue: the non-prosecution of war crimes perpetrated by the Bush-administration lawbreakers. We initially expected that Obama & Co. would prosecute them; after all, he said he would look into it. Did they prosecute? No. Did he look into it? Maybe. Some postulate there were no prosecutions because he intended to do similar misdeeds; but we don’t know that for sure. Nor do we know which decision came first – not to prosecute or to have similar policies. Nor do we know when or why the determination was made to continue and extend those Bush-era policies.
And, finally, one more: the drones in the Middle East and Southwest Asia. Their use began during the Bush administration and expanded under Obama, both geographically and in absolute numbers. The Obama administration tried to keep almost every aspect of this program secret: its legal basis, who was targeted, whether civilians were hit, who drew up the list of targets, the basis for inclusion on this list. Gradually some details seeped out, but there is much about this program that remains unknown. However we do know that many – adults but especially children – in the targeted areas live in a perpetual state of terror. Who can blame them? That the US government, in the name of fighting terrorism, should be terrorizing, is truly ironic. But, on the other hand, maybe it’s not that different from “shock and awe” in Iraq.
Now let’s turn briefly to some specifics, first in the area of intelligence and surveillance, then in the terrain of military and paramilitary actions, and finally in the sphere of economic efforts.
Intelligence and Surveillance
This ground has been plowed many times and I won’t reiterate what is already common knowledge. Instead, I’ll stress a few points. Let’s begin by emphasizing what ought to be obvious but is sometimes overlooked: the National Security Agency (NSA) et al want to know everything about us, but they want us to know nothing about them; we want the exact opposite.
What we do know about them falls more or less into the Rumsfeldian category of “unknown knowns” – “open secrets” that can be unearthed if we’d only dig a little. For instance, there are not one or two, but 17 agencies whose job is to collect and analyze intelligence. Each has its own responsibilities, logo, budget (enormous), chain of command, and personnel. All are secretive; most stay in the shadows. Here are their names, drawn from a US government website:
• Air Force Intelligence
• Army Intelligence
• Central Intelligence Agency
• Coast Guard Intelligence
• Defense Intelligence Agency
• Department of Energy
• Department of Homeland Security
• Department of State
• Department of the Treasury
• Drug Enforcement Administration
• Federal Bureau of Investigation
• Marine Corps Intelligence
• National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency
• National Reconnaissance Office
• National Security Agency
• Navy Intelligence
• Office of the Director of National Intelligence
We’re dubious about the whole approach to “classification.” There are three degrees of secrecy. They are, in ascending order, “Confidential,” “Secret,” and “Top Secret.” How it’s decided that a document should be classified or its level of classification is unknown and unchallengeable. Someone can be accused of releasing a classified document, tried, convicted, sentenced and imprisoned solely because a president decided, for an unknown, possibly illegitimate, reason, that the document is classifiable. Some Guantanamo prisoners are still being kept there partly because their coerced confessions are classified and therefore unavailable to their defense attorneys. Classified documents cannot be seen by ordinary people. Yet we know that the documents exposed by whistle-blowers have not compromised US security, but were merely embarrassing. We’ve seen other cases where hitherto classified documents have been declassified, without US security being affected at all. There ought to be safeguards in the classification process.
The judges of the FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) Court are appointed by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Thus, one appointed official appoints other unnamed officials to a court that meets behind closed doors, hears unidentified witnesses without cross-examination, and makes unannounced rulings about secret matters on unknown legal bases. Even putting aside such considerations as the citizens’ right to know, such a system is rife with the potential for abuse, such as corruption or deal-making. This is no way to run a government. It’s more like a twenty-first century embodiment of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” than proper governmental practice.
Military and Paramilitary Actions
Much is written about drones in Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan, but little is known about their effect on those countries’ inhabitants. Nor is much known about the people killed or wounded due to drone attacks. Much as in Iraq, where the US authorities pretended they had no data on civilian casualties, victims of drones are automatically counted as legitimate targets (as if someone who is killed without arraignment or trial, merely due to a presidential “finding,” can be considered in any sense a “legitimate target”). But when non-combatants, like children or old people, are killed and their deaths are met with official silence – no acknowledgement, no explanation, no apology, no compensation – something is amiss.
Drones are now flying in US skies. The FBI claims this is only for surveillance “on a limited basis.” But domestic drones could become common. Since the President has asserted his authority to order the killing of US citizens and that actually has been done, domestic drones could also be fitted with missile-firing capacity.
While drones are often in the news, Special Forces rarely are. There are many Special Forces teams attached to different military units. Here is a list of them, culled from Wikipedia:
Joint Special Operations Command
• 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta AKA “Delta Force” / “Combat Applications Group” (CAG) / “Army Compartmental Element” (ACE)
• Intelligence Support Activity
• United States Naval Special Warfare Development Group AKA “DEVGRU” or “SEAL Team Six”
• 24th Special Tactics Squadron
United States Army
• United States Army Special Operations Command (USASOC)
• U.S. Army Special Forces Command (USASOC)
• 1st, 3rd, 5th, 7th, 10th Special Forces Groups
• 19th, 20th Special Forces Groups (National Guard)
• Chemical Reconnaissance Detachments (CRD)
• 75th Ranger Regiment
• 1st, 2nd, 3rd Ranger Battalions
• Ranger Special Troops Battalion
• US Army Special Operations Aviation Command (ARSOAC)
• 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment “Night Stalkers”
• Special Operations Aviation Training Battalion
• Systems Integration Management Office (SIMO)
• US Army Special Operations Command Flight Detachment
• Military Information Support Operations Command
• 4th, 8th Military Information Support Groups
• 95th Civil Affairs Brigade
• 528th Sustainment Brigade
United States Navy
• Naval Special Warfare Command (NSWC)
• Naval Special Warfare Group 1: SEAL Teams 1, 3, 5, 7
• Naval Special Warfare Group 2: SEAL Teams 2, 4, 8, 10
• Naval Special Warfare Group 3: SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team 1
• Naval Special Warfare Group 4: Special Boat Teams 12, 20, 22
• Naval Special Warfare Group 10
• Naval Special Warfare Group 11: SEAL Teams 17, 18 (Reserves)
• Naval Special Warfare Center
• United States Naval Special Warfare Development Group (DEVGRU/SEAL Team 1)
United States Air Force
• Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC)
• 1st, 24th, 27th Special Operations Wings
• 193rd Special Operations Wing (ANG [Air National Guard])
• 919th Special Operations Wing (AFR)
• 352nd Special Operations Group (Europe)
• 353rd Special Operations Group (Pacific)
• USAF Special Operations Training Center
United States Marine Corps
• United States Marine Corps Special Operations Command (MARSOC)
• Marine Special Operations Regiment
• 1st, 2nd, 3rd Marine Special Operations Battalions
• Marine Special Operations Support Group
• Marine Special Operations Logistics Battalion (MSOLB)
• Marine Special Operations Combat Support Battalion (MSOCSB)
• Marine Special Operations Intelligence Battalion (Disestablished, and personnel billets used to fill the MSOCSB)
• Marine Special Operations School
United States Coast Guard
• Coast Guard Deployable Operations Group
• CIA Special Activities Division
• Special Operations Group (SOG)
The members of these units don’t hang around the base, twiddling their thumbs; they embark upon missions. With so many teams, there must be many missions. When Special Forces are used, we know nothing about them, unless the authorities choose to tell us, which they do only in rare instances. Such was the case when the Navy SEALS captured and killed Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan, according to the president, and tossed his body overboard while at sea. (We are supposed to accept Obama’s word as truth without corroboration or evidence.) This led to celebrations back home, but the people and government of Pakistan were quite angry about it.
What about those other places where US Special Forces are operating or have operated? What are/were they doing? Where is the oversight? Does it exist? Is it military or civilian? We’re completely ignorant of details: the size and strength of these forces, their locations, their missions, their budgets, the short-term effects or long-term implications of their actions. But we’re supposed to believe that what they’re doing is good! That’s quite a lot for us to take on faith, especially since our faith has not been earned. If anything, the actions we do know about should cause us to harbor grave concerns about what’s being done in our name.
Secret Trade Negotiations
NAFTA was the first of more than a dozen trade agreements. They’ve been touted as being good for the economy, but they’ve only been good for the corporate sector. These agreements have the force of law. In fact, they have the force of super-law, since they supercede previously-enacted federal and state laws, when there is a contradiction between them and the trade agreement’s provisions. The latest two, whose terms are still being negotiated, are the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). The previous agreements are far from popular in the United States, so that’s one reason why the negotiations are secret. Despite this unpopularity, there’s a chance TPP will become law, since Congress sometimes ignores its constituents’ wishes in favor of the those of lobbyists. If it does, our already-limited freedoms will be further curtailed.
Conclusion: Why and How Secrecy Works
Why all this secrecy? If “knowledge is power,” as Bacon correctly asserted, then ignorance is powerlessness. People can’t discuss an issue if they don’t realize there is an issue to discuss. Even if they do so realize, without adequate information they cannot make an informed decision. Thus, secrecy is a device through which the corporations and its agents, the politicos, disempower us. To maintain and bolster this secrecy, they’ve created a series of defenses.
National security is a “sacred cow”; as such, it’s a very effective first line of defense. Its mere mention becomes a discussion-ender. Freedom of Information requests are often denied on the grounds of national security, leaving inquirers with no recourse. Once national security concerns are raised in a court proceeding, the judge almost automatically rules the topic off limits. Likewise, too, in the court of public opinion, national security concerns act as a trump card.
Nevertheless, we can dismiss out of hand the National Security Ploy. It vanished as a legitimate argument when the revelations of NSA eavesdropping on foreign leaders became known. Angela Merkel and Dilma Rousseff are obviously not terrorists and constitute no threat to US national security. Yet they were spied upon. The reasons for the surveillance were to aid, on the one hand, US diplomacy, and on the other, US corporations in what used to be called “industrial espionage” (only now it’s done by the government on their behalf). Since the diplomacy is conducted in the interests of the corporations anyway, ultimately the aim of the surveillance was corporate aggrandisement, not national security.
So, if national security is the first line of defense, here’s the second: When it becomes known that a policy decision has been made secretly, the discussion that ensues is rarely about the correctness of the decision but is usually deflected toward whether the secrecy was proper. This distraction makes it hard to remain focused on the real issue – the policy. (Think of a demonstration that gets derailed by the police, forcing the demonstrators to fight for their right to demonstrate. Free speech is important, but having to fight for it means that the reason-for-being of the demonstration has been lost.)
Assuming the various lines in the defense of secrecy have been breached – no easy task! – it’s still hard to drag information out of the multiple layers of bureaucracy, where functionaries stall, pass the buck, and ultimately, redact. These are the final lines of defense. Even if sufficient information eventually does become accessible, the time taken to ferret it out has been significant. A policy already firmly in place is more difficult to dislodge than one that has not yet been installed.
Ultimately the reason for these multiple subterfuges and avoidances is to prevent, delay and inhibit public discussion, thereby preventing, delaying and inhibiting the democratic process. Policy-makers are in love with their policies and, despite Obama’s fine words, quoted at the beginning of this article, they don’t appreciate interlopers, like you and me, tampering with them. If we’re kept in the dark, they can create whatever policies they want, without becoming embroiled in time-consuming and messy debates or being forced to alter policies because of citizen discontent. Thus, pragmatism triumphs over democracy.
But it isn’t merely a matter of pragmatism. There are real interests involved and some interests clash with others. On the one side are the corporations, on the other, the people. As with ACA, the corporate need for profits blocks people’s interest in getting easily available and inexpensive health care. As with energy, the fossil fuel industry’s need for continued production of oil, coal and gas endangers the peoples of the world through its contribution to climate change and pollution. If we want to save ourselves, we need to put the corporations on a strict leash or eliminate them entirely. A first step in achieving this is to attack and eliminate secrecy.
We can no longer trust the politicos, if we ever could. Almost all of them lean too much in the direction of their corporate masters. We need to challenge them in every way possible. One way is to refuse to accept popularly held truisms without subjecting them to critical evaluation. Another is to support whistle-blowers; they’re our allies in whittling away at secrecy. A third is to read thoughtfully and support the alternative press, such as CounterPunch; their presentation of alternate views of reality is crucial, especially since the mainstream press is failing so abysmally – as with The Times’s year-long interment of the Bush-era warrantless eavesdropping story.
Gene Glickman is a retired college professor of music. He now conducts a progressive chorus, called “Harmonic Insurgence,” and makes choral arrangements for it and other choruses. He lives in Brooklyn, NY and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.