Restrict government secrecy not data collection

I don’t care what data anyone collects on me: I care what they do. I care about the use of secrecy rules to conceal stupid blunders, criminality, and attacks on democracy.

 

The public needs the government to keep certain information secret. Examples include designs of weapon systems and details of active, legal operations by security forces.

 

However, other government secrets threaten democracy and US national security.

 

For example, are we better off today because Homeland Security was too busy monitoring the Occupy movement to properly investigate leads involving Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the primary figure in the Boston Marathon bombing?1 Is the world safer, because the US invaded Iraq in 2003 on erroneous allegations that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction (WMDs)? The 1994 Riegle Report of the US Senate documented how the Reagan administration had provided WMDs to Saddam Hussein, who had used them against US troops in 1990-91 Persian Gulf War.2 However, in the run up to the 2003 invasion, the source of Saddam’s WMDs was rarely if ever mentioned in the mainstream US media, and the US invaders were unable to find evidence that Hussein still had WMDs.

 

Similarly, the US secretly supported the destruction of democracy in Iran in 1953,3 Guatemala in 1954,4 Brazil in 1964,5 and Chile in 1973,6 and approved the cancellations of elections in Cuba7 in 1952 and Vietnam8 in 1956 because the candidate favored by the US was expected to lose.

 

We live in a dangerous world. Have these actions made us more safe or less?

 

These actions were facilitated by a combination of (a) government secrecy rules (b) timidity of the mainstream media in the US in questioning these events, and (c) the failure of the US public to actively seek information about these kinds of actions by their government.

 

Obama’s new secrecy policy9 merely changes the shade of lipstick on the pig without impacting the willingness or ability of government bureaucrats to disrupt nonviolent political activity and deprive people of life, liberty and property without due process of law at home and abroad.

 

I believe US national security could be enhanced by changes like the following:

 

  1. Common citizens should stop following commercial broadcasting (especially ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox), because their business model is selling behavior change in their audience to advertisers.10 The US public thinks they don’t pay for the content in television. They are mistaken. They pay for it in the excessive cost of national defense including making the world more dangerous not less,11 in the growing complexity of the US tax code12 and in thousands of hidden subsidies that major advertisers get from government policies that are under reported. That includes approving mergers and acquisitions that reduce competition, thereby driving up prices for goods and services.13 It includes the complexity of so-called “free trade” agreements, which are typically kept secret from the electorate but available to major campaign contributors.14 Only the ultra-wealthy can afford the high cost of playing in this arena. Those who control major advertising budgets get returns estimated at between $6 and $220 for each $1 invested in lobbying and political campaigns.15 These returns far exceed those available from any other investment. These massive returns are paid by small businesses and individuals. They have contributed to the substantial increase in income inequality in the US over the past 40 years – an increase of $39,000 per year or $100 per day for the typical (median) American family.16

 

  1. Change the law to limit government secrets to the designs of weapons systems and current operations by military and other security forces. We need a strong, effective national defense. We don’t need a military that cannot pass audits17 nor one with substantial portions of its budget being secret,18 nor one that manufactures enemies faster than they can be neutralized.19

 

  1. Strengthen the law protecting whistleblowers so people like Ed Snowden and Pfc Manning don’t need to risk incarceration to expose criminal behavior in government. This includes providing substantive criminal penalties for government managers who try to punish employees who question the use of the classification system to keep from the public information that may embarrass specific individuals but runs no major risk of substantive damage to the national security.20 (And redefine “national security” to exclude favors to campaign contributors.)

 

  1. Reduce the ability of government to coerce journalists to reveal their sources.21 The public has a need to know about violations of law and ethics by public officials. That need to know exceeds the public interest in any particular judicial proceeding. Journalist should not be used an extension of the prosecution or defense. This is especially true in issues of national security. For example, Al Qaeda and all other non-state terrorist organizations are not major international powers and cannot threaten the internal security of the United States.22 During the Cold War, the Soviet Union and China were major powers, though their strength was a fraction of that claimed by the US government and the media. We need a much more vigorous debate about public issues than we have now.

 

The most important of these changes, I believe, is the first: giving commercial broadcasting the disrespect it has earned. If a critical mass of the electorate starts searching and paying for honest information about politics, they will more likely vote in ways that open doors to improving many currently intractable problems and reversing the trend to increasing income inequality.23

 

Spencer Graves; spencer.graves@effectivedefense.org

Copyright 2014 under the Creative Commons Attribution, Share-Alike license (CC-by-sa)

 

1Dexter Mullins, “Little oversight at nation’s terrorism watch centers”, Al Jazeera, 2013-12-10 (http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2013/12/10/little-oversightconsistencyatnationsterrorismwatchcenters.html). This article is based on Michael Price (2013) National security and local police (Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law (www.brennancenter.org/sites/default/files/publications/NationalSecurity_LocalPolice_web.pdf) and on other comments by Price. Price said, “We know the FBI conducted an investigation of Tamerlan, … and three months later he was implicated in a pretty gruesome triple homicide. And it doesn’t appear that the local fusion center was aware of this, or at least we don’t know if they or the FBI was aware of this … . [A]t the time this was going on, the fusion center was fixated on monitoring Occupy Boston protesters”. A cynic might argue that this is a proper allocation of resources for people in power, because Occupy represented small but real possibilities to limit increasing government support for the wealthy, while a real bombing could help justify increasing the budget for Homeland Security.

2Wikipedia, “Riegle Report” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Riegle_Report, accessed 2014-01-21).

3Wikipedia, “1953 Iranian coup d’état” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1953_Iranian_coup_d’%C3%A9tat)

4Wikipedia, “1954 Guatemalan coup d’état” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1954_Guatemalan_coup_d’%C3%A9tat). The leading Latin American revolutionary Che Guevara was in Guatemala City at the time of this coup. He became convinced that the United States would “oppose and attempt to destroy any government that sought to redress the socioeconomic inequality endemic to Latin America and other developing countries.” Wikipedia, “Che Guevara” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Che_Guevara).

5Wikipedia, “1964 Brazilian coup d’état” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1964_Brazilian_coup_d’%C3%A9tat) The current Brazilian head of state, Dilma Rousseff, was torturned by the government installed on orders from US President Lyndon Johnson. Wikipedia, “Dilma Rousseff” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dilma_Rousseff)

6Wikipedia, “1973 Chilean coup d’état” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1973_Chilean_coup_d’%C3%A9tat)

7Wikipedia, “Fulgencio Batista” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fulgencio_Batista) and “Partido Ortodoxo” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Partido_Ortodoxo) Fidel Castro was running for a minor political office in the 1952 elections. When those elections were canceled, he became a revolutionary, apparently convinced that the US would pervert any democratic system installed in Cuba to prevent it from benefitting the Cuban poor.

8Wikipedia, “Geneva Conference (1954)” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geneva_Conference_(1954)).

9Ellen Nakashima and Greg Miller, “Obama calls for significant changes in collection of phone records of U.S. citizens”, Washington Post, 2013-01-17 (http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/in-speech-obama-to-call-for-restructuring-of-nsas-surveillance-program/2014/01/17/e9d5a8ba-7f6e-11e3-95c6-0a7aa80874bc_story.html) These are changes in executive orders and could as easily be reversed in the future without a public announcement. In particular, they do not have the force of law.

10Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky (1988) Manufacturing consent: the political economy of the mass media (Pantheon Books).

11Wikipedia, “Chalmers Johnson”, esp. “The Blowback series” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chalmers_Johnson). Johnson predicted an event like the suicide mass murders of September 11, 2001, but thought it would come from Asia, not the Middle East; Johnson was an expert on Asia. ‘Johnson believed that the enforcement of American hegemony over the world constitutes a new form of global empire. … “I was a cold warrior. … I believed the Soviet Union was a genuine menace. I still think so.” At the same time, however, he experienced a political awakening after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, noting that instead of demobilizing its armed forces, the US accelerated its reliance on military solutions to problems both economic and political. The result of this militarism … is more terrorism against the U.S. and its allies, the loss of core democratic values at home, and an eventual disaster for the American economy.’

12Between 1955 and 2005, the total number of words in US federal tax code and regulations increased from 1.4 to over 9 million. The impact of those changes on the distribution of income in the US is unknown. Between 1955 and 1970, the benefits of productivity growth were broadly shared. Since 1970, most of the benefits have gone to the ultra wealthy. Some suspect that these tax code changes contributed to the increases in income inequality since 1970, but they are clearly not the whole story. Tax Foundation, “Number of Words in Internal Revenue Code and Federal Tax Regulations, 1955-2005” (http://taxfoundation.org/article/number-words-internal-revenue-code-and-federal-tax-regulations-1955-2005); Wikiversity, “Documenting crony capitalism” (https://en.wikiversity.org/wiki/Documenting_crony_capitalism).

13In free markets an economic transaction can occur whenever the value to a consumer exceeds the cost to a producer. An economic transaction (purchase by a consumer, sale by a producer) can occur at any price between the value to the consumer and the cost to the producer. “In perfectly competitive markets, market participants have no market power.” (Wikipedia, “Market power”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Market_power) However, with a few producers and many consumers, the producers set the price to maximize their profits, often denying many potential consumers the opportunity to purchase at a price acceptable to them, even though a competitive market could deliver an option at a price they could afford. (Wikipedia, “Oligopoly”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oligopoly) Similar economic problems occur in markets with many producers and few buyers, as with labor markets (Wikipedia, “Oligopsony”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oligopsony). United States antitrust law requires US government approval for mergers and acquisitions that could potentially harm consumers. (Wikipedia, “United States antitrust law”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_antitrust_law)

14On 23 May 2012, United States Senator Ron Wyden complained that, “The majority of Congress is being kept in the dark as to the substance of the [Trans-Pacific Partnership] negotiations, while representatives of U.S. corporations—like Halliburton, Chevron, PHRMA, Comcast, and the Motion Picture Association of America—are being consulted and made privy to details of the agreement.” Wikipedia, “Trans-Pacific Partnership” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trans-Pacific_Partnership)

15Lawrence Lessig (2011) Republic, Lost (Twelve, esp. p. 117). Lessig cites several different studies of the returns obtained by different industries with numbers ranging from $6 to $220 for each $1 invested in lobbying and political campaigns.

16Wikiversity, “Documenting crony capitalism” (https://en.wikiversity.org/wiki/Documenting_crony_capitalism)

17The Government Accountability Office was unable to provide audit judgments of US military expenditures for at least the fiscal years between 1998 and 2011. Wikipedia, “Military budget of the United States” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Military_budget_of_the_United_States)

18Wikipedia, “Black budget” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_budget)

19See for example the 2013 book and movie Dirty Wars by Jeromy Scahill. Wikipedia, “Dirty Wars” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dirty_Wars)

20United States law allows the government to classify as confidential, secret or top secret information that would “damage” national security if publicly disclosed without the proper authorization. This has been interpreted to support classifying information whose disclosure “might have adverse effect on public opinion or result in legal suits.” That suggests the US public is an enemy. Wikipedia, “Classified information in the United States” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Classified_information_in_the_United_States)

21The public has a right and a need to know what its government is doing, especially regarding actions that work to suppress democracy and limit dissent at home and abroad, as indicated in the examples previously cited. Some stated have statutes to protect journalists, but the US federal government does not. Wikipedia, “Shield laws in the United States” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shield_laws_in_the_United_States) and “Category:Journalists imprisoned for refusing to reveal sources” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Journalists_imprisoned_for_refusing_to_reveal_sources)

22Immediately after September 11, 2001, people all over the world gathered, expressing solidarity with the US. Al Qaeda was essentially dead at that moment. If the US had reacted with a criminal investigation, people all over the world would have reported suspicious activities. Instead, the US used that as an excuse to go to war. The resulting death and destruction in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere manufactured new recruits for Al Qaeda and reduced the willingness of people to report possible terrorist activities, as noted by Jeremy Scahill, cited above.

23Commercial broadcasting makes money by selling behavior change in their audience to advertisers. They keep their audiences with content that rarely questions actions benefiting major advertising, broadcasting just enough negative information about those with wealth and power to retain an aura of objectivity. However, many major problems remain intractable primarily because the public receives very little information about hidden subsidies. In addition to the national security concerns previously mentioned, the prison population in the US is five times what it was forty years ago. The only change I know during that period that can explain such a change is the increased concentration of ownership of the media combined with the virtual elimination of investigative journalism (except for a few programs like “60 Minutes”) and filling the gap with the crime stories. Meanwhile, the changes in actual crime have been tiny by comparison. The latter have been best measured by The National Victimization Survey, which asks about personal victimization; it is thereby largely unaffected by people’s willingness to report crime to police. Changes in criminal law are driven by people’s perceptions of crime, which is primarily a function of the media they consume. See, e.g., Vincent F. Sacco (2005) When Crime Waves (Sage). Problems with our public education and health systems are perpetuated, in large part because the commercial media would lose advertising revenue if they provided too much honest information about the issues – and they don’t lose enough audience from their low quality coverage to counter the substantial losses they could anticipate from disseminating more honest information. Progress against global warming has been stalled for a quarter century, because large corporations and trade groups from the oil, coal and auto industries invested heavily in pseudo-scientific research and “to cast doubt on the science, characterizing it as junk science, and therefore to turn public opinion against any calls for government intervention”. This in turn means that commercial broadcasting could lose money if they provided too much publicity for the real science, as these large corporations and trade groups would likely spend less with them on “public relations” and advertising. Wikipedia, “Climate change denial” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Climate_change_denial) More generally, “Research demonstrates that in those democratic nations with well-funded and prominent nonprofit and noncommercial broadcasting systems, political knowledge tends to be relatively higher than in nations without substantial public broadcasting”, according to Nichols and McChesney (2013) Dollarocracy (Nation Books, p. 139). Nichols and McChesney also stated (p. 155), “commercial broadcasters have little incentive to give away for free what has become a major source of profit for them.”

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