Restrict secrecy more than data collection
Popular US rhetoric supports democracy. However, US actions have often done the opposite and manufactured enemies in the process. Although downplayed by the mainstream media, there is ample documentation that the US helped destroy democracy in several countries and supported tyranny in other. Figure 1 summarizes some of the best documented cases.
Figure 1. US support for authoritarian regimes. Red: Countries where the US helped destroy democracy: Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), Brazil (1964), Chile (1973), Argentina (1976), Turkey (1980), per Wikipedia, “Covert United States foreign regime change actions”. Brown: Countries listed under “Authoritarian Regimes supported” in Wikipedia, “United States support of authoritarian regimes”.
Are the world’s people, including the US electorate, better off because of the things done in secret? This essay provides a discussion of this issue, outlines recommended reforms, discusses the role of the media, and reviews options for further action by concerned citizens.
The Impact on Current National Security of Previous Secret Actions
Consider a few more details behind Figure 1: In 1994 the U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs with Respect to Export Administration issued a report documenting how Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had received chemical and biological warfare technology from the US in the 1980s, which he had used against Iran, his own Kurds, and US troops in the 1990-91 Gulf War. That war removed Iraq from Kuwait, which Iraq had invaded after numerous assurances by the US that it had “no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts.”
During the 1990-91 Gulf War, the US moved troops into Saudi Arabia. Many remained after 1991 until it became clear that the suicide mass murders of September 11, 2001, were motivated by the presence of US troops “defiling the holiest land of Islam.” Without US troops in Saudi Arabia, al–Qaeda could not have found 19 men to commit suicide mass murder on September 11, 2001.
The record summarized in Figure 1 includes numerous acts of war and crimes against humanity including US support for death squads in many countries. It includes several cases where whistleblowers were persecuted for unauthorized release of documents that were classified in apparent violation of US law and one case where public servants were prosecuted because of exposure of documents classified illegally. Has anyone been disciplined for using the classification system to illegally hide violations of US law? Perhaps, but any such cases are not as well known.
We need some government secrecy. Clear examples include design details of weapon systems and details of active military operations.
However, the US Congress cannot properly discharge its oversight function when public officials lie to Congress and the public. On March 12, 2013, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified before the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that the NSA did not wittingly collect data on millions of Americans. Ed Snowden knew that was a lie. He also knew that our system of checks and balance cannot function properly when such lies are not challenged. He further believed that no one else was likely to expose this lie if he did not.
Currently, however, a national security whistleblower has no reasonable chance of a fair trial in US courts today, according to Daniel Ellsberg and an attorney for Ed Snowden. Ellsberg was the whistleblowers behind the 1970s Pentagon Papers. Those leaks established that US government officials, including President Johnson, made public comments they knew to be false about the situation in Vietnam and elsewhere and were therefore classified in violation of US law. Ellsberg’s judge sustained government objections to virtually everything Ellsberg tried to say, thereby refusing to allow Ellsberg to claim illegal use of the classification system in his defense. The judge nevertheless dismissed the charges against Ellsberg, because the government’s case relied excessively on warrantless searches and other illegal actions. Ellsberg was out on bail talking to anti-war groups while awaiting trial. Manning was tortured in pretrial detention. Snowden cannot expect a fair trial under current US law.
Role of the Media
The role of the media in all this is complicated. On the one hand, the mainstream, commercial media in the US is the primary source for virtually any piece of information that reaches a large US audience, including information questioning national security practices.
On the other hand, the mainstream media rarely publishes much that contradicts the dominant narrative. Herman and Chomsky claim that the role of the media is Manufacturing Consent for the consensus among the elites.
The business model of the commercial media is selling behavior change in its audience to advertisers. This is most evident with commercial broadcasting, which receives 100 percent of its revenue from advertising. Major advertisers don’t just want to sell more, they also want the public to remain ignorant of the return they get from their investments in lobbying and political campaigns. This ROI (return on investment) has been estimated in different studies at between $6 and $220 for each $1 “invested” in political campaigns and lobbying.
Many in the US believe that the media has a liberal bias. Others claim it has a conservative and even reactionary bias. Both are correct: Relative to advertisers and people who can buy the media and fire journalists and prominent media personalities, the media has a liberal bias. Relative to the center 90 percent of the US electorate, the mainstream media has a conservative bias. We should expect this from an industry that must serve two masters: If they lose their audience, they have nothing to sell. If their message is too liberal, they lose advertising and profitability to the point that they either go bankrupt or get bought by someone like General Electric or Westinghouse.
Recent decades have seen a wave of mergers and acquisitions of major companies. Examples include GE buying NBC in 1986 and Westinghouse acquiring CBS in 1995.
Major mergers and acquisitions like these are reported, but the implications are not. Such mergers and acquisitions include both legitimate and illegitimate economies of scale. Legitimate economies of scale include the ability to amortize over larger volumes fixed costs of advertising and developing new products, services, and production processes. Illegitimate economies of scale include the ability to charge higher prices and pay lower wages because of reduced competition and making it easier to obtain special favors from government. The latter include tax breaks and subsidies not available to their smaller competitors. As a result, small businesses must pay more taxes to support the infrastructure, which includes the foreign and defense policies behind US opposition to democracy summarized in Figure 1.
Other examples include trade negotiations such as the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). The draft language is classified. This includes sections relating to intellectual property (IP, patents and copyrights). How can more public discussion of IP law harm national security, especially when it’s available to major campaign contributors?
Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Lessig insists that current US copyright law stifles creativity, throttling the evolution of culture in violation of the Constitution. He said that Mickey Mouse might not have been created under current copyright law: Mickey’s first commercial success was a 1928 movie, “Steamboat Willie”, whose name was a parody on a Buster Keaton film, “Steamboat Bill, Jr.”, that appeared earlier that year. Under current copyright law, Walt Disney (the creator of Mickey) might have been sued for copyright violation, having produced a “derivative work” of “Steamboat Bill”. Similar lawsuits are less likely today in Japan, where the local culture makes it practically impossible to enforce their copyright law, modeled after the US.
Media mergers in recent decades have been accompanied by the virtual elimination of investigative journalism from television, according to media scholar Robert McChesney.
The commercial media have a conflict of interest in providing information that might offend advertisers. In addition to the possible loss of advertising mentioned above, it would make it harder to sell public relations campaigns, e.g., asserting that global warming is not due to human activity. Serious discussions of politics have largely disappeared from election-year coverage, because it could make it easier for a candidate to win on issues, thereby potentially reducing advertising revenue.
The recent book Capital by leading economics researcher Thomas Piketty notes that the US led the world at the end of the first World War in “confiscatory taxation of excessive incomes”. In recent decades, the US has led the world in cutting the top income tax rates; he claims that these cuts in tax rates made it easier for executives to convince their boards (who are mostly selected by those executives) to increase executive compensation. The media have supported the claims that these executives create jobs, in spite of research indicating zero correlation between executive compensation and performance: “[I]t may be useful to recall that the US economy was much more innovative in 1950-1970 than in 1990-2010, … . [S]ince the United States was in both periods at the world technology frontier, this difference must be related to the pace of innovation.
One result of these changes is summarized in Figure 2: According to the data summarized there, if the economic growth since 1970 had been broadly shared as it was before, the median American family would take home $47,000 more per year. That’s over $100 per day. How much of this increase in inequality can be attributed to how the US media have covered politics? Other advanced industrialized countries have much larger public subsidies for media, controlled by the electorate not advertisers. In Germany and Japan, public subsidies were mandated by Generals Eisenhower and MacArthur, who commanded the occupation and international relief after World War II. This difference in how the media are funded doubtless facilitated the cuts in top tax rates just mentioned.
Figure 2. Evolution of Income Inequality 1947-2012. Between 1947 and 1970, economic growth was broadly shared. Since 1980 the top 0.01% has captured the largest share of the growth, while the incomes of the top 0.5% have not quite grown as fast as average annual income (GDP per capita). The median family income, adjusting for inflation barely increased at all since 1970, losing $45,000 per year relative to what it would have been had it grown at the rate of the average. That’s more than $100 per day.
But the effects of media bias are not limited to the increase in income inequality displayed in Figure 2. Major media executives were also complicit in creating the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003: Leading journalists and television personalities in the US and Britain were fired for raising too many questions about whether Iraq had the weapons of mass destruction the US government claimed. Iraq had obtained that technology from the US in the 1980s, as noted above, though that fact was omitted from mainstream coverage in 2002 and 2003.
Steven Aftergood, Director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, published a careful review of actions dating back to 1956 to try to understand and improve the management of government secrets. This included several high level commissions, each of which recommended reforms that were never implemented.
Under the current system, some bureaucrats and military officers can use the classification system to hide waste, criminality, and even clandestine acts of war and opposition to democracy in foreign countries. A well-known example of this was the Iran-Contra affair. This involved the secret sale of US arms to Iran to obtain funds for the Contra fighting the government of Nicaragua in direct violation of US law regarding both Iran and Nicaragua.
The role of the media in Iran-Contra is complex, consistent with the previous comments about the media. Without current standards for freedom of the press, few people in the US would likely have heard of this. However, the media was also complicit in creating the environment that encouraged administration officials to violate the law as they did. They routinely disseminated comments by administration officials describing the Nicaraguan government as a Communist dictatorship while largely suppressing information about the 1984 Nicaraguan elections, described as free and fair by international observers.
Aftergood quoted former FBI Director and former Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) William Webster as saying, the “classification system is broken and is a barrier … for not sharing pertinent information with homeland security partners”.
However, the Iran-Contra affair combined with the history summarized in Figure 1 and similar sources suggests that many violations of US law and even acts of war against foreign powers are often hidden in official secrets and largely suppressed by the mainstream media unless there is a substantial division among ruling elites. Secret violations of US law are rarely exposed unless a public servant (like Ellsberg, Manning, or Snowden) put his or her career and sometimes life on the line to provide that information to the public.
“On the other hand,“ Aftergood continued, “… a small number of secrecy reform initiatives have yielded measurable differences … . Nothing should ever be classified in the absence of an identifiable threat to national security. Declassification authority must be extended beyond the originating agency so as to mitigate the tendency toward bureaucratic secrecy. Other checks and balances on classification could be added to provide opportunities to identify and correct classification errors. … The benefits of renewed sunlight for the health of our democracy are likely to be abundant.”
Combining Aftergood’s comments with the analysis of the media above suggests a need for legislation containing reforms like the following:
- Every classified document should be accompanied by an unclassified explanation of how national security would be threatened by release of that information.
- Congressional oversight committees should have the authority to declassify documents they feel are inappropriately classified. Congress, not the administration, should be the ultimate authority on potential damages to national security.
- The government should be required to convince a jury of a plausible connection to national security before any journalist can be compelled to reveal sources and before any alleged whistleblower can be prosecuted. No defendant in a national security case can get a fair trial as long as judges suppress any challenge to whether the information in question was legally classified.
The mainstream media was a primary driver of the events summarized in Figures 1 and 2. Few politicians can get elected challenging the orthodoxy presented in the media. The future of humanity could be impacted greatly by any reforms of the system for managing classified information in the US.
What Can Concerned Citizens Do?
Concerned citizens can do the following:
1. Inform yourselves: Seek sources of information not tainted by the profit motive of the commercial media conglomerates in the US (especially ABC, CBS, CNN, NBC, Fox). This includes citizen-funded source like Democracy Now, Pacifica Radio, the Investigative News Network, and Wikimedia projects like Wikipedia, Wikinews, and Wikiversity, plus sources with alternative funding like Omidyar’s First Look Media and Al Jazeera. Every source has biases. Seek out sources that sometimes contradict your preconceptions.
2. Support organizations that are fighting excessive secrecy. These include the following:
Federation of American Scientists (www.fas.org/sgp), whose Project on Government Secrecy and “Secrecy News” blog provides one of the most carefully researched perspectives available on this issue.
National Security Archive (www.nsarchive.org), which holds “the largest repository of declassified U.S. documents outside of the federal government.”
American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU,www.aclu.org), whose stated mission is “to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States.”
Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF, www.eff.org), an international non-profit digital rights group involved in litigation, research and advocacy to promote personal freedoms against government encroachment and strategic lawsuits against public participation.
Freedom of the Press Foundation (https://pressfreedomfoundation.org), whose mission is to “promote and fund aggressive, public-interest journalism focused on exposing mismanagement, corruption, and law-breaking in government”.
Americans for Less Secrecy, More Democracy (openthegovernment.org), which “seeks to advance the public’s right to know and to reduce unnecessary secrecy in government.”
Electronic Privacy Information Center (http://epic.org and privacy.org), which “works to protect privacy, freedom of expression, democratic values, and to promote the Public Voice in decisions concerning the future of the Internet.”
3. Contribute research and commentary to Wikimedia projects including the debate in the “Freedom and abundance” project on Wikiversity.
A note on notes
I routinely cite my sources. This helps me avoid silly errors while also allowing readers to dig more deeply into any point that seems to conflict with their preconceptions and other sources. I often cite Wikipedia. It’s far from perfect. However, it has a well-earned reputation built on an effective system for inviting contributions from anyone and moderating disputes by asking people to write from a neutral point of view, cite sources, and assume good faith in others.
Public officials insist that they must do these things in secret, because the world is so dangerous. The evidence summarized here suggests that the world may be so dangerous more because of rather than in spite of things the US government has done in secret.
A serious debate about these issues is long overdue. The future of humanity may depend on the outcome.
This article and the companion 60-second video benefited from suggestions by Betsy Wolf-Graves, Bruce Preville, Steven Aftergood, Henrietta Burroughs, and Pablo Ghenis. They would not necessarily endorse the contents, but the author benefited from discussions with them.