The Secret Consequences

Before Edward Snowden’s name became a household word I had a weird exchange with a guy claiming to be a Federal agent sitting at an Alexandria, Va. bar. When asked how, exactly, US interests had been harmed by Bradley Manning’s revelations the man replied, “If I told you I’d have to kill you.” He was only half-kidding. The conversation moved on before any implications could be pinned down from the odd remark. This would be killer had a sensitive side and was soon busy being offended by the observation that the ATF, who apparently employed him, “were always the Rodney Dangerfields among G-Men.”

The government is reluctant to describe specific damage to the realm resulting from the kind of material released by Manning, Snowden and others. But that may have more to do with meal ticket security in the national insecurity industry than with “national security.” If the” bad guys” already know something who’s getting hurt when the public gets informed?

The original video of a US helicopter attack on a Baghdad marketplace that preceded Manning’s full trove of documents couldn’t have damaged any vital security interest. The victims and first hand witnesses already knew who was gunning all those people down. The real mischief from that disclosure was what got revealed about how the war in Iraq was being conducted to the population stateside. What everyone saw appeared to be a wanton massacre. The fact that two Reuters employees were killed in it did nothing to belie that impression.

If the Manning case is any kind of example it will probably never be clear to American’s without clearances why they are less safe once the leakers hit send. The first thing imperiled by these downloads is the credibility of official PR campaigns. We are supposed to believe that government and academia are in cahoots manufacturing a spiffy new techno-warrior caste. Not only do they not come cheap but won’t be able to save us if we remain overly attached to privacy, dignity or any semblance of accurate reports describing government in action.

The constantly expanding variety of information that gets absorbed into the gravitational pull of a black hole classification system doesn’t give Joe Six-pack much chance of ever wising up. The media isn’t a lot of help on those occasions when some of the straight dope oozes onto the street either. The story is always that something devastating has been exposed rather than what the something is. One-per-centers in the security industry have concentrated access to data amongst themselves more efficiently in a few years than financial elites managed with national wealth over several decades. These two classes of hoarders are far from mutually exclusive. The 200 some odd miles between Washington, D.C. and South Manhattan is the most well-worn travel and communication path in the country.

Conventional ranks of the 4th estate aren’t bucking the trend. Some have suggested that reporters, who run in the circles noted above, be elevated into a further credentialed class of their own. Senator Lindsey Graham (R, S.C.) recently ruminated: “Who is a journalist is a question we need to ask ourselves. Is any blogger out there saying anything-do they deserve 1st amendment protection? These are the issues of our times.” Some among the class Graham wants to entitle have been getting paid by the government they cover as journalists. Would the senator grant these professionals still more 1st amendment rights than people with press cards who only receive one check for their ink? The relationship between Wall Street, government and the media is not exactly hostile in “our times.” Most of them appear to share the kind of contempt for the common man that Montgomery Burnswould approve of.

How is it possible for an electorate that is kept in the dark and covertly scrutinized to exert any control over their own future? Some in the media, like Dana Millbank, think it would be disastrous if they were ever able to. Things like Prism, the TSA, the 1033 programUS missiles in Poland, interfering in foreign political developments and numerous other projects are never brought into public debate at election times. There are rafts of government activities that go on independently of political contests. The tiny minorities that advocate for such things would gladly make it illegal for the unconnected to find out about them.

If polls are to be believed a surprisingly large minority in the country think loyal citizens should have nothing to hide from their rulers. Sneaking around, encrypting and minding everyone else’s business is the province of government. The idea that political processes can be manipulated with these kinds of powers is paranoid from this point of view. A Justice Department lawyer called me “admirably naïve” when I jokingly offered him a Manning/Snowden for President bumper sticker the other day. A seasoned man of the world, apparently, knows to trust central authority with carte blanche and provide daily updates on personal contacts. Don’t get distracted by the 20th century or recent divulgences about the IRS.

During the Bush years the problem, supposedly, was intelligence “stove-piping.” “Inventing” would have been the better word. What our spies called “intelligence” generally served as clay to mold whatever threat the brass had ordered up. Bureaucracies will never break themselves of that convenient habit. The glut in material for this artistic medium provided by the technocratic stimulation overload is creating a cloak and dagger renaissance Fouche and Metternich never dreamed of. Life will doubtlessly imitate their art.

It is hard to imagine a system that amasses as much information as the present one dealing effectively with it all. The mad scientists in charge are as overwhelmed and unable to focus as a newly pubescent boy at the beach. Or as awkward, grasping and bloated as a drunk on weak beer. The number of employees required pretty much guarantees that everything “top-secret” can’t be contained indefinitely. Our only hope is that the next cyber-geek turns on them fast enough to avert inevitable doom.