Zero-Sum Privacy: The More Secrets Government Has, The Fewer We Do

The consequences of the NSA’s omnivorous eavesdropping aren’t all bad: to foil American espionage, Germany’s politicians may join Russia’s in reverting to typewriters. That move will doubtless diminish the productivity, such as it is, of both sets of sponges, just as forgoing shipments by planes and trucks in favor of horse-drawn wagons would empty supermarkets pretty dang quick. And while I’m not expecting a hearty “Thank you!” from the serfs of either nation, they owe us one nonetheless: our taxes keep the NSA snooping on their rulers, whose abilities to tyrannize will shrink if they do indeed shun the internet.

But that’s a gargantuan “if.” The only perverts spying on Germany as eagerly as the NSA are German bureaucrats. Recall that the guy touting typewriters is “the head of the Bundestag’s parliamentary inquiry into NSA activity in Germany”—the face-saving committee formed to whitewash–sorry, to investigate the German government’s cooperation with Washington.[amazon asin=B00H6J50T4&template=*lrc ad (right)]

I rarely agree with any politician; each time I do, it frightens me so badly I check and re-check my premises. Still, I can’t find the flaw in my reasoning or in that of “Martina Renner, an opposition member of the parliamentary committee investigating the activities of US and other intelligence agencies in Germany.” She wisely proclaimed, “Before I start using typewriters and burning notes after reading, I’d rather abolish the secret services.”

Whoa! That’s advice you seldom if ever hear, even from the NSA’s most intransigent foes. “Yeah, it’s violated the Fourth Amendment, but we need the NSA,” critics hedge before citing one of the agency’s crimes they consider less heinous than the rest, such as its monitoring of “unfriendly” governments or alleged terrorists.

Yet aside from corporatists hoping the Feds will destroy their competitors, Demopublicans lusting for inside info on political opponents, or bureaucrats who peep at family and friends, we most certainly don’t need the NSA. At all, for any reason. The government of a free people—if a free people can exist under government, another “if” and an insurmountable one at that—ought never spy on anyone, anywhere. It should keep no secrets of any kind from the taxpayers who foot its bills.

Why not? First, because secrecy characterizes every repressive regime, throughout time and around the world. Secrecy lurks at the top of the staircase that steeply declines towards totalitarianism. It grows stronger with descent (and dissent) until it finally suffocates everyone who reaches the dungeon below.

Second, pick any governmental secret you like and trace it to its beginnings: always, the State invoked secrecy to protect or further empower itself and its cronies, not its victims. All Leviathan’s protestations to the contrary,[amazon asin=0988203200&template=*lrc ad (right)] all its hyperventilating over “national security “ and “CLASSIFIED,” can’t change that essential fact.

Indeed, the “state secrets privilege” so beloved of the last few administrations rose in the late 1940s when a B-29 Superfortress crashed after taking off from Robins Air Force Base in Georgia. Three of the civilian engineers aboard died. Investigators blamed the Air Force and its negligence. The Feds hid this embarrassing report even as the grieving families sought an explanation for their tragedy. When the widows sued, the government claimed that divulging details about the crash could reveal military mysteries. The court hearing the case sided with the Truman Administration in United States v. Reynolds. This craven heartlessness spawned the “state secrets privilege.”

There’s only one legitimate exception to prohibiting Our Rulers from keeping secrets: military officers might occasionally conceal their plans for battle. But that exemption presupposes a “just war,” in which Americans defend themselves from invasion—or from the sociopaths in DC—rather than the imperial aggression the USSA usually wages.

The American Revolution featured several such scenarios, in which secrecy regarding particular stratagems enabled the rebels to triumph against odds longer than Barack “Pinocchio” Obama’s nose. For example, General Benedict Arnold took the Revolution naval at Valcour Island in Lake Champlain during the fall of 1776. His homemade armada of 16 little boats confronted twice their number of British ships, some of which mounted almost as many cannon as Arnold’s entire fleet did. Arnold knew the Redcoats would prevail, but to save as many lives as possible, he breathed not a word of his dispositions for the upcoming fight; as my novel, Abducting Arnold, puts [amazon asin=0990463109&template=*lrc ad (right)]it, “Despite his preparation and the surprises he would unleash this day—surprises planned in such secrecy, he had confided to no one, not even his officers, lest a spy carry word to [the enemy]—despite that, obliteration awaited.” But it didn’t. Thanks to Arnold’s genius and discretion, the Patriots did indeed lose the battle while winning the overall campaign—and that campaign insured their ultimate victory in the Revolution.

But Benedict Arnolds and true martial emergencies are exceedingly rare; secrecy in the hands of lesser mortals becomes a killer. Witness the atrocity at Paoli, Pennsylvania, in 1777, when a British general planned a surprise attack, this time on American regiments as they slept. Secrecy was again essential, so General Charles Grey ordered his men to rely solely on their bayonets and to remove the flints from their muskets lest any “accidentally” discharge, for the troops themselves muttered at murdering sleeping men. Nonetheless, they inflicted more than 200 casualties while counting less than a dozen themselves. Abducting Arnold’s heroine mourns this “massacre. … Our troops fought and suffered and died at [Paoli and two other battles], and Redcoats did too. Pity, then, that none of the three decided anything, that all they did was separate husbands from wives and sons from parents and steal the breath from boys who might have lived to be men.”

The State’s secrets are lethal to liberty. The more it keeps, the stronger our chains.

Becky Akers’ novel, Abducting Arnold, turns little-known history into an edge-of-your-seat thriller. Buy it before it’s banned!