Wednesday, May 17, 2017

When Did Secrecy Become a Fundamental Value?

There appear to be two universes at war in the United States and the media right now. Interestingly, both have become completely deluged in conspiracy theories and echo chambers. Right now the liberal universe sees Donald Trump as a dangerous Russian patsy, and everything he's done in the last two weeks has been almost designed on purpose to prove them correct. The right-wing universe sees every news story as an exaggeration and dishonest character assassination, built up by a government and media that wants to nullify the results of the last election. Both universes see the world as the direct opposite: what is white for one is black for the other. And there can be no compromise. However, both are relying on an assumption about America that is perhaps the most disturbing element of this whole Trump saga.

I don't really see much point in talking about the details of the Comey firing, or the accidental blurting out of Israeli intelligence to the Russians, or just the utter chaos that the Trump administration seems to create all across the government*. Because you know already what I think, and if you need my thoughts confirmed, read the footnote. You'll have heard whatever I have to say a thousand times and were probably thinking it before you read this article. I'm going to try to look at this another way. Both universes are making a fundamental mistake right now, which is something the larger discussion around the unraveling** of the Trump administration seems to be missing:

Why are secrets so important? Why are we so quick to defend the Deep State and despise all who fail to uphold its values?

What happened to this country which, theoretically is a democracy, where secrets and lies and darkness have become so key to the job of the president? Trump's run-in with the Russians is just the latest form of a story that's been going on for years now. Add it to the issues with Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, Hilary Clinton's emails, the DNC hacks, and the leaks to the press from what remains of the White House. The issue of America and its secrets has become one of the central problems of our time, possibly above even healthcare, and apparently neither side wants transparency. It defeated one presidential compaign, and might kill the current administration. Breaking the dogma of keeping secrets is the greatest sin in Washington today. We cheer when our opponents are caught failing the standards of classified info. Yet those secrets which discredit our enemies do not benefit us, the people. We are actively working against our own knowledge.

So with the slim possibility of light at the end of this Trump tunnel, I want to look at the darkness in the government which we seem to have accepted. Because maybe that's not better.

The concept of state secrets and democracy really do not square with each other by their very natures. This country is, in theory, ruled by the consent of the governed and the will of the people. Yet this is also a global empire that is obsessed with security against foes all across the globe. (Often foes of our own clumsy creation, but never mind that.) Even if we weren't the greatest superpower in human history and the world's policeman we would still need secrets for our own protection. Secrets are a defense mechanism. The general public doesn't need to know our military strategies or our intelligence gathering methods or our nuclear codes. Because the moment the public knows those things, our foreign rivals know them too.

So if for practicality's sake if nothing else, you need to be able to keep secrets to have a functioning nation-state. However, too much secrecy means you open the door to corruption. Democracy cannot function if the people are ignorant to key knowledge. They cannot stop their government from doing terrible things. You can end up with horrific abuses like the NSA spying program, CIA torture programs, legal blackholes like Guantanamo Bay, and that's only the 21st century. The government can commit terrible crimes in the shadows that are the very opposite of our values. It isn't a government by the people and for the people, it's a front for the ones who really hold power behind the scenes.

Yet lately, it seems, secrecy is more beloved than ever. This is a problem that's existed before Trump and will exist after Trump. The issue with the intelligence community or the Deep State or whatever you want to call it is that it's beloved and reviled at the same time. Nobody can ever really make up their mind around it, but we've decided that it is essential to our society even as we should hate it. People know it is there and that's why everybody, left and right, does not trust the government on some level. We're a nation of cynics, non-believers. The veil of secrecy has helped destroy the very meaning of truth, allowing conspiracy theorists, madmen, and Donald Trump to fill the void of comfort and logic to a world that seems to have neither.

When did our obsession with secrecy really begin?

Well, in a way our government has always kept things for us all the way back to very beginning. But the real wealth of creepshows and shadows started in the 20th century when America took on the world and won. We built a global empire and needed a spy apparatus to keep it. That's when we got our lovely alphabet soup of agencies like the FBI, the NSA, the CIA, etc. There was a brief interruption after Watergate when it was realized just how terrifying all this dark power was, especially when used by a deranged leader like Richard Nixon. We had moves like the Freedom of Information Act, which were supposed to curtail the secrecy and abuses. Then 9/11 happened. And the Bush Administration worked feverishly to create a new Cold War, to rebuild all the old shadows and lies. That structure still stands a decade after George W. Bush left office in disgrace.

The Deep State has proven to be extremely powerful. Even now, sixteen years after 9/11, we're still largely on a War on Terror setting. The American public is exhausted of it, the results have been clearly disastrous, and even Republicans cannot defend it. Barack Obama was elected to tear this system down and ended up being one of its greatest champions. Election after election does not affect it. Terrifying revelations brought forth by people like Edward Snowden led to nothing. That brief wave of truth from a few years ago only crested and rolled right back into the sea's murky darkness. WikiLeaks now is a front for the Russians. We don't even have champions of the truth anymore, just puppets of dictators and would-be dictators.

Trump himself has a peculiar relationship with the spying agencies. He at once sees them as his enemy and a key ally. He's too authoritarian by instinct to call for their destruction, but he knows they're too independent from him. Thus the James Comey firing. It isn't that Comey did anything wrong or abused his power, it's just that Comey wasn't Trump's man. Liberals meanwhile can dream of the CIA suddenly dropping the one leak that will kill Trump, forgetting that the CIA isn't their friend either. If Trump wasn't a complete idiot and could get the Deep State to cooperate, he would be a truly terrifying man. Instead he's proving more and more that the intelligence community is a permanent fourth branch of government, that is checking his power. That's all wrong.

Every serious presidential candidate is now going to have to survive a round of accusations of treason. Any little intelligence breach is cause for a massive scandal that could last years. In 2016 what we saw was the Republicans basically begging the FBI to eliminate Hilary Clinton, who they were certain would be president. What did she do? Delete emails, nothing more. James Comey had to carefully walk around the issues to avoid becoming a Kingmaker, even while one party handed him inappropriate power. Now with Trump's stupidity, he's opened himself up to the same line of attacks.

But nothing Trump has done is yet proven to be illegal. It's still only incredibly, unbelievably, demonstrably stupid. It's only a clear sign that Trump was entirely unprepared and unworthy of this job. However, every time we accuse our politicians of committing this kind of crime, we're not really helping ourselves. If the sin is improperly storing all this classified information, we're affirming that information needs to be classified. It's so easy for the government to hide anything it wants with the word "classified" even if that content has no reason to be classified in the first place. The government can hide anything, it can delay Freedom of Information Act requests, it can even call journalists who work to uncover the truth "terrorists". We defend the power of secrets only at our own peril.

We're also affirming that state secrets must be so powerful that even the Secretary of State and the legally elected president of the United States (thanks to sham rules, but still legal ones) can't reveal intelligence. These are the people who are beyond classified. They decide what is classified and what isn't. They're not employees or soldiers, they're elected officials or appointed by elected officials. Their job is to make the rules as to what is a secret. But by being sloppy, they're crossing the Dark Powers. Innocent mistakes have become treason.

I'm not saying what either did was smart or wise, but secrecy isn't a fundamental value of the United States. That is, until we make it one.

The left and the right have curiously come together on this issue, supporting the Deep State from both directions. The left can attack Trump for being careless with his intelligence, while the right attacks leakers and the media's ability to share information with the American people. Both are for the Deep State's interests. It wins either way. Where does that lead? It leads to us knowing less about what the government is doing and the government becoming less accountable. That's less accountable not just to the Democrats or the Republicans, but to everybody.

People voted for Trump because they felt their government was out of control. And they were right. It wasn't the EPA killing jobs or Obama supporting illegal immigrants that was the problem though. It was the power of this force within our government that seems to be accountable to neither party. It's immovable despite the turbulence in Washington. "America First" became a nonsense slogan within months compared to its power. Obama went from being against the Bush Administration to ruthlessly hunting down leakers. Trump might hate the media and might hate leakers, but it was Obama who actually knew how to combat both. This is darkness beyond you, me, Trump, or anybody.

Sure, Donald Trump is a very specific kind of madness, one that defies truth and reason, he is at least open about it. His aims and psychology are plain and obvious. All of it is as foolish as it is terrifying, but it is at least visible. I wouldn't want to trade him for something we barely understand. This sounds paranoid, and maybe it is just a bit. But I prefer the kinds of threats to democracy you can see versus the ones that don't have a face at all. Every turn so far has only affirmed that this fourth branch of government is permanent and increasingly vital, which is utterly perverse.

Trump is an entertaining, loud, and often hilarious event in American politics. However what could replace him is going to be quiet, subtle, and not funny at all. And maybe by winning, we're actually losing yet again.

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* Here you go: It is becoming abundantly clear that Donald Trump is dumber, more incompetent, and more careless than even I thought. It isn't just that the president has a delusional base, he is himself utterly delusional. His psychological issues combined with what seems to be a complete detachment from reality make one wonder if the man is entirely sane. And reports seem to indicate the Republicans sense his weakness too. They are not willing to put up with this buffoon forever. The easiest explanation for all that's happened so far is that the president is simply a complete moron and his circus of an administration reflects that.

It isn't just that he's too stupid and too lazy to actually create policy or follow through on his agenda (or even have an agenda!), it's also that nobody under him has the power or the authority to step up and shape policy. There's a huge vacuum at the core of this government that nobody can step in to fill. So the White House is leaderless and lost in the midst of scandal after scandal. Most of them don't even know what the official line is supposed to be from day to day. I'm not talking about their lying or fabrications - though there are plenty - the problem is that they can't even lie well. Nobody can agree on what the lie should be, and eventually, inevitably, the truth comes out every time.

I actually believe the Russian story less after the events of this month. This administration is a mess from top to bottom and, thanks to its childish leader, cannot keep a secret. If there was truth to this Russian business that went all the way up to the president, he would have admitted it on Twitter or in an interview months ago. Trump is so pathologically in need of attention he cannot keep his mouth shut. He's so lost in himself would have bragged about committing treason.

And I'm not gloating about any of this either. This is extremely dangerous, no matter how amusing it might look. America basically doesn't have a presidency right now. We're watching the Executive Branch collapse day after day. To put it simply: that's not good.

** One reason why I end up writing so few political posts is that the fucking story changes every three hours with Trumpworld. Every post you see here reflects ten that never made it past the drawing board. When I started writing this yesterday Trump was simply an idiot, by the time I was revising and proofreading, suddenly the DOJ has appointed a special prosecutor. That means I have to write up a whole new version of the article since we now live in a universe where Donald Trump could very well not be president by 2018. This is all falling apart faster than I ever could have imagined.

And Nixon comparisons are sure, the best we have, but an insult to Nixon. Donald Trump is a pathetic amateur compared to the real supervillains of American history.

...

PS: I promise "Persona 5" is next. It'll be something fun for a change around here.

3 comments:

  1. "One reason why I end up writing so few political posts..."

    Says the guy who's only been making political posts since February...

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  2. Politics has been a part of this blog since the beginning, but with all that's happening, there could be 2,000 words a day. If not more.

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    Replies
    1. Your stuff is always really well written and interesting. It at least provides clear information when everything else is so obfuscating. Thank you.

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