Leaking Furore Par For The Course For Nation That Over-Classifies

America over-classifies information. The designations ‘secret,’ ‘top secret,’ ‘for your eyes only,’ and many others like them are thrown around too freely; too many folders and dossiers receive the dreaded stenciled stamp that indicates their contents may not be perused by the wrong people. The consequences of this bingeing on classification are predictable: all around us, ‘leaks’ and ‘unauthorized disclosures’ take place; many stand accused of dangerous ‘whistleblowing,’ of ‘criminal activity,’ of espionage. When all is secret, violating secrecy restrictions is easy–as is posturing as a protector of ‘secrecy vital to the national interest’; and the penalties for such ‘violations’ can be ratcheted up arbitrarily. (Just ask Chelsea Manning, who is due for early release tomorrow from a three-decade prison sentence–thanks to a presidential commutation.)

In this national context, the furore over the alleged disclosure by Donald Trump of supposedly top-secret information to visiting Russian dignitaries looks ever so precious. Unsurprisingly, no one is quite clear–or can be–about what was leaked, and what its significance was; what we do know, or are offered words of reassurance to that effect is Something Very Very Secret was disclosed. We cannot find out how secret or how important, or indeed, any other relevant details, because those, of course, are a Secret. I do not doubt for a second that Donald Trump is a bumbling incompetent, a buffoon who should not be allowed within a mile of the Oval Office, that his foreign policy blunders may yet be the death of us all. But I’m afraid the mere reporting that Something Very Very Secret is now no longer so fails to move me when it is quite evident from many other contexts that very often, such classification is a case of bureaucratic overkill. Especially when the reassurances that such a disclosure should be considered an actionable problem are forthcoming from the very people who simultaneously over-classify while demanding ever more cover, legal and otherwise, for their activities.

The reaction to Donald Trump’s ‘leaking’ has been predictable: impeachment! These dreams of impeachment, in response to ‘unauthorized disclosures of classified information’ are not just a political fantasy; they also perpetuate a long-running fraud on the American polity–that when the government and the administration decides to get into a tizzy about some supposed ‘violation of secrecy’ it gets the citizenry worked up in response. At that moment, all questioning of the unhealthy layers of classification and secrecy that continue to build up around our rulers’ activities is suspended, and we all chime in with syncopated chorus of outrage: How dare you disclose?

It has been a depressing feature of ‘liberal’ responses to the Trump administration that so many unsavory political alliances have now become increasingly respectable: among them, none will be more surprising than the willingness of so-called ‘liberal and ‘progressive’ factions to find, in the Deep State and its national security agencies, the ones that have done so much to abrogate the civil liberties of so many Americans, their best political allies.

Robert Caruso, Clinton Campaign Fellow, Advocates War Crimes (Before Denying He Did So)

Hillary Clinton’s reputation as a warmongering hawk is a well-established one. As the New York Times reported back in April in an essay titled “How Hillary Clinton Became a Hawk,” she could talk the hawk talk, and walk the hawk talk too:

Bruce Riedel, a former intelligence analyst who conducted Obama’s initial review on the Afghanistan war, says: “I think one of the surprises for Gates and the military was, here they come in expecting a very left-of-center administration, and they discover that they have a secretary of state who’s a little bit right of them on these issues — a little more eager than they are, to a certain extent.”

Other than the financial shenanigans of the Clinton Foundation and the in-bed relationship with Wall Street, no other issue has exercised progressives quite as much. A hawkish American foreign policy means never-ending war, and with it, interminable violations of human rights, moral hypocrisy, budget overruns, appeasement of the military industrial complex, secrecy and surveillance and violations of civil rights at home. A hawkish American foreign policy is a pernicious rot at the roots of the republic; it is, without exaggeration, a cancer that needs excising from the American body politic.

Progressive worries about the Clinton presidency that is looming will not be assuaged by reading a remarkable article by “a former official in Hillary Clinton’s State Department and an associate of the Hillary for America PAC,” Robert Caruso, which lays out a policy argument for a no-fly zone in Syria that included the following gem:

Russia intends to exert political pressure and create the illusion a `shooting war’ would erupt if a no-fly zone was constituted. This is unserious, and should be dismissed as the naked Kremlin talking points they are where ever encountered….It is Russia, not the United States, that should fear American intervention in Syria

But the luster of that jewel pares in comparison to the following:

By no means is the United States limited to overt military intervention in Syria…Henry Kissinger’s strategies in Laos and Chile are models of success that should be emulated, not criticized.

In case it is not perfectly clear: Caruso is recommending the US emulate the actions of a mass-murdering war criminal and engage in murderous, illegal actions like the ones that Kissinger organized.

Caruso’s cheerleading for genocide did not go unnoticed; Huffington Post took down the passage from which the above lines had been excerpted and the online version of the post now no longer carries them. Quite naturally, Huffington Post has not added any editorial notes explaining their excision of this material.

But the entertainment does not end there. When Caruso was pointed to these lines on Twitter, he immediately replied with the following Trumpish denial:

Never said that, and from now on anyone repeating what you say about me is working for Russia.

Well, I’m clearly working for Russia, because I’m repeating it here; I read the article yesterday which had the full paragraph–now immortalized in a screenshot taken by Wikileaks:

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Perhaps the only reassurance afforded here that Caruso does not have the integrity to stand by his words, knowing quite well they are calls to criminal action. Small mercies indeed.

Addendum: The LinkedIn page for Robert Caruso seems to indicate he might not be a Clinton ‘insider’ at all. So his rantings above are certainly not indicative–in any definitive sense–of the contours of a future Clinton foreign policy.

Chelsea Manning’s Bad Luck With The American Polity

In The Passion of Bradley Manning: The Story Behind The Wikileaks Whistleblower(Verso Press, New York, 2013) Chase Madar writes:

If any lesson can be drawn from the Manning affair, it’s that leaks can make a great difference if there is organized political muscle to put them to good use. Information on its own is futile; as useless as those other false hopes of the global center-left, international law and its sidekick, the human rights industry, all of which have their uses, but are insufficient to stop wars and end torture. This is not to denigrate the achievements of the person who have us this magnificent gift of knowledge about world affairs. If the disclosures have not changed US statecraft–yet–the fault lies not in the cables, but in the pathetic lack of political organization among those individuals who don’t “have a position” in Halliburton stock–the 99% if you will.

There are two theses presented here by Madar: a) information is sterile unless coupled with political organization and action, and b) international law and the ‘human rights industry’ are ‘insufficient to stop wars and end torture’–they are ‘false hopes.’ (The former claim may be understood as a variant of Marcuse‘s praxis + theory axiom of politics.)

The seeming inefficacy of Chelsea Manning‘s leaks of a veritable treasure trove of revelations about the conduct of US foreign policy and warfare now becomes explicable; those seeds fell on infertile ground. Manning’s leaks were fed to a polity that is at heart conformist and accepting of authority, and whose most suffering faction–the staggering 99%–is disorganized, apathetic in large sectors, and all too easily resigned to a fate characterized by endless wars and a Nietzschean endless recurrence of the same cast of political characters and ideologies ruling the roost. ‘On its own’ information has no political valence; it is only when it serves as the premise of a political argument that it acquires traction.  At the risk of invoking the wrath of those who dislike military metaphors, perhaps we can think of information as ammunition; indispensable, yet insufficient without the right sorts of blunderbusses. (That pair of ‘false hopes of the global center-left, international law and its sidekick, the human rights industry’ are similarly indicted: both, on their own, decoupled from the capacity to enforce and from organized political muscle, are reduced to platitudes, mouthed in predictable time and fashion by the usual suspects. No enforcement authority backs them up; and the political realism of the postivisitic conception of both law and rights appears ever plausible.)

America got lucky with Chelsea Manning; but the luck only went in one direction. Manning didn’t get lucky with her nation; she was feeding information to a polity that didn’t know what to do with it (and which instead, called her a ‘traitor’ and imprisoned and tortured her.) The reception to the Panama Papers, which despite the initial furore, and even the odd resignation or two, is best described as equal parts yawn and shrug, provides further confirmation for this claim. Artful dodging of local jurisdictions to enable ‘fraud, kleptocracy, tax evasion, and evading international sanctions’ is old hat; and there is nothing we can do about it anyway.

Back to rearranging chairs on deck.

Chase Madar On American ‘Anti-Authority Posturing’

In The Passion of Bradley Manning: The Story Behind The Wikileaks Whistleblower (Verso Press, New York, 2013) Chase Madar quotes Ray McGovern, ‘a retired CIA analyst’ and admirer of Chelsea Manning, as saying that “he who isn’t angry [in the face of injustice and evil] has an ‘unreasoned patience [and] sows the seed of vice….Bradley Manning had the strength to be angry….But in America today we have far too much passive acceptance of injustice. We need more righteous anger.” Madar then goes on to make note of a curious feature of the American ‘character:’

We Americans can pride ourselves all we want on our anti-authority posturing, but a 2006 poll from the International Social Survey Programme of national attitudes towards individualism and authority tells a very different story.

In 2006, the ISSP asked the question “In general, would you say that people should obey the law without exception, or are there exceptional occasions on which people should follow their consciences even if it means breaking the law?” At 45 percent, Americans were the least likely out of nine nationalities to say that people should at least on occasion follow their consciences — far fewer than, for example, the Swedes (70 percent) and the French (78 percent). Similarly, in 2003, Americans turned out to be the most likely to embrace the statement “People should support their country even if the country is in the wrong.” [from: Claude Fischer, “Sweet Land of…Conformity? Americans Aren’t the Individuals We Think We Are,” Boston Globe, June 6 2010.)

This ‘curious feature’ is worth revisiting now as America hurtles toward its electoral encounter with Trumpism–and perhaps Clintonism–this November. One candidate promises to be authoritarian, to ride roughshod over the rights and civil liberties of fellow Americans, to eviscerate the US Constitution, to commit war crimes (like killing the noncombatant families of ‘terrorists’), all to ‘make America great again’–and he is cheered on by a squad that only grows louder. Another bids us be complacent, to reckon that America is already great and only needs tinkering around the edges, some incrementalist change perhaps–not the kind promised by raving old white-haired men who threaten to make college free and deliver universal single-payer health insurance. The former seems to have shut down the consciences of those who would support him, even if he is patently in the wrong; indeed, for him to be wrong is the new right. The latter appeals to the ‘unreasoned patience’ that induces ‘passive acceptance of injustice.’

Bizarrely enough then, even though Trump and Clinton appear radically dissimilar candidates, their successes in the primaries of the 2016 election season seems to find their groundings in their common resonance with the attitudes Madar points out above.  Both candidates seemingly rely and thrive on a keen understanding of this acceptance of authority by Americans (it is the authority of Clinton’s technocratic credentials and ‘experience’ after all that most effectively shushes the passion and energy of Sanders supporters, describing it as ‘unrealistic’ and ‘destructive.)

Chelsea Manning was perhaps trying to save a country that isn’t angry enough, or angry at the right things, to be saved by him.

Journalism Should Embody Anarchist Ideals

Bill Keller‘s lengthy online exchange with Glenn Greenwald makes for very interesting reading. It illuminates a great deal, especially the modern ‘mainstream’ understanding of journalism–as ‘objective’ reporter of ‘facts’–and its supposed ‘responsibilities’ and the ‘alternative’ view of journalism as fundamentally adversarial, beholden to no nation or state, dedicated to exposing the machinations of the powerful.

Greenwald’s critique of the former view is, as might be expected, quite pungent:

[T]his model rests on a false conceit. Human beings are not objectivity-driven machines. We all intrinsically perceive and process the world through subjective prisms….The relevant distinction is not between journalists who have opinions and those who do not, because the latter category is mythical. The relevant distinction is between journalists who honestly disclose their subjective assumptions and political values and those who dishonestly pretend they have none or conceal them from their readers….all journalism is a form of activism.

That last sentence is crucial: it takes journalism out of the sphere of some imagined realm whose contours resemble that of an archetypal scientific laboratory where men in white coats are replaced by reporters with notepads. These diligent collectors and tabulators merely report their observations of little parcels of reality called ‘facts’.

Instead, journalism turns into a form of political activity, its participants struggling just like any other political player to further some ends and not others. In a democratic society’s politics, the journalists are those players whose role is to report on, and make transparent, the workings of those in power. This power is not insignificant: the state can imprison, silence and immiserate its citizens; it can declare war and martial law; it possesses a monopoly of power, and in the modern state, this power is awesome indeed.

This asymmetrical distribution of power can only be offset and compensated for, by way of protecting those who are subject to it, if they are kept fully apprised of their rulers’ doings and deeds. What the citizenry does not possess by way of material power it strives to obtain by means of information and knowledge. Requests for secrecy, for coyness, for message modification, are, all too often, disingenuous requests that the balance of power be tipped back the other way. Thus, we best understand ‘journalist’ as merely a fancy name for ‘citizen activist dedicated to the full transparency of governmentality.’ A journalist represents the segment of the polity dedicated to making the powerful cower, not preen and strut; he is not an observer of the political system, he is part of it.

Understood in this way, a journalist embodies an anarchist ideal: the rejection of opaque, unaccountable power.  The profession’s basic stance is skeptical and adversarial; it should maintain a distance from those in power so that they may be critiqued more frankly and critically. This entails a prickly relationship with those in power, one with many rough edges. But those unable to deal with this consequent unpleasantness would be well advised to stay out of the proverbial kitchen. Critics aren’t supposed to have too many friends.

2012’s Top Five Posts (Here, Not Elsewhere)

2012, the year that was (or still is, for a few more hours), turned out to be a busy one for blogging at this site. I wrote three hundred and twenty-four new posts, bringing the total for this blog to three hundred and fifty-five. The blog finally crossed fifty thousand views. (A humbling figure, if you think that major blogs receive those many hits in a day.)

The five most popular posts in terms of views were the following. (I don’t think these are necessarily the best pieces I wrote, which is a judgment I find hard to make in any case, but they definitely attracted some attention.)

  • David Brooks Went to a Springsteen Concert, And All I Got Was A Stupid Op-Ed: I wrote this post in response to a typical display of asinine, pseudo-profound commentary by a columnist who is an integral component of the embarrassment that is the New York Times Op-Ed page.  It was a bit silly, and I suppose could be described as satire, but really, it was a pretty straightforward reaction to idiocy. Among others, Brian Leiter linked to it, as did Bradford DeLong, and Corey Robin, and that brought in many viewers. Many thanks to you all. (In particular, Leiter and Robin have brought many readers to this site, so I owe them multiple thanks.)
  • Bill Keller Needs to Drop the Snark and Do Serious Journalism: This was an angry reaction to a New York Times Op-Ed that I found profoundly politically offensive. I have grown increasingly depressed by the state of political journalism in the US and Bill Keller’s writing on WikiLeaks at the nation’s premier newspaper summed it up for me. As a public display of confusion about the responsibility of the journalist, and the relationship they should maintain with those in power, Keller’s piece has few parallels. Glenn Greenwald and Corey Robin linked to this post.
  • On The Lack of Women in Philosophy: The Dickhead Theory: This post grew out of a long-held concern of mine that the academic practice of philosophy often betrays what should be its guiding principles, among which should be the creation and maintenance of an atmosphere conducive to open and unfettered inquiry. I find the lack of women in philosophy appalling, and remain convinced that the way male philosophers run the profession has a great deal to do with it. This post was prompted by articles by Jennifer Saul and Helen Beebee.
  • Occupy Wall Street And The Police: Why So Estranged?: In this post, I wondered why the police, who should be on the side of those protesting the 1%, are instead, so committed to doing the bidding of those that would keep them in a state of economic and political deprivation. Again, Brian Leiter cited this post.

I wrote three hundred and nineteen other posts of course (check ’em out!). Most of them sank into obscurity, but that’s quite all right. I’m still amazed that anyone bothers to read anything posted out here.

So there you have it folks. Another year awaits, and while I’m not quite sure that I will blog at the same rate as I did in 2012–primarily because I two new book projects planned (besides a newborn!)–I will continue to write as often as I can. Do stick around.

Note: I also owe thanks to all those folks on Facebook and Twitter who linked to, and shared my posts. Much appreciated.

Bill Keller Needs to Drop the Snark and Do Serious Journalism

Over at the New York Times, Bill Keller, who has been doing his best to make sure it will be hard to take him for a serious  journalist, writes a piece–bursting to the seams with snark–on Wikileaks. Keller thinks he is providing a serious evaluation of the fallout of Wikileaks (most particularly, its leaking of a gigantic corpus of military and diplomatic secrets last year). But Keller–whose trafficking in superficiality has been embarassingly on display for all too long on the NYT’s Op-Ed’s pages–simply cannot be bothered with seriously engaging with the issues that Wikileaks raised. Like: the need for transparency for those in power (as opposed to the privacy rights of individuals); the relationship of journalists with politicians; and most importantly, the all-too-evident eagerness of modern journalists to roll over and play faithful stenographer or megaphone for Wall Street, Capitol Hill and the Pentagon.

Instead, all Keller can do, in a pathetic display of lame attempts at sophomoric snark, is dish out one jibe after the other at Julian Assange. (His evident dislike for Assange tells me that Assange really hit home.) There are, count-em, sixteen paragraphs in Keller’s peice. It’s not till we get to the seventh or eighth paragraph that Keller stops being juvenile and starts to say something substantive.

And it’s not much. Roughly: Wikileaks exposed too much. In response, the always-secretive have become more secretive. And now life is harder for all us Serious Journalists[tm]. So let me get this straight:  in response to exposure,  those ensconced in power have dug their heels in, become more opaque, stepped up their chilling attacks on journalists and potential whistle-blowers, and this is Wikileaks fault? Could Keller be more offensive, more of a fawning lapdog of the powerful and the opaque, if he tried? I don’t think so.

Keller also forgets, in his Why-Did-This-Nonconformist-Crash-This-Comfortable-Politician-And-Media-Garden-Party litany, the role that the rest of his supine media crew played in ensuring that Wikileaks’ impact was minimized. Who took up cudgels on Wikileaks behalf? Did the media give ample column inches and airtime to the case for Wikileaks? Were the corporate-government smear jobs on Wikileaks adequately highlighted? Has the media establishment stepped back from its passionate embrace of those in power and looked a little more closely, a little more aggressively, at their pronouncements? They are the ones in power, remember?

If the secretive and powerful have become more secretive in response to exposure, the response of a serious journalist should be to make sure the secrecy is investigated even more closely.  It most emphatically should not be to shower scorn and ridicule on those who took risks in trying to expose the powerful. The idiotic quoting of the off-base SNL skit, which confuses the privacy of private citizens with the opacity of governmental entities, is perhaps the best indication that Keller has lost the plot. But far more offensive is the simpleminded acceptance of the government’s position: if you dare expose us, we’ll become even more secretive.

Keller is pushing back at the wrong forces in this debate. In doing that, he is merely the latest depressing example of the incestuous embrace of the political and media establishments in this nation.