Secrecy and the state


Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

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15 Responses

  1. Avatar E.C. Gach says:

    “I realize that governments cannot function without some degree of secrecy; perhaps this should call into question the legitimacy of the state to begin with.”

    Or at least the legitimacy of the imperial interests and power projections which require secrecy and unaccountability in order to be protected and executed.

    If the country was more self sustainable/self sufficient, not isolationist, but having its strategic interests more focused, better defined, and closer to “home,” I doubt international “the emperor has no clothes” moments like these would even be relevant.Report

  2. Avatar Trumwill says:

    As long as we have fear of being attacked, and as long as we have stuff that others want, we need secrets. And we need a government/state to keep them. It’s one of the costs of being a part of the big, wide world. The alternative is not so much a sort of stateless transnationalism, but rather a mild isolationism that Gach refers to.Report

    • Avatar MFarmer in reply to Trumwill says:

      Yes, they want our 30,000 McDonalds.Report

    • Avatar Pat Cahalan in reply to Trumwill says:

      If your security depends heavily upon secrets, you’re probably in trouble.

      From a security analysis standpoint, you need to be very careful about the number of things you make secret. The fewer secrets you have, the less likely it is that they can be leveraged against you when they are found out. The more things you throw under the “Secret” rug, the more likely you are to engage in policy decisions that will be adversely affected by something under that rug, if someone pulls it out and smacks you in the face with it.

      Put another way, if “We’ll be screwed if this ever gets out” is a statement you make regarding a policy decision or strategy, you’d better make damn sure that “this” (whatever it is) is of **huge** strategic value. Governments, for the most part, do this ass-backwards.Report

      • Avatar Trumwill in reply to Pat Cahalan says:

        A number of the secrets involved here are opinions related to foreign leaders. Should they just tell Sarkozy that he is an empty suit or Medvedev that he is a poodle? And, of course, they’re not just our secrets. Should Saudi Arabia be afraid to tell us what they want from us or the concerns they have for fear that we will tell the world? Or should there be trust involved?

        There isn’t an enterprise in the world, from governments to business to law, that doesn’t involve relying on the ability to keep some things to yourself.

        I’m open to the idea that the government classifies too much, but a lot of the stuff I am hearing about are things that probably were best kept quiet.Report

        • Avatar Simon K in reply to Trumwill says:

          Quite. Any negotiation in any context requires both that each side can talk amongst themselves about the other side, and that things get said that shouldn’t really be repeated outside the room. In the context of an entity as large as the US government, many of these things have to be written down. Many of the things “revealed” in the WikiLeaks release yesterday seem to be thing we could all have guessed at (the Saudis want us to invade Iran but aren’t likely to help – what a surprise) but which were probably better off not released in a form were they’re no longer deniable.

          That said, judging by NPRs recent output it seems to have given certain journalists something to rely on. It helps to be able to say “the wikileaks cables confirm X” when some politician is trying to deny X.Report

      • Avatar E.C. Gach in reply to Pat Cahalan says:

        “that doesn’t involve relying on the ability to keep some things to yourself”

        I think the question becomes where does that “some” exist. Where does having some secrets become having a military and state department underpinned by an agency predicated on secrets and covert action.

        First order of business in reorienting foreign policy should be mitigating the role of the CIA in anything outside of intelligence gathering. As soon as you need covert, shadow forces in order to achieve your goals, there is a problem.

        So while I agree some level of secrecy is necessary, I think the level/number of secrets is a good metric for determining how realistic, achievable, and helpful our foreign policy is at any given time.

        Secrets are necessarily deceitful, deceit is coercive, and as soon as you need to coerce someone into doing something, you’re already in a spot you don’t want to be in.Report

        • Avatar Simon K in reply to E.C. Gach says:

          That’s all true, but isn’t international politics usually a choice between a bunch of really bad options? Faced with Iran trying to build a nuclear bomb, I’m less unhappy with the CIA and/or Mossad writing computer viruses and occasionally assassinating Iranian nuclear scientists, which is what they appear to be doing, than I would be with publicly and un-secretively invading the country or bombing bits of it, which would appear to be the other alternatives beside “do nothing”. None of these options is good, but isn’t the secretive one slightly better than the others?Report

        • Avatar E.C. Gach in reply to E.C. Gach says:

          I guess my problem with covert action is that once that becomes the norm, all bets are off and everything becomes essentially a gamble. Of course an ultra realist could turn around and say it’s all that way anyway, so take the shot when you have it, or you’ll regret it.

          But I think the fact that covert action in this instance seems like the best, or least worst choice, indicates that are interests are too far spread to remain strategically sustainable. You could present arguments for while Iran’s obtaining a bomb could lead with high probability to a terrorist detonating one in an American city, outside of that contingency, I would take issue with the underlying assumption that Iran with a nuke is inherently a nonstarter.Report

          • Avatar Simon K in reply to E.C. Gach says:

            Unfortunately I think it may be the nature of being the pre-eminent economic power in a globalized world that your interests are so widely spread as to be unsustainable. Something somewhere will give some day. I don’t see what we can do about that one way or the other.

            Iran with a nuke isn’t a non-starter, but its quite bad. I doubt they would actually give one to terrorists to use – they’re too valuable for that – but it gives them deterrence, which gives them more ability to throw their weight around and demand to be taken seriously. I think on balance I prefer the covert action.Report

          • Avatar E.C. Gach in reply to E.C. Gach says:

            Just so I know where you’re coming from, when you say,
            “I think on balance I prefer the covert action,” what pros/cons lead you to that determination?Report

            • Avatar Simon K in reply to E.C. Gach says:

              The pros of covert action are a lower probability of Iran getting a nuclear weapon, which in turn makes a nuclear war due to a miscalculation less likely, an accident with or theft of a device less likely, and weakens the influence of regime that has some pretty nasty elements and appears to be getting worse. The cons are it makes Iranians even angrier with us and the Israelis, which probably weakens the moderate elements in the regime given most Iranians seem to support having a bomb for deterrence reasons, and makes a deal less likely, and it kills and destroys the lives of people involved in the program who I personally at least don’t feel much animosity towards.Report

            • Avatar E.C. Gach in reply to E.C. Gach says:

              So I guess our difference would revolved around the probability. I’m not convinced that any number of covert actions would be able to indefinitely disrupt Iran’s capacity to build a bomb. And after it were to achieve one, I don’t see the marginal risk increase being that great. My feeling is that rather than nuclear armed rogue regimes having a linear increase in total danger posed, each additional regime with a rogue weapon (regime vs. non state actor) would add less and less to the total instability. But that’s a very arguable point.

              What’s interesting about covert action is how much it suits the American imperial mindset. We like the benefits of imperial power projection without the moral, economic, or social costs. As a result, we often seem to look greedily upon covert action as the quick, cheap, and painless antidote for our hegemonic maladies.

              Woodward wrote in his recent book that the covert option was especially appealing to Obama, and that the military constantly warns against it, likening it to an addictive drug. Perhaps covert action is the way to go to achieve our ends, whatever we decide those are.

              But it sometimes feels like are military should in reality be many times it’s current size in order to realistically match our worldly ambitions.Report