An excerpt from my work-in-progress, “We Are All On Flight 93”:
A particular newsworthy topic as I write this book is the Edward Snowden/NSA scandal. I like to investigate this because it has so many layers of complexity, and reveals so much about what stories we choose to believe. It highlights how language can be perverted to one’s own ends: the whole *treason* or *hero* debate, for instance. To be clear, let’s define our terms first. Treason is not the right word. Sedition is: The Oxford Dictionary definition of treason is: “the crime of betraying one’s country, especially by attempting to kill the sovereign or overthrow the government,” whereas, sedition is: “conduct or speech inciting people to rebel against the authority of a state or monarch.”
Why use the word *treason*? Clearly it is meant to strike fear in our hearts; and to marshal our support against an enemy of the state. Recently our government has used this fear of attack by outsiders as the basis to fund military interventions around the globe, as well as to circumvent certain constitutional protections in the name of *fighting terror*. To call Mr. Snowden’s disclosures *sedition* wouldn’t fit into the government’s story as it has been spun in the 21st century, and given the state of our educational systems, our citizens would likely fail to understand the act he is charged with perpetrating if they were to use that word. It might also get them to questioning the efficacy of the concept to “…incite me to rebel?”
What do we know from our history about secrecy? Our Founding Fathers set up a government that was afraid of the power of government; with the various branches of government meant to serve in balancing the power so that no one person could rule as a dictator. Now we have a government that is afraid of the power of the people, and that will do anything from murder to secrecy, to maintain power and prevent the people from recognizing what power they ultimately hold. Now we have an executive branch that has taken over the authority to declare war from Congress, and that claims the ability to imprison and even execute citizens without judicial sanction: actions that move us closer to that day when one man rules unquestioned. It is expeditious to that end if actions can be undertaken without public scrutiny, in other words, let’s just keep what we are doing a secret, OK? No one can complain about what they don’t know. Along this vein, the government has so far managed to prevent judicial review of these policies by not allowing anyone to bring up the matter unless they can prove they have been harmed by the secrecy. In classic Catch-22 fashion, you have to pierce the secrecy in order to know you have been hurt, in order to stop the secrecy.
And what can we glean from the history of others? Those who lived under Gestapo, KGB, and/or Stasi regimes have a most fundamental abhorrence of wholesale, blanket, information gathering and storage. It is hard to make the argument that *no harm, no foul* when the data will live forever, subject to the whims of now-unforeseen employees. It will be interesting to see how our government placates their fears; if indeed that is possible. They have reacted as you might expect to news that the data-gathering has included not only their emails and phone calls, but literal eavesdropping within their own government buildings.
Secrets are power: we keep secrets about ourselves from others in order to prevent them from having power over us; and we want to know secrets about others in order to have power over them. A government or financial institution that has information about your plans and ideas is more able to thwart those plans or benefit from their foreknowledge. When I mention *J. Edgar Hoover*, what is the first *secret* you remember about him? Oh yeah, that he kept dossiers on political and business figures, the better to blackmail them with. We used to value whistleblowers; we even passed whistleblower protection laws, demonstrating that given our rule of law, anyone seeing a crime is obligated to report it. Yet recent years have seen both that concept and that law go by the wayside; even someone who revealed torture is serving time for disclosing secret information, while the torturers remain free. Prior to Mr. Bradley Manning’s release of military and diplomatic information, the most infamous challenge to secrecy in my lifetime had been the Pentagon Papers. Mr. Ellsberg managed to get enough public support on his side to remain free himself; why have we become so afraid of truth that we stand by while those who release information about illegal and immoral acts go to jail today?
A common reply that I hear from friends, even from those who are progressive in many other aspects of their worldview, is, “I don’t have anything to hide, let them store my information.” Unfortunately, this is naïve at best, ignorant at worst. If that is truly the case, then you should have no compunctions about giving me all of your usernames and passwords, and the PINs to all of your credit and debit cards. And while you are writing that down for me, let me install this app on your phone that allows me to listen to the ambient noise and your conversations, even if your phone is turned off, since the government can do that without even using an app. Suddenly people start to understand that when nothing is private, we all have things we would rather hide.
Even your financial plans cannot be kept *secret*; banks routinely monitor orders to buy or sell stocks and bonds, and jump in front of certain transactions in order to make money off this knowledge before your order hits the market. This helps explain why financial sector profits now comprise nearly half of all corporate profit in the United States: they are benefiting from processes they have largely kept secret from the investing public. Numerous studies consistently show that insider trading is rife among our stock and bond markets and other asset transactions as well. Companies that will be greatly impacted by changing governmental policies are often traded heavily before the changes are announced. If your Congressional representatives are involved, wouldn’t you want to know? Analysis of trades in stocks most likely to be affected by various (US sponsored) third-world coups strongly suggests that insiders knew about the pending overthrows and invested appropriately. Who is leaking that info, and why? If banks are *stealing* profits from your market trades, wouldn’t you want to know? If a local politician is compromised, wouldn’t you want an investigative journalist to report that fact, without fear of going to jail for failing to reveal his sources?
Increasingly too, we suffer from secrecy concerning the definition of the words that are used in writing the laws we are to live by. There is the *Patriot Act* for instance, a public document that describes certain powers the government now claims are *legal* that used to be considered unconstitutional. But there also exists, although it is kept secret from the public, a document that explains how the words in the Patriot Act will be defined and construed by the government. Thus white is now black, slavery is now freedom, and murder is now defense. This other document, the one that the government will use in justification of its many acts, is never voted on or approved, in fact few even know it exists. Yet it allows spokespeople to claim, “What we are doing is legal” even as those actions are highly immoral and unethical. And for sure, legal is not the same as moral. Many conversations, twitter feeds, Facebook postings, or email chains used to vacuum up dissidents and protestors are termed *legal* because of approvals granted by a secret court. Those approvals are never disclosed, and the few leaked examples prove that even when shown to the people with the highest of security clearances, the approvals are heavily redacted: secrecy about secrecy even to those who are in on the secret!
Secrecy is another word for fear. Secrecy poisons any relationship. Secrecy begets lies, and lying leads to mistrust. We begin every relationship with trust; once trust is lost, it is impossible to regain it; that relationship will never be the same. When the truth is vilified, hunted, gagged and jailed by our government, then that government distrusts us and has chosen to go to war with us. Remember, this is the same government that we have been taught is merely an extension of ourselves: “of the people, by the people, and for the people”. Increasingly, our government is less inclined to serve us, and more inclined to serve business and itself.
Recently (mid-2013) a former Vice-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General James Cartwright, has been investigated for leaking information about the Stuxnet computer malware. That program was used by the U.S. to disable about 1000 Iranian centrifuges. The Iranians knew we had done it before the press carried the story; it was only American citizens that weren’t supposed to know.
Let’s be clear: the crime divulged by Edward Snowden (and many others before him) is invading the privacy of more than 300 million Americans; the criminals are the NSA and the Administrations of G. W. Bush and B. Obama; and Edward Snowden is being charged with merely confirming what we already knew.
And lastly on the topic of governmental spying, what the NSA scandal has brought out into the light is the depth to which government outsourcing has introduced a whole new level of risk. Mr. Snowden did not work for the government; rather, he was employed by a private, for-profit company, one that had secured a government contract to mine the data collected for particular nuggets of useful information. Given access to every communication, it is likely that a company would be less concerned with constitutional protections than a government agency. And what guarantees do we have that the company is not also using that information for their own purposes, including selling it to other companies, and what monitoring is taking place to ensure secrecy is maintained? We have already seen, although there has been almost no reaction, that private security companies not only have taken on the bulk of the *fighting* overseas on behalf of the American people, but that they also act with impunity, ignoring both local law, U. S. law, and moral strictures.
The balance we seek is between secrecy and transparency. If we truly have a government of, by and for the people, then the people have a right to know what is being done in their name. To say that disclosing an unconstitutional act is treason is disingenuous: it relies upon us not questioning the meaning of the term treason, it needs us to accept the charge on face value without asking what the real crime is, and it demands that we trust and believe what we are told without question. If we are to avoid being trampled by power, we must always question everything that power says. Even if I trust the particular people in power today to do what is right , who is to say what the next, or third or fourth administration will do with these same powers, especially if they think they can maintain secrecy and not be caught. We can’t let the precedent be set; the next leader might not be so *nice*. Sunlight is the best disinfectant: let’s push for more, rather than less, transparency, in government, business, and our personal lives too.