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Is Secret Power Becoming Sacrosanct in the US?

My work brought me face to face with a secret version of America, not the country I thought about during my university studies.

I have lived in the United States for fifty-four years. I went to college where I learned the basics of science and history. I am grateful the University of Illinois and the University of Wisconsin gave me an excellent and free education. Harvard did the same thing with my postdoctoral studies in the history of science. A federal fellowship made that possible.

I brought a passion for truth everywhere I worked, which was mostly on Capitol Hill and the US Environmental Protection Agency. I also taught at several universities.

My work brought me face to face with a secret version of the US, not the country I thought about during my university studies. Secrets had something todo with this. I knew, of course, that individuals and governments have legitimate secrets.

Once, in 1977, the Cypriot ambassador visited Congressman Clarence Long of Maryland, a Democratic chairman of the powerful foreign operations subcommittee in charge of US foreign aid. I was a legislative assistant to Congressman Long. After the meeting, I argued the US had a moral obligation to give Cyprus a modest amount of aid. The Cypriot ambassador said $ 15 million would suffice. I reminded Congressman Long the US had been irresponsible in encouraging the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus. Not much later after our discussion on Cyprus, Congressman Long told me he considered me a “Greek agent.”

I came across the same mentality and intolerance at the EPA. Senior bureaucrats would often restrain my investigations by saying I had “no need” toknow, so they refused to give me access to their documents. My questions irritated others who would say I was not a team player.

EPA is no CIA, though its Office of International Activities has a sprinkling of former CIA staff.

With the exception of what the government defines as “confidential business information,” EPA has few secrets. During the Reagan administration, the Republican administrator of EPA, William Ruckelshaus, 1983-1985, said EPA was like a fishbowl. Transparency was to be the agency’s virtue. But Ruckelshaus and transparency were as ephemeral as lipstick. Reagan made EPA, like other government departments, hostages of polluters and, therefore, of secrecy.

This was inevitable in a country of nuclear bombs where the president is in charge not merely of these civilization-killer weapons but of a vast national security state organized and led by the CIA.

We get a glimpse of the nature of the US national security state by the recent Iraq War. This was an unprovoked and illegal war of the George W. Bush administration. US forces invaded Iraq in 2003. They destroyed Iraq and sowed seeds of upheaval in the Middle East. During this war the CIA indulged in violent practices against prisoners.

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence started its investigation of the CIA in 2009. “The Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture” (Melville House, 2014) revealed the CIA tortured prisoners of war. This violated US and international law.

The Senate report is full of unsavory stories of torture on the name of “intelligence” by the CIA that has “intelligence” enshrined in its name.

This is misuse of a word that captures the greatest virtue of human beings, the ability to think and make sense of their world with knowledge and science. Métis, goddess mother of Athena, herself goddess of wisdom, was the goddess of intelligence. Taking this symbol of civilization, intelligence, to cover-up spying is another sign of how far the national security state has gone in demeaning democracy in the US.

The 2014 Senate Intelligence Committee report documents the current symptoms of this political collapse. The reasons, however, for the malady of democracy in the US come from a man who grew up in affluence and power. He spent his adult life serving prestigious New York law firms, New York City government, foundations, and the federal government. This is Frederick AO Schwarz Jr. In 1975, he started his political career as the chief counsel for the Senate’s Church Committee investigating the malpractices of the federal intelligence agencies. In 2015, he is the chief counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.

Schwarz summed up his life work on secrecy and democracy in his new book, Democracy in the Dark: The Seduction of Government Secrecy (The New Press, 2015). This is a timely, hard-hitting, well-written, and compelling story of how the federal government’s obsession with secrets has been damaging democracy almost from the beginnings of the country.

Schwartz sheds light on how secrecy shaped key historical events like where to drop the atomic bomb in Japan, the Cuban missile crisis, the Iran-Contra Affair, and the 9 / 11 Muslim attack on the US. He argues that secrecy is seductive. It is. But more than seduction there’s fear and profit in the collection and protection of secrets.

We assume the president and his staff running the NSA are well aware of the anti-democratic, nay deleterious, influence of spying on Americans. So why is the NSA spying on Americans? Why did we have to wait for Edward Snowden to rip off the mask of democracy from our government?

Schwarz said, “too much is kept secret not to protect America but to keep embarrassing or illegal conduct from Americans…. Excessive secrecy leads togovernment deception, or even outright lying.” He quotes Senator Mike Mansfield’s 1954 warning about the CIA: “once secrecy becomes sacrosanct, it invites abuse.”

Schwarz firmly believes the “public must be informed when things go wrong.” Yet he admits the rulers of the US have contempt for the public. He recounts the general counsel of the NSA telling him in 1975 that “The Constitution does not apply to NSA.”

Nevertheless, Schwarz is a confirmed reformer, seeing tiny ripples of change in the executive, the “intelligence community,” and Congress for “a more open America.”

Read his book. It’s food for thought, shedding light on secret and potentially open United States.