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Scott Horton: How to Rein in a Secretive Shadow Government Is Our National Security Crisis

When voters are left in the dark about public policy, democracy is undercut, says journalist Scott Horton.

Scott Horton (Photo: David Barreda)

In Lords of Secrecy, award-winning journalist and lawyer Scott Horton, a contributing editor at Harper’s Magazine, exposes the threat to democracy of an ever-expanding shadow government. When public policy is made by unaccountable individuals and institutions in the name of “national security,” voters are left in the dark. Click here to get the book now with a contribution to Truthout!

Mark Karlin: Many book dedications are to relatives or friends of the author. You dedicate your book to Andrei Sakharov. Why so?

Scott Horton: Andrei Sakharov was one of the most important and underappreciated thinkers of the last century. He also saw the problem I am writing about – the threat that secrecy presents to human happiness and progress – with exceptional clarity and had innovative ideas about how to cope with it. Sakharov recognized that the Soviet Union rested on a colossal false premise – it was not so much socialism (though Sakharov was certainly a critic of socialism) as it was the obsession with secrecy, which obstructed the search for truth, avoided the exposure of mistakes, and led to the rise of powerful bureaucratic elites who were at once incompetent and prone to violence.

“Secrecy is a dangerous narcotic for democracy. When people don’t know about issues, they don’t have an opportunity to develop interest in them, inform themselves, and form opinions about what the state should do. This is how secrecy, in a national security setting, can directly negate democracy.”

Sakharov understood that the Soviet Union carried in itself the seeds to its own destruction, and he realized that above all things, corralling secrecy was essential to overcome the worst of the Soviet legacy.

Sakharov also recognized that while a comparatively small number of secrets were legitimate, the people who had access to those secrets also had a duty to insure that the public appreciated the threats and problems those secrets implied. That indeed was the consideration that led this exceptionally thoughtful and private man to become one of the most important dissidents in human history.

In your prologue, you mention the impact that the disclosure of the Pentagon Papers had on our perception of being misled about the Vietnam War. Now, some 40 years later, the Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture has come and gone with about a week’s worth of angst – and now is deposited in the pit of history. What’s the difference between now and then?

The single most important difference is the American public’s level of engagement with such issues of war and peace. In the Vietnam War era, Americans had a range of different opinions about the nation’s war effort, but those opinions were passionately held and dominated the nation’s political agenda over a long period of time. Today, national security issues create a vague sense of fear, but Americans are generally not seriously engaged with questions about our military engagements around the globe. I’m convinced that secrecy is the main reason why. Our national security elites do not welcome popular engagement, they see it as a nuisance. Covert warfare has become their default preference. This is why we are living through a far more acute “crisis of the republic” today than the one Hannah Arendt discussed in the era of the Pentagon Papers.

I think it’s safe to say that many individuals who supported Obama thought he would support a more transparent and less secret shadow government. However, he appears to not only have continued to condone secrecy in intelligence and scattered military and special-ops action, he – by most evidence – has accelerated an unaccountable intelligence-surveillance-military apparatus. What happened?

We generally look to presidential elections as a forum for policy choices on national security issues. Obama offered, particularly in 2008, a series of alternative visions in the national security arena and a promise to roll back some of the changes that Bush had introduced. He also promised to be more transparent and less secretive. However, the transition from Bush to Obama produced surprisingly little change in national security policy. There are two principal explanations for this. The first is that Obama, as a president, has been focused on a domestic policy agenda and has consistently sought to downplay or minimize foreign policy commitments. The second is that America is increasingly a dual state in which, to a rising degree, decisions about foreign policy matters that used to be taken in the political arena are now taken by key figures in the national security bureaucracy. They love secrecy precisely because it empowers them. And this helps us understand how an administration committed superficially to transparency has actually exceeded its predecessors in its obsession with secrecy.

As an extension of the last question, let’s consider Chapter Six, “The War on Whistleblowers.” You offer various theories of why the Obama administration is allowing such an unrelenting pursuit and prosecution of whistleblowing. What is your personal theory?

No doubt about it, the war on whistleblowers is another manifestation of the rise to power of the lords of secrecy. Their power rests on secrecy, and whistleblowers present a direct threat to that power. This explains not only why whistleblowers are targeted, but why their treatment is vicious. And it helps us understand another dynamic: The more a whistleblower embarrasses one of the lords of secrecy, the more likely he is to be prosecuted and harshly mistreated. No whistleblower could ever expect to face a fair trial in America today – I laid out in detail how the deck has been stacked to assure that any whistleblower is convicted, and even if they successfully defend their case, the power of the state will be used to destroy them anyway. Ask Thomas Drake. He was innocent, and he was ruined just the same. Obama has very little to do with any of this, but that fact hardly reflects favorably on him.

Explain the relationship between the government agencies that are involved in intelligence and military secrecy and the privatized contractors. How big in numbers of people are we talking about? How much in expenditures of taxpayer dollars?

President Eisenhower, in his farewell speech, warned us about the rise of a military-industrial complex and the risk that its influence would severely distort our democracy. I’m not persuaded that in the early ’60s such a threat existed. Today, however, there is simply no question that the problem Ike so clearly articulated exists and that it presents an enormous obstacle to democratic decision-making in the national security arena. Today there is a revolving door in which senior figures in the intelligence and national security rotate out to jobs and directorships in the contractor industry that services them.

Look at Teresa Shea, who until recently headed SIGINT (signals intelligence) at the NSA, while her husband was a senior executive of a major SIGINT contractor – a perfect demonstration of the Beltway contractor mill which has made the Washington metropolitan area the wealthiest in the United States. Moreover, there has been a radical shift in the budget allocation between monies that fund our agencies directly and contractors that service them: Roughly four times more money flows into contractor coffers today than before 9/11, now over $400 billion. This parallels a contraction in actual jobs as more and more money is expended on fancy toys that often bring very little benefit, but that lead to dramatic wealth accumulation among a tiny elite who network tightly with the lords of secrecy. Another key element of this process is campaign funding – the contractors give generously, and the politicians who take their money support their projects. This is a lucrative regime for some, but it doesn’t serve US national security interests, and it is rotting our democracy out from the core.

Consultants and corporations with lucrative contracts and behemoth institutionalized bureaucracies almost always want to self-perpetuate and expand. What would the incentive of the lords of secrecy be to reduce conflict and stealth warfare?

Any responsible democracy has to guard against bureaucracies that expand their power and their budget; this is not only an assault on the national treasury, it is also an attack on democratic process and the people’s right to decide issues vital to their future. I am persuaded that the core national security crisis of our time is not the threat provided by al-Qaeda or ISIS, which, drawing on America’s historical experience, are relatively weak, poorly armed and incompetent enemies – rather it is reining in the encroachment of our own national security bureaucracy and ensuring that it serves the country. Our national security bureaucracy that has accumulated historically unprecedented power and resources, and, as the Senate report shows, its relationship with the democracy it is sworn to protect has never been more troubled.

What is the importance of a knowledge-based democracy to developing and implementing public policy?

Too often we understand democracy as a choice between attractive and carefully groomed political candidates. That is in essence what our democracy has degenerated into, and increasingly it means illusory choices governed by frivolous distinctions. Real democracy, as that concept was understood from antiquity, meant a process in which all citizens contributed their own knowledge and experience about an issue to a collective dialogue from which critical decisions about the issues that shaped their future could be taken. As I show in my book, this was always particularly the case for vital decisions about national security – decisions about war and peace. No society can really be called a democracy unless the citizens have a say in this process. The selection of leaders is a part it, but not central.

From a political standpoint, how can outrage be generated about government secrecy when ipso facto it is secret?

Secrecy is a dangerous narcotic for democracy. When people don’t know about issues, they don’t have an opportunity to develop interest in them, inform themselves, and form opinions about what the state should do. This is how secrecy, in a national security setting, can directly negate democracy. We shouldn’t be outraged about claims of secrecy per se, but we should be skeptical of them. Most major claims of secrecy in the last 15 years have turned out to be bogus. In particular, secrecy can’t be used to cover a war, nor can it obscure important long-term strategies that the country develops for its defense.

Explain your quote from the infamous leader, Erich Mielke of the East German Stasi, in your epilogue, particularly its relationship to the current US government justification of surveillance on citizens today.

When General Keith Alexander was preparing to leave his post at the top of the NSA, the Washington Post ran a biography that was conceived to be flattering. Alexander had lived in the shadows, but now he was transiting to the private sector, building a business and seeking name recognition for the first time. He prided himself on being the man determined to “collect everything” in terms of intelligence. But when I read this, something clicked: Alexander had uttered the very same words that Erich Mielke, the famous head of the Stasi, used to inspire his coworkers. The parallel was jarring as was the fact that so much of the US media accepted Alexander’s claims as something innocuous. The NSA had not historically operated like the Stasi, but over time and increasingly over the last 15 years it was coming to resemble the Stasi. One of our closest and most uncompromising allies, Chancellor Angela Merkel, made this point to Barack Obama. And Merkel, an East German who grew up in the Stasi state, knew exactly what she was talking about.

Can you characterize the implication of the FISA court – that is supposed to oversee that surveillance is carried out legally and for due cause – is itself conducted entirely in secret?

A genuine federal court sits over controversies and decides who’s right by applying the law. The FISA court is not a “real” federal court in this sense. Instead it has evolved into an administrative adjunct of the federal agencies it is supposed to check; it issues opinions that actually dispense a form of advice, and it does its work in secret. Its judges have been handpicked based on their accommodating attitude towards the intelligence community; they are almost all Republican, from roughly the same background and with roughly the same views. Unlike the federal judiciary as a whole, they do not reflect the country. But why the secrecy? The argument is that the matters it handles are secret, and the entire process must be kept secret. However, when FISA court opinions have been published in the past, they turn out to be so poorly reasoned as to be an embarrassment to their authors. As in the case of the DOJ torture opinions, secrecy covers up incompetent work product. The FISA court is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

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