Monday, 3 June 2013

Secrets and stealing

We Steal Secrets is an even-handed documentary that will challenge black-and-white thinking about what is happening to and in our national security state, its accumulation of more and more secrets, its attempts to keep them, and others’ attempts to penetrate them.

My bias, both as a recovering journalist and as a native member of a polity based on the idea of an informed citizenry, is in favor of porosity. I recognize the claim on secrecy of state agents and also their probably irredeemable tendency to abuse that power. I can think of extremely few situations where government desire to operate in the dark outweighs the public’s right and need to know. [I see, incidentally, that this non-committal position means I am hopelessly sold out to the Forces of Evil according to some commentators. Happily, I no longer participate in these polemics and can entertain myself here in obscurity quite well, thank you.]

The title of Alex Gibney’s documentary, ironically, comes from the lips of former CIA director Michael Hayden who is clever enough to adopt an avuncular tone on camera while defending his frequently criminal enterprise. We steal other people’s secrets, he means, and we need to operate clandestintely to pull that off. Fair enough, but it implies that we have to look the other way and assume these guys are acting in our best interests. Hold that thought.

What are we supposed to do, however, when this snooping and its first cousin, warmaking, lead to crimes against humanity? Should reporters have cooperated with the secret bombing (and slaughter) of Cambodia because Kissinger and Nixon were getting us the best deal in Southeast Asia? Cheney should be able to cook up an invasion of Iraq and bankrupt us because our CIA guys must be able to ‘steal secrets’ unimpeded?

Walter Pincus at the Washington Post argues that the Obama Administration’s notorious snooping around in the AP’s telephone records, while excessively blunderbuss in application, resulted from a grave security breach that ruined an important covert operation. It’s an interesting perspective, but Pincus doesn’t have anything to say about the prudence of ‘covert operations’ in the first place when these include agent provocateurs staging pre-terrorist attacks so they can snare suspects--which is what the operation entailed. It’s the same problem we have here in New York where the NYPD justifies its snooping in mosques as preventive while nearly all the ‘incidents’ it manages to prevent begin within the bowels of the NYPD itself.

So we need a free press and unintimidated reporters able to dig around the edges of the security state to find out what is happening and responsibly sound the alarm on things that that are handled badly or should not be happening at all. That’s where Wikileaks and the Assange/Manning drama presents murky issues, which the Gibney film displays in full. The famous Bradley Manning document dump could have been—and at first was—handled by reporters who examined the evidence and filtered the facts into vetted articles. The revelation of the Army video showing the outrageous slaying of Reuters cameramen was one meritorious outcome.

But then two things screwed up what could have been a healthy check on illegitimate war tactics: Assange’s sexual misconduct case and the subsequent collapse of the Wikileaks model. While the facts are not yet in, We Steal Secrets suggests that Assange’s behavior in the Swedish sex case was something between dumb and abusive. (It includes exclusive testimony by one of the women involved, from whom we have not previously heard.) Instead of separating that case from the Wikileaks mission, however, Assange successfully merged the two and purged anyone who resisted. The Wikileaks model probably will not survive the ongoing melodrama and Assange’s caudillismo. That is a pity.

Meanwhile, the documents that Manning apparently funneled from State Department and military sources were not sufficiently protected and, according to the film, filtered into cyberspace out of anyone’s control. That tells us something about the dangers and drawbacks of our modern, computerized lives. Now that diplomatic notes are not written out with quill pens and stored in metal bins, it just may not be possible to guarantee the privacy that Hayden and his gangs so desire--and that they have decided we citizens no longer merit.

But back to the CIA’s demand for impunity and secrecy so they can protect us. Question: define ‘us’. It’s not a flippant request given this week’s news that David Petraeus has now gone to work for a branch of the private equity firm, Kohlberg Kravis Roberts.

Even more astounding is the news that Sir Jonathan Evans, a 33-year veteran of Britain’s spy service MI5 (Military Intelligence), has now joined the board of the vast worldwide conspiracy known as HSBC bank. This is the same entity recently sanctioned with a slap on the corporate wrist for money-laundering billions for drug runners and a host of other crimes.

It is simply not credible that these top-level links between the commanding heights of the financier sector now successfully impoverishing the entire world and the supposed public servants running our security state(s) have anything to do with the welfare of the rest of us. The arguments on their need for free rein and protected secrets off limits even to attempts at newsgathering are self-serving and increasingly dangerous.

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