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Failing Gracelessly

By (May 1, 2013) No Comment

Deep State: Inside the Government Secrecy Industry
By Marc Ambinder and D.B. Grady
Wiley, 2013

deep-stateIn 2012, write Marc Ambinder and D.B. Grady,

Days after it was reported than an al-Qaeda airline bombing plot was foiled, the world learned that the “bomber” was actually a spy working for Saudi intelligence who had penetrated al-Qaeda, gained its trust, volunteered for the martyrdom operation, and secured the new type of bomb for the CIA. We learned how the bomb was worn and that testing revealed that it would have slipped through Transportation Security Agency checkpoints. An operation that in any other time in history would rank as a triumph of tradecraft, counterterrorism, and international cooperation, and remain as close and treasured a secret as the nuclear launch codes, became public knowledge not just for newspaper readers but for everyone with a
Facebook account and interested only in pictures of the grandkids.

The deep state doesn’t stand a chance.

This “deep state” they’re talking about, the eponymous subject of their new book, is the American government’s ballooning “secrecy apparatus,” the secrets it keeps and the secret things it does. More secrets are being kept, and more intelligence and military operations – some of questionable legality and morality – are taking place in the dark. The “deep state” has in fact grown so large and cumbersome that innocuous information is pointlessly classified as a matter of course, and intelligence is not being shared amongst agencies as it should be. America is both making itself unnecessarily vulnerable to its enemies and making its government less transparent to its citizens.

But Ambinder and Grady also claim that the “deep state” is doomed. Secrets almost always see the light, eventually: “whether a program is leaked, revealed post-conflict, or exposed by accident, sooner or later it’s going to get out. The entire enterprise, therefore, is an effort at failing gracefully, or delaying political or historical approval.” But with “society embracing openness with heedless abandon,” the ingenuity of good-government activists and curious military watchers tracking secret troop movements, the ease of data theft and the sheer, growing volume of information to cloak, “openness is coming.” There’s very little, Ambinder and Grady seem to say, that the government will be able to hide in the future.

This isn’t very convincing, mostly because we have only a dim idea of where technology is going and because the national security state is inevitably going to adapt, contingencies the authors acknowledge though don’t dwell upon. But the larger problem with Deep State is that Ambinder and Grady are uncomfortable rendering judgment on their subjects, who also happen to be their sources. It’s obvious that the authors find some aspects of the national security state questionable, but aside from this vague unease, which they reserve mostly for questions of process, their sympathies bend toward the concerns of the secret keepers. The moral questions that plague secret operations and information gathering are buried by false equivalence in this very useful and annoying book.

Deep State has two particular strengths. One is the authors’ bounty of sources. We think we have a fair idea of the US government’s most egregious abuses of secrecy these past twelve years (like TSP, the Terrorist Surveillance Program), but Ambinder and Grady are able to flesh out these stories with new and disturbing details (TSP, for example, was but one piece of a larger network of programs that the FBI and Justice Department famously objected to). The other strength is explication. Decades in the military (Grady) and in national security reporting (Ambinder) may have made the authors too sympathetic to the justifications of the intelligence world, but this familiarity pays dividends when they attempt to explain the dynamics of intelligence sharing between agencies, the methods and reasoning behind surveillance and the classification system, or the competing interests that motivate leaking and reporting. Here, for example, they show how various government agencies and departments use the press to acquire funding and burnish their reputations:

The CIA fell under a barrage of negative press for ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ in the aftermath of 9/11. Consequently, senior CIA officials leaked that it was, in fact, a top-secret military unit behind the lion’s share of the dirty work. This type of selective leaking is often chosen advisedly, as black operations military forces and the CIA work closely together in the field. But on a management and strategy level, the agencies compete for turf and operations. When, for example, the CIA wants more resources or wants ‘in’ to certain areas like Yemen, senior operations officers will leak details to the press about the military’s large footprint there and the CIA’s lack of presence. The desktop snipers of the Defense Department’s black operations community are obliged to return fire. Within days, a competing newspaper will report how, for example, the CIA keeps corrupt members of the Afghan government on its payroll, completely undermining, at least in the eyes of the military, a counterinsurgency strategy that is predicated on building a transparent and viable government. Reporters work hard to get these stories, but timing and access to “senior administration officials” are almost always deliberate.

Even here, though, the book’s larger flaws creep in. (A minor one would be editing: interagency sniping often has little to do with “senior administration officials.”) Some kinds of leaks make the authors uneasy. “It’s important to divide these leaks into good leaks and bad leaks,” they write early on, “based on why the secret bearer let them out. It’s nearly impossible to imagine in advance what the results of any particular leak will be, making motivation the key distinction to draw.” Whistleblowing, for example, is good leaking. Divulging secrets for ego or gain is not.

This is nonsense, and the paragraph quoted above shows why. Would we know, to take their example, what group was responsible for the worst of the torture inflicted on prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan? (It was a unit of JSOC, the Joint Special Operations Command, basically a highly trained shadow army, which under the Bush and Obama administrations has undergone a vast expansion in size and mission.) Would we know what the military and intelligence agencies are doing in Yemen? These types of leaks help reporters and historians piece stories together. Ambinder and Grady use them throughout the book.

At the heart of this confusion are a lot of fuzzy ideas about the balance between information and security, and, it seems, the wearisome tendency of reporters and Serious People in Washington to avoid staking their reputation on any claim that might box them into an ideological corner. Ambinder and Grady acknowledge the essential check that the press provides against a government predisposed to hide what it is doing, but they throw their hands up about specifics. No one, they say, can truly decide whether leaking the details of the Terrorist Surveillance Program was the right thing to do. On the one hand, there are the possibilities that the program was illegal and the rights of American citizens were infringed upon. On the other, leaking the story might make it more difficult for the US government to catch terrorists and secure cooperation from foreign states. (Deep State, as a result of either bad editing or authorial uncertainty, can’t even make up its mind about whether the program works: Ambinder and Grady call it “crucial” in the early years after 9/11, but several pages later say that the “effectiveness of the special programs of the NSA [which include TSP] is a mystery.”) To further illustrate their point, they note that the New York Times story that brought the program to light may have set in motion a chain of events that led to the codification and expansion of the program by Congress in 2008. Whistleblowers and good-government types, they are saying, should be more circumspect about what they think the public should know.

This has it backwards: they are assigning responsibility to leakers and reporters instead of actors, and reserving the balance of their understanding for the latter. I’m sympathetic to the idea that the confusion following 9/11 put every branch of the government under tremendous pressure, but why should that excuse their crimes? Ambinder and Grady come close to doing so several times. They’re correct to note that as the blooming insurgency in Iraq made ignorance of its movements ever more glaring and harmful, American military and intelligence agencies were given a strong incentive to find new methods of obtaining information. But the authors go on to claim that “it is not hard to see how, from this urgent need, a policy of enhanced interrogation techniques might develop, which in the frenzy of war might turn into torture.” Over the last decade the New York Times, among others, made a disturbing habit of refusing to call torture “torture” for fear of appearing to take a political position. Someone should point out to the authors of Deep State that most of the techniques regularly used in the “enhanced interrogation” regime were considered torture by just about every court and everybody in the world except the United States, which secretly changed its mind in late 2001, and that a policy of torture-lite will inevitably lead to worse crimes. Like good modern reporters, Ambinder and Grady view the debate as a clash of interests, of openness and virtue versus the sometimes unpalatable necessities of national security. Outside of the mechanics of leaking and secrecy, Deep State is scrupulously evenhanded, almost to the point of hollowness.

This empty notion of balance, and the wooly reasoning behind it, is mirrored in the idea of a security “bargain” between the American people and the state, wherein the “government withholds information from the public” and “the public seeks to learn that information.” Secrets “exist because the American people entered into an implicit bargain at the Republic’s founding.” And yet, “The American people have an impoverished understanding of the state of secrecy and the implicit bargain.” Cut out the four final words and the last sentence is surely true, but you can’t ground a theory on a faulty premise: the “people” at the “founding” were a small, enfranchised portion of the aristocracy. You can’t have a bargain between a people and the government if the “people” never agreed to it, and a bargain where one party doesn’t understand the terms is not much of a bargain at all. The Constitution makes several limited provisions for state secrecy (among them article I, section 5, which orders the Congress to publish a journal of its proceedings except “such Parts as may in their judgment require Secrecy”), but as Ambinder and Grady explain themselves in the first chapter, well-funded intelligence operations first appeared in the twentieth century, and then only in fits and starts until the Cold War institutionalized and expanded them into high-tech spying, black ops, and the toppling of governments. In any case, Deep State’s rose-tinted timeline is put to bed by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who wrote with authority in 1998 that “Eighty years [emphasis added] from the onset of secrecy as an instrument of national policy, now is the time for a measure of definition and restraint,” a statement Ambinder and Grady quote with approval.

media scrum

The truth is that we’ve stumbled into this adversarial system. It evolved, and its strictures have been fought over by interested parties. The American people, it’s true, have paid scant attention. When they have, the authors believe, they’re too prone to mistrust and conspiracy theories. Trust, then, is what the Ambinder and Grady want. “The hidden hand that controls secrecy policy,” they write at the end, “is really one side of a handshake, and trust is the essential condition.” To obtain it, they want the government to stop needlessly classifying unimportant tidbits (like newspaper summaries), stop aggressively prosecuting whistleblowers (on this Obama has been worse than Bush), and to subject their secret programs to a more transparent oversight process. Salutary ideas all, but to attribute mistrust between Americans (and really, it’s only interested Americans we should be talking about) and their government to secrecy is to miss the point almost entirely. The moral objection shouldn’t fall hardest on what the government is hiding, but what it’s doing.

Ambinder and Grady argue repeatedly that Americans wouldn’t be so conspiracy-minded if the government reformed its classification system and communicated more clearly about threats (they offer a useful primer on what government safety warnings – like “specific and credible threat” – actually mean). But the government isn’t going to learn this lesson, and the authors, refreshingly, hold out little hope that they will. What they favor is the status quo: the government tries to hide information, and the press, with its sources and tools like the Freedom of Information Act, tries to reveal it. But they prophesy that as the Information Age matures, “The implicit bargain between the government and the governed will have certain terms renegotiated.” Never mind what these could be; they don’t offer any predictions.

The most pressing concern for secret-keepers in an era of openness is what other countries are going to find out. The citizens they’re charged with protecting rarely care what their government is hiding. When they do they’re drawn to more personal forms of scandal: the most politically damaging story of Nixon’s presidency wasn’t the death of millions in Vietnam, but Watergate. Technology is not going to muffle the dumbbell call of patriotism.

And if there’s any bargain over secrecy between the “American people” and their government it’s that the people will cast their votes for the government that keeps them safe and won’t ask about how it’s done. Ambinder and Grady ignore this arrangement by dwelling too much on how compartmented stores of information prevent sharing between intelligence agencies, how secrecy fosters mistrust, how security alerts are difficult to understand, and how technology is peeling back the veil. These are stories we need to know, but the most important question to ask is whether we should be so obsessed with security at all.

A free society by definition involves risk, but the argument in Washington over the last decade, one the authors have been right in the middle of, has been too focused on minimizing risk, too slavishly obedient to the idea that there must be some carefully-managed balance between security and liberty, and too willing to bomb foreign countries under the mantles of both.

Last month in Boston, two young men used guns and homemade bombs to murder four people and injure over a hundred more. Alarmist politicians are already calling for tightening the immigration system and abrogating the habeas corpus rights of the remaining bomber, who is an American citizen. Maybe the subsequent investigation will discover mistakes, some gap in the intelligence network that can be bridged. But we can’t turn Boylston Street into a fortress. To entertain the idea that security and liberty are equal values is to render the former less meaningful, and the latter merely provisional.

Greg Waldmann, a Senior Editor at Open Letters Monthly, is a native New Yorker living in Boston with a degree in International Affairs.