"Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood". T.S. Eliot
Of Smoke 'n Mirrors (In the Wilderness)
It should come as no surprise that from an early age the preeminent espionage storyteller John Le Carre reportedly had "limitless fascination" with the human propensity for secretive behaviour. Given his literary specialty and the fact he was a former British intelligence official, he is someone who knows a thing or three about secrecy's attendant 'pathologies'; these might include stealth, sabotage, subterfuge, subversion, surveillance and sedition (and we might safely speculate, seduction, as it was purportedly he who coined the phrase "honey-trap"), and the inter-connections between all things clandestine and covert.
In short, we're talking here the 'smoke 'n mirrors', 'cloak 'n dagger', Spy v Spy Thing.
In the wake of, and in response to, the Watergate Scandal -- at the time the archetypal manifestation not just of the U.S. government's predisposition for engaging in grand, deceptive political "cloak 'n dagger", but for creating big, ugly secrets and then ruthlessly attempting to preserve their status as such -- le Carre had this to say:
"Until we have a better relationship between private performance and the public truth". We as the public are absolutely right to remain suspicious, contemptuous even, of the secrecy and the misinformation which is the digest of our news."
On April 27, 1961, shortly after he was handed the keys to the White House by a new generation of hopeful Americans (and tellingly, less than two weeks after the calamitous Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba), the 35th president of the United States John F Kennedy (JFK) presented a speech the oft-cited content of which has never been more significant in its significance. From this address it seems clear that like le Carre's earlier comment indicates, Number 35 -- reportedly a fan of spy novels -- was not completely naÃ¯ve about the secretive practices of the power elites. Although JFK's address should be read in its entirety to appreciate its full import for the here and now, for our purposes the following extract provides an inkling of his views:
"The very word 'secrecy' is repugnant in a free and open society....We decided long ago that the dangers of excessive and unwarranted concealment of pertinent facts far outweighed the dangers [which are] cited to justify it....there is little value in opposing the threat of a closed society by imitating its arbitrary restrictions....in insuring the survival of our nation if our traditions do not survive with it. And there is very grave danger that an announced need for increased security will be seized upon by those anxious to expand its meaning to the very limits of official censorship and concealment." [My emphasis]
Doubtless the more worldly, disdainful view of secrecy evidenced by the temper of JFK's address derived less from his reading of spy fiction than it did from his recent experience of the catastrophically cocked-up Cuban invasion attempt that was the infamous Bay of Pigs, the pear shaped outcome of which it can safely be said went that way because so many of the planners -- mostly in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) -- kept far too many secrets, few of which they shared with the young president prior to his regrettable, and hugely regretted, decision to green-light this ill-fated, game changing mission.
Either way, it appears Kennedy and le Carre were kindred spirits. That the speech was presented before the then American Newspaper Publishers Association -- that august bastion at the time representing the so-called Fourth Estate, whose collective remit was purportedly holding to account those who publicly swear an oath to protect, preserve and uphold the Constitution -- provides us with another layer of substance to its content.
We will return to Kennedy's speech in a follow up piece, and with it more broadly [to] the role of the media -- specifically the role of investigative journalists and whistleblowers -- in "insuring" against "the dangers of excessive and unwarranted concealment of pertinent facts" in the unequivocal support of a "free and open society". But first we need to fast forward to the here and now.
When a "new generation" of terminally hopeful Americans handed Barack Obama the keys to the White House, one of the pre-conditions in doing so was linked to the undertaking his administration would be more transparent and accountable than any previous one. Attendant with this promise was the expectation the U.S. government under Obama would be more protective of citizens' privacy and civil liberties, more inclined to safeguard whistle-blowers and investigative journalists, and reinstate and uphold a greater level of respect for the Constitution and the unalloyed freedom of the press. It was to be expected Obama would in fact 'delimit' "official censorship and concealment"; one might say a New Age of American 'glasnost' beckoned! (That a "New Age" of 'perestroika' might have also been expected is a story for another time.)
After eight years of sleight-of-hand governance, shell-game
political expediency, and "excessive and unwarranted concealment" of information by president
George W Bush, his vice-president Dick Cheney and their cabalistic caucus of
secretive gatekeepers, most democracy-minded Americans were eagerly prepared
for a new experiment in transparency and accountability -- a
'de-Bushification' of The Beltway, to coin a phrase -- in the way its
government operated and functioned, and candour in the manner it communicated
with "we the people" about its activities.
How's that "experiment" going then? By most objective accounts, not very well it would seem. The recent conviction of former CIA man Jeffrey Sterling for alleged offences under the ancient Espionage Act is ample testament to this, a case that we will return to in our follow-up piece.