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OpEdNews Op Eds    H4'ed 1/17/13

Secrecy and National Security Whistleblowing

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I) Reflections on Secret-keeping and Identity

In the "national security" area of the government -- the White House, the departments of state and defense, the armed services and the "intelligence community," along with their contractors -- there is less whistleblowing than in other departments of the executive branch or in private corporations. This despite the frequency of misguided practices and policies within these particular agencies that are both more well-concealed and more catastrophic than elsewhere, and thus even more needful of unauthorized exposure.

The mystique of secrecy in the universe of national security, even beyond the formal apparatus of classification and clearances, is a compelling deterrent to whistleblowing and thus to effective resistance to gravely wrongful or dangerous policies. In this realm, telling secrets appears unpatriotic, even traitorous. That reflects the general presumption -- even though it is very commonly false -- that the secrecy is aimed not at domestic, bureaucratic or political rivals or the American public but at foreign, powerful enemies, and that breaching it exposes the country, its people and its troops to danger.

Even those insiders who have come to understand that the presumption is frequently false and that particular facts are being wrongly and dangerously kept secret not so much from foreigners but from Congress, courts or the public are strongly inhibited from speaking out by an internalized commitment to keep official secrets from outsiders, which they have promised to do as a condition of employment or access.

To be sure, there are strong, usually more than adequate careerist incentives not to break those promises. Being found to do so exposes officials to loss of access to meetings and information, loss of clearance, demotion or loss of promotion, loss of job or career, loss of retirement benefits, harm to marriage or to children's prospects that comes with loss of income, even danger of prosecution and prison. The last risk is much less likely than they are led to believe -- at least, that was true prior to the present Obama administration -- but the other job-related penalties are not, and they prove more than sufficient to keep most secret-keepers from breaking the rules in ways that would expose them to such losses, even when the welfare of many others is at stake.

However, as a former insider I can attest to psychological dimensions of this behavior that seem rarely to have been discussed. They seem worthy of some extended reflection here, given my own motive to understand this behavior in order in some respects to change it. In my experience, the psychological stakes for officials in keeping their commitment to keep secrets -- even what appear to be "guilty" secrets that not only preclude democratic accountability but endanger the welfare of many people -- go beyond careerist calculations of keeping a job or possible punishments for disobedience, influential and even sufficient as those considerations generally are.

The promise to keep "secrets of state," once demanded and given, becomes virtually part of one's core identity. In the national security apparatus, one's pride and self-respect is founded in particular in the fact that one has been trusted to keep secrets in general and trusted with these particular secrets. Second, they reflect one's confidence that one is "worthy" of this trust. Indeed, the trust (with respect to truly sensitive secrets, requiring utmost reliance on the discretion of the recipient) will have been "earned," before being conferred, by a long history of secret-keeping, building habits that are hard to break, that form part of one's character.

These habits will allow a good deal of leeway and discretion in disregarding formal rules of the classification system when it comes to sharing information with others who have not been explicitly authorized to receive it -- even reporters who have not been formally cleared, in flat violation of the rules -- when this is in the interest of furthering the policies or interests of one's agency boss or the president.

But the habits and reflexes of an experienced national security bureaucrat will be strong and reliable with respect to observing the "real" rules, against revelations to potential adversaries or rivals of the policies or agency or bosses one serves: whether in other agencies (or within one's own), or Congress, or the public. (Keeping information from foreign adversaries-the official rationale for the whole secrecy system-is actually a less salient consideration for the larger part of the classified material, especially that which is "only" top secret or lower. Since foreign states neither control the agency's budget nor do they vote in elections or in Congress, they are not the parties who must be excluded from much of the most "sensitive" information.) .

Thus, a readiness and ability to keep secrets reliably is a prerequisite for these highly prestigious and powerful positions in our political system. But in this area as throughout human endeavor, it is a fundamental truth that wrongful secret-keeping is the most widespread form of complicity in wrong-doing. It involves many more people both within and outside an organization that is acting wrongfully than those who give wrongful orders or who directly implement them, though it includes these.

Since wrong-doing virtually always requires both secrecy and lies, and further secrets and lies to protect the secrets and lies, the wrongful operation -- especially in a regime that approaches democracy -- is commonly highly vulnerable to a breach of secrecy by any one of the many who share the secret. Yet typically in the national security field (and to a striking degree even in corporate and private associations without a formal apparatus of secrecy) even the "weakest links" do not break. No one tells.

And this is true even as important laws are being knowingly violated, or when many lives have been and more will be harmed by ignorance of the information being withheld. Think of the many situations in which whistleblowing was either wholly absent or very belated: the internal buildup to the Vietnam and Iraq wars; the tobacco industry; Vioxx; the accounting scandals of Enron or Worldcom, with its widespread effects on retirement accounts; child abuse by Catholic priests and cover-up by bishops; NSA warrantless wiretaps and White House-directed torture and kidnapping, after 9-11.

In each of these cases, there were many insiders aware of the abuses and danger to outsiders, indeed ultimately to the organization itself. Yet there was virtually total silence, for years, to outside authorities or the public, total lack of warning to potential victims. Careerist incentives undoubtedly explain most of this: but all of it? The extraordinary lack of any break at all in the discipline of secrecy, no matter the human stakes?

The examples above make clear that this is not only a phenomenon of government, or of the national security bureaucracy. The following reflections derive from my own experience in that bureaucracy, where large-scale unauthorized disclosures have been very rare (the Pentagon Papers, and the recent WikiLeaks releases: two cases in forty years). But they apply as well, in some degree, to any organizations or groups that effectively demand some secret-keeping as a condition of membership. That is, to nearly every human group.

One could regard secret-keeping in such a group as simply a form of obedience to orders or regulations or directives from authorities. But often, I would say, it is closer to contractual behavior, keeping a promise or agreement. "Keeping one's promises," and keeping agreements are recognizably among the highest values we are taught to observe as children and adults. What I am exploring here is how it comes about that people in organizations in some circumstances act as if those values are actually absolute, overriding other considerations that would appear to an observer to be extremely compelling.

After all, in ordinary life people do -- "all the time" -- break promises and tell secrets they have promised to keep, But a promise to keep secrets is a special kind of promise, in two ways that one might think cut in opposite directions. On the one hand, if what you are about to learn -- on condition you keep it secret-is presumptively something you don't already know, you are making a commitment whose exact content and bearing you don't know. It's like agreeing to do something on someone's demand without knowing at all in advance what you may be asked to do. You can't foresee confidently how it might relate to other obligations you might have-to warn someone or keep them informed -- or to your various interests. In that light, it might seem intrinsically less binding than a promise made with full foresight of its implications.

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Daniel Ellsberg is a former US military analyst who in 1971 leaked the Pentagon Papers, which revealed how the US public had been misled about the Vietnam war
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