(updated below – Update II – Update III – Update IV)
Cass Sunstein has long been one of Barack Obama’s closest confidants. Often mentioned as a likely Obama nominee to the Supreme Court, Sunstein is currently Obama’s head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs where, among other things, he is responsible for “overseeing policies relating to privacy, information quality, and statistical programs.” In 2008, while at Harvard Law School, Sunstein co-wrote a truly pernicious paper proposing that the U.S. Government employ teams of covert agents and pseudo-”independent” advocates to “cognitively infiltrate” online groups and websites — as well as other activist groups — which advocate views that Sunstein deems “false conspiracy theories” about the Government. This would be designed to increase citizens’ faith in government officials and undermine the credibility of conspiracists. The paper’s abstract can be read, and the full paper downloaded, here.
Sunstein advocates that the Government’s stealth infiltration should be accomplished by sending covert agents into “chat rooms, online social networks, or even real-space groups.” He also proposes that the Government make secret payments to so-called “independent” credible voices to bolster the Government’s messaging (on the ground that those who don’t believe government sources will be more inclined to listen to those who appear independent while secretly acting on behalf of the Government). This program would target those advocating false “conspiracy theories,” which they define to mean: “an attempt to explain an event or practice by reference to the machinations of powerful people, who have also managed to conceal their role.” Sunstein’s 2008 paper was flagged by this blogger, and then amplified in an excellent report by Raw Story‘s Daniel Tencer.
There’s no evidence that the Obama administration has actually implemented a program exactly of the type advocated by Sunstein, though in light of this paper and the fact that Sunstein’s position would include exactly such policies, that question certainly ought to be asked. Regardless, Sunstein’s closeness to the President, as well as the highly influential position he occupies, merits an examination of the mentality behind what he wrote. This isn’t an instance where some government official wrote a bizarre paper in college 30 years ago about matters unrelated to his official powers; this was written 18 months ago, at a time when the ascendancy of Sunstein’s close friend to the Presidency looked likely, in exactly the area he now oversees. Additionally, the government-controlled messaging that Sunstein desires has been a prominent feature of U.S. Government actions over the last decade, including in some recently revealed practices of the current administration, and the mindset in which it is grounded explains a great deal about our political class. All of that makes Sunstein’s paper worth examining in greater detail.
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Initially, note how similar Sunstein’s proposal is to multiple, controversial stealth efforts by the Bush administration to secretly influence and shape our political debates. The Bush Pentagon employed teams of former Generals to pose as “independent analysts” in the media while secretly coordinating their talking points and messaging about wars and detention policies with the Pentagon. Bush officials secretly paid supposedly “independent” voices, such as Armstrong Williams and Maggie Gallagher, to advocate pro-Bush policies while failing to disclose their contracts. In Iraq, the Bush Pentagon hired a company, Lincoln Park, which paid newspapers to plant pro-U.S. articles while pretending it came from Iraqi citizens. In response to all of this, Democrats typically accused the Bush administration of engaging in government-sponsored propaganda — and when it was done domestically, suggested this was illegal propaganda. Indeed, there is a very strong case to make that what Sunstein is advocating is itself illegal under long-standing statutes prohibiting government ”propaganda” within the U.S., aimed at American citizens:
As explained in a March 21, 2005 report by the Congressional Research Service, “publicity or propaganda” is defined by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) to mean either (1) self-aggrandizement by public officials, (2) purely partisan activity, or (3) “covert propaganda.” By covert propaganda, GAO means information which originates from the government but is unattributed and made to appear as though it came from a third party.
Covert government propaganda is exactly what Sunstein craves. His mentality is indistinguishable from the Bush mindset that led to these abuses, and he hardly tries to claim otherwise. Indeed, he favorably cites both the covert Lincoln Park program as well as Paul Bremer’s closing of Iraqi newspapers which published stories the U.S. Government disliked, and justifies them as arguably necessary to combat “false conspiracy theories” in Iraq — the same goal Sunstein has for the U.S.
Sunstein’s response to these criticisms is easy to find in what he writes, and is as telling as the proposal itself. He acknowledges that some “conspiracy theories” previously dismissed as insane and fringe have turned out to be entirely true (his examples: the CIA really did secretly administer LSD in “mind control” experiments; the DOD really did plot the commission of terrorist acts inside the U.S. with the intent to blame Castro; the Nixon White House really did bug the DNC headquarters). Given that history, how could it possibly be justified for the U.S. Government to institute covert programs designed to undermine anti-government “conspiracy theories,” discredit government critics, and increase faith and trust in government pronouncements? Because, says Sunstein, such powers are warranted only when wielded by truly well-intentioned government officials who want to spread The Truth and Do Good — i.e., when used by people like Cass Sunstein and Barack Obama:
Throughout, we assume a well-motivated government that aims to eliminate conspiracy theories, or draw their poison, if and only if social welfare is improved by doing so.
But it’s precisely because the Government is so often not “well-motivated” that such powers are so dangerous. Advocating them on the ground that “we will use them well” is every authoritarian’s claim. More than anything else, this is the toxic mentality that consumes our political culture: when our side does X, X is Good, because we’re Good and are working for Good outcomes. That was what led hordes of Bush followers to endorse the same large-government surveillance programs they long claimed to oppose, and what leads so many Obama supporters now to justify actions that they spent the last eight years opposing.
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Consider the recent revelation that the Obama administration has been making very large, undisclosed payments to MIT Professor Jonathan Gruber to provide consultation on the President’s health care plan. With this lucrative arrangement in place, Gruber spent the entire year offering public justifications for Obama’s health care plan, typically without disclosing these payments, and far worse, was repeatedly held out by the White House — falsely — as an “independent” or “objective” authority. Obama allies in the media constantly cited Gruber’s analysis to support their defenses of the President’s plan, and the White House, in turn, then cited those media reports as proof that their plan would succeed. This created an infinite “feedback loop” in favor of Obama’s health care plan which — unbeknownst to the public — was all being generated by someone who was receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in secret from the administration (read this to see exactly how it worked).
In other words, this arrangement was quite similar to the Armstrong Williams and Maggie Gallagher scandals which Democrats, in virtual lockstep, condemned. Paul Krugman, for instance, in 2005 angrily lambasted right-wing pundits and policy analysts who received secret, undisclosed payments, and said they lack “intellectual integrity”; he specifically cited the Armstrong Williams case. Yet the very same Paul Krugman last week attacked Marcy Wheeler for helping to uncover the Gruber payments by accusing her of being “just like the right-wingers with their endless supply of fake scandals.” What is one key difference? Unlike Williams and Gallagher, Jonathan Gruber is a Good, Well-Intentioned Person with Good Views — he favors health care — and so massive, undisclosed payments from the same administration he’s defending are dismissed as a “fake scandal.”
Sunstein himself — as part of his 2008 paper — explicitly advocates that the Government should pay what he calls “credible independent experts” to advocate on the Government’s behalf, a policy he says would be more effective because people don’t trust the Government itself and would only listen to people they believe are “independent.” In so arguing, Sunstein cites the Armstrong Williams scandal not as something that is wrong in itself, but as a potential risk of this tactic (i.e., that it might leak out), and thus suggests that “government can supply these independent experts with information and perhaps prod them into action from behind the scenes,” but warns that “too close a connection will be self-defeating if it is exposed.” In other words, Sunstein wants the Government to replicate the Armstrong Williams arrangement as a means of more credibly disseminating propaganda — i.e., pretending that someone is an “independent” expert when they’re actually being “prodded” and even paid “behind the scenes” by the Government — but he wants to be more careful about how the arrangement is described (don’t make the control explicit) so that embarrassment can be avoided if it ends up being exposed.
In this 2008 paper, then, Sunstein advocated, in essence, exactly what the Obama administration has been doing all year with Gruber: covertly paying people who can be falsely held up as “independent” analysts in order to more credibly promote the Government line. Most Democrats agreed this was a deceitful and dangerous act when Bush did it, but with Obama and some of his supporters, undisclosed arrangements of this sort seem to be different. Why? Because, as Sunstein puts it: we have “a well-motivated government” doing this so that “social welfare is improved.” Thus, just like state secrets, indefinite detention, military commissions and covert, unauthorized wars, what was once deemed so pernicious during the Bush years — coordinated government/media propaganda — is instantaneously transformed into something Good.
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What is most odious and revealing about Sunstein’s worldview is his condescending, self-loving belief that “false conspiracy theories” are largely the province of fringe, ignorant Internet masses and the Muslim world. That, he claims, is where these conspiracy theories thrive most vibrantly, and he focuses on various 9/11 theories — both domestically and in Muslim countries — as his prime example.
It’s certainly true that one can easily find irrational conspiracy theories in those venues, but some of the most destructive “false conspiracy theories” have emanated from the very entity Sunstein wants to endow with covert propaganda power: namely, the U.S. Government itself, along with its elite media defenders. Moreover, “crazy conspiracy theorist” has long been the favorite epithet of those same parties to discredit people trying to expose elite wrongdoing and corruption.
Who is it who relentlessly spread “false conspiracy theories” of Saddam-engineered anthrax attacks and Iraq-created mushroom clouds and a Ba’athist/Al-Qaeda alliance — the most destructive conspiracy theories of the last generation? And who is it who demonized as “conspiracy-mongers” people who warned that the U.S. Government was illegally spying on its citizens, systematically torturing people, attempting to establish permanent bases in the Middle East, or engineering massive bailout plans to transfer extreme wealth to the industries which own the Government? The most chronic and dangerous purveyors of “conspiracy theory” games are the very people Sunstein thinks should be empowered to control our political debates through deceit and government resources: namely, the Government itself and the Enlightened Elite like him.
It is this history of government deceit and wrongdoing that renders Sunstein’s desire to use covert propaganda to “undermine” anti-government speech so repugnant. The reason conspiracy theories resonate so much is precisely that people have learned — rationally — to distrust government actions and statements. Sunstein’s proposed covert propaganda scheme is a perfect illustration of why that is. In other words, people don’t trust the Government and “conspiracy theories” are so pervasive precisely because government is typically filled with people like Cass Sunstein, who think that systematic deceit and government-sponsored manipulation are justified by their own Goodness and Superior Wisdom.
UPDATE: I don’t want to make this primarily about the Gruber scandal — I cited that only as an example of the type of mischief that this mindset produces — but just to respond quickly to the typical Gruber defenses already appearing in comments: (1) Gruber’s work was only for HHS and had nothing to do with the White House (false); (2) he should have disclosed his payments, but the White House did nothing wrong (false: it repeatedly described him as “independent” and “objective” and constantly cited allied media stories based in Gruber’s work); (3) Gruber advocated views he would have advocated anyway in the absence of payment (probably true, but wasn’t that also true for life-long conservative Armstrong Williams, life-long social conservative Maggie Gallagher, and the pro-war Pentagon Generals, all of whom mounted the same defense?); and (4) Williams/Gallagher were explicitly paid to advocate particular views while Gruber wasn’t (true: that’s exactly the arrangement Sunstein advocates to avoid ”embarrassment” in the event of disclosure, and it’s absurd to suggest that someone being paid many hundreds of thousands of dollars is unaware of what their paymasters want said; that’s why disclosure is so imperative).
The point is that there are severe dangers to the Government covertly using its resources to “infiltrate” discussions and to shape political debates using undisclosed and manipulative means. It’s called “covert propaganda” and it should be opposed regardless of who is in control of it or what its policy aims are.
UPDATE II: Ironically, this is the same administration that recently announced a new regulation dictating that “bloggers who review products must disclose any connection with advertisers, including, in most cases, the receipt of free products and whether or not they were paid in any way by advertisers, as occurs frequently.” Without such disclosure, the administration reasoned, the public may not be aware of important hidden incentives (h/t pasquin). Yet the same administration pays an MIT analyst hundreds of thousands of dollars to advocate their most controversial proposed program while they hold him out as “objective,” and selects as their Chief Regulator someone who wants government agents to covertly mold political discussions “anonymously or even with false identities.”
UPDATE III: Just to get a sense for what an extremist Cass Sunstein is (which itself is ironic, given that his paper calls for ”cognitive infiltration of extremist groups,” as the Abstract puts it), marvel at this paragraph:
So Sunstein isn’t calling right now for proposals (1) and (2) — having Government ”ban conspiracy theorizing” or “impose some kind of tax on those who” do it — but he says “each will have a place under imaginable conditions.” I’d love to know the “conditions” under which the government-enforced banning of conspiracy theories or the imposition of taxes on those who advocate them will “have a place.” That would require, at a bare minumum, a repeal of the First Amendment. Anyone who believes this should, for that reason alone, be barred from any meaningful government position.
UPDATE IV: Paul Krugman has replied to the part of this post which pertains to him and Jonathan Gruber; my response to that is here.