"Close approximation of evil": Why Cheney's post-9/11 state should worry us all

Lawyer and Harper's editor Scott Horton tells Salon how government secrets really threaten our democracy

By Elias Isquith
Published February 6, 2015 1:30PM (EST)
  (AP/Ron Edmonds)
(AP/Ron Edmonds)

History is sometimes bitterly ironic. (One of the last things President John F. Kennedy heard before he was murdered was the wife of then-Gov. John Connally saying, “Mr. President, you can’t say Dallas doesn’t love you,” for example.) And when future Americans look back on this era, it’s likely that they’ll be struck by one irony in particular: The growth of the national security state and the proliferation of national security secrets is one of the major stories of our time — but by its very nature has for the most part transpired without our noticing. And like what is probably the biggest story of the day, climate change, it’s doubtful that we’ll be able to notice the secrecy tipping point until we’ve long passed it.

That, in part, is the subject of “Lords of Secrecy: The National Security Elite and America's Stealth Warfare,” the new book from lawyer, writer and Harper’s magazine contributing editor Scott Horton, who’s been doggedly covering the rise of the U.S. national security state — and the accompanying decline of U.S. democracy — for most of the past 15 years. Recently, Salon spoke with Horton over the phone about his book, the power of secrecy, the dangers of bureaucracy, and why a German sociologist who died nearly 100 years ago saw all of this coming. Our conversation is below and has been edited for clarity and length.

To begin, I’d like to ask you about the motivation behind writing this book. There’s been an increasing focus on the national security state lately, a lot of good work from good journalists and policy experts and intellectuals. But was there an element to the story that you felt wasn’t quite being told yet — or at least not in as much depth as you wanted?

That’s absolutely the case. I sat and looked back at a number of high-profile, important national security issues that have arisen in the course of the last 10 or 15 years — drones, attack on whistle-blowers, the way we were going to war in case after case, the media management that was going on, etc. — I saw the theme of secrecy really floating through all of that and dictating the conduct of the government in a way that I thought really was not being fully appreciated, even by many of the most expert national security writers. So I thought it really had to be developed.

Also, if you just look at how the issue of secrecy comes up here in the press, we hear these threatening, menacing statements from senior press spokesmen for the Department of Defense and the CIA and other agencies about what a dire threat is presented to the security of every American and every uniformed soldier on the battlefield as a result of any breach of secrecy [by whistle-blowers to the press]. That’s presented very, very aggressively, dramatically … but you never hear any discussion of what’s the downside of all these claims of secrecy. In fact, that’s almost uniformly given a value of zero, which then permits the sweeping mistakes in favor of secrecy all the time. It just seemed to me that’s obviously not correct.

Where do you think that mistake is coming from? Is it philosophical? Intellectual? Political?

The failing starts with a very basic appreciation of what it means to have democracy. The theory of our democratic society has always been information freedoms. We’re a knowledge-based democracy. If you take away knowledge and information you start eroding the foundation of the democracy. … The absolute core area for decision making in democratic societies, from the beginning, has always been national security matters: whether you’re going to war, committing troops, or [engaging in] hostilities with another nation. That’s the essence of democratic franchise. The people have to be involved in that. I see us drifting far away from our historical understanding of democracy — and secrecy is the reason.

So what is secrecy, as it’s defined in the book? Why is it so powerful and dangerous to a democracy?

I’m a firm believer that political science and sociology have a lot to say about this. There is an enormous literature that provides us key insights that are absolutely true and that have been clearly validated by things that have happened in the last 15 years. So my key mission in this book was to prove Max Weber knew what he was talking about. Everything he said was going to happen has happened. The remedies to it are actually even more serious that he ever contemplated, and we’re in a very difficult position.

So, for those who don’t know, what were Weber’s thoughts on secrecy?

It really starts with a global study of bureaucracy and how bureaucracies behave.

What he and other prominent sociologists found — and this is about a hundred years ago, roughly — was that bureaucracies love secrecy. They use secrecy in some completely predictable ways. They’ll use it for entirely appropriate purposes; to maintain military secrets or diplomatic secrets or private or confidential information of individual citizens, yes. But then they will use it in all sorts of completely inappropriate ways, and largely this has to do with the natural striving of a bureaucracy to get more money, to increase staff levels, to have a greater say on key issues in society, and to have the upper-hand in inter-bureaucratic struggles with other bureaucracies.

One of the things that was established very early on was that bureaucracies that have the right to make secrets come out on top of bureaucracies that don’t have that right every single time. And why is that? They put a secret stamp on their assessments and their recommendations and nobody can criticize them — except people who have access to that information. So it’s a great way to go forward. One of the consequences of that is it creates, ultimately, a government that is dumber, less competent, more inclined to be corrupt and even criminal from time to time, because it creates a matrix in which all of those things thrive.

So in the beginning of the book, you focus on the recent contretemps between the CIA and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SCCI) over the so-called torture report, which I thought was a great way to see how these issues play out in the real world. Can you tell me a bit more about why that episode was so revealing?

I think one of the great breakthroughs with the SSCI report is the story of the making of the report, rather than the content of the report itself, because what we see going on in the background are things that happen in the background in Washington all the time but which are rarely known by the public.

In this case, it was a direct clash between an intelligence agency and its oversight body. If you go back to the sociologists like Weber, he said this is going to be the great challenge of a democratic society — that is, how you deal with national security bureaucracies that effectively use the tool of secrecy. Because at the end of the day, they’ll start using it against the democratic institutions — that is, … the Congress; the oversight institutions — it’ll use it to achieve a priority position in terms of power over them. And you can’t have that in a democratic society…

The test is, does the democratic society master the tools, techniques, and put together the resolve to cope with them? If it doesn’t, it will wind up not being a democracy ... And I think this confrontation between the CIA and Sen. Dianne Feinstein just shows that perfectly. In the end, she said this is a question of Constitutional prerogative— and she’s absolutely right. It’s the entity being overseen challenging its overseer. It was a direct conflict.

Obviously, there’s been a lot of disappointment with President Obama on the part of people who are concerned about the national security state. Would you say the issue of secrecy has gotten worse, better or about the same during his tenure so far?

I think what we’ve seen is a steady ratcheting up of the problem. And it doesn’t really seem to matter whether we have Republicans or Democrats in office; it is a self-directing machine. The bureaucracy is there and is populated by more or less the same people, regardless of who’s sitting in the White House. I think it would take a very strong effort by a determined president to push back and to really reign it in effectively.

I’ll give you an example: The secrecy commission that Moynihan chaired, which produced a brilliant report ... It made very strong recommendations for pushing back [on secrecy] … What happens within two years of this change, which was the most audacious attempt to pull back on secrecy in American history? We have an explosion in the number of secrets! It was, effectively, senior figures in the CIA and the Department of Defense pushing back against a legislatively and regulatorily imposed reform effort ... Their power rested in their ability to create secrets; they were not going to give that up willingly. And until you create a regime that creates powerful negative incentives for the false creation of secrets, this is not going to be brought into check.

So let’s finish with that big question — how do we create new incentives that’ll help manage this problem? Since, as Weber noted, the dangerous mixture of secrecy and bureaucracy is not really the kind of thing that can be definitively solved so much as adequately managed, how do we keep it under control?

To start with, the answer is not to have no secrets — because you have to have secrets. The answer is to have a more appropriate balance between secrecy, privacy and publicity, the sort of three elements of this triangle. Right now, the triangle is tilted very heavily in favor of government-created secrets. What we have to do is come up with approaches that put [the triangle] upright.

That is going to include some changes to the regulatory regime which force people, before they classify a document, certify that they actually thought through all the criteria that apply and they know that, in the case of doubt, they’re not supposed to classify documents … [and that] they’ve got to think this through every time. That creates positive incentives for people to challenge classifications and undo classifications when they’re inappropriate. Most people can get awards or bonuses for doing it, [or risk] negative career reviews for people who inappropriately create secrets.

Then I think we come to the major points that can really check the system, and those have been identified for a long time under several different rubrics: it’s Congress, it’s the courts, it’s the press, and it’s whistle-blowers. Weber thought everything turned on Congress, that a parliament should basically be doing the same thing that Sen. Dianne Feinstein did — but multiple times a year ... If Congress were to do that in real time, that would be a very effective check on abusive secrecy. But even the Feinstein report (which is the best such report ever prepared) is an historical document; it was not done in real time. In fact it documents the fact that [Congress] didn’t do real time oversight.

So what about the courts and the press and whistle-blowers?

Courts are basically supine. They will not challenge government claims of secrecy. That’s in part because the law doesn’t give them sufficient latitude to perform an appropriate judicial role. Then we get the press. I think the press has been the engine that’s driven public understanding of these issues in the past … But the press only works with whistle-blowers, so they have to have whistle-blowers. I think that’s the reason why we now see the national security establishment doing everything in its power to clamp down on whistle-blowers. We see this is incredible number of prosecutions ... It’s just an extraordinary state of fear that’s being created now to chill this flow of information.

I think the answer is 100 Edward Snowdens, or people thinking like him. And, I would say, there most certainly are 100 Snowdens or people thinking like him [in the national security establishment], because I’ve interviewed a very large number of people, both in the CIA and NSA, who think that the surveillance state that is being created is a close approximation of evil. There are a lot of people willing to do something to undermine its excesses. They’re also loyal to their institutions and to their country, but they’re very troubled at the overreach of power, particularly as it affects American citizens. So this is the most likely channel for holding the beast in check.

Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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