Barry Eisler

Friday, February 06, 2009

Secrecy and Lies

Since Wednesday, I've been following the story of how the United States has apparently threatened to stop sharing intelligence with Britain should a British court release details of the torture of British resident Binyam Mohamed by American guards at Guantanamo Bay prison.

I tend to hold a relatively cynical view of human nature (which is why I'm big on the US system of checks and balances -- I don't trust those in power to check themselves). So when I immediately sensed that the USG made its threat not in the interests of national security, but rather to cover up evidence of war crimes, I had to acknowledge that perhaps my take was at least in part the result of my own biases.

And then I read an article by Garry Wills in the February 12 New York Review of Books called "Why the Government Can Legally Lie." You'll need a subscription to read the online version, but in summary, when a B-29 crashed in 1948, the widows of the crash victims sued the Air Force for compensation. The Air Force cited the imperative of national security in refusing to share information about the plane's maintenance and related matters relevant to the causes of the crash. Eventually, the Supreme Court, reversing two lower court opinions, sided with the government, and the crash information stayed secret in accordance with the government's claim that its release would harm national security.

Then, in 1996, the Air Force records were declassified, and the 220-page Air Force report, including fifteen photos of the wreckage, was finally available to the public. As Wills writes, "[Relatives of the crash victims] read the report carefully, looking for details of any secret project the plane was involved in. There were none. Instead, the report told a horror story of incompetence, bungling, and tragic error," which Wills goes on to enumerate in horrifying detail. But the Supreme Court case that found for the Air Force and against the widows, US v. Reynolds, is still valid, and has been used by the government repeatedly to withhold evidence.

Does the government's previous cover-up prove that its national security claims in the current imbroglio with Britain are without merit? No. But certainly the previous case is powerful evidence of a reflex among those in power to confuse their national security prerogatives with the imperatives of their individual reputations, to claim non-existent interests of the nation in pursuit of personal desires.

Moreover, it's hard to imagine what legitimate national security interests could be at stake in the Binyam Mohamed case. The British court seeks to publicize its own summary of Mohamed's treatment while in captivity. So many books and articles have been written on the way the United States captured, held, and treated war on terror prisoners, so many television programs and documentary films have been made, it strains credulity to suggest the British court has some previously uncovered nugget of information the revelation of which might harm US national security. It seems much more likely that the real concern is that the British court's summary was based on documents provided by US officials, and that unlike reports by third parties, those underlying documents might function as confessions in a potential war crimes trial.

We all have our biases. But the ability to ignore the history of the government's abuse of its secrecy power in the Reynolds case, and the willingness to overlook the absence of a compelling rationale for government secrecy claims in the Mohamed case, suggests a mindset possessed of a powerful internal need to believe in authority, a mindset that exists not just independent of, but also in contradiction to, the available facts.

Miscellaneous:

From a Lexus ad on Salon's home page:

"Realistically, what is your ultimate vision for this country as it relates to sustainable mobility? Tell us what you think for a chance at a cash prize."

I think the prize should go to person who responds, "I think you should find a way to ask your question -- whatever it is -- in plain English."

What's with the recorded greetings in drug stores and gas stations? The muzak is bad enough, but now when a motion sensor detects your presence, a television screen starts blaring advertisements (loudly enough to be audible to even the most significantly hearing-impaired, naturally). The Shell screens are the worst: the recorded video actually shouts, "Good to see you today!"

Deep thought: how many millions did Shell fork over to the consulting geniuses who persuaded the company that customers could be won over by a motion-activated video of a guy claiming it's "good to see" people who when he was talking to the camera weren't even there and who he'll never actually meet?

Michael Phelps' bong hits: You might have seen that Michael Phelps, who won eight gold medals in as many swimming events at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, was photographed recently doing bong hits. Phelps apologized, but at least one of his corporate sponsors, Kellogg, dropped him anyway. I feel a little bad for the guy. Not because he got caught using marijuana, not because he's losing millions of dollars of corporate sponsorship as a result, but because it seems his focus on trying to keep the money blinded him to something more important.

Instead of apologizing, Phelps could have said, "Yes, I used marijuana. I like to get high from time to time and obviously my choice of drug hasn't inhibited my discipline or prevented my success. I'm 23, more than old enough to drink, to drive, to kill and die in war. For some reason, the country's establishment has decided to permit alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, and oxytocin, while prohibiting cannabis. Well, I don't share the establishment's hypocrisy. Rather than hypocritically condemning my choice of drug while enjoying their own, the establishment might consider the costs of its smug insistence on continued prohibition: the diversion of precious judicial, security, intelligence, military, and border control assets from the war on terror, and the undermining of democratically-elected governments throughout Latin American and elsewhere. If publicity surrounding my occasional recreational use of this relatively harmless drug does anything to bring America to its senses about drug prohibition, I will be very glad."

Instead, Phelps kow-towed, no doubt hoping to keep his lucrative sponsorships. If others beside Kellogg now desert him, the swimmer will have lost not just his sponsors, but his integrity, as well.
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