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.


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.


Anonymous said...

As usual, very interesting blog with much food for thought.
I think Phelps should retain you as his attorney and PR rep.

Jenn Nixon said...

I feel bad for Phelps too. Unfortunately, they pulled the "charges" scare on him because of the college campus thing. Shame. Pharmaceuticals have done more damage to people in this country than pot ever could.

Joshua James said...

They're even worse about weed in Japan, four Sumo wrestlers just got kicked out of the sport for toking up. It's ridiculous, really.

James Goetz said...

Hi Barry,

On one hand, I have my doubts about conspiracy in regards to the UK judges making accusation against the Obama administration because I cannot fathom any motive for the Obama administration to cover up mistakes that can be blamed on Republicans. On the other hand, my inability to fathom a motive doesn't mean there is no Obama conspiracy to kick off his administration. Do you have any ideas about a possible motive for a conspiracy?

Concerning Phelps, your commentary assumes that Phelps frequently smoked marijuana during his Olympic training. I doubt that happened while I guess he told the truth. I'm not claiming that I have no shadow of a doubt about his claim, but investigation is needed to assert otherwise. And if he didn't tell the whole truth, it wouldn't necessarily mean that he smoked during his Olympic training. Anyway, regardless of the number of world's best athletes who smoke anything during their training or off season, medical research clearly indicates that both firsthand smoke and secondhand smoke of various substances compromise lung capacity while lung capacity is important for athletic competition. And I know in my case, smoking tobacco and marijuana with who knows what additives worsened my struggle with chronic cases of bronchitis and strep throat. And I suffered my worse back injury after jumping into harsh training quickly after a long downtime from bronchitis and strep throat.



Anonymous said...

Here's what I find unsettling: They (Kellogg) dropped him for the marijuana thing, but it was evidently okay with them - since they signed him in the first place - that he'd previously been arrested for drunk driving.

Granted, marijuana use is illegal, but I would think that someone drunk at the wheel of a car could cause a heck of a lot more damage, particularly to innocent bystanders. That doesn't seem to have bothered Kellogg, though. Hmmm.

Tia Hu said...

Barry wrote: "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)."

Barry and all, I do not see how any observing, educated, and thinking individuals could not be somewhat cynical about human nature, motives, and resultant actions.

The problem I see though is that even the wished for checks and balances in U.S. Congress, the rest of government, and in our country in general have pretty much broken down into this profound polarized division of supposed ideologies that renders Congress and our nation as grossly ineffective at best at this point, and horribly destructive to many. (ok, that was a really long sentence, lol; but I think you can decipher it).

I haven't any doubt at all that there are already lies, misrepresentations, and manipulations occurring in the Obama administration. I couldn't care less about the accusations that were leveled against him all through the campaign. Most of that stuff didn't even matter at all. It is what is truly going on behind the scenes that worries me. He promised big changes toward new honesty and effectiveness in government, and then lined up an almost exclusively Clintonian administration. Where are the changes in that?

Unfortunately, this misuse of power in the U.S., and even in conjunction with other nations and world leaders, is a long honored tradition in our country and on this planet. This power has always been used under the guise of supposed national or empire securities, in supposedly protecting the people of various countries, or even for supposed religious reasons. Behind these claims from the governments of countries in this world has always existed the tangled webs of constant cover ups. These covers existing for the illegal and very harmful deals brokered behind doors closed to public scrutiny, and actions taken to always favor the super-wealthy in this world. I'm not just talking about somewhat wealthy, lol. I'm talking about those whose families have the true long standing power to actually control wealth, governments, the socioeconomics of this world, and even broker wars to their own profiteering. This is not a conspiracy theory. It's just called the history of civilization as it has always been. And now it has taken on proportions unfortunately fitting our enormously bloated human population in this world. The wealth of this world is centered in and controlled by only about 3% of the global population of now over 6.680 billion people.

At this point, I find myself actually 'hoping' for a dire global environmental crisis where the Earth itself turns current human civilization and governments upside down, and puts them in their place of knowing once and for all that humans are just one tiny and very preditory species on this planet. And so we will finally 'get it' that this perceived power of humanity is just an illusion of over inflated egoes living without true conscience. It would be terrible to go through that climate and environmental crises, which we really are already entering. But at least it would cut back on our own species enough to make us by necessity need to live in better harmony with the Earth and other life on this planet again. And we would by necessity need to work together again within our own species to even survive and thrive.

Life finds a way. And humanity in general has been making way too many mistakes in choosing corruption, death, and destruction over life for far too long. We have allowed ourselves to become a rapidly spreading 'preditory virus' to our own planetary ecosystem. And the speed of that growth and spreading has more than tripled in just the last 100 years. We are causing our own species extinction because of our lack of foresight and self-absorption. And we apparently feel 'entitled' to take as many other living species on this planet with us into a rather pathetic good night. I hope that those who do survive all of this go on to live with more intelligence and conscience. Rest assured that this planet, and life on this planet in general, are perfectly capable of surviving humanity and going on without us. It is we who must change to survive. ~Tia

Anonymous said...

Hi Barry its Alan Premel i am so glad to hear that youve transitioned from company and into other success both in the legal fields and into literary fields. Youre steps and years ahead of me as i am also about to venture down this path. I just got into a new work position as President and with my mothers cancer i do not have the time right now to get into them but i will as soon as i can.

I'll see you soon when your tour comes through Houston. It'll be great. I'll see what Pavitt's doing, if he's in town and can come. Really proud to hear that youve made it. I was expecting just one book and here you have tons written, thats awesome. Congrats!

Interstellar Bill said...

You wrote 'oxytocin', which is a hormone related to pleasure, when you obviously meant the drug 'oxycontin',

Anonymous said...

Before I got to the punchline of your bit of Lexus miscellany, I was HOPING that's where you were headed. Very funny.

pulp said...

Phelps could have said that, but he's a jock. Sure, some athletes are intelligent, but most people have just one gift; it's no surprise that a young, politically unaware guy like Phelps can swim like heck but is not a deep thinker or articulate.

Jan said...

"Here's what I find unsettling: They (Kellogg) dropped him for the marijuana thing, but it was evidently okay with them - since they signed him in the first place - that he'd previously been arrested for drunk driving."

I did not know that. It's typical of our society's insane values--and of what gets reported in mainstream news and what's suppressed.

James Goetz said...

Hey Barry,

How are you doing?

I never would have suspected to see long-term research indicate that moderate marijuana smoking causes no significant harm to lung functions, while research clearly indicates that moderate tobacco smoking causes major problems to lung functions. But such research hit the news yesterday. Or was that today? Or was that last week? : -) Anyway, I still would not encourage Phelps to become the poster child for the legalization of recreational marijuana smoking.

In my case, smoking marijuana clearly worsened my teenage bouts with bronchitis, which messed with my athletic training. But I cannot claim that to know that moderate marijuana smoking typically messes with athletic ability, as is the clear case with tobacco smoking. However, we are still unsure how this recent research applies to athletes in training.