What happens to people who reveal classified information

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Fiona Hill and other foreign policy professionals tell us to believe, and or disbelieve stories based on whether evidence exists for a particular narrative. Why should we believe Ukraine’s government, rather than Russia’s, meddled in the 2016 election? Hill and others implore us to form our beliefs about governments of Ukraine, Russia, the United States, or any other government based on evidence. They say, explicitly, do not base your beliefs on conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theorists, by implication, do not care about evidence. That is what they say.

I came of age in Des Moines, Iowa, a little over an hour north of the Show Me state. Do you know how Missouri earned that nickname? Congressman Willard Vandiver issued this challenge in 1899:

I come from a state that raises corn and cotton and cockleburs and Democrats, and frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me. I am from Missouri. You have got to show me.

Interestingly, United States foreign policy and intelligence professionals do not want to bother with that. They expect their say-so to convince and satisfy us. Yet the government they represent has no more claim on our trust than Russia’s government, or Ukraine’s government, or any other government. The larger the government, the more it engages in secret activity. The more it acts in secret, the less we ought to trust it.

Yet national security professionals, individuals of experience and integrity who practice honesty in their personal affairs, want us to believe them as representatives of a secret national security apparatus. In that capacity, we have no reason to believe them at all. Why? Because they present no evidence for anything they say. They cannot do so, because, at their discretion, they hold it secret. That means they classify it.

With no evidence, I have no more reason to believe Vladimir Putin than I do Fiona Hill, no matter that Hill impresses me as a person of integrity, and Putin does not. Individual impressions do not matter when we talk about actions governments undertake in secret. Evidence matters – evidence that the U. S. government declines to reveal.

Do you know why apparatchiks so often employ the locution, ‘There is no evidence that…’?

Do you know why apparatchiks so often employ the locution, “There is no evidence that…”? They do so for three reasons: (1) it sounds convincing; (2) they do not want to deal with actual evidence; (3) they know their organization can keep information secret until people forget about the question. If a trial attorney attempts a locution like that to convince a jury, jury members would think, “Then why consider this case in the first place?” Thus trial attorneys develop alternate narratives, based on other interpretations of all the evidence. They never wave the whole question away with a claim that no evidence exists. The whole courtroom would wonder where that attorney went to law school.

Government officials almost never appeal to actual evidence. Evidence is classified. Therefore, they need not interpret or persuade or show you anything. How can you interpret something that, in practice, does not exist? How can they show you records hidden in secret vaults? Officials want to persuade you, but for that they have only their government’s reputation for trustworthiness. Yet in practice, that reputation does not exist. We have no reason to believe our government’s claims, merely because it is our goverment. To believe what government officials say, we would need access to our government’s records.

You might say, “That sounds disloyal. Our democracy is built on trust. If we cannot believe our leaders, who can we believe?” I would say the opposite. Our democracy grounds itself on distrust. The founders wrote our Constitution to limit the mischief powerful, dishonest people and institutions inflict on citizens who cannot constantly monitor  people who supposedly act on their behalf. If we begin to trust these people and the institutions they inhabit, if we begin to grant government latitude to act in secret, we are done with democracy.

Government officials almost never appeal to actual evidence.

Will we ever learn everything that happened in the 2016 election? Evidence and connections often reveal themselves over time. We have learned, though, that time matters more than we think. Crimes the national security state undertook on its own behalf in the 1950s and 1960s did not become apparent, or settle into our consciousness, in time to save our republic. Similarly, evidence of malfeasance in 2016 may not enter our consciousness in time to allay future fears and suspicions, or repair past damage. Thus government officials try to stir residual anxiety about Russian plans for our 2020 election, when they do not bother to tell us what they know about 2016.

They cannot construct a narrative about 2016 not only because they hold essential information classified, but also because the story would be far too embarrassing for the FBI. The FBI’s reputation already suffers for numerous reasons. The bureau’s actions form an integral part of what happened in 2016, yet it will never voluntarily reveal its role in the way that election unfolded. It gladly lets us forget details, turning points, motives, characters, institutional actors, chronology, interactions, documents, and all other elements that make the story both disturbing, and essential reading for everyone.

Most of us remember thinking, as we followed events of 2016, ‘This story is wild.’

Most of us remember thinking, as we followed events of 2016, “This story is wild.” If you think it was not wild, listen to one of our foremost conspiracy theorists, Hillary Clinton. Clinton’s pronouncements about what happened in 2016 make Trump’s pronouncements seem relatively harmless. Without public evidence, participants and non-participants alike can propagate their favorite theories. Theories do not count as narratives. Theories need evidence, but they also need to knit evidence together in a story that convinces listeners. No one has bothered to press for release of necessary information, evidence that government agencies should not hold secret. Information related to an election ought to be public, period.

Yet Trump, FBI, Clinton, CIA, Obama, Department of State, Hill, National Security Council, Comey, NSA, Schiff, congressional intelligence committees, Pompeo, Federal Election Commission, Haspel, Republican National Committee, Taylor, Democratic National Committee, Nunes, Justice Department, Mueller committee: the whole crew of people who deal in classified and confidential information also deal in evidence-free claims. They have to. Edward Snowden exiled in Moscow, Julian Assange jailed in London, and Chelsea Manning jailed in Virginia remind all of us every day what happens to people who reveal classified information.