Are you a kook? Wear the title with honor. Have you ever heard of a truth teller not regarded as odd, or a threat, or someone – as we say more politely – a bit out of the mainstream?
I wanted to write today about something I thought as I was half asleep one morning. Don’t you often have your best thoughts when you are dreaming, or half awake? Then you try to formulate them in the full light of day, and it doesn’t come out right. It’s the same when you have beautiful music in your head, but you can’t sing it. My daughter’s eighth-grade English teacher compared written language to music. I thought, that’s right. We want to make our words beautiful, profound, light, sober, as moving as we can. Or, we can make music just for the joy of it.
Rumi said, “Start a huge, foolish project, like Noah. It makes absolutely no difference what people think of you.”
Now that we’re warmed up, let’s consider thoughts that seemed clear as I reached consciousness a few mornings ago. The night before, right around election day, I read some comments on the software we use to record and count votes. A couple of analysts said the software they assessed is terrible. It is poorly constructed and easy to tamper with. Therefore you can’t have confidence in the results it gives you. One analyst said that the only way to make the software trustworthy is to make it open source. So long as it is proprietary, current problems will persist.
At first that doesn’t seem exactly right. Why would making software open source make it more secure? After all, open source is accessible to everyone. Then you realize that security and transparency are not the same thing. No one has said Linux is insecure because it is open source. No one has ever praised Microsoft’s browser or operating system as especially secure because they are proprietary. Security and transparency are not contradictory attributes.
The developers who created Linux had good reasons to build security into their product from the start. Otherwise people simply would not use it. Microsoft’s developers, given the company’s position in the market, did not have much reason to improve their product’s security until customers began to complain about it. Even then, it took years to see improvements. Even after all that, which software do you trust more: Microsoft or Linux?
Now for the interesting thought: why can’t we apply this insight to national security? Why do we think that transparency compromises security in this field? Can’t we conduct foreign policy as an open source affair, and have better security as a result, not worse?
At the highest level of policy and interaction, transparency creates trust, and opacity creates distrust. People who distrust you become your enemies, whereas people who trust you become your friends. The more enemies you have, the more insecure you become. The more friends you have, the more you can rest secure. A reasonable foreign policy will cultivate friends and minimize enemies. Friendly relations with other countries enhances confidence, security, and safety.
No, no, no you say, if you’re an old foreign policy hand. We don’t have friends, we have only interests. Everyone is a potential adversary: rivalry and enmity come with competition, and the wide world is nothing if not an arena for competitive activity. Let’s be realistic about the use of our power, and about the reasons for our success. Success comes with secrecy, because knowledge is power. When we hold key knowledge close, we will always have an advantage.
That’s the thinking that gives you browsers that infect your systems with malware, or vote-counting software susceptible to fraud. That kind of thinking gives you assassinations, false flag attacks, coups, and propaganda. If people can’t see inside, all manner of corruption ensues. In fact, it doesn’t even matter if actual corruption exists. If people can’t see inside, they can’t tell whether corruption exists or not. Given past behavior of power holders, people can assume safely that it does exist. Power holders do not receive benefit of the doubt here.
So now we come to the matter of intelligence sources and methods. The Central Intelligence Agency says it cannot disclose any information that would reveal intelligence sources and methods. That covers just about everything. With this argument, it keeps its budget secret, as well as everything else it does. Interestingly, similar arguments now apply to everything the government does, not only its intelligence agencies. If you ask government for information about its activities, it has multiple reasons not to reveal the truth about what it does. It adapts arguments about the need for secrecy to any situation.
Now ask yourself why government would do that. A nut job conspiracy theorist would say that it keeps information secret because it has something to hide. Lots of reasons exist for hiding information. Having something to hide is one of them. No matter what the reason, the consequence of keeping secrets is always the same: loss of trust. You can count on it, whether the secrets hide actual corruption or not.
Ask yourself as well whether keeping secrets makes us more or less secure. This question has two forms. One is whether government’s opacity in foreign and domestic affairs makes us feel more or less safe. Perhaps we can only try for perceptions of security, where actual safety ebbs and flows depending on current circumstances, fortune, and plans we make for ourselves and each other. Second is whether government secrecy actually results in more safety for the people it claims to protect. Here history’s judgment unequivocally comes down for transparency. Secrecy hides corruption, folly and incompetence, both ordinary and extraordinary, with nothing from outside to correct these human shortcomings. Secrecy is the hidden worm that brings down the edifice.
So if you distrust the claims of government when it keeps secrets, and people call you a kook or a nut job as a result, wear the title with pride. You have several millennia of human history on your side. The name caller, who likes to imply that you are delusional, weakly appeals to conformity, normalcy, and your desire not to be ostracized. At bottom is a desire we often have to overlook the unpleasant. I tell you, the prophet would say: truth is not normal, it is pleasant only occasionally, and it almost never conforms to what you expect.
Originally published November 13, 2012. Images added February 2, 2013.