Without fail, secrecy breeds distrust. When you withhold information from other people, who ought to know what you know, you keep a secret. Keeping a secret is a type of lying, and a type of betrayal. Here is a quick comparison between treachery and normal, everyday confidentiality. Not revealing your location in wartime is not dishonest. It is like holding your cards far from your opponents’ eyes during poker. If you cheat at cards – especially when you cheat in order to win money – then you have a secret to keep.
NSA hides a lot of information. Some of it is arguably in the routinely confidential category. Edward Snowden did not reveal routinely confidential information. Snowden revealed secrets. They are secrets because NSA wants to hide the fact that it cheats. In this case, cheating means practicing methods that violate the Constitution. The agency justifies its activities on national security grounds, but anyone can see that it keeps secrets because it breaks the law.
National security agencies such as the CIA and NSA accept popular distrust as a price of doing business. Institutionally, they do not aim for the contempt that results from prolonged, deep, and deserved distrust, but they recognize that people generally don’t trust spies. The agencies do not recognize that secret activities eventually delegitimate the governments they serve. In that sense, they engage in a kind of myopic secrecy. Legitimately, they spy overseas on behalf of a democratic republic. When they undermine the republic’s ground rules by spying on the nation’s own citizens, the republic and its rules become a sham. Moreover, citizens know it’s a sham.
The NSA appears to confuse secret keeping with holding your cards close. It seems to have convinced itself that if you can dream up a national security argument to justify a particular action, the action is okay. The same kind of reasoning goes for the CIA: every illegal act – assassinations, coups, torture and so-called enhanced interrogation techniques, covert but aggressive warfare – becomes permissible. International law gives a you pass if the action you commit is essential to national security. Do what you like, don’t get caught, and let your success speak for itself. That’s how you convince yourself that international law, and the Constitution, do not apply to you.
In retrospect, does anyone outside the national security establishment think the stupid, counter-productive, illegal activities we have undertaken have been worth it? For minor, momentary advantages, these activities create enemies that never go away. The CIA helps to overthrow Mossaddegh in 1953, and decades later, Iranians tell wild stories about the terrible things Americans have done, and still do. Did you hear Ronald Reagan took his children to the desert to sacrifice them? The children’s nurse stopped him just in time. No conspiracy theory that blames the Great Satan is too fantastic to be believed, because the grandfather of all conspiracies, the overthrow of their elected leader, was true.
National security competition only recognizes winners and losers, not right and wrong. The saying goes, “If you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’.” Cheating and underhanded behavior is forgiven quickly enough, so long as you do not lose. Winning comes before integrity and legality when you are in the national security business. If you have to break the law to win, so be it. If you win, no one on the winning side will care. If you lose, well, whoever charged a loser with cheating?
Suppose a national security agency does not release information it ought to release, even as it makes a show of following procedures. Would that save the agency’s – and the republic’s – reputation? Of course not. Citizens recognize a show when they see one. Concealing information that ought to be public opens the agency to charges of dishonesty and betrayal, even if it wraps itself in its standard procedures. If the agency keep secrets, people correctly think it has something to hide. By contrast, if a submarine commander conceals the boat’s position, or an army general deceives the enemy about the time and location of a major attack, people understand. That’s how you deal with information during wartime.
If, however, a government agency conceals its behavior from citizens who fund it and oversee it, they will trust the agency or its representatives no more than any other group that practices dishonesty against its benefactors, or breaks the law to secure its interests. That is to say, they will treat it as a type of organized crime: practiced in a bureaucratic setting, funded with tax money, and populated with civil servants who would never regard themselves or their colleagues as criminals.
To close, note that public documents in Snowden’s files deal not with national security per se. They deal with illegal collection methods and surveillance systems in the NSA. The law specifies what the agency can do, and what it cannot do. As a typical, self-serving government agency, NSA pretends to comply. When one employee uncovers and publicizes the pretense, it brands him a spy. Imagine if NSA had made Snowden employee of the month instead. Imagine if it had thanked him for reminding everyone about the limits of NSA’s mission.
Recognizing Snowden for his courageous act would certainly have restored legitimacy to the U. S. government faster than anything else it can do. Imagine seeing the president present Snowden with a medal and a certificate in the Rose Garden. Snowden handed the national security establishment a big public relations opportunity, but the establishment passed on it. The myopia permeates the bureaucracies halls and offices from top to bottom. As as result, people inside the establishment’s aquarium do not see issues the same way as viewers outside the aquarium.
You see a similar drive – and blindness – in the CIA’s concealment and justification of torture. Revealing its plans, the intelligence agency asked the Department of Justice to reinterpret the law that governs torture of prisoners, then tried to conceal the actual activity. The leaders of both agencies – NSA and CIA – act as if they need not answer to anyone. In fact, they do not answer to anyone. When citizens perceive that government agencies operate with no checks, they also perceive that government itself has become illegitimate. The aquarium stinks so badly, the rest of the room becomes unlivable.