"We nonviolently oppose the reliance on unilateral military actions rather than cooperative diplomacy."


June 7, 2012

The last days of May 2012 saw two major revelations by the New York Times about the way we live now, to borrow the title of Anthony Trollope's satirical novel.  Trollope was satirizing 19th-century greed; in the early 21st century that seems quaint.  What strikes us in 2012 about the way we live now is the part pervasive secrecy is playing.

Last week's revelations by the Times were extraordinary.  On Tuesday, we learned that Barack Obama has been personally reviewing secret "kill lists" and personally chooses the victims of the secret U.S. drone war that our nation does not officially acknowledge (even while administration officials regularly tout its accomplishments in off-the-record briefings to reporters).  Then, on Friday, we learned that the aggressive Stuxnet virus that damaged Iran's nuclear program was the fruit of an American-Israeli secret cyberwar campaign that Obama decided to ramp up as soon as he took office.

Not just the government's acts, but even its reasoning seems to be a state secret.  The administration has refused to make public its rationale for killing several American citizens without any judicial process by classifying the Dept. of Justice memorandum justifying the attack.  According to the Times, this involves the claim that secret deliberations within the executive branch are adequate to constitute due process under the Fifth Amendment.

In another extraordinary development, last year the U.S. Congress passed with bipartisan support and President Obama signed into law a provision (the National Defense Authorization Act, §1021(b) (2)) that empowers the government to hold American citizens in indefinite detention without charges for the duration of the "war on terror."  None of the parties involved have offered a plausible explanation of what could justify such an extreme measure.

Pierce County's Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA 9th) deserves credit for proposing an amendment that would have overturned this provision.  But why is he a co-sponsor of a bill (H.R.5736—Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2012) to overturn what has long been widely perceived to be a barrier to the U.S. Government engaging in secret propaganda directed at a U.S. domestic audience?  This would allow the government to ramp up Orwellian practices at home that it has long employed freely abroad, like secretly creating and planting false or misleading stories in media, engaging in disinformation, discrediting dissenters, etc.

Meanwhile, in the elaborate and secretive proceedings against Pvt. 1st Class Bradley Manning, the accused has been charged with "aiding the enemy," a capital offense, for leaking information to WikiLeaks in order to make it available to the public.  This is, frankly, absurd—unless, of course, it is the public that is the enemy.

In the international crisis over the conflict in Syria, Americans are unable to judge to what extent the regime in Syria is ruthlessly suppressing human rights, and to what extent it is responding to the secret proxy war to overthrow the Bashar al-Assad in which the U.S. is a major player.

Other forms of secrecy are spreading in civil society.  Thanks to the 2010 Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United, wealthy individuals and private corporations can secretly spend unlimited amounts to influence public elections.  Combined with sophisticated polling, the electoral system that is emerging as a result is one that makes a mockery of democracy, as the failure of an effort to recall Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker demonstrated on June 5.  And last year Top Secret America, a new book by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Dana Priest and national security expert William Arkin, described "a largely invisible parallel universe of more than 1,300 federal agencies, nearly 2,000 private companies, and 854,000 people doing 'top secret' work," in the words of the Los Angeles Times.

Barack Obama campaigned on transparency:  "I can promise you this:  I will always tell you what I think and where I stand," he said in New Hampshire on Sept. 3, 2007.  And at first he made promises of open government.  But actions speak louder than words, and since he was inaugurated the U.S. government has prosecuted six public employees under the Espionage Act (Jeffrey Alexander Sterling, Thomas Andrews Drake, Shamai K. Leibowitz, Stephen Jin-Woo Kim, Bradley Manning, and John Kiriakou), twice the number of prosecutions brought between 1945 and 2008.  It is possible that Julian Assange has been secretly indicted under the Espionage Act as well—but this, too, is secret.

There are obviously situations and aspects of government in which secrecy is demanded.  But pervasive secrecy will make democracy untenable in the long run.  Pervasive secrecy means that the American public is unable to evaluate properly the behavior of nations and groups that the U.S. regards as adversaries or enemies.  Their overtly hostile acts, which are usually presented as "aggressive," are often defensive in nature.  And all too often, the U.S. government is going so far as to consider the efforts of American citizens to maintain open government to be hostile acts as well.


"We nonviolently oppose the reliance on unilateral military actions rather than cooperative diplomacy."