Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Thank You for Pressing the Self-Destruct Button

In a story on the Obama administration's attempts to stop information leaks (except for those it commits itself, of course) Democracy Now! quoted a speech President Obama made last month defending his seizure of reporters' phone records:
Leaks related to national security can put people at risk. It can put men and women in uniform that I’ve sent into the battlefield at risk. They can put some of our intelligence officers, who are in various dangerous situations that are easily compromised, at risk. I make no apologies, and I don’t think the American people would expect me, as commander-in-chief, not to be concerned about information that might compromise their missions or might get them killed.
This is getting old.  It's the same rationale Obama and his apologists have waved around every time their malfeasance has been exposed.  So far, there has been no reason to believe that any of these leaks he's working so hard to block have put anyone at risk, but notice that the rhetoric is always conditional: it can put men and women in uniform at risk; Julian Assange potentially has blood on his hands.  As with anyone who cries Wolf, it's possible that sooner or later Obama's dire warning will be vindicated.  But so far, no.

But notice: "as commander-in-chief" Obama (like his presidential predecessors) has made decisions which have not only put American "men and women in uniform" and other operatives at risk, his decisions have gotten them killed (and wounded and maimed) in large numbers.  For no good reason.  Not to mention all the innocent non-Americans who've been killed and wounded and maimed by his decisions.  It's even possible that by exposing and forestalling Obama's attempts to extend the US war in Iraq, Wikileaks saved American lives.  There's much greater danger -- not potential danger, actual danger -- to world peace and human well-being from the US government than from any unauthorized leaks by whistleblowers.

The Democracy Now! story went on to report an internal government program aimed at stopping leaks from within, the Insider Threat Program.
And beyond places like the National Security Agency or the Pentagon, Insider Threat also covers employees in agencies or departments like the Peace Corps, the Social Security Administration, the Departments of Education and Agriculture. As part of the program, staffers at the Department of Agriculture and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have taken an online tutorial called "Treason 101," which instructs them to look out for employees fitting the psychological profile of spies. The Department of Education has told its employees that, quote, "certain life experiences ... might turn a trusted user into an insider threat." These experiences include, quote, "stress, divorce, financial problems" or "frustrations with co-workers or the organization."

In addition to demanding that government workers monitor their colleagues’ behavior, the Insider Threat Program even encourages penalties against those who fail to report what they see. And it regards leaks to the media as a form of espionage. A Pentagon strategy document instructs agency superiors, quote, "Hammer this fact home ... leaking is tantamount to aiding the enemies of the United States." All this leads McClatchy to warn, quote, "The [Insider Threat] program could make it easier for the government to stifle the flow of unclassified and potentially vital information to the public, while creating toxic work environments poisoned by unfounded suspicions and spurious investigations."
I can't help thinking how all that would sound if it were paraphrased by substituting the names of relevant organizations in Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, or Saddam Hussein's Iraq.  As McClatchy warns, this program will surely create "toxic work environments poisoned by unfounded suspicions and spurious investigations."  Thank you for pressing the Self-Destruct Button, Mr. President.

Even funnier (in the worst way) is the reference to "the psychological profile of spies" in the first paragraph I quoted there.  Many employees of the organizations under Insider Threat are hired to be spies; now they and their fellows are being encouraged to spy on each other to root out spies.  And who came up with that psychological profile?  People like Philip Zimbardo, who are very concerned with figuring out why people disobey authority, and why they obey authority.  (I don't assume that Zimbardo had any involvement with this program, understand: but when the government sponsors psychological research, it isn't in order to foster dissidence, civil disobedience, or a critical attitude towards the government.)  The professionals who do such research have no interest in ethics, political ideals and principles, or any other elements of a free society: their job is to come up with ways to support policy, whether it's good or bad.  Psychiatrists and psychologists were deeply involved in the modernization of torture in the US and elsewhere; see Al McCoy's A Question of Torture (Metropolitan Books, 2006), as anthropologists have counseled them on how to win the hearts and minds of locals in Afghanistan and Iraq after we bombed, strafed, and incinerated them and their families.  (Public-relations professionals were hired to try to sell Brand America in the Middle East as we went to war there; they at least had the sense to give up after drawing comfortable paychecks for a while.)  They're probably aware that not bombing, strafing and incinerating people is a necessary though not sufficient approach to winning hearts and minds, but that method isn't on the table.  Whoever built that psychological profile of spies in the Pentagon and the NSA was doing the same kind of work: to prop up a totally corrupt enterprise by getting your employees to adjust to the job, rather than question whether the job is worth doing.