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Secrecy, Surveillance, and Misinformation: Lessons From Daniel Patrick Moynihan

Rereading the late senator in a post-Edward Snowden and Julian Assange era.
(Photo: leungchopan/Shutterstock)

(Photo: leungchopan/Shutterstock)

Fifteen years ago, the late senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan published what was, at the time, the most lucid and urgent account of American government and its culture of confidentiality. A slim, accessible volume, Secrecy uses a social lexicon derived largely from Émile Durkheim, the French pioneer of the formal study now known as sociology; the book's chief aim is to interrogate how entrenched systems of secrecy had allowed the Cold War to proceed far too long, benching domestic concerns while digging the U.S. into deep peacetime debt.

If Secrecy is concerned with tracing the origins and consequences of paranoia, revelations about government surveillance in the past year have stoked a new debate over the balance between freedom and security.

An expansion of a bipartisan report from the Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy (the commission was spearheaded by Moynihan), Secrecy is a thorough and vividly scary portrait of a government's failure to communicate with itself. The results of this failure included willful misinterpretation of Cold War market trends (the CIA's claim in 1986 that per capita production in East Germany was higher than in the West, say) alongside prejudicially selective choices, on the part of U.S. intelligence chamberlains, of what Truman or Reagan needed to know. Remember the Venona Decrypts? Truman didn't.

An ambient sense of the covert foments notions of conspiracy on each wing of American politics, driving left and right farther apart and making possible odious phenomena from HUAC to the Patriot Act.

Unlike the demagogues whom secrecy had empowered, Moynihan is precise about his terms:

Secrecy is a form of regulation. There are many such forms, but a general division can be made between those dealing with domestic affairs and those dealing with foreign affairs. In the first category, it is generally the case that government prescribes what the citizen may do. In the second category, it is generally the case that government prescribes what the citizen may know.

To these we must now add a 21st-century category: What the government may know about a citizen.

If Secrecy is concerned in part with tracing the origins and noxious consequences of generational paranoia, revelations about government surveillance in the past year have stoked a new if woefully inadequate debate over the balance between freedom and security. We now know that Big Brother is indeed “watching,” to what extent He is doing so, and at what cost to the taxpayer—in liberty, and in lucre.

The Big Brother thing, quite naturally, dominated last week's annual RSA security conference in San Francisco—a sticky affair, as a company trafficking in aggressive encryption software for civilian privacy sought to explain its decade-long contract with the NSA. If nothing else, the Edward Snowden leaks gave people something to freak out about. How many tech and security conferences are mere swag and boilerplate? As the Times reports:

In hotel lobbies, conference rooms, panels and coffee shops, American executives and government officials were seen and heard having tortured conversations with their international counterparts as executives tried to convince their clients that their technologies did not contain legal or virtual back doors for the National Security Agency.

That's some hot stuff, especially with Representative Mike Rogers (R-Michigan) wooing back his Silicon pals and Richard Clarke dropping f-bombs at the Cloud Security Alliance panel: “The U.S. ... has to get out of the business of fucking with encryption standards.”

Stephen Colbert, meanwhile, gave the keynote address at the convention, nettling those of his fans who care about (or, if pressed, could actually define) net neutrality. (Fight for the Future organized a Web petition urging the comedian to boycott.) Colbert's remarks were strikingly serious; the jokes scanned like queasy punctuation between earnest digs at Snowden, and at the audience:

"We the people voted for the Patriot Act. We voted for the people who reauthorized it, and re-reauthorized it. The American people have spoken," he said. "You don't change horses in mid-wiretap."

While censuring Snowden for having leaked certain of America's international surveillance practices, Colbert likewise condemned the NSA not merely for its unconstitutional stateside behavior, but also for its cash-hemorrhaging ineffectuality:

We have solid proof that this program saved zero lives. It was designed to root out terrorists. It shouldn't bother you if you're not hiding anything, and since you can't hide anything from the NSA, nothing is bothering you.

Colbert's point here is not moral but practical. It may sound banal, but such was Moynihan's project, as well. The balkanized compartmentalization of American secret operations in the Cold War cost us dearly, in money and in matters domestic. Today, metastasizing surveillance initiatives have sapped what little trust anyone had in the government to begin with—while siphoning tens of billions of dollars at least from a budget already handicapped by deficit. (Joke's on RSA; they only got 10 mill.)

Wiretaps beget crossed wires, tying government in knots while our president does PR cleanup. The crossing of wires was a Moynihan bugbear, all the more reason to admire the measured tone of his work on the subject. Richard Gid Powers' rather brilliant introduction to the first paperback edition of Secrecy includes a wonderful anecdote about the senator and Henry Kissinger.

“[America] had failed to see the coming collapse of the Soviets,” Moynihan said. “So let's do better next time.” Kissinger, sitting nearby, was said to have sneered audibly (something he was awfully good at; the Nixon tapes make for excellent workout listening). Kissinger subsequently wrote a hat-in-hand letter to Moynihan: “Your crystal ball was better than mine.”

Amid the staticky noise of news and opinion, Moynihan's book offers both reprieve and relevance. (His ethnography of the Soviet bloc feels especially urgent this week in light of tensions between mixed populations in the Crimean peninsula.) It took 50 years for the Venona decrypts to become public. Anyone who claims to know what we will learn in 50 years is selling you a bridge. The more important question is whether we'll do anything with this knowledge, or whether we'll have the legislative attention span to bother.