Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Who's In, Who's Out?

Last week's "three spooks in a row" pantomime emphasised the extent to which secrecy depends on spectacle, from the spy chiefs' imitation of stern hierophants to the choreography of poppies in the chorus's button holes. The coincidental news that the Cabinet Office is reluctant to release government documents from a century ago is as much a part of the performance as the security chiefs' claims about "our adversaries rubbing their hands with glee" (when not stroking Persian cats or twisting their moustachios). The realm of secrecy recognises no limits in space or time, hence the symbolic importance of always having some ancient paperwork embargoed.

The current block on the Chilcott Report - i.e. the refusal to produce slightly less ancient documents that might suggest Tony Blair wasn't entirely straight in his dealings with Parliament - has been previously criticised by Peter Oborne as indicative of a "culture of secrecy" (and even a "conspiracy of silence"), but this misses the point. It isn't a secret that the UK supported the US decision to go after Saddam Hussein regardless, nor that Blair et al are keen to finesse this inconvenient fact out of official existence. The point at issue with Chilcott is whether Blair can be legitimately accused of misleading the House of Commons.

The formulation "culture of ..." is a classic neoliberal vector for attacking vested interests. The NHS is accused of a "culture of cruelty", the BBC of a "culture of waste and secrecy", the entire welfare state is a "culture of entitlement". It is amusing that this should now be deployed by a reactionary like Oborne to attack the arch-neoliberal Blair. The culture trope combines the traditional moralistic view of politics, that bad policy is the product of bad men, and the modern neoliberal view of government, that everything but the market is a conspiracy against the public (oh, irony). The bias of the term's use is a tactical choice: the collective culture is targeted to engineer reform (i.e. privatisation), while the failings of the private sector are excused by naming the guilty men (e.g. in banking).

You'll notice that no one has accused the security services of a "culture of secrecy", even though this must surely apply to them more than anyone else. But one thing they do share with this wider abuse of the term is the focus on the individual, hence the desire to shoot the messenger that is Edward Snowden and to personalise secrecy and security in the mind of the British public, of which William Hague's "the innocent have nothing to fear" was an early sighting. As the jurist Eben Moglen notes: "If we are not doing anything wrong, then we ... have a right to be obscure". In other words, not only does the individual have rights to privacy and secrecy, but society has a collective right not to be individuated.

Iain Lobban, the Head of GCHQ, insists "We do not spend our time listening to the telephone calls or reading the emails of the majority". Well, nobody thought you did, chum. Lobban is being disingenuous in his distinction as he knows (or believes) that "big data" is the real prize, both for the state and for privileged corporations, but the demonisation of the needle is a useful distraction from the regulation of the haystack. It might appear that the state and the corporations have different objectives, the former being interested in the few and the latter in the many, but the reality is that corporations are only interested in people they can "monetise", while the few is an ever-shifting and ever-growing subset. In practice, both discriminate, dividing the world into the "in" and the "out". This allows them to make a political distinction between potential and practice, when the real issue is the all-encompassing capability.

In 1997, the US Congress produced The Report Of The Commission On Protecting And Reducing Government Secrecy. The commission was chaired by Democrat Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who wrote a foreword in which he noted that "secrecy is a mode of regulation. In truth, it is the ultimate mode, for the citizen does not even know that he or she is being regulated. Normal regulation concerns how citizens must behave, and so regulations are widely promulgated. Secrecy, by contrast, concerns what citizens may know; and the citizen is not told what may not be known". We know that documents revealing the duplicity or vanity of a still living ex-PM "may not be known". It's the stuff that we don't know about, e.g. the relationship between security agencies and large corporations, and how that affects our personal data, that constitutes the real secret.

Moynihan made an interesting point about the lure of the occult: "In a culture of secrecy, that which is not secret is easily disregarded or dismissed". Secrecy is thereby in conflict with evidence-based policy-making, as the most robust evidence is that which has been checked by many eyes: it stands up to scrutiny. The recourse to secrecy - "we believe this is right but can't tell you why" - easily segues into selectivity, only using data that support a prior belief. The famous Iraqi WMD dossier is a case in point. Where the realm of secrecy has expanded in recent years, such as in the "commercially confidential" contracts of outsourced public services, or the inner workings of "free" schools, you can be sure that this will not be criticised as a debilitating "culture". And should things go completely tits-up, e.g. G4S or the al-Madinah school, then failure will be personalised and the guilty parties replaced.

Pragmatically, there is no reason to believe that secrecy is actually helpful for government. As Moynihan urged: "We need government agencies staffed with argumentative people who can live with ambiguity and look upon secrecy as a sign of insecurity". That sounds more like a description of Edward Snowden than of any of the US or UK spy chiefs. But the Senator was writing at a time when he could refer back to the Pearl Harbor Syndrome, the desire of the security services never to be caught out again, and suggest it influenced the paranoia of J Edgar Hoover's FBI and the "Red Scare" of the 1950s. A few years later came 9/11, which inevitably gave the syndrome a reboot. This drove the massive investment in surveillance ("gather everything") that eventually overflowed into the public realm with the Manning and Snowden revelations.

It is not true that the US military invented the Internet, but it is true that network resilience in war was a goal of the packet-switching design that underpins it. The evolution of this from a closed network to an open one, an "internetwork", where redundancy and routing were strategies to mitigate unreliable hardware and outages, rather than a nuclear strike, was the work of academics. What is important is the opportunistic bleeding of ideas from the "national security" realm to the academic, and later from there to the commercial. There is no reason to believe this is uni-directional. In such an environment, which punctured national boundaries and evaporated the distinction between "home and away", it should be no surprise that the the realm of surveillance and thus secrecy expanded. And just as the state took advantage of the Internet, so too corporations took advantage of the state's connivance in universal surveillance.

What the US and UK security chiefs appear not to have appreciated was that the publication of this was inevitable given the scale of the programmes and the nature of the technology: you can't as easily hide a haystack as a needle. 850,000 people apparently had access to the Snowden files, while 2 million had access to the WikiLeaks material. It seems odd they had no contingency plan ready for the day of revelation, unless you believe that "Nosey" Parker's "gift to terrorists" jibe was the product of their finest minds and a decade of careful redrafting.

The fundamental purpose of secrecy is not to entrench a self-interested bureaucracy (though that obviously plays a part), but to divide society. The secret state is born in the cruel selections of the playground and adolescent anxiety about the in-crowd. All countries suffer from this ingroup/outgroup psychology, but we have a particularly bad case of it, in terms of our obsession with secrecy and privilege, in the UK. I think this is because secrecy is bound up with the development of London as a concierge service centre for global elites (the City, the law, private schools etc). Confidentiality and discretion are brand values. The fact that we locals tend not to rubber-neck the rich and famous, a feature welcomed by foreign footballers as much as oligrachs, is held up as a sign of our sophistication. What we are selling to the global nouveaux riches is secrecy. The "spook theatre" was as much an advert for this as it was a reassurance to Parliament.

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