I thought that after the last weeks, there could be very little about the behaviour of our security state which could surprise or disgust me in their handling of the leaks about the NSA’s breach of the public trust (including revelations about e-mail collection). Needless to say, my optimism was grievously misplaced.
Earlier this week, the Monterey Herald reported that soldiers at the town’s Presidio had been unable to access content on the Guardian relating to the revelations about the extent of the NSA’s intrusive spying on the public and the lies told by intelligence officials when questioned about the nature of this extraordinary intrusion by Congressional representatives who are supposed to provide oversight of the intelligence services.
The excuse made by the military for blocking the access of military personnel was, of course, the same one used to justify keeping the public in the dark: that disclosure of such information (reported in virtually every newspaper) would expose classified information, help the terrorists, and compromise national security. Never mind that these claims—so central to the unending War Of, By, and For Terror—themselves cannot be substantiated because to do so would either require the release of said classified information, or else the fabrication of links between threats and security measures (WMDs anyone?). [See this letter on the topic signed by a number of Senators to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper who carefully lied on multiple occasions to Senator Ron Wyden about the NSA’s spying.]
The Army’s spokesman, given the unenviable task of defending censorship in the ranks, bleated about the need to preserve “network hygiene”, tortured terminology that might have been stripped from an Orwell novel. Another PR operative explained that “an employee who downloads classified information [i.e. a newspaper article universally available in the United States] could face disciplinary action if found to have knowingly downloaded the material on an unclassified computer”.
In a strange way, the military’s censorship disturbs me even more than the other revelations. Perhaps it has to do with the sequence of events. The unaccountable behaviour of our intelligence agencies—empowered by two criminal, terroristic administrations—is sparking considerable public mistrust in such institutions. People are going to be scrutinising their behaviour to determine the extent to which their abuse of their duties is habitual as opposed to some kind of one-off. And in the face of that scrutiny, the security state continues to behave as though nothing has happened and as though they can hide their misdeeds.
And from whom, in this case, are they hiding details of their actions? It is all the more incredible that such patently absurd censorship would be implemented in an institution supposedly dedicated to “protecting our freedoms”. Such censorship is, at the end of the day, the most effective manner of ensuring that we never learn from our mistakes, whatever the cost of burying our heads in the sand and murmuring self-aggrandising homilies might ultimately be.
The dissonance in the ability of institutions obsessed with security to simultaneously claim to treasure “freedom” and “democracy” and “openness” while simultaneously embracing the group-think and tics of authoritarian, closed-off regimes the world over, is incredible—urgently so, given that we will be living with the consequences of such dissonance in the foreseeable future.
In explaining military censorship, its spokesperson declared, “We make every effort to balance the need to preserve information access with operational security”. Perhaps the military, like our intelligence services, our executive, and our legislature, needs to contemplate a different balance which is tipping out of their favour: that between their ability to abuse the public interest with impunity, and the capacity to maintain their legitimacy in the face of such serial and sanguinary abuse.