The Green Papers
The Green Papers

Government Secrecy and its often associated Peremptory Arrogance

by Richard E. Berg-Andersson Staff
Thu 13 Jun 2013

If there is one overriding lesson that I learned as a result of coming of age during that American national scandal known as 'Watergate' (during which I turned 18 years old and, thanks to the then-still rather recently adopted 26th Amendment to the United States Constitution, was able to vote in my first election [the Primaries in my home State of New Jersey in early June] before I had even graduated from high school! [President Richard Nixon would resign that summer: thus, by the time I matriculated at Boston University]), it is that Government gets itself in more trouble from keeping too many secrets than anything else.

This recent kerfuffle over the National Security Agency's communications data collection for (principally, anti-terrorism) purposes is certainly a case in point.

PRISM- as this clandestine (well... now formerly clandestine!) electronic surveillance program is known- is actually a product of the George W. Bush Administration but has continued under the Presidency of Barack H. Obama (thus, neither Major Party- or, for that matter, "bell curve" side of the ideological divide- can come to the American People with "clean hands"): implemented- by all accounts- in stages from 2006 into 2007, it was a replacement for earlier electronic surveillance paradigms put in place in response to the 9/11 back in 2001.

Truth be told, it should have been vetted- within the realm of open political debate and discourse- back when it was first proposed (and, despite the whining carpings of law enforcement and intelligence community insiders, there were ways to do this without revealing PRISM's inner workings, the very nature of which was needed in order to do what PRISM was- at least ostensibly- designed to do!).

'Watergate' taught me that, when Government keeps things secret from those- the People- who, under our own theory of governance and Law, are the true Sovereign in the American Political and Legal System, three reasons are in play and two of them are bad (to here paraphrase the famous axiom of the late American College Football coach Woody Hayes as regards quarterbacks "put[ting] the ball in the air"-- that is: passing it):

1. Because the Government might keep things secret from those in whose very Name the Government so acts merely because it needs to maintain such secrecy in order to do that which it is mandated to do (in this case, better secure the Homeland [as well as, where practicable, better protect Americans abroad] from terrorist attack);

however (and having duly noted the above), there are also:

2. Because those wishing to implement such Government Secrecy do so knowing that- were what they were, and are, doing not so secret- the citizenry (the voters "out there" ['beyond the Beltway']) might (or even will) not much like it and, thereby, put all sorts of pressure on politicians of all partisan and ideological stripes to prevent those in Government who wish to be doing something from even doing it (Wow! What a concept!! Government being reined in by the People!!!)

"We know what we're doing, dammit, and- therefore- we're not even going to bother telling anyone else what we're doing!"


3. Because- to put it most bluntly (as well as simply)- the Government can keep things secret (one can now just about hear the voice of Blutarsky, the late comedian John Belushi's character in the late 1970s college hi-jinks flick Animal House, doing a paraphrase of one of his own scenes in that movie:

"We have to keep all of this a secret!"

"Why secret?"

"Why NOT??!!")

There is, often, all too much of the 5th Grade Recess notion of "I know something you don't know!" (where not also putting we the everyday, average American citizens under some sort of governmental 'Double Secret Probation') within much Government Secrecy-- for Secrecy itself creates the proverbial "inner circle" of "those in the know". Human Nature being what it is, this- in turn- gives those "in the know" (even where, as at least sometimes turns out, these pretty much know not much!) a certain cachet- where not also Úlan- which is then lost once too many "out there" also come to know the same secret.

And much of the diatribe directed toward Edward Snowden, the apparent leaker re: the very existence of PRISM, seemingly reflects just such an attitude:

"Hey, this guy let everyone in on it-- what an ***hole!"

Thus, we have military and intelligence analysts on American cable news networks practically falling all over themselves (whilst consulting, no doubt, their own well-worn copies of the late Dr. Robert L. Chapman's Thesaurus of American Slang) to come up with their best- albeit those that might still get past the censors- synonyms for one such analyst's "high school dropout thug" (although what Snowden having dropped out of high school might have to do with anything re: his revelation of PRISM is altogether beyond me!-- in the main, it's just namecalling for the sake of namecalling [much like one-time Republican contender and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani well confusing Action with Accomplishment by referring to "insulting Islamic terrorists" while speaking before a Republican National Convention not too many years ago now]...

Feel better now? Great!).

All three of the above attitudes born of secrecy can well be discerned within the famous 'Nixon Tapes'- tape recordings of conversations within the working areas of the White House that are what, eventually, forced President Nixon himself to leave office and these no less exist even where the secrecy is justified (if only by those maintaining said secrecy) under Law, which- of course- was decidedly not the case re: those activities grouped- by historians (even amateur historians such as myself) under the rubric of 'Watergate' (much- if not most- of which was patently unlawful).

Beyond the foregoing, Secrecy itself engenders a certain hubris among those in on, where not also maintaining, any and all associated secrets.

At least one recent historian of the period leading up to the American Revolution itself has noted that the string of victories Great Britain achieved during the latter years of the French and Indian/Seven Years' War (the end of which, in turn, marked the true beginning of an institutionalized- as opposed to idealized- British Empire) encouraged (nay, even caused!) those within the British Government to adopt a "peremptory style" of governance, one that "the [American] colonists found impossible to distinguish from arrogance".

Power in general- especially when institutionalized within Government in particular- so very easily (as well as all too often) leads to just such an attitude-- an attitude exacerbated by the very nature of Secrecy.

This, perhaps as much as anything else, is what has led so many of those who once worked within the world of Government Secrecy and now working for various and sundry television news outlets to be so "foaming at the mouth" as regards their own opinions of the personal character of Edward Snowden: there is this aspect [even an affect] of these analysts- now granted their respective "15 minutes of fame", thanks to the broadcast media- having a sense of entitlement, a self-proclaimed authority, to so pillory Snowden as if such vicarious abuse and scorn expiates on behalf of us all (not to also mention the very fact that their making Snowden the issue might even well serve to distract the viewing public from the real issue here: whether or not the NSA's PRISM should even be doing what it is doing in the first place: thus, the resultant expiation might, indeed, so serve as an expiation of political sin!).

Much of what happened back during 'Watergate' was itself the result of those within the Nixon White House convincing themselves that they were, in fact, doing the right thing (even the Lord's Work!) and that the primary reason all that was being done against potential and actual political opponents (where not also political enemies [in the wartime sense of this last]!) was always justified (if only by ever listening so closely to the very echoes of their own voices rebounding off the West Wing's walls). Even in a public setting- such as those famous hearings before the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities (the so-called 'Senate Watergate Committee' in the popular parlance of now four decades ago)- top Nixon aide John Ehrlichman, without the slightest hint of any awareness of the otherwise so obvious irony, could so strongly declaim that even the Constitution of the United States itself was sorely threatened by a mere political victory by opponents of the Nixon Administration and its policies (his [in?]famous retort [in those very hearings] to then-Georgia Senator Eugene Talmadge's reminder, to Ehrlichman [who, after all, was a lawyer!], that Common Law in America still was that "No matter how humble a man's cottage, even the King himself must ask permission [of its owner] before even he might enter it" that preserving that very notion was what the Nixon White House's 'Watergate' activities were themselves intended to do [??!!] was but the peak of such- for lack of a better term- "peremptory arrogance" by those who were once among All the President's Men' back then).

Sad to say- whether within the Bush43 or Obama Administration- such very 'peremptory arrogance' seems to the more prevail!

Of course, all the fuss over PRISM now could have been avoided had an at least summary explanation of what it was, and is, intended to accomplish merely been provided the American People back then (that is: some six or seven years ago now)!

Yes, the American People might well have said 'No, don't do this!' (My word! Republican Democracy!! God Save the Union!!!) to their own Government had this approach- the proper approach!- been taken... but, to quote one of my favorite political axioms (and a tip of the hat here to the late one-time Republican New Hampshire U.S. Senator Warren Rudman) "The American People have the Constitutional Right to be wrong"!

But 'peremptory arrogance' is precisely what prevented the George W. Bush Administration from doing just such a thing ("I mean... wha... what if the American People themselves, in fact, do the wrong thing here?" [the rather obvious flaw in such reasoning being the very idea that those thinking in such terms might themselves even be right!]) and 'peremptory arrogance' is what kept the Obama Presidency "keepin' on keepin' on" (which, further, suggests that the current Administration couldn't seem to come up with anything better [besides the so obvious advantages to just let PRISM go on working as something of the proverbial "machine that would go of itself" in any event]).

So far (and the key words here are, indeed, "so far"), meanwhile, all Edward Snowden has really done- whatever the grave criminal liability, not to also mention serious personal consequences, that will surely follow from his having so revealed what he has already revealed- is inform the world- and, by extension, the American People- of the existence of a secret program on which the American People (who- HELLO!- pay for all this [or-- well... if only for the time being, maybe not, given the ongoing Federal Budget Sequester! ;-)]) should have been allowed to pass judgment on years ago!

Modified .