Posted tagged ‘secrecy’

A Nation of Secrets

November 30, 2010

(Cross posted at Balloon Juice)

So, Wikileaks tells us that Arab nations don’t like Iran very much.  That Qadhafi likes blondes. That Putin and Berlusconi don’t mind stacking up some green together.  There is more serious stuff there too, of course, (e.g. Red Crescent gun running; North Korea/Iran putting the ballistic missile evil in that “axis of evil” stuff) and no doubt, more to come.

I’m hearing the arguments we all could predict.  Larry Sanger, one of the founders of Wikipedia, has written of his view that the global dump of diplomatic secrets is (a) dangerous to individual lives and to teh project of making sound policy in a dangeraous works (b) so indiscriminate that it can’t be seen as attempt to bring transparency on specific government misdeeds being covered up. Rather, Sanger argues, this is what enemies of the United States do, in what seems to him to be a transparant assault on US capacity to do anything for good in the world.

Josh Marshall, less explosively, says something similar, writing

I don’t recognize what Wikileaks is doing here as some righteous act of government transparency. It’s more like an attack, albeit one with consequences which can easily be overstated.

Me — I think “attack” is one of those words that’s easier to write than to defend.  My impression, supported by only one quick conversation with someone with actual experience in the national security apparatus, is that this is less an attack than relatively harmless vandalism — but that’s not a position I can defend with any vigor.  I just don’t know.


But what I do know is that this leak is a reminder of what it means to live in a national security state.  Not in the sense that these particular documents impinge on my civil liberties or yours.  Rather, it’s the combination of sheer volume — that quarter-of-a-million cables number — and the banality of so much of what’s come to light so far.  (I guess I’m glad to know that “nurse” is a euphemism in Libya too…but still.)

We live enmeshed in secrets.  The Harvard historian of science Peter Galison has been digging into the empire of unknowing that our government now rules, and I just reread this remarkable paper, written all the way back in 2004.  Consider this:

The number of carefully archived pages written in the open is large. While hard to estimate, one could begin by taking the number of items on the shelves of the Library of Congress—one of the largest libraries in the world: 120 million items carrying about 7.5 billion pages, of which about 5.4 billion pages are in 18 million books…

…Some suspect as many as a trillion pages are classified (200 Libraries of Congress). That may be too many. 2001, for example, saw 33 million classification actions; assuming (with the experts) that there are roughly 10 pages per action, that would mean roughly 330 million pages were classified last year (about three times as many pages are now being classified as declassified). So the U.S. added a net 250 million classified pages last year. By comparison, the entire system of Harvard libraries—over a hundred of them—added about 220,000 volumes (about sixty million pages, a number not far from the acquisition rate at other comparably massive universal depositories such as the Library of Congress, the British Museum, or the New York Public Library). Contemplate these numbers: about five times as many pages are being added to the classified universe than are being brought to the storehouses of human learning including all the books and journals on any subject in any language collected in the largest repositories on the planet.

Galison in this piece focuses on the irrationality of the classification scheme, and it’s voraciousness.  Secrecy breeds secrecy; knowledge disappears from view on a data-level invocation of the one-drop rule.  Galison tells us that there aren’t that many people empowered to imprison information in the classification gulag:

…Just over 4000 for the whole of the United States—who bear the title of Original Classifiers. Only this initiated cadre can transform a document, idea, picture, shape, or device into the modal categories Top Secret, Secret, or Confidential. And of these 4132 or so Original Classifiers, only 999 (as of 2001) are authorized to stamp a document into the category Top Secret.

Those few people are the unmoved prime movers of the classified world—it is they who begin the tagging process that winds its way down the chain of derivative classification. For every document that subsequently refers to information in those originally classified gains the highest classification of the documents cited in it. Like the radio-tagging of a genetic mutant, the classified information bears its mark through all the subsequent generations of work issuing from it. More numbers: in 2001 there were 260,678 original classifications (acts that designated a body of work classified) and 32,760,209 derivative ones. A cascade of classification.

All this (and more — really, go read the whole thing) leads up to the point that returns us to the depressing glimpse of the way we live now produced by the Wikileaks dump. That would be Galison’s depiction of the actual impossibility of rational secrecy. What we get instead of security, he argues, is the dystopia Thomas Pynchon saw in The Crying of Lot 49:

…a universe so obsessed with concealment and conspiracy, with government and corporate monopoly control of information, that the causal structure and even the raw sequence of events hovered perpetually out of reach…Secret societies with private communication desperately tried to counter the monopoly on information—Pynchon’s world crawls with disaffected engineers trying to patent Maxwell’s demon, would-be suicides, and isolated lovers all seeking to break the out-of-control monopoly of knowledge transmission.

Galison has a number of targets in this piece.  But the biggest one, or at least that which resonated now as I read this essay again, is that once you set out down a road where each unknowable fact needs its hedge of other secrets to preserve the original wall of ignorance and so on…you end up in a position where it becomes impossible for the governed to give informed consent to their governors.

There is the obvious problem, of course:  bits of knowledge that disappear into the nothingness of the security apparatus, not because of any danger they pose, but because they impinge on the autonomy of the state.  Things that if we knew them we’d react badly to, the sweetheart deals or the unobservered f**k ups that it’s just easier (for some) if hoi polloi don’t know.

But those are probably the easy misdeeds to correct:  if the catastrophes are obvious enough, then there are threads to pull if we had more McClatchy’s and no Foxes on the job.  The deeper issue is that of the paternalistic state, one in which secrets are kept simply because everything runs so much more smoothly if we don’t know precisely what is being done, to and for whom.  Here’s Galison again:

In the end, however, the broadest problem is not merely that of the weapons laboratory, industry, or the university. It is that, if pressed too hard and too deeply, secrecy, measured in the staggering units of Libraries of Congress, is a threat to democracy. And that is not a problem to be resolved by an automated Original Classifier or declassifier. It is political at every scale from attempts to excise a single critical idea to the vain efforts to remove whole domains of knowledge.

That’s right, if unsatisfying. I see no sign that things will change soon; the national security state has too many layers of justification (many classified, of course, but trust us….) to suggest that the ratio of classification to declassification is going to change anytime soon.

Which, by the long road home, leads to Wikileaks.


I understand the view that unfiltered dumps of classified documents about anything can be reckless, or worse.  But at the same time if Wikileaks did not exist, it would be invented.  When we make more secrets than knowledge we can share, that ever-growing Fort Knox of unknowing will inevitably draw its safe crackers.  And if we are horrified when those crackers actually steal something we care about, we might want to look again at how we decide how much we think it wise not to know ourselves.

Images:  James Jacques Joseph Tissot, “The Harlot of Jericho and the Two Spies,” c. 1896-1902.

Diego Velázquez, “Las Meninas,” 1656–1657.

Program Notes: Who Patented the Bomb? Ask NPR.

March 30, 2008

Check this story out.

Here’s the backstory: Otto Hahn, (without mentioning mentor/partner Lise Meitner) published the news that he and co-workers had identified the element Barium in a sample of Uranium that had been bombarded by neutrons in December, 1938. Meitner, of Jewish background, had of necessity, abandoned her collaboration with Hahn and escaped for Stockholm earlier that year.

Still, she and her nephew, understood what had just happened. Hahn had achieved nuclear fission, the spectacularly unexpected splitting of uranium atoms.

By the happenstance of timing, this news came at almost the final moment for the next seven years that scientific communication would pass freely through the physics community. It was certainly almost the last time that a crucial result about the behavior of the atom would be so blithely broadcast to any and all…

…Or not quite, as the NPR broadcast linked above reveals. I’ve done a bit of reporting on atomic physics and the history of the bomb — not much, but not zero, either — and I never caught a whiff of the fact that the Manhattan Project filed something like 2,000 — two thousand!— patents on every angle they could find of design and engineering of the atomic bomb.

Patents are public documents, as the hero of the NPR story, Harvard graduate student Alex Wellerstein noted. National security can intervene — but even when it does, a secret patent leaves traces behind, decay products as it were. As the story explains, should someone else — a German agent — want to know if America were working on a bomb, all he would have to do is file a patent application of his own on some aspect of nuclear weaponry, and a letter would come back saying, in essence, the proposed invention had collided with a secret patent. Aha!

That never happened.

Do give the story a listen. It’s well done, and can be heard as a sidelight on the strangeness and the paranoia that accompanies every descent into a national security state.

But what gave me the most pleasure was hearing Philip Morrison remembered. Morrison had told Wallerstein that he had in fact filed a patent on the bomb (one that is still secret), and had signed his rights over to the US government for the princely sum of a buck year — which was never paid.

I’m pretty sure that Morrison never tried to collect. I knew him a bit — never that well, but for a few years, his role as advisor to NOVA meant that I would see him and his wife Phyllis on regular occasions. He was a genuinely great man, and the one time, the Morrisons came to my house for supper, I finally got my courage up to ask him what it was like to carry the plutonium core from Los Alamos to Almogodoro for the Trinity test.

He started speaking with a kind of a creak, as if he was resetting his mind to re-enter, and not just recall the event. And then the story took over, and my wife and I just listened as the drive unfolded, and Morrison started bringing to life the feeling, the combination of youth (Morrison was all of twenty nine years old), mastery, urgency — get the damn war done — and concern to make sure the damn thing worked.

Morrison is one of the unequivocally great figures I’ve had the good fortune to meet, smart, committed to right action, a small d democrat in all his doings — he’d talk with pleasure to anyone who was willing to exercise their brains. He became a major figure in the physicists’ movement working to defang the nuclear threat.

But he never hid the fascination and the sheer intensity of emotion and experience that came with working on the Manhattan Project. Sitting there around a dinner table, just the four of us, listening to the journey re-imagined — the guts of the bomb in his hands. Amazing. It was a moment when being a historian seem like the most fun it is possible to have, as so many lives and instants of place and time can, at lucky intervals, suddenly become imaginatively one’s own.

I’m still grateful to Phil (and Phyllis, who should never be left out of any memory of the Morrisons). He was kind to me and very helpful more than once. He deeper relations with and made a much greater impact on lots of other folks, and I don’t want to claim more of an acquaintance nor more influence from than was really there. But hearing a very nice bit of radio reminded me that I’d never acknowledged the real debt I owe him, and the great pleasure I took in the times I did get to hear what he had to say.

(Some other time, I’ll talk about an after dinner talk I heard him give to a very small and bumptious group of TV people who thought they knew about what mattered in 20th century science until they heard Phil’s defense of 1900.)

One last thing – a minor quibble with the NPR story. The story of the American patents on the bomb is, I think, genuinely new. But the broadcast did not mention something known for a while, and discussed in Richard Rhodes’ great book, The Making of the Atomic Bomb. Leo Szilard had been thinking about the possibility of nuclear chain reactions well before Hahn et al. achieved uranium fission. In 1936, living in Britain, he patented the idea — and assigned it to the Admirality to make sure that the weapon implied (obviously, it seemed to him) by the phenomenon would remain secret.

Image: Albin Schmalfuss, Boletus luridus, 1897. Source: Wikimedia Commons