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Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Transparency Is Impossible. Now What?

Currently I'm in the middle of Homeland (Season 3), having just finished the latest season of Tyrant on VOD. Before that it was 24: Live Another Day.

I watch the shows and the messages about national security come through loud and clear. This is art, not life but art frequently gives people permission to air things that cannot be said in ordinary discourse:

* From a security perspective, transparency is a ridiculous concept. Information is power and when you give it away, you're giving it to your enemies and not just your friends. Why would you give the enemy your secrets?

 * The facts are much more interesting and complicated than anything the media will portray. Whatever we are getting downstream is not the reality closest to the action. In a democracy, it is that reality that the public wants, needs and has a right to know, in order to make good decisions rather than be inflamed by hype and huff. The question, though, as indicated in #1, is how far can and should you go? If you tell everything, the public is at risk. If you tell nothing, you've surrendered to totalitarianism.

* Public opinion is regularly manipulated. The purpose of doing so is regularly offered as a noble cause, although some are honest enough to simply admit they want power. It is done through the omission of information or the provision of information that is incomplete, misleading or false. 

* The line between bitter enemy and close colleague is not only blurry but ever-changing. We tend to think of enemies as people difficult to understand and remote from ourselves, but actually if you want to gain power over someone you need to bring them close and leverage their interests so as to advance yours. (Only when you have no other choice do you push on their weak spots.)

* Within any social system, there are different factions vying for power.  Some factions attain and maintain power over other factions by holding onto information, or by conducting operations without the other factions knowing (and having the opportunity to "ruin" them).

* The term "crazy" is used as a tool. It may indeed be that the person's mind has snapped. Or it may be a convenient excuse to nail them to the wall so that they don't interfere with someone in power.

* The best national security assets are 1) technical experts with 2) superior judgment about when to break the rules, who are 3) also willing to die for the cause. To be great at this kind of job, you must have absolute mastery of each of these three areas - having one or two but not all three puts everyone else in danger.

What do we do about this as citizens? Perhaps take the time to evaluate multiple perspectives with a critical eye. Refuse to jump to quick conclusions. Consider facts but also the unsaid nature of much that surrounds them. Connect things that don't seem to go together. Be willing to change one's opinion.

Above all, participate.

* This post was written by Dannielle Blumenthal in her personal capacity. The opinions expressed here are the author's own and do not reflect the view of the National Archives and Records Administration, or the United States government.