Secrets And Fears Of A Paranoid Government

You’re either with us or against us. “Hammer this fact home,” an internal Department of Defense document instructs its readers, “leaking is tantamount to aiding the enemies of the United States.”

That document was itself leaked last week.

It’s part of the Insider Threat Program – a crackdown within the US federal bureaucracy to stop bureaucrats and private contractors sharing secrets with the press. It is the banal bureaucratic background to the espionage charges laid on Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning.

But in a way the Insider Threat Program is as revealing as the secrets the two men have revealed.

America’s national security state is unmanageably big. It is a Leviathan of dysfunction.

More than 4.9 million American government employees and private contractors have security clearances. There are at least 1,200 bureaucracies and 1,900 private companies working on the government’s security and intelligence programs.

Booz Allen Hamilton (the company that employed Edward Snowden) earned $3.8 billion in federal government contracts in 2012. That’s 99 per cent of its total revenue.

During the Cold War the US government was rightly concerned public servants might sell secrets to the Soviet Union.

There actually were spies at the very top of the bureaucracy. If you passed information to Soviet agents, it was reasonable to assume you did so for Soviet benefit.

But now, a decade into the War on Terror, the American government is more concerned secrets might be passed to American newspapers.

There’s a subtle difference. Citizens in a democracy have a right to know what their government is doing. Edward Snowden revealed a massive surveillance program that was, until recently, dismissed as the fantasy of conspiracy theorists. We are better for knowing that program exists.

Yet the US government thinks leaking to journalists is the moral and legal equivalent of spying for foreign governments or terrorists.

Nobody believes the disclosure of classified information should be legal. Any organisation, private or public, needs some degree of confidentiality to function. As the Guardian writer Glenn Greenwald points out, Snowden “made his choice based on basic theories of civil disobedience”. He will bear the consequences.

But an Espionage Act charge goes well beyond that. Disclosing information about the actions of a democratically elected government to the media is not the same as secretly undermining national security for the benefit of the hostile foreign powers – not on any practical, ethical, or philosophical grounds.

The US Espionage Act dates back to 1917. Section 793 of the Act makes it illegal to communicate information to others “with intent or reason to believe that the information is to be used to the injury of the United States, or to the advantage of any foreign nation”.

In its first 90 years the Espionage Act was only used three times against people accused of leaking government secrets to the press.

But the Obama administration has charged eight different whistleblowers under the Espionage Act.

As well as Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden, they’ve also charged a former CIA officer for revealing the names of colleagues involved in torture, a State Department advisor for leaking information about North Korea, and a senior executive at the National Security Agency for exposing the surveillance program. (You can see a full list here.)

One of the few prosecutions for leaking under the Espionage Act before Barack Obama was Daniel Ellsberg. He released the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times and Washington Post in 1971.

The Nixon administration went hard against Ellsberg. So hard, in fact, that they illegally tapped his phones. The case was ultimately thrown out for misconduct.

Yet in retrospect the release of the Pentagon Papers wasn’t that big a deal. They were merely a classified Defence Department history of the Vietnam War. That history stopped in 1967, and the juicy stuff – mostly how the Johnson administration lied about the Gulf of Tonkin incident – damned Richard Nixon’s Democratic opponents.

Ellsberg was prosecuted for espionage not because he had damaged American national security but because he had embarrassed the state. For Nixon – and for Obama – embarrassment is as good as aiding the enemy.

It was embarrassing, but not damaging, when the world read America’s diplomatic cables in 2011. It is embarrassing that the world knows the US government is listening to its phone calls. But have these embarrassments materially hurt American security interests? Not likely. Were they done in the service of a foreign power? Quite the opposite.

Earlier this year, Barack Obama bragged his was the “most transparent administration” in history.

Compare those fine words to a brochure published by the US Defense Security Service, Insider Threats: Combating the ENEMY within your organization. It urges private contractors to report any suspicious behaviour of their colleagues. “It is better to have reported overzealously than never to have reported at all.”

Such is the paranoia of the impotent.