That Bodyguard of Lies

Lost in the controversy over the release of the now-infamous “torture memos,” and the forthcoming release of Abu-Ghraib-style photographs, is the broad question of what, exactly, ought to be classified. The existing system of intelligence classification is merely a codification of the age-old need to keep secrets from one’s enemy. “Truth,” intoned Winston Churchill, “is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” There is some merit to this, especially in the context of a world war, but it is not the last word on the topic, and still less a rule of thumb for the control of information in a liberal democracy.

I. Democracy’s presumptions.

The fundamental presumption of our sort of democracy is that the people, in aggregate, are competent to receive, assess, and act rightly upon information. James Surowiecki has written a great deal on this, mostly in the contexts of markets, but even he cautions that the existence of this sort of aggregate is, in itself, insufficient to yield the positive outcomes assumed by democracy. Three years ago, I spoke with a Claremont Institute scholar who, in critiquing the assumptions undergirding the Iraq war, remarked that “democracy requires a demos.” A demos, in turn, requires what Surowiecki posits as the characteristics of a “wise crowd”: diversity, independence, decentralization, and aggregation. (I don’t wish to rely on Surowiecki overmuch, as he is not the final authority on these things — his book sold well less because of its ideas than its affirmation of market mechanisms in good times — but those ideas are nonetheless useful here.)

The existence of information classification implies at least one of two things: first, that there exists an enemy for whom the information is useful; and second, that the people at large do not possess the “wise crowd” characteristics to usefully act upon the information. The first implication is generally non-controversial in war, and I believe this non-controversial nature may easily be an example of a bad crowd decision.

II. The things we should not see.

Explaining this requires an examination of the second implication, on the unsuitability of the general public to rightly assess and act upon information. The rationale asserting this unsuitability is neatly summarized in the famous courtroom monologue of Marine Colonel Jessep from “A Few Good Men”:

We live in a world that has walls and those walls need to be guarded by men with guns … I have a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom … You have the luxury of not knowing what I know: that Santiago’s death, while tragic, probably saved lives and that my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives.

Stripped of its patina of arrogance and belligerence, this argument — that death awaits in the things one should not see — is strikingly similar to the Straussian concept of the “noble lie” that makes the polity possible. Contrary to what popular-media discussion of Strauss exists, it does not necessarily follow from this that a Straussian is an agent of a restrictive national-security state. It does follow, though, that the “noble lie” concept lends legitimacy to the idea that a democratic people are not, in fact, suited to full self-governance — if we accept that full self-governance must include full access to the information possessed by one’s leaders.

Information classification on this premise therefore comes dangerously close to a denial of the foundational premises of American governance. If governments “deriv[e] their just powers from the consent of the governed,” it is difficult to argue that this consent may be anything less than fully informed. Even if that argument is accepted, it defies credulity to assert that the agent controlling the information ought to be the very government to which the people are consenting. To put it mildly, this is a tremendous conflict of interest.

In his outstanding “What Hath God Wrought,” Daniel Walker Howe writes of the salutary effect of religious revival in 1820s America: “[T]he revivals expanded the number of people experiencing an autonomous sense of self. They taught self-respect and demanded that individuals function as moral agents.” But a moral agent must have the tools of agency. Howe does not argue that faith alone sustained the young American republic: the title of his history (which covers the period 1815-1848) refers to the first message sent by telegraph from Baltimore to Washington, D.C. — and thus to the transformative, equally salutary, and equally necessary effect of information on the creation of our democracy. As Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in that same era, “To suppose that [newspapers, the primary means of mass information dissemination] only serve to protect freedom would be to diminish their importance: they maintain civilization.” (Emphasis added.)

III. The face of the enemy.

How do we reconcile the free informational dissemination necessary to both consensual governance and the “maintenance of civilization” with the aforementioned second implication: that the people at large do not possess the “wise crowd” characteristics to usefully act? Set against the principles of the American founding, and information’s needful role in the type of society we wish to have — as demonstrated in history — the case for information classification is rendered weak. The primary remaining argument for it, then, is in the first implication above: that there exists an enemy for whom the information is useful.

In identifying this putative enemy, it is useful to proceed backwards from the information classified, to the meaningful groups from whom it is thus denied. I use “meaningful groups” here in the sense of “groups that may be expected to care about and act upon” the information. (Madagascan militants may be denied the same stuff we are, but they hardly matter.) Therefore, the classifications of NATO plans and dispositions in eastern Afghanistan are likely meant to deny information to the Taliban and al Qaeda; that we are denied this information is secondary. Presumably, if citizen of the Western nations could keep a secret, we’d all know. This much is easy.

Where the identification of the enemy gets difficult is in other cases, such as the former ban on the photography of soldiers’ caskets at Dover AFB. Who then is the object of active denial of information? Surely al Qaeda doesn’t get the photographs — but we, the American public, and the media apparatus we patronize are the real and obvious objects. Inasmuch as this makes us “the enemy,” the implication here is profoundly troubling. This is a comparatively stark case, but the “torture memos” and the to-be-released Abu-Ghraib-style photographs differ only in their marginal utility as propaganda for the battlefield enemy. Again, the primary object of denial would seem to be the people at large.

IV. Worth the fighting for.

What is to be done? Deeply unpopular as it is to say so — at least on my side of the partisan aisle — the Obama Administration is taking tentative steps in the right direction in its slow and halting release of information. This is not to credit it with unsullied intentions, or to assume that it values governmental openness for its own sake. The evidence for either is thin. Still, as the bias toward withholding information did not yield demonstrable, pragmatic policy gains — to say nothing of strengthening civil society — in the preceding Administration, we might hope for an opportunity to urge a contrary policy bias toward openness.

That this is wartime need not obscure this possibility. The man who declared truth so important that it should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies meant to deceive the Nazis first, and his own people as a regrettable consequence. Inasmuch as modern America seeks the deception of its own people as a primary intent, it is not an America worth the fighting for.

RE: That Bodyguard of Lies



I.  The irrational desire to expunge the certain legacies of the Bush administration - unlawful enemy combatants, extraoardinary renditions, black sites - is paramount over prosecuting the war tells us that the United States can still afford such luxuries. In a real war, intelligence gathering cannot be seconded to human rights concerns; the executive cannot waste time micro-managing the tedium of individual prisoners; and battlespace commanders cannot place the welfare of enemy civilians above that of their soldiers, or victory.


II.  The issue is one of balance - between the state and society and the community and the individual. Unfortunately, this digresses from the realm of government type or structure and into that of culture. A political system is only as effective as its underlying political culture allows it to be; a corrupt society will establish corrupt bureaucracies, institutions and politics. I believe noble "lie" is a rather excessive concept, for it presumes that there is an objective and universal rationally-acceptable truth. It keeps with the Platonic notions of the real and the ideal, when in fact a "noble lie" requires a definitive and final answer to the "big" questions to be regarded as anything other than an interpretation or belief system fundamentally as arbitrary or vulnerable to criticism as any alternative. Any collective identity requires the formation of certain myths or legends in order to cement its raison d'être and foster esprit de corps.


III.  States usually have the default position that they are their relationship with their citizenry is akin to that between a parent and child, with all of the attendant implications for authority, power and responsibility. Empires often used similar analogies when referring to their colonial subjects e.g. in Africa.


In reality the true relationship resembles that between an investor and an investment manager, such as a hedge fund. The investor seeks out an investment manager to leverage his or her talent, time and energy, in order that the investor can pursue other activities. While even the most well-informed investor is not a professional, the funds are his as is the overall authority. Also, the manager has a fiduciary duty to his or her client. This translates into auctoritas being held by the people and potestas by the state.


Yet states have become as self-righteous as the Wall Street investment banks and citizens as helpless as those invested with Madoff. Citizens don't want to micro-manage government or waste their time and energy on irrelevant information; they just want good government.

Out of this world, continued...


 3) Mr Trevino deserves credit for being aware that the intentions behind these destructive actions (of attempted EX POST 'criminalisation' of political predecessors) are not "unsullied".   But, he does not seem to be aware that this is a sign of descent into 'banana republic' status.  After all, in such republics, political battles are about 'all or nothing', i.e. losing an election often does NOT mean just losing for now until the next election, but it can mean losing your freedom and going to jail etc... In a genuine democray, there is power dispersion and there are institutions to keep each other in check. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the war on terror, were conducted within the confines of the American Constitution and its political institutions.  Arguments about civil liberties, treatment of prisoners and the like, went back and forth between these institutions, and led to numerous legal changes and continuing disagreements.  The current actions of the Obama Administration are political in nature, and such vengeful behavior has no place in a genuine democray.  It will further undermine the trust of the public in its political system. 

4) Mr Trevino makes the claim that "withholding information did not yield demonstrable, pragmatic policy gains".  That is a very debatable proposition, but ultimately it is neither here nor there.  It is not that important, especially since we are talking about trivial information (e.g like specific treatment of a few terrorists, etc..).  We all know about the essential information, the wars being fought, etc... But, Mr Trevino is exceedingly naive if he thinks that the release of the information that he is asking is going to "yield demonstrable pragmatic policy gains".  In that respect, the next few years are going to be very instructive for him and others, and people may well come to see Jimmy Carter as a mere early bump on the road to...later banana republic status.  Mr Trevino, like other civil liberties fundamentalists, is going to find out that the sort of country that he naively thinks is "worth fighting for" will be peopled with people unwilling to fight for anything (contemporary Europe is very instructive in that respect).   I certainly do not want to fight (and risk my life) for Mr Trevinos's presumed 'right' to see photos of caskets, or to see secret government memos in the New York Times and other selfhaters. I am not that stupid. 

Out of this world

Mr Trevino has the right to his own opinions, and he deserves respect for expressing them so forthrightly.  Yet, I think that he is profoundly mistaken, and can be accused of mixing up the trivial with the essential.  Moreover, he seems to have forgotten (or perhaps never knew) that human morality is about human intentons, not about the letter of the law, any 'law'.   

1) Let's consider first the essential.  One would hope that Western democratic governments want to preserve democracy and individual freedom.  That means in essence the ability of the individual to freely express his or her opinions and to freely partake in free elections that allow for regular power alternation among genuinely competing worldviews.  To reduce this to a 'right to have access to all detailed information' seems ludicrous.  How could any government function in the REAL world - as opposed to a fundamentalist liberal IDEAL world - without any secrets?  And, what "information" exactly was being denied by the photo ban of soldiers caskets at Dover AFB?  Do the public and the Congress not know about the ongoing wars?   Does the Pentagon not publicly announce casualty figures? etc... Why only demand photos of caskets, and  why not of the bodies themselves, or of remaining body parts?  When the Congress authorized the war, weren't they serious?  Did they think that there could be war without caskets and body parts?  I suggest that if one decides to go to war, one goes to war in order to win, not in order to provide detailed information to the enemy nor to one's own information fetishists.   

And, if we accept for a moment the premise of this liberal mindset,  how could "the consent of the governed" be "fully informed" unless the public has access to photos - no, of videos! - of Obama and Pelosi or Rahm meeting  late at night at the White House (or at any other time and place)?   After all, we all KNOW about the bodies arriving at Dover AFB in Delaware, with or without photos.  But we do NOT know whether Obama, Pelosi and Rahm are conspiring against democracy UNLESS we get to see the videos (with sound, please!) of their meetings.             

In short, to return to the essential, I suggest that we judge the Obama Administration (or any Administration) by its concrete actions as they effect the freedom of speech of citizens and the fairness of the electoral process, and NOT by its stupidities of selectively releasing pictures and memos in order to sustain the country's enemies and satisfy the demands of liberal information fundamentalists.     

2)  I have no doubt that Mr Trevino, or anyone else for that matter, frequently tells "lies", in the narrow sense of not fully telling the factual 'truth' (as he sees it or knows it) about something.  Be it in the presence of a small child, of a distraught person, an employer, an enemy, or whoever. So the problem does not reside with the concept of a "lie" itself.  To judge the validity and morality of a "lie", one has to consider the purpose of that lie.   Is it to avoid paying one's taxes, or is it to GENUINELY help (not 'deceive')  the recipient of the 'lie'?

If Churchill told "lies" in order to be able to defeat the nazis, then he did NOT "deceive" his own people.  They knew that he was trying to defeat the nazis and they supported that goal.  And the (past) ban on photos at Dover AFB was not intended to "deceive" the American people, nor did it do that.  It is just a common sense measure for and by people with common sense.