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.