Saturday, March 21, 2015
Seminar 2 Position Statement: Dr Emma Briant (Journalism)
Secrecy, Security and Social Science
C Wright Mills called on his fellow social scientists in 1956 to illuminate the 'power elite' because democracy "implies that those who bear the consequences of decisions have enough knowledge - not to speak of power - to hold the decision-makers accountable" (1999: 325). The responsibility is upon social science to evaluate the ethics of certain practices used by government and facilitate fuller debate of policy and practice. However, David Miller and Tom Mills (2010) argue that since 9/11 increasing numbers of what they call ‘terrorologists’ have emerged in Britain: a community of security ‘experts’ or academics who lack independence and have connections to government or contracting. There is often a resistance to social scientists offering critique from outside of security studies and terrorism studies approaches, and many academics find a problematic secrecy and exclusion from debate. A gulf was visible in my own research with academics sometimes being viewed as 'outsiders' - barriers are then sometimes produced where practitioners working on security feel their activities 'misunderstood' (Briant, 2015). In one US interview, Dennis McBride, who following a military career worked for a contractor and Washington think-tank the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, commented: “things’ve changed a little bit but there’s still this attitude that ...we get from academic social science in particular that comes across as they’re above, they’re better than soldiers and... they’re not gonna participate in what we call here ‘baby-killing’.” (Interview: McBride, 5th June 2009 quoted in Briant 2015: 180).
Those working within security often find frustration themselves in the insularity of government agencies, often referred to as 'stovepipes', acting as an echo chamber and preventing the emergence of new ideas (Briant 2015). Some stress concern about a culture towards secrecy UK Former Director of Targeting and Information Operations Graham Wright observed a popular military perception he found concerning, that discussing Abu Ghraib might ‘inflame’ criticism and ‘put soldiers at risk on the ground’ resulting in secrecy over such incidents (Interview: 1st June 2009). Likewise, in the US, former US Navy Chief of Information Frank Thorp observed that 'There were those who said ‘Why should we even talk about that publicly?’ – because if we talk about it the enemy will take advantage of it. Well that’s true, but the issue is not not to talk about it the issue is not to do it. It will become public one way or another. (Interview: 24th August 2009; quoted in Briant 2015: 59). Likewise Mackay and Tatham have criticised internal stovepipes and have observed that many of the ‘lessons’ the MoD identified in Iraq are kept in a database in Shrivenham, ‘overclassified, to prevent criticism becoming public’ (Mackay and Tatham, 2009: 27).
A gulf in perceptions results between some practitioners working in security and academic and legal judgement on security matters that have arisen since 9/11 which may feed into, in some cases, the emergence of practices (discussed in other papers at this event) that have been widely seen as unethical and their subsequent concealment even from others within government. There are degrees of removal from wider society implied by the secrecy of government organisations which have produced a gulf between some practitioners' understandings, and wider public concern and distrust. In extreme cases, the gulf between the 'outsiders' and those accountable to them has set alternate moral standards and allowed abuse. McBride further described outsider reaction to torture as 'the most overblown thing I think I have experienced'; he pointed to what he calls 'the fastidiousness of the five-sided building' and contrasted the US Defense Department approach - obeying a list of things allowed and not allowed - with what he saw as an unscientific 'judgmental' attitude of social science - 'this feels like torture' (Interview: McBride, 5th June 2009 quoted in Briant 2015: 180). Of course, the Pentagon must not be above morality as defined by those to whom it is accountable and in order to ensure this there must be greater access by independent researchers to government and greater willingness to engage in dialogue with critics.
Secrecy and exclusion can result in some of the complexity of actual practice being lost from academic enquiry through over-reliance on leaked documents. It also may reinforce a simplistic attitude of 'them' and 'us' that prevents us seeing the agency and differentiation of opinion of those in government which could actually allow scope for real change. Greater openness of government to researchers would result in academic enquiry based on strong evidence being able to inform attempts to reform systems and broader ethical debates would encourage an informed electorate. I am very keen to hear what all speakers, but particularly those with first hand 'insider' experience, think of the evidence and arguments I have presented here and welcome their ideas on the ideal way for all concerned to proceed.