Friday, March 20, 2015

Seminar 2 Position Statement: Dr Vian Bakir (Journalism & Media)

Too much secrecy and lies … again.

In 1972, Hannah Arendt observed that the danger with over-classification is that not only are the people and their elected representatives denied access to what they must know to form an opinion and make decisions, so are the key actors themselves. She made this observation in relation to the Pentagon papers – approximately seven thousand pages of classified documents prepared by US Secretary of Defence, Robert McNamara, detailing the slippery slope of US engagement in SE Asia. The Pentagon Papers showed that in order to generate support for its war aims, the US government had lied to Congress and the public about its reasons for invading Vietnam. Rather than its publicly proclaimed goals of securing self-determination for the people of S.Vietnam, helping them defeat Communism, containing China, avoiding the ‘domino’ effect, and preventing WWIII, the USA had deeper imperial ambitions.

This debate about secrecy and lying in politics resurfaces in the contemporary era, regarding the Bush administration’s torture-intelligence policy (2001-08). Since ‘9/11’, the Bush administration continuously proclaimed and publicized that Enhanced Interrogation Techniques (EITs) of al-Qa’eda suspects legally did not constitute torture while providing life-saving intelligence.  To bolster their claim regarding torture, the Bush administration created secret legal memos that redefined what constituted torture, so that EITs would fall outside this definition. While these secret, legal memos have since been made public and rescinded, and EITs recognized as constituting torture after all, the claim about EITs effectiveness was left hanging, as the intelligence agencies and politicians kept secret the evidence on which their claims were based.

Only in 2014 was this claim regarding effectiveness refuted, by the long-awaited, partial declassification of a US Senate Intelligence Committee study, concluding the CIA lied to the White House, Congress and media about EITs' efficacy and brutality. The CIA refutes these conclusions. We thus have two scenarios regarding EITs effectiveness, each involving deception. (a) Politicians and watchdog media are inept and the CIA are effective liars; or (b) the CIA is being blamed to protect politicians from being held accountable for their torture policy. Given that politicians secretly changed the legal reality to accommodate their desire for EITs not to constitute torture, scenario (b) is the more probable.

These twin forces of secrecy and continuous manipulation of what enters the public sphere make it difficult to achieve a properly informed citizenry that is aware of what is done in their name, and for their protection. Wouldn’t achieving a properly informed citizenry constitute the first step towards a more progressive conception of security? Wouldn’t this allowing meaningful public reflection on what we would like and expect our own intelligence agencies to do in our own name, and for our own protection? Herein lies a stumbling block to the much vaunted debate on privacy versus security.

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