When states keep secrets, who decides which ones are worth keeping?

And why does it matter if Edward Snowden is a hero or a narcissist?

Secrets and Leaks:
the Dilemmas of State Secrecy
Rahul Sagar
Princeton, 304pp, £27.95

When states keep secrets, who decides which ones are worth keeping? This is one of the questions that underpinned the recent parliamentary debate about oversight of the security services, following Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations. The conventional answer is that the executive decides – which in the US means the presidency.

In his 1973 book, The Imperial Presidency, the American historian Arthur Schlesinger argued that the executive had grown too powerful and the “secrecy system” it oversaw had become bloated and dangerous. The American constitution had outlined a set of checks and balances to limit the secret-keeping power of the executive, but over the course of the 20th century, as the US fought more wars and secrecy became more central to national security, practice departed from principle. Open government was replaced by a lying, dissembling executive branch that sought to “bury its mistakes, manipulate its citizens and maximize its power”. How could this process be reversed? Congressional and judicial oversight was needed to reign in the president. Transparency could then once again trump secrecy.

In this timely study, the political theorist Rahul Sagar argues that this solution is too simple. It gets the history wrong: the American government was never as open as the story of decline suggests. And it gets the politics wrong, too. Institutional mechanisms for monitoring state secrecy just don’t work.

Take an example: the rotation of officials. When a new president is elected, new officials accompany him to office. The idea is that they will have different priorities to their predecessors and will therefore be more likely to expose past wrongdoing. But coverups work to the advantage of those in power, even when they cut across party lines: revelations of abuses of power lead to calls for more oversight, which then tie the hands of the new government. So, state officials can’t be trusted to enforce transparency. Judges and lawmakers can’t be relied on either. Both are too deferential to the executive and easily captured by special interests. Sagar shows persuasively that we cannot trust institutions to “watch the watchers”. We must instead rely on the “virtues and vices” of individuals.

Sagar’s thesis is that if we want a credible way to monitor state secrecy and control the “overclassification” of secrets, there is no better way than whistleblowing. He defines whistleblowing as a kind of “unauthorised disclosure” – the public version of “leaking”. Leakers disclose information anonymously. Too many leaks create a paranoid political culture and provide conspiracy theorists with ammunition: if secret information is made public anonymously, everything that was secret looks like a conspiracy; it becomes hard to separate the cover-ups of embarrassing mistakes and the concealment of minor abuses from real conspiracies.

Whistleblowing avoids this extra layer of secrecy. When done right, it is a kind of justifiable civil disobedience, which provides a way of striking the balance between secrecy and transparency that democracy requires. But according to Sagar, whistleblowers can also be a threat to democracy. They are not accountable representatives but private individuals, acting in their own interest. And they can have poor judgement, seeing abuses and conspiracies where there are none and threatening national security as a result.

Despite these costs, Sagar thinks whistleblowing is the best mechanism we have to monitor state secrecy. The tone of his book is pessimistic: the problems of secrecy in a democracy are intractable; the tensions between security, liberty and privacy can’t be resolved. But Sagar does set out in detail what it would mean to get whistleblowing right. The ideal whistleblower would be cautious, first contacting their boss and only later going to the press. On rare occasions, where the information that whistleblowers disclose highlights “gross wrongdoing” and a catastrophic abuse of power, the disclosure of which is patently in the public interest, they wouldn’t need to reveal their identity.

Sagar’s example is Abu Ghraib. Most of the time, however, the disclosure is of “suspected” not “gross” wrongdoing. In standard cases, an assessment of the whistleblowers’ intentions is required. The public must be able to examine their motives and ensure they are acting in “good faith” – they must not be partisan, driven by morality, politics or revenge. They should be “disinterested”.

This is a strange argument. Sagar’s critique of institutional oversight shows a clearsighted realism about state power and national security. But if Abu Ghraib is the standard for gross wrongdoing, then his scheme doesn’t allow for the many other kinds of wrongs that states commit and conceal – notably the NSA’s surveillance programme. His picture of the surveillance state is far too rosy. But his focus on intentions is the real red herring, and his preoccupation with “good faith” whistleblowers too moralistic.

Why does it matter if Edward Snowden is a hero or a narcissist? What’s important is what whistleblowers uncover, the insights into the hidden workings of state secrecy they give that a government committee never could. Focusing on the personality of individuals fixes the terms of the argument so that the whistleblower can never win. It is a gift to conservative defenders of surveillance that lets the state off the hook.

Katrina Forrester is research fellow in the history of political thought at St John’s College, Cambridge

Men in black: US secret service agents in Columbus, Ohio in 2007. Image: Christopher Morris/VII

This article first appeared in the 13 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Exodus

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Netflix's Ozark is overstuffed – not to mention tonally weird

Could the channel use a hit? Every time my subscription leaves my bank account, I think again that it could.

The main reason why Ozark, the new Netflix series, feels so underpowered has to do with its star, Jason Bateman (who also directs): a good actor who badly wants for charisma, he simply can’t carry it alone. Watching the first few episodes, I kept thinking of Jon Hamm in Mad Men and (a better example here) Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad, both of whom played, as does Bateman, characters around which the plots of their respective series turned. When they were on screen, which was often, it was all but impossible to tear your eyes from them; when they were off it, you felt like you were only biding your time until they returned. But when Bateman disappears from view, you hardly notice. In fact, it feels like a plus: at least now you might get to see a bit more of the deft and adorable Laura Linney.

In Ozark, Bateman is Marty, an outwardly square guy whose big secret is that he is a money launderer for the second biggest drugs cartel in Mexico. When the series opens, he and his wife Wendy (Linney) and their two children are living in Chicago, where he nominally works as a financial advisor.

By the end of the first episode, however, they’re on their way to the Lake of the Ozarks in rural Missouri. Marty’s partner, Bruce, has been on the fiddle, and the cartel, having summarily executed him, now wants Marty both to pay back the cash, and to establish a few new businesses in which future income may be cleaned far from the prying eyes of the law enforcement agencies. If this sounds derivative, it is. We’re in the realm of Breaking Bad, only where that show gave us out-of-control Bunsen burners and flesh-eating chemicals, this one is more preoccupied with percentages and margins.

Where’s the friction? Well, not only is the FBI on Marty’s tail, his wife has been cheating on him, with the result that their marriage is now just another of his business arrangements. The locals (think Trump supporters with beards as big as pine trees) have proved thus far to be on the unfriendly side, and having paid off their debts, the only house Marty can afford has a cliché – sorry, crotchety old guy – living in the basement. On paper, admittedly, this all sounds moderately promising. But hilarity does not ensue. As dull as the Lake of the Ozarks when the tourist season is over, not even Linney can make Bill Dubuque’s dialogue come alive. Her character should be traumatised: before they left Chicago, the cartel, for reasons I do not completely understand, pushed her podgy lover – splat! – off his balcony. Instead, she’s fussing about the crotchety old guy’s sexism.

Ozark is overstuffed and tonally weird, so I won’t be binge-watching this one. This completes rather a bad run for me and Netflix; after the lame new series of House of Cards and the egregious Gypsy, this is the third of its shows on the trot to bore me rigid. Could the channel use a hit? Every time my subscription leaves my bank account, I think again that it could.

And now to The Sweet Makers: A Tudor Treat (19 July, 8pm), in which we hear the sound of the “living history” barrel being scraped so loudly, those attending the meeting at which it was commissioned must surely have worn ear defenders. Basically, this is a series in which four confectioners “go back in time” to discover how their forebears used sugar (first, the Tudors; next week, the Georgians).

What it means in practice is lots of Generation Game-style faffing with candied roses and coriander comfits by people in long skirts and silly hats – a hey-nonny-nonny fiesta of pointlessness that is itself a sugar coating for those nasty things called facts (ie a bit of tokenism about slavery and our ancestors’ trouble with their teeth).

Resident expert, food historian Dr Annie Gray, strained to give the proceedings urgency, sternly reminding the confectioners that the sugar house they’d spent hours building did not yet have a roof. But who cared if it didn’t? Destined to be eaten by fake Tudor guests at a fake Tudor banquet, it wasn’t as if anyone was going to lose their head for it – not even, alas, at Broadcasting House. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder

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