Secrecy is about power, not protection

Have you ever been a part of a group in which secrets were being shared? Where were you in relation to those secrets? Were you the person sharing the secrets? The person learning the secrets? Or were you out of  the secrets loop? Perhaps you were the subject of the secrets.  Regardless, where you are in relation to the secrets being shared is a definitive characteristic of one’s status within a group or sub-group because secrets are a mechanism of power.

The same is true at the national or societal level, though admittedly the dynamics become much more complex. In any given society there are those who learn and share information, those who receive the information, those who are the subjects of that information and those who are not.  What’s more, this flow of information is typically directed upward along the social hierarchy, with those at the top, whom we can call the power elite receiving the most information and those at the bottom receiving the least.

Those at the top of the ladder have access to the most sophisticated technologies and infrastructure for gathering, disseminating and analyzing information while those at the bottom are mostly dependent upon the elite to share their information.  And this is where secrecy comes in.  The more the power elite can control the dissemination of information to the lower tiers of the society, the more power they can incorporate into their social groups. Indeed, one measure of power may very well be one’s ability to control the flow of information.  Power may very well be defined as the product between how much information one can glean from other groups and how much information can be kept secure from the knowledge of other groups.

The Bush Administration knew this very well. They ran a tight ship of secrecy, making sure that very little leaked from the inner sanctums of their power groups. Everything was subject to strict control, to the point where Vice President Cheney actually invented his own Top Secret categorization.  To avoid sharing information the Bush team claimed executive privilege. When that didn’t work, Cheney actually defined himself as part of the legislature, not the executive, therefore not subject to judicial demands for executive information while at the same time claiming executive privilege. The Bush Tango around releasing information was almost a thing of beauty.

At the same time, no other administration placed so much emphasis on gathering information on as may people as is humanly possible while excluding as many from the flow of information as could happen.  It was under the Bush Administration that Total Information Awareness was developed, shot down by Congress, then forgotten, then renamed and passed on to the NSA.  Those laws designed to protect the privacy of American citizens.  No problem.  Ignore them, undermine them, undercut them and make sure no one knows what we are doing.  Those who do know, such as the gang of eight legislators in the House and Senate intel. committees, impose the strictest secrecy enforced by law, or political maneuvering to guarantee that no one knows the extent of the information being gathered. Otherwise, order the CIA to conduct program without even telling Congress. If Congress asks questions lie.

Now we have a new administration inheriting the power infrastructure from what may, by the algorithm defined above, be defined as the most powerful in the history of this country.  Will Obama take a step back and scale down these huge discrepancies of power.  He has promised that his would be a transparent administration.  In some ways maybe it is. On the other hand, the infrastructure, the rationalization, the experts are all there for his use, and Obama does not seem interested in dismantling such a colossal power structure.  If Lord Acton was correct about the corrupting effects of power, then we must admit that Obama has inherited the most corrupting infrastructure in history.  Power institutions do not have a history of disempowering themselves.

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