peak cynicism

Back in the glossy days when LI was a grad student, we wrote a master’s report in philosophy that made various approaches to Derrida. The first part of this report posed the question: why has eavesdropping never incited any philosophical interest? Contrast that to voyeurism, for instance – huge swathes of Sartre are devoted to peering at the voyeur who is peering at you. Anyway, we took up the task of eavesdropping, but – in keeping with the worst habit in our nature – we simply made a few fragmentary suggestions and moved on. Our idea was that foreclosing the possibility of eavesdropping is the central task of logocentrism – but don’t worry, we have no intention of plopping that down and going through all those dirty socks here. In any case, our report was gravid with suggestions that we never worked out. As my former roommate M. used to observe, LI always leaves food on our plate and always leaves some last dish or fork in the sink when we are cleaning the dishes. There is a sloth that seizes a man just as he nears the end of a project, a penultimate laziness, that is really from the devil…

But enough about our bad habits. We’ve been reading a very good book about the Department of War’s system of eavesdropping, Chatter, by (oh, the heartburn and envy of it!) Patrick R. Keefe, who hasn’t even graduated from Yale, yet, according to his back flap bio. Is this fair, is this right? And it is a good book, one that fashionably combines the narrative of the travel book and an inherently abstract subject. Or perhaps I should say, its subject, the NSA, Echelon, and the whole damn eavesdropping system, attempts to screen itself in abstractions reduced to acronyms: GCHQ, CHALET, RHYOLITE, etc. Keefe is a very plausible writer, and he operates much like a “packet sniffer”, going to abandoned sigint sites, or operational ones, interviewing people in the secrets business, and coming up with a fair share of skewed anecdotes, like the one about the British sigint guy who confessed to being a child molester AND a communist spy – a rare twofer.

The beast that comes into focus through these various blind gropes and feels is a pretty hairy thing. Yet the beast is actually bigger and stronger than any human organization that could manage it. Perhaps not the greatest comfort, but one nevertheless.

Still, we are always interested in people who take government by the people and for the people to mean just that – originalists, if you like – and who reveal as many government secrets as they can, in the hope of diminishing the secrecy advantage the intelligent agencies and the government holds over the mere private citizen – the idiot, if you will, to lean upon the old Greek origin of that word. Keefe interviews one of them, Steven Aftergood (wonderfully Bunyanesque name) whose link is here. In this age in which liberals have taken up the cudgels of secrecy, LI, not getting the message, is still back in the seventies with Senator Frank Church. We are all about privacy. It is funny that Church, the Gipper’s bete noire, is being ouija-ed by the rightwing talking heads on the eve of Fitzmas. The same talking heads who thought the Patriot act was just the ticket in the post 9/11 environment (an act the provisions of which would have done absolutely nothing to prevent the hijacking of the four planes). It is peak cynicism. I am looking forward to the pundit casuistry in the days ahead.


Brian Miller said…
I don't know, roger. There is still something sleazy, treasonous, 'bout the hole Plame affair. Sure, the spasms of patriotism from the Left are...a wee bit cynical and self-serving, but still....Outing a CIA agent for a petty political purpose-especially a CIA creature that at least somewhat is on the "good" side (i.e., anti-proliferation).

So, I can't totally agree with the "out every agent" argument. I still think that in today's world we do indeed need secrets and even spies.
roger said…
Brian, I agree with you completely. I am waiting to celebrate Fitzmas like anybody else. I think the leaks were directed at Plame, really, and that we were seeing the traditional Republican program of trying to usurp the CIA for political purposes, which invariably leads to illegal activities.

But -- I do think that people have had an odd reaction to intelligence since 9/11. What was 9/11? A massive failure of intelligence. What has been done since? Pumping money into intelligence. The same kind of intelligence we had pre 9/11. And we have gotten these dumb stories about how privacy barriers kept intelligence agencies from sharing. Well, that explanation is insane. These agencies live on their intermural hatred one for the other. The two things that could have prevented 9/11 are: enforcing laws and procedures on the books already about airport security, and ... emphasis from the executive office after the office was briefed about the Al Qaeda danger. If Bush had ordered some subordinate -- say Ms. Rice -- to alert, say, the office of transportation, and the intelligence agencies, to be on extra alert, I don't believe the refusal of the NSA to share info with the FBI about two of the hijackers a week before 9/11 would have happened.

However, who knows? In any case, we should always be cautious about giving the state too much power to create secrets.