Powerful, unaccountable, and operating far in the shadows, the Lords of Secrecy, as author Scott Horton calls them, are real, and they are in charge of our national security state.
Horton, a lawyer, journalist and human rights advocate, makes the case in his book, Lords of Secrecy: The National Security Elite and America’s Stealth Foreign Policy, that because the public is allowed to know so little, it has effectively been cut out of national security decisionmaking.
I had a chance to ask Horton some questions earlier this week. Here is an edited transcript:
Who are the Lords of Secrecy? Name me three.
The Lords of Secrecy are the heads of the national security and intelligence agencies who exercise the power to create secrets.
But I think we have to designate, as the dark overlord of the Lords of Secrecy, Richard Bruce Cheney. I don’t think there’s anybody else who even comes close. The man who invented stamps with his own special security classifications. He is a cult figure for the Lords of Secrecy.
But I would say it’s the heads of the NSA, CIA and various other agencies.
Speaking of the CIA director, I was really struck, watching John Brennan at his press conference in early December, after the Senate Intelligence Committee released a redacted executive summary of its report on CIA torture. He spoke with such incredible confidence and certitude. It wasn’t just that he looked unscathed, he actually looked emboldened. Is he untouchable now?
Yes. You’re asking what is the question: Are the people at the CIA who implemented and oversaw the dark sites and torture program untouchable? And the answer appears to be yes. Brennan, of course, has consistently denied that he was involved in this program. He’s claimed that he was critical of it–but I can’t find a single person at the agency who is capable of bearing witness to that, so I’m skeptical. But he has been an aggressive defender of those who implemented the program. He has supported their advancement ahead of their peers within the agency.
That is one of the most striking facts that this report uncovers. It’s figures like Robert Eatinger, who clearly is the key figure who misled the Justice Department in securing the legal opinions, and who used his position as acting general counsel to try and block the publication of the report, to slow it down, and to intimidate staffers who were involved in it.
And Alfreda Bikowsky, the queen of torture, who was involved in a breathtakingly lengthy string of screw-ups of the utmost gravity — and not only has she never suffered any negative repercussions from that, it actually seems to have accelerated her career trajectory.
In an excerpt from your book that we are publishing next week, you make a persuasive argument that bureaucrats love secrets, and that if left unchecked, they use secrecy to hide their failures and missteps, and in that way make themselves unaccountable. And that as a result, the most secretive and corrupt steadily climb to the top of the heap. But how is that different from any other organizational structure?
The same may be true in many other areas of human endeavor, but it’s particularly true in the national security sector and with respect to government bureaucracies, because they have a much more vigorous power to create secrets.
So a businessmen can say: ‘Hey, that’s my secret.’ He can threaten to dismiss employees who disclose his secrets. But he doesn’t have anything like the palette of powers that the state bureaucracy has, especially the national security bureaucracy, which can threaten to arrest and lock away someone who betrays secrets, who can destroy their lives, seize their homes, cancel their pensions. They have much greater power to enforce their secrecy.
And I think the secrets to some extent are of greater import because they go to matters of public trust. Questions of national security are questions for the people. to a large extent.
In the book, you raise some essential, fundamental questions that we simply don’t hear in the modern political discourse. Like, why would U.S. drone strikes be secret? Similarly, what argument is there to keep anything about torture secret anymore–including the names of non-covert officials who took part in it? And that’s not to mention surveillance or cybersecurity. It’s like they took all the issues of national security and just declared them off limits. How did we come to this?
One thing that just amazes me about the Beltway culture in Washington is the way these claims of secrecy are just accepted. There doesn’t seem to be any will or spirit to fight back and challenge that. And that’s true for most of the press that covers it.
When you look back and ask: Why are they trying to keep this secret? What’s the rationale for it? What we find–and I think the drone program is an excellent example–are the shallowest pretexts for secrecy.
There’s no consideration given to how this subverts the democratic process of the United States. This question of running a 10-year war in Pakistan should have been the subject of deliberation, discussion and decisions taken through our democratic process, which involves a public articulation of the basis of the action by the executive, and a discussion and voting up or down of the proposal by the Congress, with the public being informed about it.
Now I would say that it’s entirely legitimate for the CIA to run a covert tactical operation that involves striking Mujahadeen leader X at a certain time and a certain place, and this is something that doesn’t have to go through all these processes. I’ll accept that, no problem.
But let’s assume that this is going on for 10 years, involves 700 strikes, kills 4,000 people. That is a war, by any real definition. Can you say that qualifies as covert action? That’s not what the term covert action means. And that they could do this without challenge in Washington is to me just mind boggling.
What explains the elite media’s tolerance for this kind of secrecy? It would seem to violate their core principles. And yet they play along, respecting unwarranted secrecy. They collaborate with it.
They collaborate with it, I think that’s right. The media is a big part of the problem. I think we have to say, of course, that there are really excellent topnotch reporters out there who risk their careers and do terrific work. But increasingly we have a corporate media culture that does not encourage or meaningfully support such journalists. And instead it tends to cultivate and support a different kind of journalist: not the watchdog but the lapdog.
And I think the role of lapdog journalism is highlighted in the Senate Select Committee report, where we see evidence of cases in which the CIA is feeding “leaks” to selected journalists with whom they have developed a good rapport information–they’re not really leaks, they’re “pleaks,” they’re planted leaks. And the leak is “super-secret information we’re giving you a scoop on” that actually happens to be false, to advance their propaganda game. And the journalist laps it up without any critical testing of the data, running it as a scoop or as a leak.
A leak, by definition has got to be something that someone is releasing to the media against the will of the established order, not in furtherance of it. They don’t seem to be able to make this really fundamental distinction.
And of course what’s going on is they want to advance their careers. I think we’ve got a lot of people covering the national security sector who are eager to build a career and they think the best way to do that is to have a trusted relationship with key sources within the CIA. And by the way, that’s what a professional journalist does, I have no problem with that. But what they are missing is that organizations like the CIA understand that process.
They changed the equation, in terms of what reporters get in return for what they give.
They’ve changed the dynamic of it. I know my own sources within the CIA repeatedly describe to me how the agency has picked its cooperating journalists. They’ve also described to me how they have placed their people with broadcasters. And these are people who usually have just left the intelligence community. Have “retired”–but of course you never actually retire, you merely change the tenor of your relationship somewhat.
They get clearance for this. It’s done, it’s understood. They get clearance in order to try to manipulate and influence these media organizations. And to me it’s rather amazing that the broadcast media don’t get it–or they claim not to get it.
Let me ask you about the NSA and surveillance. Here we are, more than a year and a half after the Snowden revelations started to emerge, and there’s been no legislative response at all. It seems to have turned out very well for the Lords of Secrecy. Why is that?
I think the public’s attitude toward these programs is very critical. But that appears to have no consequence inside the Washington Beltway. None.
And I think this is an area where when you compare to other democracies–Germany, for instance, and some Scandinavian countries– when the public says we don’t want that, the government reacts. That doesn’t happen in Washington.
And that’s because the Lords of Secrecy are oblivious to public opinion. They could care less.
They understand that they control the political decision-making process. And I would say that within the U.S. Congress, the one consideration that’s turned out to be absolutely dispositive on predicting how a congressman will vote on efforts to pare back the powers of the NSA is this: How much money did they take from the intelligence and defense contractors?
So I take it your hopes for the upcoming era of GOP congressional oversight are not high?
Well, certainly not in the next Congress. I think the next Congress is a bought-and-paid-for Congress. Even if they pass something, it will appear to limit the NSA, but will not actually do it.
The better sources of pressure are going to be our allies–the Europeans, NATO allies in particular–and potentially the courts saying that some of these procedures are illegal.
I won’t rule out the possibility of a change in Congress in the future. I think public opinion may grind fine and may grind slowly, but ultimately it will have some effect. It’s just not able to have an immediate effect because of the change in the nature of American democracy. Our democracy just isn’t much of a democracy anymore. I don’t think the people really have much meaningful input in national-security decision-making.
To the extent that Obama, initially at least, had any real interest in reining in the intelligence community, where did he go wrong? How early was he owned by the intelligence community? And how thoroughly?
Speaking with people inside the White House, what I’ve heard consistently is that these issues were dominated from the first months of the administration by John O. Brennan, and that Brennan built a network of close allies within the White House that included [former chief of staff] Rahm Emanuel and [former senior adviser] David Plouffe and also included [now chief of staff] Denis McDonough. McDonough’s been a key ally within the White House staff since the beginning.
What they did is they excluded liberal critics and civil libertarians from the dialogue. I’ve been told repeatedly that when discussions occurred on these critical issues, the intelligent, well-informed, balanced, liberal national security voices to whom Obama had once turned were simply not in the room.
So I think one of the big questions is: In his last two years, is he going to do something to change that? I think it’s unlikely, but he’s facing a lot of criticism from his own camp right now, and he may want to do something to address that criticism before he leaves.
This is the indicator I would look to: Does John O. Brennan remain as director of the CIA. As long as he’s there, I wouldn’t expect any progress on these issues.
When Obama chose Brennan, did he know what he was getting into?
Remember that Brennan’s name originally, during the transition period, was floated to be director of the CIA and there were three people who very aggressively objected to him, and that was Glenn Greenwald, Andrew Sullivan and me.
I think we claimed a win on that. But he got, as a door prize, the appointment as adviser at the White House, which did not require confirmation of any sort. And he was able to use that to develop a very powerful psychological relationship with the president. The people I’ve spoken with have consistently told me that people on the outside didn’t sufficiently understand or value this relationship that Brennan had cultivated with Obama. And by the way, Brennan used it to fill Obama’s ear with unadulterated bullshit.
Any question I haven’t asked you that I should have?
What should happen to the CIA? Seriously, I think that’s one of the big questions. If the Senate report proved anything it was that Harry Truman was absolutely right in his fundamental analysis of the proper role of the CIA. Truman said you really cannot have the same operation handling intelligence analysis and covert activities. The people who run the covert activities will dominate and they will always want to claim that whatever complete numbskull thing they did in their covert operations was a success. Which means they completely adulterate their analysis.
You may have to have covert operations, you certainly have to have intelligence analysis, but having both of those operations under the same roof is really stupid.
Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images