Catch 22 and the Secrecy Debate

Submitted by: Mike Spindell, Guest Blogger

National_Security_Agency.svgOne of the greatest novels I’ve ever read was Joseph Heller’s “Catch 22”. It is in turns humorous, tragic and distressing. It is finally one of the best commentaries on the insanity of the human condition, especially in wartime. Catch 22’s protagonist is Yossarian, an Air Force Bombardier in World War II, who no longer wants to keep flying the increasingly deadly missions over Germany. So desperate is Yossarian that he is willing to act out in any way possible that will get him grounded and he is hoping that he will be declared unfit for duty due to insanity. The problem is a military regulation that is described as “Catch 22”.

“The “Catch-22” is that “anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn’t really crazy” Hence, pilots who request a mental fitness evaluation are sane, and therefore must fly in combat. At the same time, if an evaluation is not requested by the pilot, he will never receive one and thus can never be found insane, meaning he must also fly in combat. Therefore, Catch-22 ensures that no pilot can ever be grounded for being insane even if he is.”

The revelations of NSA spying have become a great topic of discussion these days, though it is merely a continuance of what we know our government has been doing since the origins of the Cold War, fueled by an ever more sophisticated technology in this digital age. A few people have been privy to the use of secrecy to hide the many violations of constitutional rights, human rights and war crimes. They have acted out of conscience to expose these violations only to face imprisonment and vilification by not only the Intelligence establishment, but by the bi-partisan Washington Establishment and their pundit minions. The most prominent of these “whistle blowers” have been Bradley Manning, Julian Assange and now Edward Snowden. The Establishment I refer to represents the Intelligence/Military/Corporate Complex (IMCC) that is and has been, in control of our country. They are the “Permanent Government” of the United States and have been for most of our history. The IMCC owns or controls most of our supposed “free press” which includes the media outlets from which Americans get their news and form their opinions. Despite the outrage of many here and many in the public, I believe that almost nothing will stop this perversion of this country under the guise of protecting it because of the logic inherent in Catch 22. Yet I have also read an article this week that discusses the NSA issue and actually ends with a modicum of hope. Since it was written by a fearless investigative reporter, whose outlook is usually pessimistic, I took heart from it and perhaps you will also if you oppose this invasion of our lives, supposedly done to protect us.The New York Times, although vilified by many conservatives as a “liberal propaganda outlet”, is in reality the most Establishment of media outlets. That it sometimes allows diverse opinions to dominate it Editorial and Op Ed pages, when it comes to the crunch the “Times” caters to the financial elite of this country. On June 10th they ran an article with the headline: “Debate on Secret Data Looks Unlikely, Partly Because of Secrecy”. In reading it I immediately thought of Heller’s book.

“Edward J. Snowden said he had leaked secret documents about National Security Agency surveillance to spark a public debate about civil liberties. President Obama, while deploring the leak, endorsed the same goal of a vigorous public discussion of the “trade-offs” between national security and personal privacy. “I think it’s healthy for our democracy, “ he said on Friday of the prospect of re-examining surveillance policy. But the legal and political obstacles to such a debate, whether in Congress or more broadly, are formidable. They only begin with the facts that the programs at issue are highly classified and that Mr. Snowden is now a hunted man, potentially facing a prison sentence for disclosing the very secrets that started the discussion that Mr. Obama welcomed.

On Monday, the White House spokesman, Jay Carney, was pressed about just how the surveillance dialogue the president invited might take place.

Asked whether Mr. Obama would himself lead the debate or push for new legislation, Mr. Carney demurred. “I don’t have anything to preview,” he said, adding that the president’s major national security speech May 23, before the N.S.A. disclosures, showed “his interest in having the debate and the legitimacy of asking probing questions about these matters.”

So the President welcomes a national debate on the issue of the NSA invading the privacy of all of the public’s electronic communications, but since all of the NSA’s doings are highly classified, the only way they can be openly discussed is to risk prosecution for violating secrecy laws. Manning disclosed some secrets and wound up in solitary confinement. Assange is forced to remain in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, or risk extradition and prosecution, while Snowden is now on the run and being vilified as a traitor. President Obama is of course being disingenuous in calling for a national debate on this issue, when in truth this is made impossible by our secrecy laws. We can’t even debate the effectiveness of this program in deterring terrorism, because the instances where this has supposedly happened are classified for national security. You cannot have an honest debate, with one side holding onto all of the relevant information and basically stating “Trust us the evidence is there, but we can’t let you see it because then we would have to arrest you”. The President’s position is essentially a Catch 22 position. Incidentally, the President has it within his power to actually allow a debate:

“Steven Aftergood, who runs the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, said: “If President Obama really welcomed a debate, there are all kinds of things he could do in terms of declassification and disclosure to foster it. But he’s not doing any of them.”

Nor is it clear that political pressure from either Congress or the public will be sufficient to prompt the administration to open the door wider on government surveillance. Congressional leaders of both parties have so far expressed support for the newly disclosed initiatives, and the legislation governing such surveillance was renewed for five years at the end of 2012.”

So the logic of this situation is this:

A. We profess to be a country governed by the Constitution and ultimately by the people through the electoral process.

B. To be able to exercise our rights as citizens, via the electoral process, we need information on the major issues of how our government is operating.

C. To “protect us” from our “enemies” we need intelligence agencies gathering information to discern threats to our country and this “gathering” must include information on all of our citizens.

D. The operations of these intelligence agencies must be cloaked in secrecy to keep our “enemies” from knowing what we know.

E. Only a very few of our elected representatives are allowed information on the operations of our intelligence community as putative oversight.

F. These intelligence representatives are precluded by secrecy laws from disclosing what they learn to their legislative colleagues.

G. If they can’t disclose any intelligence information that they find disturbing, then in effect they have no oversight ability over the Intelligence Establishment since they can’t get legislation to counter it.

H. Without oversight the Intelligence Agencies can do as they please.

I. Therefore when it comes to Intelligence the American people are unable to exercise their rights as citizens via informed votes in the electoral process.

In the end, though there are logicians here who may be able to express the logic with more elegance than above, we are discussing an Intelligence Catch 22.  Another example of this is the various legislators and pundits who have welcomed the “helpful” information that Snowden supplied, but vilified him for not going up the “chain of command”, rather than going public. This begs the question which is that had Snowden gone up the “chain of command” the “helpful” information would never have been disclosed.

Russ Baker, who I consider one of the best investigative journalists in the business, read this New York Times story and did an article for his website The story is titled: Why Obama Cannot Undo the Surveillance Society—But We Can. Russ Baker writes:

“Today, the New York Times, in a news/analysis article, essentially declared that there was no hope for any kind of restraint of growing government spying on the public. Not if it is up to the people’s representatives.” Baker goes on:

“When even an establishment-serving entity like the New York Times virtually concedes that there’s no hope for reform even when the vast majority might want it, this is a signal that something is deeply amiss in this society.”

“What the Times and other media will not and perhaps cannot say, is this: not only is Congress impotent in these matters, but it wouldn’t even matter if the president himself chose to act. Here’s why.

As history shows us, when it comes to the overall direction of American governance, absent generally minor tweaks of foreign policy and somewhat more robust swings on certain domestic issues that rouse voting bases (notably things like gay and reproductive rights and, lately, immigration) presidents of both parties rarely deviate from a kind of “consensus” cobbled together by people in academia, media and government, a consensus that almost always serves the interests of a fairly small number of wealthy people and interests. (If you’ve never heard this notion, a visit to one of our remaining public libraries might be in order.)

This is not a partisan issue. It doesn’t matter who is president. No “ordinary American who can dream of one day becoming president” is in a position to alter the basic equation, which would involve bucking the vast military-financial-industrial-academic complex that drives the American economy, funds our political elections and keeps people in line through any means necessary. That’s as true of Obama as it was of Kennedy or Nixon or…fill in the blank. For more on this, see our 2010 piece “What Obama is Up Against.”

Russ Baker continues in the article discussing the “What” and the “Why” that no president has the power to take on the Oligarchy that rule this nation in detail and it makes a compelling case. At the end of this piece I will give a link to my own take on this that I wrote last year, citing Baker as a source. The conclusion that Russ leaves us with is his belief that where the President and Congress lack the power, we do have the power if we act.

“We all like to believe we are free, and that we determine the direction of this country, but it has seldom been true in the past and it is even less true now.

Many of us find this too upsetting to contemplate, or, given the comforts that financial security affords, confuse economic with political freedom. Either way, blinders are the preferred apparel.

And yet there is real reason to wake up, and pay attention. The truth is that the “powerful” individuals in whom we invest our hope have little power. But, paradoxically, the individuals who actually have power—or rather could have power—are….ourselves.

Most of us feel better believing we cannot do anything, because then we do not have to do anything. But if each of us did something, even a little, and got a few others to do something, before you knew it, we might actually have democracy.

I remember covering the fall of communism in East Germany. I personally witnessed individuals take action to make sure that the window of opportunity got wider—holding covert meetings, getting onto buses with ski masks to hand out leaflets, signaling resistance to the authorities in small ways so that the establishment workers would themselves begin letting go of the status quo.

If it can happen in one “surveillance society,” it can happen in our “surveillance-society-in-the-making.” Spread the word: freedom is not so bad, once you get used to it.”

I believe with Russ Baker that our last best hope to have the kind of country that it is run under our Constitutional principles, is to dissent and to “do something”, with the idea that if most of us do a little something, our power to defeat the oligarchy’s hold on this country can work in the end. I was attracted to Jonathan Turley’s blog in the first place because he is a man who has done more than a “little something” towards the end of making our Constitution the guiding document proposed by our country’s founders. My writing here represents my own “little something”, though in a less effective way than our proprietor.

Most of those who comment here are also doing their “little something’s” to retake America for its citizens. It will be a long process and in the end, given my age, I don’t hope to see victory. I am not of the stature of Jonathan Turley, nor of Russ Baker, but I believe I can contribute in a small way as I’ve tried to contribute throughout my life. We are bucking the trend millions of years of evolution and tens of thousands of years of society, but in the end either we as humans evolve or we become extinct. Our Constitution represents a great leap in the human evolution of government and the struggle to empower it is a worthwhile endeavor.

Submitted by: Mike Spindell, Guest Blogger

39 thoughts on “Catch 22 and the Secrecy Debate”

  1. So what does domestic intelligence gathering have to do with threat? What does spending billions on DHS have to do with our economy and with the rights we fight wars for — not just the rights we market to the world through power but the rights we claim we protect as part of the community of free nations? Recently I read the that “U.S. intelligence officials who spoke to The Daily Beast on the condition of anonymity.” It addresses the intelligence nightmare they claim is now our gift to Iraq. “We just lost track of everyone we didn’t kill who was in al Qaeda during the surge,” one U.S. intelligence analyst said. . ” U.S. intelligence analyst said. The source added that most of the Iraq analysts have been reassigned to other areas since the United States withdrew from Iraq at the end of 2011.” This refers to those that are ready to seek retribution on those tribal leaders and military that assisted the U.S. in Iraq. We are gone. They cannot reach us they say. They are desperate. But it is absolutely imperative that agencies like the NSA track EVERY communication of individuals living in the U.S.A. and evidently no further interest in a country that borders Syria — a country with a direct connection to Iran and its military and nuclear program. Something is very wrong with the idea that we occupy Iraq (or Afghanistan or?) invest billions and sacrifice our men and women and have no way of monitoring “the threat” from terrorists. As I understand it, the 14 that brought this to our attention in 2001 were not Americans. It is my understanding that the FBI had communications about learning to fly planes in Florida and that the leader of this plan was already in the database. I also know prior to 2001 and as far back as 1989, that the attitude of investigators was as I was instructed “You cannot talk to the Department of ______________because this is our investigation, and that included a long list of individuals including a member of John Glenn’s committee. We need to know as Americans if those we elect are going to learn from history. We need to know that the mistakes that destroyed Richard Barlow’s life when he refused to lie to Congress are not going to be carried on and on into this Century. Spying and promoting technology to destroy The Bill of Rights with dollars sent to Washington D.C. with no understanding of the history of this country and why we have a Constitution points to the need for a new Congress ASAP.

  2. It’s all about dollars. The controlling institutions are corporate based. If we don’t buy their services/products they are cut off at the knees. Occupy Wall Street had it right–pull your money out of the banks. Yes, they were squashed by a consortium of banks, local and federal police and Home Land Security, but the fact that they were supports the theory that they were hitting a nerve and making a difference.

    1. Seamus,

      Garfunkl was perfectly cast in the movie.


      I agree that only a relative few know what’s going on but it’s not because they are fools, but because they have been the subjects of massive propaganda and disinformation. Americans have been made stupid purposely. The “commercial society” has been convinced that wealth and fame are the measure of a person’s value and that politics via elections controls governance. Disillusion though has set in and resistance is forming, though in a desultory rather than inspiring manner. The question is will commerce derail a resistance movement by co-optation, as in the 60’s, or will the message stay pristine. I work for the latter, but am skeptical that it won’t be co-opted.

      Anyway it’s Father’s Day and my Daughters will be with me and that means joy.

  3. The only way ‘we the people’ have a shot at getting any answers if if the Congress impeaches the current and former Presidents, their VP’s and the heads of the CIA, FBI and any heads of national security agency’s. As well the current Joint Chiefs and any relevant underlings and the heads of all Internet service providers and gatekeepers. Move on to the private security firms and private industry and foreign partners as needed. Televised hearings. Congress doesn’t now and will never have the balls. They’re part of the problem.

    As for us little people, a 3 day national strike would be a good beginning but if even 1% of us knows what’s really going on or cares, I’d be amazed to the point of heart attack. We are a nation of short-sighted fools that have no grounding in history or interest in thinking about the future ramifications of what happens today.

    Ain’t hold’n my breath on a national dialogue or change.

  4. Hubris /ˈhjuːbrɪs/, also hybris, from ancient Greek ὕβρις, means extreme pride or arrogance. Hubris often indicates a loss of contact with reality and an overestimation of one’s own competence or capabilities, especially when the person exhibiting it is in a position of power.

  5. I have no problem with this Catch-22 surveillance state of ours, as long as they don’t picture my liver.

  6. Oh. There my Nation of Sheep comment is. Up there as if it was published before I started itchinBay.

  7. Some commenters above mentioned that Bill Maher jerk. A snippet of his show was replayed and I caught him belittling Snowden. It is now time to start belittling those who belittle our whistleblowers. It would be nice to have an ongoing itShay list of the jerks like Jeffrey Toobin and Maher. The Sheep Herder List. A lot of old time journalists (I use that term loosely) have bought into the notion that the collection of Megadata in America is harmless. The logic goes that if I did not call al Qaeda then it does not matter. Except the government has its own itShay lists. If I call the ACLU then I am on a itShay list or if I comment on this blog then I am on another itShay lists. Enough itShay lists and I have a lot of explaining to do when I want to get on a plane at Logan Airport and I am not a Saudi. Of course I am digressing o the days when they would let anyone on an airplane with a razor blade box cutter.

    So, where is my comment that I submitted a half hour ago on The Nation of Sheep? Where I quoted Edward R. Murrow from Wikipedia? Is the NSA censoring it?

  8. My post is being reviewed because I quoted something off of Wikipedia from Edward R. Murrow about us being a Nation of Sheep and the censors are reviewing it. How ironic. Or ironic pentameter. Yes we are a nation of sheep.

  9. Ok WordPress and other censors: where is my post? Not my Washington Post or Post Dispatch, my post on this blog?

  10. The next few weeks will reveal whether America is Exceptional. Will the people put some fury out because they have been betrayed by their government and rouse some members of the legislative, judicial and even the executive branches of government to rectify the cause of the fury.

    We have already witnessed who some of the snakes are who launched first out of the gate. The likes of Feinstein and Franken are disgusting. Boehner we expected to be a GOP and Koch Brother Stooge (sorry Curley). CNN and many “journalistic” media purveyors of truth and advertising came out swinging at the whistleblower whom they call “clown” and “traitor”.. I for one will never trust CNN for anything, even their Verizon commercial.

    Many years back we had some stand up guys in the media who were good models for citizenship. “A nation of sheep will beget a government of wolves.” Edward R. Murrow. “None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free.”. Now, Ed Murrow had his failings. He got paid by Winston to smoke on camera as did Walter Cronkite. Millions were induced to follow their lead. But today’s vintage of news people can be disgusting. Some of us thought that the advent of CNN and 24 hour news was a good thing. I personally get a lot of news and information off of CSPAN. Al Jazerra is a new outlet and foreign so we have something besides the Brit smerks from the BBC.

    The government program of collecting the “Megadata” as they like to term it, is dangerous, and in the words of Bob Marley, a “hazad to your health”. If you email something to a blog Big Brother knows it. They say they don’t read your email content. They say they don’t eat baloney on Good Friday too. If you call the ACLU to complain about the race baiting going on at school in Harlem the Big Brother guys know it. Now that you know that they know it you wont call the ACLU or any other suspect organization any more. You will fear calling them on the phone, emailing them or reading their blog on the internet. You wont walk in their door. The ACLU is out there to protect your civil liberties but Bog Brother is watching so be careful.

    The New York ACLU is up to speed. They were in court this week with a very good lawsuit. I published some of the details of the Complaint on the blog here the other day. I did that to make you all aware of the case. It is a hope. It is a method of getting our government to obey our Constitution and respect our rights. By blogging to each other we also encourage each other to tell our Congressman or women to do the right thing or retire. This is “petitioning our government for redress of grievances”. We assemble on this blog. This is protected activity under the right to assemble prong of the First Amendment.

    All of the protected aspects of free society enumerated in the First Amendment are involved in the Turley blog here. All aspects are protected whether it is our right to speak or preach, our right to get together here and assemble, our right to petition our government for redress of grievances, or our right to use the blog as a “free press”. So, the “journalists” do not have sole proprietorship over the “Free Press” clause and nor do sainted media outliets that once thrived only off of printing presses that punched out newspaper with print on it. We are all journalists here on the blog and our conduct is protected by the Constitution.

    To get our rights enforced we are going to have to act now. Speak out and beseech your congressmen, state reps, judges and mayors to do the right thing. End the privacy onslaught. Prove that we are not a nation of sheep.

    Tell Jeffrey Toobin to cease and desist from calling our patriot whistleblowers clowns and traitors and tell Jeffrey to quit betraying his wife. Boycott Verizon. Tweet CNN and tell them they are beyond the Pale. The “Pale” has nothing to do with skin tone. Rudyard Kipling and others said that one is beyond the Paletinate if one was uncivilized and evil. East of Corfu the Ten Commandments don’t apply said Kipling. Open your windows and if you hear the sheep baaaa ing out there tell them to call their Congressman. And if you live in California, tell your Senator who is 80 years old to retire now.

  11. Thank You Mike Spindell for your “little” efforts. You create ripples of perceptions and reason that I welcome into my little pond.

    There is lots of pondering stuff on this blog, Ripple on good people.

    To OVER THE HORIZON AND BEYOND!!! …… Buzz Lightyear. :o).

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