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. Mespo,

    You took my phrase….

    Now, I’ll say… Just because you tell me it does not exist, it does not mean I am wrong…after all… History proves me correct….

  2. I watched Bill Maher also and was equally disgusted. Maher’s problem is that he is one of those who’s scared of the terrorists coming to get us. If you have let yourself become “terrorized” via 9/11, then you feel comforted by the workings of the intelligence apparatus. As I pointed out though the NSA/CIA/DIA all operate in secret without oversight. We have no way of verifying their successes, nor their failures.

  3. I am a human being and I am alive today. The world census states there are 7 Billion human beings alive today. I am 1/7,000,000,000 of the human population.
    We hold these truths to be self evident, “All Humans are created equal”

    We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed;[7]

    I would like to see a Congressperson introduce this Declaration to debate, and then put it up for a vote to determine if it is a valid guiding principle relevant to our government today. ….
    This debate would be more interesting than a 38th floor debate to condemn Obama care. :o) …….

  4. That is sad to hear about Bill Maher. I knew that he was drifting from fundamental liberties in his pragmatic “just get it done” type perspective. But to hear that he is now belittling Snowden, with guests chiming in, really makes my red flags go up against him as any kind of pundit to be given credibility.
    I will watch that episode, and see how bad it is.

  5. I haven’t watched Bill Maher in many years. I feel pretty good about that decision.

  6. “They were careless people, [Barack Obama and Dianne Feinstein] — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.” ― F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

    How it must humiliate and enrage Barack Obama and Diane Feinstein to learn of someone with nothing — like Edward Snowdon — starting from scratch to clean up the mess that they have made of America and so much of the world.

    Oh, yes. And we must never forget that America has no class system because no one can look down on someone else whom they consider their equal before society and the law.

  7. Italy, not Germany. Catch-22 is set in the Mediterranean and the squadron conducts raids on the Italian mainland. Heller himself was writing from his personal experience of the air war in the Mediterranean.

  8. The more thin-skinned, narcissistic, and venomously vindictive Barack Obama acts going after the “little” guys, the bigger little guys like Bradley Manning, Julian Assange, and Edward Snowden appear compared to Obama. How this all reminds me of the enlisted man’s mantra in Vietnam:

    “We are the unwilling led by the unqualified to do the unnecessary for the ungrateful. We have done so much with so little for so long that we are now qualified to do everything with nothing.”

    The self-styled Best and the Brightest who blunder into one unforced error after another naturally just blow it all off, shrugging:

    “We just do nothing with everything. So what?”

  9. So it only takes a “nobody” with little education and a working-class girlfriend to expose everything criminal perpetrated by the wealthiest, best educated, and most politically connected “elites” in America. Of course, Bill Maher cannot see the delicious irony in his own elitist put-down of someone who has done so much with so very little while Bill Maher has done so little with so very much.

  10. Snowden is now being vilified by none to ther than Bill Maher. He spent a good part of his show on Friday calling Snowden a high school drop out with a pole dancer for a girl friend and a GED and delusions of grandeur. His guests piled on. It became so offensive I just turned it off.

    Obama has no interest in a debate, a discussion or even a few very respectful questions. We wouldn’t be having this debate if there hadn’t been a whistleblower who is now in serious danger.

  11. Yes, Catch-22 is the best war satire around. Being versed in the book enables one to retain some sanity these days.

  12. Gene H:

    ““All bonfires of change start as sparks in the human heart.”

    I like it, Mark. Yours or borrowed?


    Keep it up, Sparky. Good show.


    That one’s my “little something.”

  13. This is a very good article. I am glad to see that you focused on this issue.

    The Megadata high echelon liars and cobras and bears have already lied themselves into oblivion. Over time the populace will absorb what is going on and respond well. Since Congress is part of the problem the few options for redress are in the courts. And the streets.

  14. Mike,
    That little something, was a damn fine effort. You and many others that comment on this blog are the anchor dragging the authoritarians to a halt. Eventually enough people will understand that privacy, freedom and liberty have been so constricted by the security state that resistance will build and
    the yoke will be thrown off. And, probably in your lifetime.
    Regards, Lexmanifesta

  15. “All bonfires of change start as sparks in the human heart.”

    I like it, Mark. Yours or borrowed?


    Keep it up, Sparky. 😀 Good show.

  16. The military catch 22 is Satan’s method of giving guilt so a person will kill anyway he can get them to kill. The soul is never considered by the military much less wanting people to save it. The air force pilot not wanting to fly to kill people not wanting to war is God saying no. The sentencing to be called insane is the devil talking through the personnel in the military to have them risk death to kill. People need to turn their backs to the military.

  17. “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”


    All bonfires of change start as sparks in the human heart.

  18. Hope that you are right.

    I am less sanguine than you; I believe that there are too many cynical people who want power and will try try to derail reform.

  19. One of the greatest novels I’ve ever read was Joseph Heller’s “Catch 22”.


    Agreed. Here’s a good ‘en:

    “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you”
    ~Joseph Heller, Catch-22

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