Aristotle, writing in his Politics, spends a good bit of papyrus on the question of tyranny. What exactly makes a leader a tyrant, he asks. And right at the core of that discussion, he comes to the role of secrets. In a state which has degenerated into tyranny, he writes, the man who is vested with the public’s affairs craves secrecy in all things, whereas he demands that those in private life have no secrets from him – he unleashes his spies and he cultivates informants so that the normal citizen has no privacy in his life at all. But, Aristotle says, in a state governed by concepts of justice, it must be exactly the opposite: those who hold the reins of power must be made to account to the citizens for what they do; conversely, the privacy of the citizenry must be protected from the unreasonable intrusion of the state. The American Founding Fathers didn’t agree with Aristotle about everything, but on this point there was a full buy-in.
Nothing is quite so revealing of the tyrannical attitudes of Dick Cheney as his views on secrecy. Put simply, for Cheney, the public office holder, everything he does must be kept secret from the people. But on the other hand, the ordinary people are entitled to no secrets from him: he can engage in unwarranted wiretapping and surveillance to his heart’s content. And no matter that it’s a violation of federal criminal statutes. Why the office of the Vice President, he thinks, is above the law.
(Dick Cheney would, of course, hardly be the first criminal to hold the office of vice president. Aaron Burr was a murderer. And Spiro Agnew pleaded nolo contendere to charges of tax evasion and money laundering. What distinguishes Dick Cheney is that he is the first vice president to openly engage in criminal acts with total impunity.)
Last week we learned that Cheney has refused to comply with oversight of his management of classified materials by the National Archives – a process which is mandated by federal law. In response to requests by security officials from the archives, Cheney and his aide-de-camp David Addington announced that the office of the Vice President doesn’t belong to the executive branch. It is, they said, a curious hybrid, a fourth branch of government which therefore is somehow outside the scope of the statute.
This is one of their favorite forms of argument. They used it previously to justify torture and the abuse of detainees in the war of terror. Their argument was that this was a war setting, so that criminal justice rules don’t apply. And that the laws of war don’t really cover terrorists. Consequently, they argue, this is a law-free zone in which we can do whatever we like. Cheney and Addington love law-free zones. And they hate law, or more precisely, the concept of accountability under law. The arguments they made sputtered all over the American media for years, unexamined. And they are the sort of absurdity that would earn a first-year student a failing grade in law school. (Criminal law doesn’t apply in a war setting? Really? The law is quite explicit. Even in times of war people who commit crimes get held to account for them under criminal law rules.)
But under Dick Cheney, secrecy has played two major roles. The first is to conceal his own conduct from public scrutiny. Consequently, the secret meetings that Cheney conducted with oil and gas executives to discuss the national energy policy – which these executives largely wrote – were kept secret, thanks to his duck-hunting buddy, Nino Scalia. Now I have no problem with Cheney having these meetings and taking the advice of oil executives. In fact, I think it’s a good thing. I just believe the public should know who he met and what role the executives played in the preparation of a public document. And similarly, Cheney has now cajoled the Secret Service into stopping the practice of keeping a log of his visitors. That log had of course recorded the hundreds of visits paid by Jack Abramoff and his flunkies to the White House, and was proving an embarrassment. So the answer: privatize everything, and insure our secrecy as a shield against accountability.
And then we come to the flip side. Cheney got authority from Bush to classify and declassify at his whim. And “whim” is the correct word. The Scooter Libby trial tells us all we need to know about his practices. He takes the most highly sensitive national security secrets and publicizes them selectively – to help him in a partisan political game to wing his enemies. So the National Intelligence Estimate is trotted out and leaked, piecemeal, deceptively, to undercut Ambassador Joe Wilson. Note that the intention of the selective leak is to deceive the public, another specialty of the Cheney team.
Now in the latest series of reports in the Washington Post we learn that Cheney’s obsession with secrecy within his office reaches to everything. He puts all his working papers in vaults, and he stamps the papers: Treated as Top Secret/SCI. “SCI” means “sensitive compartmented information,” a particularly high form of security classification.
So why is Cheney trying to avoid National Archives oversight? There’s one obvious compelling reason: because his use of national security secrets is, beginning to end, one massive fraud. He classifies and declassifies in order to promote a corrupt partisan agenda. And a security classifications expert would recognize that in seconds.
Hence the obsession: Cheney needs to keep his secrets. He has good reason to. His secrets will destroy him. And in any event, they are destroying us.