Context, No Comment — August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

Is the Clinton email controversy a bona fide political scandal or more of the sort of makeweight distraction that tends to dominate American political reporting when presidential elections roll around? That’s a question that will play out over the coming weeks—and the answer will depend to a great extent on what’s actually in those emails that are being gossiped about but not really reported on in any meaningful way. In the interim, however, it does teach us a great deal about how secrecy is used in contemporary Washington. In fact, it offers us five easy lessons.

Lesson No. 1: Secrets are routinely leaked by politicians for political gain; many of those who regularly complain about leaks are leakers themselves.

The current controversy offers us a whirlwind of leaks within leaks and leaks about leaks. If it leaves any lasting footprint, then it will be as a demonstration of the art of simultaneously leaking and suppressing information to serve purely partisan political goals. It all arises from an investigation by Representative Trey Gowdy’s Benghazi Committee. Early in the process, Gowdy zeroed in on a series of emails that had been published two years earlier by Gawker and the Kremlin’s cable news network, Russia Today. It has now emerged that the emails had been secured through a Romanian hacker working within a Russian espionage operation run by the FSB and targeting prominent Americans who used AOL, long judged to be about the least secure of all major American service providers. Among the targets, in addition to Clinton’s close confidant Sidney Blumenthal, were Colin Powell, Dorothy Bush (George W. Bush’s sister), and a number of senior Pentagon officials. The Blumenthal emails to Clinton contained analyses of developments in Libya by a now-deceased former senior CIA officer, Tyler Drumheller. Gowdy decided to draw on the fruits of this FSB operation for ammunition in his probe, demanding that the emails now be turned over through a formal process. The State Department and the parties complied, asking Gowdy to treat the materials as confidential.


From Scott Horton’s Lords of Secrecy, published in January by Nation Books.

When challenged about the whistleblower prosecutions by the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer, then-Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer said, “You don’t get to break the law and disclose classified information just because you want to.” He added, “Politics should play no role in it whatsoever.” In fact, precisely the opposite is true, and Breuer, the head of the criminal division as whistleblower prosecutions peaked, is fully familiar with that fact. Decisions to prosecute those who disclose classified information are inherently political, and political figures routinely break the law and disclose classified information with no consequences whatsoever.
     The official justifications do not furnish an honest appraisal of the situation. It would be more accurate to say, as noted by a character from the British sitcom Yes, Minister, that Washington is a “ship of state that leaks from the top.” Politics within the Beltway is to a very large extent practiced by the art of leaking. Tens of thousands of such leaks occur in the course of any political cycle, and the leakers often include political personages of both parties and senior figures in agencies of the government. These leaks have a variety of different purposes, many of them well recognized within the established political etiquette of the Washington Beltway.
     Parallel to the culture of leaking, we find a culture of raising accusations about leaks—almost invariably driven by figures who are themselves notorious leakers. This is a sort of Beltway political blood sport in which points are scored both by leaking and by proving that a political rival has leaked. It is worth taking some time to explore different kinds of leaks and the functions served by each.
     An administration figure might be on the verge of an important decision—to nominate a controversial person to a high office, to seek funding for a sensitive but problematic weapons program, to authorize a tactical deployment of military forces in an emerging crisis, or to implement a new policy not yet known to the public but likely to draw fire from important interest groups. One time-honored form of leak involves testing the political waters beforehand to draw out potential adversaries and understand their possible lines of attack and to assess the viability of a contemplated decision in the forum of public opinion. This invariably involves sensitive information for the administration, and it may involve information that is still classified—such as the existence of a weapons program still in development, or the decision to deploy an aircraft carrier group to a location close to a building conflict. This sort of leak serves as a trial balloon to see whether a sufficient political consensus can be formed to support the initiative. It may also be used to reassure an ally that his concerns are appreciated and being acted on, or, conversely, to send a message to an adversary that the administration is taking steps that may lead to a more forceful and more public response.
     Another type of leak has to do with the ego of the leaker. This brings us to the dangerous area of amateur psychology, suitable for discussion in broad terms but rarely an appropriate basis for conclusions in any specific instance without a more comprehensive evaluation. The leaker may be demonstrating self-importance through access to privileged information. Ego gratification is often suggested by prosecutors as the reason for leaks made by low- or midlevel bureaucratic officials. But more frequently, the leaker may be seeking to develop a special rapport or relationship with the leakee—who may be another government official with certain power and influence or a journalist. This may be done through a process of swapping of secrets, and journalists who receive classified information may often be plumbed by their leakers for other pieces of the mosaic of secrecy. While ego gratification may be relevant to the conduct of leakers, a far more compelling case can be made linking it to prosecutors—many of whom are eager to build name recognition with the public and to lay the foundation for a career in politics.
     Leaks may also serve partisan political, factional, or institutional interests—and indeed the leak is perhaps the single most underappreciated tool used in struggles between political factions and government agencies. Excellent examples can be found in the struggle to uncover details surrounding the intelligence failures that paved the way to the tragedy of September 11, 2001—with the CIA regularly scurrying to cover up its missteps, and sources close to the FBI repeatedly stepping forward to disclose them. This interagency game of leaks reflected the two agencies’ sparring over an ascendant role in counterterrorism operations, but it was also essential in enabling the public and Congress to understand the serious mistakes that were in fact made.
     Leaks regularly occur through inadvertence or by mistake. During a visit to wartime Iraq in March 2009, Rep. Peter Hoekstra made tweets concerning the position and activities of the congressional delegation in real time, compromising ongoing operations. When the president made a surprise visit to Kabul in June 2014, the Obama White House issued a guest list for a formal dinner, divulging the identity of the CIA’s station chief. There is nothing in either case to suggest that these disclosures resulted from a conscious decision to make public sensitive or confidential information.
     The most important form of leak involves whistleblowers. By definition, a whistleblower leak occurs when a person with proper access to classified information discloses discrete information based on a conclusion that this disclosure is necessary to reveal incompetence, corruption, or criminality.
     While it is easy to ridicule and dismiss, the culture of leaks serves important functions in the political system. As the American government becomes entangled in secrecy—much of which is illegitimate or at least serves no compelling purpose—there is a healthy need to ensure that political discussion among policy makers and the public is properly informed. The process of declassifying and releasing information is so slow and cumbersome it hardly serves this purpose in a timely way. But sporadic leaks do. Similarly important, leaks frequently occur in the political process to call political actors to account for false or dishonest statements that otherwise would be permitted to stand because of secrecy.
     This culture of leaks, what one notable commentator calls the “leaky Leviathan,” does not reflect a dysfunctional government. Rather, it shows how the political system copes with an excess of secrecy that otherwise would stagnate and stultify.

A significant part of these emails, or detailed descriptions of them, nevertheless found their way into the New York Times and other publications, conveying messages that consistently correspond to those crafted by Gowdy. This shows how routinely confidential materials are leaked to the media for political gain. In this case, Gowdy’s Benghazi investigation has no apparent interest in Benghazi, which has been the subject of eight prior investigations, including one led by Gowdy’s colleague and Intelligence Committee chair Mike Rogers, which conclusively reviewed the failings in Benghazi but did not produce useful campaign fodder. Gowdy’s operation is all about the Clinton campaign, and in particular a very well-orchestrated effort to drive up Clinton’s negatives in advance of the presidential race by making her appear untrustworthy. Claims that Clinton destroyed emails, failed to produce information, or mischaracterized emails are all extremely useful in this effort. Never mind that it has nothing whatsoever to do with the subject of Gowdy’s investigation. This tactic plays off the political liability of secrecy for a recent officeholder, who is constrained not to publicly discuss classified materials and hence can easily be made to appear evasive.

Lesson No. 2: Many of the leaked secrets relate to bureaucratic power struggles.

Washington is all about the struggle for power, and the favorite tool in that struggle has always been secrecy. The game is fought by making secrets, leaking secrets, and then accusing others of betraying national security by leaking secrets.

The controversy took on new legs when it was reported that an inspector general reviewing the Clinton emails found that a number of them contained information that should have been classified top secret. This was a jarring disclosure, given statements from the Clinton camp that the emails were routine and contained no information that was classified at the time or should have been. How can these statements be reconciled? Don’t they mean that Clinton was mischaracterizing the situation?

These sorts of reports are extremely useful for the political innuendo since the curtain of secrecy prevents clarification of the controversy. In this case, however, we have some clues. The “top secret” claims appear to relate to passages in which Clinton noted the existence of the CIA’s drone program in Pakistan and several other countries. This is information that is simultaneously widely publicly known and top secret. In this case, top secret does not mean it is a secret that has actually been kept, because it has not been. Indeed, the targets of the drone program know all about it, and so do the people of Pakistan who see the drones unleash their lethal payloads with frightening regularity. About the only people on earth who don’t really know much about the drones are the American public. In this case, secrecy serves the institutional needs of the CIA. By normal rights, the tactical military use of drones would be reserved to the Pentagon. For the CIA to operate the drone program it must be a covert operation, which in turn justifies the classification of the program, indeed, even its existence, as top secret. In this case, Clinton’s references to events that an inspector general wants to call top secret could just as well have appeared on the front page of your morning paper.

Lesson No. 3: The guardians of secrecy not only insist that facts in plain view are secret; they also attempt to classify materials that have already been released.

One of the biggest mistakes one can make in studying secrecy inside the Beltway is to assume that it actually corresponds to the plain-English sense of the world. However, many of our government’s deepest secrets are hidden in plain sight and are known by just about everyone. The “top secret” CIA drone program—which has been studied and written about exhaustively—provides some excellent examples. The individual strikes have been tallied, measured, and assessed by persons with no access to classified data. And indeed, much of the unclassified, publicly accessible data about the program appears to be far superior and more reliable than the classified data produced by the CIA, which has repeatedly led senior officials to make false claims from which they have had to back down. But you’ll strain to find any meaningful information about the program coming from the mouths of senior policymaking figures in the U.S. government. Rather, when they speak of drone strikes, they switch to a bizarre passive voice. “Terrorists were killed,” they will say, “and credit is due to the intelligence community.” Rarely will they actually refer to the CIA-run drone program.

The masters of secrecy, straining to justify the program’s use in such circumstances, consistently cite their struggle to keep information away not from enemies but from the American public. The U.S. Government is inundated with FOIA requests and lawsuits constantly testing its classification of the drone program and demanding more information. Too many public statements by U.S. officials acknowledging the program (and there have already been a great number of slipups, most of them attributable to a single person—former CIA director and secretary of defense Leon Panetta) could prejudice the government’s tenuous position in these litigations. The inspector general doesn’t want any statement made that acknowledges that there is a CIA drone program. And even though the emails were unclassified when sent, there is now a drive to squeeze the toothpaste back into the tube, as it were, by retroactively classifying them.

Lesson No. 4: Classification is used by government officials to rein in those who work under them; violations rarely result in punishment for the powerful.

As Jonathan Swift once said, “Laws are like cobwebs, which may catch small flies, but let wasps and hornets break through.” And no area of the law proves this quite as well as law governing national security secrecy. Ostensibly, national security classifications exist to protect the country from the disclosure of information that could, if more widely known, adversely affect it. Practically, however, scholars who have studied the use of secrecy by bureaucracies around the world over the last hundred and fifty years note that it really has another effect: it builds the authority and power of those at the apex of the system and silences and binds those at the base, even though they may have little access to sensitive information.

Civil libertarians delight in Clinton’s current problems with classified information and emails. They quote the sanctimonious statements she made as secretary of state chastising whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden and demanding his punishment. And they’re right about one thing: the secrecy system has never been applied on the basis of equal justice before the law. Just think of Bob Woodward’s series of books, which have through many administrations consistently disclosed some of the nation’s most closely guarded military and intelligence service secrets. Woodward harvested this information from presidents, cabinet officers, and senior aides. And no prosecution has ever resulted from these leaks. That’s because the Beltway assumes that leaking is a perk of power.

Lesson No. 5: Secrecy regularly deprives decision-makers of the information they need in order to form valid judgments.

Beltway insiders routinely agree that Washington makes far too many secrets. They also accept that secrecy is a tool used for bureaucratic antics. But by and large they insist that there’s no real downside to the secrecy game.

This is nonsense. In fact, secrecy regularly stands in the way of an informed public and a sensible political discussion of questions that are vital for the nation’s future. It protects those who have made serious mistakes and fear accountability. Moreover, the Clinton email controversy provides a perfect example of how Beltway politics magnifies the trivial, personal, and inconsequential, while clouding the truly significant choices that the country should be making.

An excellent starting point is where the controversy began, in Libya. Gowdy’s inquiry is supposed to be focused on a horrific raid on a diplomatic compound in Benghazi, which claimed the lives of four American public servants and wounded many others. Notice how attention from this tragic incident, which has at its core a U.S. intelligence operation gone wrong, was shifted away to political intrigues that are completely unrelated. Yet the American project in Libya, which commenced in 2011, is hugely important. It has by any reasonable measure been a failure. The Obama Administration, following the advice of Secretary Clinton and others, joined with the United Kingdom and France in a military operation that killed Muammar Qaddafi (who only weeks earlier had been portrayed as a U.S. ally and praised for his cooperation with U.S. intelligence) and destroyed most of the institutions of the Libyan state. Rather than then provide a stable and secure environment in which Libyans could build a new state, as the allies promised, Libya was abandoned to chaos and proxy warfare. In essence, Obama in Libya was a repeat of the mistakes that Bush made in Iraq but a few years earlier, which Obama and Clinton had both criticized. The world of Beltway politics, however, would much rather ignore this horrendously failed project, which has plummeted an entire people into despair and has given rise to thousands crossing open seas with great loss of life. The Beltway prefers to talk about personal use of email servers. And in so doing, such politics demands, as usual, that the world stand on its head. Secrecy facilitates this process of distraction at every step, providing a plausible reason for not discussing things politicians prefer to avoid.

Similarly, secrecy has been used to avoid public discussion of the CIA’s drone program. Clinton is being chided for even referring to its existence in internal emails. However the real scandal is that now, more than a decade into the program, there has been no public accounting. At this point, it is impossible to call the program a success, a fact that General Michael Flynn, one of its military architects, acknowledges, but most Americans are so poorly and selectively informed about it—again thanks to the pruning power of secrecy—that they don’t see the problems.

Secrecy means that decision-makers are routinely deprived of the information they need to form valid judgments. And in a democracy, that means the voters.


Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm

Lincoln’s Party

Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

From the April 2015 issue

Company Men

Torture, treachery, and the CIA

Get access to 168 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada



October 2018


The Printed Word in Peril·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In February, at an event at the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center in New York, while sharing the stage with my fellow British writer Martin Amis and discussing the impact of screen-based reading and bidirectional digital media on the Republic of Letters, I threw this query out to an audience that I estimate was about three hundred strong: “Have any of you been reading anything by Norman Mailer in the past year?” After a while, one hand went up, then another tentatively semi-elevated. Frankly I was surprised it was that many. Of course, there are good reasons why Mailer in particular should suffer posthumous obscurity with such alacrity: his brand of male essentialist braggadocio is arguably extraneous in the age of Trump, Weinstein, and fourth-wave feminism. Moreover, Mailer’s brilliance, such as it was, seemed, even at the time he wrote, to be sparks struck by a steely intellect against the tortuous rocks of a particular age, even though he labored tirelessly to the very end, principally as the booster of his own reputation.

It’s also true that, as J. G. Ballard sagely remarked, for a writer, death is always a career move, and for most of us the move is a demotion, as we’re simultaneously lowered into the grave and our works into the dustbin. But having noted all of the above, it remains the case that Mailer’s death coincided with another far greater extinction: that of the literary milieu in which he’d come to prominence and been sustained for decades. It’s a milieu that I hesitate to identify entirely with what’s understood by the ringing phrase “the Republic of Letters,” even though the overlap between the two was once great indeed; and I cannot be alone in wondering what will remain of the latter once the former, which not long ago seemed so very solid, has melted into air.

What I do feel isolated in—if not entirely alone in—is my determination, as a novelist, essayist, and journalist, not to rage against the dying of literature’s light, although it’s surprising how little of this there is, but merely to examine the great technological discontinuity of our era, as we pivot from the wave to the particle, the fractal to the fungible, and the mechanical to the computable. I first began consciously responding, as a literary practitioner, to the manifold impacts of ­BDDM in the early 2000s—although, being the age I am, I have been feeling its effects throughout my working life—and I first started to write and speak publicly about it around a decade ago. Initially I had the impression I was being heard out, if reluctantly, but as the years have passed, my attempts to limn the shape of this epochal transformation have been met increasingly with outrage, and even abuse, in particular from my fellow writers.

As for my attempts to express the impact of the screen on the page, on the actual pages of literary novels, I now understand that these were altogether irrelevant to the requirement of the age that everything be easier, faster, and slicker in order to compel the attention of screen viewers. It strikes me that we’re now suffering collectively from a “tyranny of the virtual,” since we find ourselves unable to look away from the screens that mediate not just print but, increasingly, reality itself.

Photograph (detail) by Ellen Cantor from her Prior Pleasures series © The artist. Courtesy dnj Gallery, Santa Monica, California
Among Britain’s Anti-Semites·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

This is the story of how the institutions of British Jewry went to war with Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party. Corbyn is another feather in the wind of populism and a fragmentation of the old consensus and politesse. He was elected to the leadership by the party membership in 2015, and no one was more surprised than he. Between 1997 and 2010, Corbyn voted against his own party 428 times. He existed as an ideal, a rebuke to the Blairite leadership, and the only wise man on a ship of fools. His schtick is that of a weary, kindly, socialist Father Christmas, dragged from his vegetable patch to create a utopia almost against his will. But in 2015 the ideal became, reluctantly, flesh. Satirists mock him as Jesus Christ, and this is apt. But only just. He courts sainthood, and if you are very cynical you might say that, like Christ, he shows Jews what they should be. He once sat on the floor of a crowded train, though he was offered a first-class seat, possibly as a private act of penance to those who had, at one time or another, had no seat on a train.

When Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, the British media, who are used to punching socialists, crawled over his record and found much to alarm the tiny Jewish community of 260,000. Corbyn called Hez­bollah “friends” and said Hamas, also his “friends,” were devoted “to long-term peace and social justice.” (He later said he regretted using that language.) He invited the Islamist leader Raed Salah, who has accused Jews of killing Christian children to drink their blood, to Parliament, and opposed his extradition. Corbyn is also a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and a former chair of Stop the War, at whose rallies they chant, “From the river to the sea / Palestine will be free.” (There is no rhyme for what will happen to the Jewish population in this paradise.) He was an early supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and its global campaign to delegitimize Israel and, through the right of return for Palestinians, end its existence as a Jewish state. (His office now maintains that he does not support BDS. The official Labour Party position is for a two-state solution.) In the most recent general election, only 13 percent of British Jews intended to vote Labour.

Corbyn freed something. The scandals bloomed, swiftly. In 2016 Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford West, was suspended from the party for sharing a Facebook post that suggested Israel be relocated to the United States. She apologized publicly, was reinstated, and is now a shadow women and equalities minister. Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London and a political supporter of Corbyn, appeared on the radio to defend Shah and said, “When Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” For this comment, Livingstone was suspended from the party.

A protest against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in Parliament Square, London, March 26, 2018 (detail) © Yui Mok/PA Images/Getty Images
Nothing but Gifts·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

If necessity is the stern but respectable mother of invention, then perhaps desperation is the derelict father of subterfuge. That was certainly the case when I moved to Seattle in 1979.

Though I’d lived there twice during the previous five years, I wasn’t prepared for the economic boom I found upon this latest arrival. Not only had rent increased sharply in all but the most destitute neighborhoods, landlords now routinely demanded first, last, and a hefty security deposit, which meant I was short by about fifty percent. Over the first week or so, I watched with mounting anxiety as food, gas, and lodging expenses reduced the meager half I did have to a severely deficient third. To make matters even more nerve-racking, I was relocating with my nine-year-old son, Ezra. More than my well-being was at stake.

A veteran of cold, solitary starts in strange cities, I knew our best hope wasn’t the classifieds, and certainly not an agency, but the serendipity of the streets—handmade for rent signs, crowded bulletin boards in laundromats and corner grocery stores, passersby on the sidewalk; I had to exploit every opportunity that might present itself, no matter how oblique or improbable. In Eastlake, at the edge of Lake Union between downtown Seattle and the University District, I spied a shabby but vacant one-story house on the corner of a block that was obviously undergoing transition—overgrown lots and foundation remnants where other houses once stood—and that had at least one permanent feature most right-minded people would find forbidding: an elevated section of Interstate 5 just across the street, attended by the incessant roar of cars and trucks. The house needed a new roof, a couple of coats of paint, and, judging by what Ezra and I could detect during a furtive inspection, major repair work inside, including replacing damaged plaster-and-lath walls with sheetrock. All of this, from my standpoint, meant that I might have found a solution to my dilemma.

The next step was locating the owner, a roundabout process that eventually required a trip to the tax assessor’s office. I called the person listed on the rolls and made an appointment. Then came the moment of truth, or, more precisely, untruth, when dire circumstance begot strategic deception. I’d never renovated so much as a closet, but that didn’t stop me from declaring confidently that I possessed both the skills and the willingness to restore the entire place to a presentable—and, therefore, rentable—state in exchange for being able to live there for free, with the length of stay to be determined as work progressed. To my immense relief, the pretense was well received. Indeed, the owner also seemed relieved, if a bit surprised, that he’d have seemingly trustworthy tenants; homeless people who camped beneath the freeway, he explained, had repeatedly broken into the house and used it for all manner of depravity. Telling myself that inspired charlatanry is superior to mundane trespassing—especially this instance of charlatanry, which would yield some actual good—I accepted the keys from my new landlord.

Photograph (detail) © Larry Towell/Magnum Photos
Checkpoint Nation·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Laura Sandoval threaded her way through idling taxis and men selling bottles of water toward the entrance of the Cordova International Bridge, which links Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas. Earlier that day, a bright Saturday in December 2012, Sandoval had crossed over to Juárez to console a friend whose wife had recently died. She had brought him a few items he had requested—eye drops, the chimichangas from Allsup’s he liked—and now that her care package had been delivered, she was in a hurry to get back to the Texas side, where she’d left her car. She had a …
Checkpoint on I-35 near Encinal, Texas (detail) © Gabriella Demczuk

Amount a 2006 defense bill authorized for a daylong “celebration‚” of “success‚” in Iraq and Afghanistan:


Male orangutans announce their travel plans in advance.

Paul Manafort accepts a plea deal; Brett Kavanaugh accused of sexual assault; Jeff Bezos gets into the kindergarten racketon the clock

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!


Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today