Shhhhhhh! It’s a secret!

Excessive secrecy threatens national security.

Abuse of the classification system to control public debate is pervasive, and probably getting worse. Something needs to be done about it.

Only a subset of classified material would really be of use to a potential enemy. Additional material is properly classified for “sources and methods” reasons: the information itself isn’t sensitive, but revealing that we know it might reveal where the bug is or which attache is selling us secrets.

But those two categories together do not exhaust what can properly be classified according to the statute. Any information the release of which would tend to impede the foreign policy of the United States is properly classifiable. If GWB and Condi have decided, for example, to suck up to Pakistanis, then sucking up to the Pakistanis is the foreign policy of the United States, and any information that might embarrass the Pakistani government can lawfully be stamped “Top Secret.”

When I was young and irresponsible, I worked for the Justice Department, analyzing drug policy. In that capacity, I was put through the full security mumbo-jumbo and received a Top Secret clearance and, on top of that, clearances for various very highly taboo Codeword categories. (The initiation ceremony involves being dipped in the blood of … well, I could tell ya, but then I’d have to kill ya.)

Having been cleared, what did I learn that it would then have been a felony for me to reveal? Nothing that would have helped the Russkis or the narco-bad-guys. But I did learn the names of assorted corrupt high-level officials in various of the Carribean banking havens Jeff MacNelly once lampooned as “Rinky-Dink and Tabasco.” No elaborate spying had been required to learn the names; apparently it was routine cafe gossip in the countries involved. So why, I asked, is this material classified? Not that I had any desire to reveal it, but I was curious.

The senior security guy in the Criminal Division set me straight: Yes, everyone knew that the Rinky-Dink-and-Tabascanese Finance Minister, or Central Bank president, or whoever it was, was crookeder than a dog’s hind leg. He knew, we knew, the Prime Minister knew, the Prime Minister knew we knew, we knew he knew we knew, ad infinitum. Maybe the Rinky-Dink-and-Tabascanese voters didn’t know; that was their lookout.

But it was our policy to make nice to Rinky-Dink and Tabasco (honest, I forget which contrylet we were talking about). If it were revealed publicly that the US Government had knowledge that Mr. So-and-so was on the take, that would embarrass the Rinky-Dink-and-Tabascanese government, thus impeding U.S. foreign policy. Ergo, properly classified.

There’s a story Khruschev used to tell, back when he was General Secretary of the CP-USSR (i.e., dictator). In the story, an Old Bolshevik goes crazy, and runs through the halls of the Kremlin shouting “Khruschev is a fool! Khruschev is a fool!” Naturally, he’s promptly arrested, charged, tried, convicted and sentenced, to twenty-three years’ corrective labor: three years for insulting the Party Secretary, and twenty for revealing a state secret.

An enormous amount of classified information consists of state secrets of the Khruschev-is-a-fool variety. And the incumbent adminisration is completely free to decide that revealing any given bit of information would be consistent with our foreign policy, and reveal it. As Henry Kissinger used to say, “I never leak. I de-classify.” This is a huge problem, and an excellent reason not to have anything resembling an Official Secrets Act.

Excessive secrecy is a profound threat to national security, because secrecy helps cover up malfeasance, incompetence, and bureaucratic fumbling, e.g. with respect to the risk of terrorism at nuclear power plants.

Until the Democrats have candidates who can make that argument with a straight face, they’ll keep losing elections.

Update: Matt Yglesias find the Pundit’s Fallacy in the last sentence above. I attempt to clarify: it’s not that we need candidates who actually criticize secrecy policy on national security grounds; it’s that we need candidates who could criticize secrecy policy — or any other policy — on national-security grounds without looking silly or insincere in doing so.


Selling our lives cheap

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Some Inconclusive Thoughts about the Death Penalty

As an abstract question in moral philosophy, I think I’m for capital punishment, on two grounds.

First, if we punish petty theft with a little time behind bars and aggravated assault with somewhat more time behind bars, arguably there are some crimes - and I’m not at all sure that homicide is alone - that ought to be punished in some way not reducible to the less-time/more-time dimension, precisely because we want to mark them out as capital - i.e., chief - offenses.

Second, the real suffering created by a relatively humane execution may be much less, integrating over time, than the suffering created by a long prison term, both for the offender and for his intimates, and yet the fear of death appears to be such that most offenders (not all) prefer any non-capital sentence to death. As John Stuart Mill pointed out, the ideal punishment is the one that combines the maximum of terror with the minimum of actual suffering. [That argument would be more persuasive, of course, if the gap between sentence and execution were shorter; even if killing someone is less cruel than locking him in a cage for the rest of his life, forcing him to spend a decade waiting to be killed may not be. The same applies to the suffering of his intimates.]

Moreover, I’m not at all comfortable with life in prison without parole, or even with very long sentences short of that, because I don’t think that the 60-year-old we’re keeping in prison is, in the relevant sense, ‘the same person’ as the 20-year-old who committed that murder forty years ago.

And the risk of executing someone innocent is a strong argument against capital punishment only if death is in fact a much worse penalty than long imprisonment. I’d love to see procedural changes, starting out with much stronger charges to juries about the meaning of ‘proof beyond reasonable doubt,’ to make it less likely that innocent people get convicted, because I’m convinced that the we now have literally tens of thousands of innocents behind bars. But the abolition of the death penalty wouldn’t change that concern at all.

(There is, apparently, evidence to support the common-sense proposition that death-qualified juries — those from which jurors unwilling to convict in capital cases have been excluded — are more conviction-prone than ordinary juries, but that problem could be overcome by having a non-death-qualified jury consider guilt, without being told whether the case is a capital one or not, and a death-qualified jury consider the penalty.)

It’s also more than possible, though not proven, that the threat of execution changes the behavior of some offenders in the right direction. Putting the econometric evidence aside, as I’m inclined to do on topics this complex, there are accounts of bank robbery gangs in the 1930s who went into banks with unloaded weapons precisely to avoid the risk that someone would be killed and the robbers therefore subject to execution. I believe it is also the case that kidnappers-for-ransom of that era were reluctant to kill their victims - otherwise presumably a risk-reducing step - for the same reason.

Of course the opposite effect is also possible: perhaps some people commit crimes precisely so as to be executed, or find that the commission of a capital offense adds to the thrill. The empirical question — or quasi-empirical, if as a practical matter we can’t convincingly disentangle all the evidence — is whether the net effect is positive or negative. (And of course the answer to that might not be the same in all times and places.)

In my moral calculus, saving the lives of victims outweighs saving the lives of aggressors, at least if the numbers are even, and possibly even if they aren’t. The distinction between aggressors and victims seems to me to trump the action/omission argument that it’s not in general justified to cause a death directly in order to prevent a larger number of deaths. The cases used to make that argument tend to involve innocent parties on both sides, which is not the case here.

I recall an essay, though I’ve forgotten the title and author [Can any reader supply?] which makes the general moral case for the practice of criminal punishment on the following argument: If a situation arises in which it necessary that either A or B be injured, and if that situation arises due to the action of A, then it is A who should suffer. Insofar as that argument is valid, it greatly weakens the force of the argument from the act/omission distinction.

All that said, I have no trouble understanding, and sympathizing with, the position of those who regard capital punishment as the last vestige of human sacrifice and are aggrieved at being made complicit in it as taxpayers and voters.

(If I were a Christian, I think I would regard the account of the woman taken in adultery [John 8 1-11] as reflecting a clear judgment against the practice.)

When pro- and anti-death penalty demonstrators shout at one another outside a prison where someone is being killed, I know which group I’d rather go out to a meal with afterwards.

What I’m pretty sure of is that, in purely practical terms, the death penalty doesn’t deserve the attention it gets from either side of the debate. With the annual execution count below 100 and the annual homicide count near 20,000, it seems to me perverse, in a world of limited resources, to worry about abolishing executions rather than preventing murders. But even if it were the case that the death penalty prevented homicide, as a practical matter we could never carry it out frequently enough to make a measurable difference.

From the perspective of a generation ago, with rising crime rates and a scarcity of prison beds, it was not entirely irrational for voters - many of them angry about crime, prepared to be cruel to criminals in order to stop it, and worried that elected and appointed officials might be unduly inclined toward mercy - to use support for the death penalty as a simple test for a candidate’s willingness to be tough. But surely, with 2 million people behind bars, we’ve gotten tough enough.

I am, therefore, indifferent on the question of a moratorium on executions. But as someone professionally concerned with crime control, I’m a strong supporter of a moratorium on debating the subject; it’s a distraction from the work we really need to do.