May 22, 2013

Leaks, Politics, and Power

The Obama Administration's aggressive anti-leak campaign has further polarized an already fractious community of national security commentators. On one side, as Joshua Foust noted, DC's national security press corps and many national security commentators see the surveillance and investigation as a threat to the very ability of the press to check a naturally over-secretive mil-intel complex. This has not resonated with many national security professionals who chafe at the idea that the press ought to be arbiter of which classified information can be leaked. There is truth in both stances, but also plenty of misdirection.

The story of how leaking became an integral part of DC’s political economy is the story of modern American politics. Like the proverbial Great American Novel, it's a story that must necessarily invoke a tapestry of both American and world-systemic social, cultural, economic, and political forces. There are no heroes and villains.  Instead, a complex interplay of institutions, processes, and power struggles led to the counterproductive and self-defeating hounding of Fox News reporter James Rosen.

And if TL:DR is your thing, I'm sorry. There's been so much BS on this subject that it needs to be discussed at a Trombly-esque length.

Washington DC is an ecosystem shaped by intense intra-elite competition. In such an environment, distinguished by compartmented and stovepiped access to knowledge concerning the machinery of government, control of information (which includes leaks) offers both political currency and psychological validation.  How it got that way, and how the current dueling narratives of security and press freedom mask such grubby competition, is probably a more fascinating story than the leaks themselves.

The real error inherent in Rosen’s plight is not a story of Nixon 2.0, but rather of national security policy that—as in AfPak and Yemen—suffers from a lack of attention to the larger political context, “human terrain,” and second and third-order effects.

The Pure Science of Politics

Politics is the process that governs the all important question of “who gets what, when, and how.” Classical social thinkers such as Machiavelli, Pareto, and C. Wright Mills have all recognized the centrality of elites to political dynamics---with alternatively praiseworthy and conspiratorial interpretations. A review of political thought, history, and political science shows that the business of politics is neither the conspiracy of fat cats populists imagine or the morality tale of Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. It’s just politics. As Truman famously said, “if you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.”

The very logic of political life creates a natural base of elites. As the political scientist Bruce Bueno de Mesquita wrote in The Logic of Political Survival, there is inevitably a "winning coalition" in domestic politics that keeps the incumbent in power. However, this coalition must be provided with private goods in order to be kept pliant. Therefore, the coalition must be kept as small as possible.  A small winning coalition is impossible in a democracy, which partially explains the instability of democratic governing coalitions. Furthermore, even in democracies political advantage goes to small, tightly knit networks which do not face collective action problems and are linked by superior social capital. Such networks tend to triumph even in the face of larger—but more disorganized—political opposition.

Beyond the winning coalition, specific kinds of elites also matter. From a historical perspective, several kinds of elites (this is not an exclusive list) recur in American democracy. First, those figures who can understand and mobilize cohesive networks are worth their weight in gold. Abraham Lincoln was so dependent on these political figures that he gave them battlefield commissions during the Civil War. Note how Rahm Emanuel, the consummate political fixer, walked the halls of power with admirals, spies, and cabinet members. The dawn of the industrial age produced another set of elites with power over the massive industrial, scientific, financial, and corporate structure that emerged as a consequence of America's rise to greatness.

As interwar historians note, both Herbert Hoover and Franklin Delano Roosevelt envisioned an enlightened alliance of these elites with a third elite type--government technocrats--as the key to stabilizing American society that was undergoing dramatic economic, political, and cultural changes.  Government technocrats arose as a consequence of the need to govern an increasingly complex society. They provided technical knowledge and ruled bureaucratic organizations governed by impersonal rules.

One of the many technical arms of government created to cope with both external changes in the international system and a more complex domestic picture was the military-industrial-intelligence complex. While the US continued to develop the military and intelligence backbone capable of exerting power abroad, J. Edgar Hoover's Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) mobilized at home against both political radicals and heavily armed gangsters.

Technocrats and industrial age elites, both Hoover and FDR reasoned, could together stabilize an increasingly fractious America. The disruptive nature of these domestic and international changes is often glossed over. It was a time in which American government was rocked by corruption more characteristic by "bags of money" Kabul than Andy of Mayberry, roiling class war, massive crime, and divisive sociocultural conflicts. It was no wonder that intellectuals of the time, to put it bluntly, were pretty damn scared of the future.  

While Hoover's vision of a small government that facilitated elite cooperation differed from FDR's more activist ideology, elite agreement was key to success for both presidents. The arrangement FDR helped formalize generated what was called the "consensus" era of American history, often remembered with great nostalgia as a time of economic equality, cultural agreement, and political comity. Of course, such a consensus was not good for everyone. The original title and deed to my family home in California explicitly barred Jews from moving into the neighborhood, to say nothing of African-Americans, Chicanos, and Asian-Americans. This was the high point of the era of smoke-filled rooms and popular diatribes about the "Man in the Grey Flannel Suit."

However, the biggest problem inherent in a new and massive bureaucracy is that it provided an ample space for elite competition. Sure, there was the ordinary grappling of social climbers. Factional interests, as organizational theory would predict, soon came to the fore. These natural tendencies are also bolstered by the nature of American democracy’s separation of powers. Ironically, the very discord and bureaucratic buck-passing that we decry is our best insurance against developing a unified “deep state” akin to that of Turkey or the former Communist world.

But bureaucratic factionalism and elite competition makes governance difficult. This problem created a particular demand for those who could impose political direction on the machinery of government. While Graham Allison over-exaggerates the power of bureaucratic "operational codes," it is significant that the lawyer Bobby Kennedy laid down his brother's law during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

A Finger in the Fulcrum

What kind of person “fixes” the machine? What kind of knowledge enables mastery over it? The problem with government lies in its vast and complex expanse, tiered and access-restricted compartments, and tendency towards debilitating friction as the mighty gears spin. As the political scientist James C. Scott might say, such an arcane structure creates a problem of legibility. One must first read the machine in order to do something with it.

The power of Big Data lies in the ability of tools like Hadoop to assemble, structure, and exploit large quantities of unstructured and distributed data. The ability to read, structure, understand, and exploit the rough, distributed data of government and convert it into value is the essence of political intelligence. He who can both make sense out of such information and freely access it has power over the machine. In turn, his opponents will seek, like Scott’s semi-mythical Zomians, to render themselves unreadable and amorphous through manipulation and control of information.

Beneath the layer of competing bureaucratic identity lies another type of faction, the trust network. Theorized by the sociologist Charles Tilly, the trust network is a small group of individuals that resist control of more powerful authorities through various strategies of erosion, evasion, and misdirection. Trust networks exist everywhere where large-scale cooperation is difficult. Trust networks certainly have always existed within government, particularly those centered around charismatic personalities that carve out their own domains.

The importance of access to information is why figures within the Bush administration created the Office of Special Plans. With the intelligence community unsympathetic to their political aims, they needed their own channel of raw information to exercise control over Iraq war policy.  However, this practice is far more common than many Bush-bashers realize. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s monopoly over military-intelligence information in the run-up to World War II and his own highly questionable usage of such information dwarfs anything seen in the last ten years. Roosevelt, acting mostly in secret, waged both naval and air proxy war against the Axis and tolerated a massive British strategic influence and spying campaign directed against American citizens.

The rise of a more technically complex government governed by stovepiped, access-controlled information was paralleled by the simultaneous genesis of a science of persuasion.  The communication thinkers of the early 20th century, many of whom had served in World War I propaganda organizations, believed that the citizens of a mass society needed guidance and influence to make a dizzying array of decisions both serious and mundane. The science of public relations and advertising, as Edward Bernays wrote, was about giving guidance to a citizen alone in a dauntingly complex and interlinked world where even the daily experience of urban living assaulted the senses.  

This field gave birth to what we know today as the political communications discipline---e.g. lobbyists. Lobbyists combined a knack for moving the gears of government with the scientific knowledge of mass communication developed in the mid-20th century. They were a harbinger of greater changes to come.

Out of Eden

For a variety of both domestic and international political, economic, cultural, and societal reasons too complex to examine in a single blog post, the postwar consensus era could not last. As George Packer argues, this left the elites who had previously agreed on the nature of things scrambling to protect their interests. Second, there was also a shift in the nature of the elites themselves. Peter Turchin, piggybacking on Chris Hayes’ book The Twilight of the Elites, notes that a different explanation may help explain the dysfunction we see today besides the moral turpitude often alleged by establishment critics.

Intensified intra-elite competition for increasingly scarce positions granting access to wealth and influence is also a consequence of an exponential increase in those seeking to become elites. As Hayes observed, a more meritocratic education system would inevitably produce more aspirants than jobs. The erosion of a consensus that mitigated towards cooperation produced greater dysfunction. Turchin, an ecologist by trade, notes that the mathematical Price Equation suggests internal competition can have a deleterious effect on group altruism and cohesion.  Competing trust networks, always a part of political and social life, blossomed throughout fields of importance.

The macrotrends behind the rise of intra-elite competition and the end of consensus accelerated existing lobbying, bureaucratic warfare, and partisan competition into something more characteristic of the “bad old days” prior to the midcentury consensus. However, new tools of mass influence and the exponential increase in the complexity of the governmental sphere upped the stakes. The modern political world, like Wall Street, became a complex ecosystem driven by similar dynamics of bubbles, crashes, and insider information. And just like Wall Street’s dynamics created the rise of advanced technologies and wizards (often falsely) claiming to offer scientific mastery over social process, the intense competition of political life generated political technology and political alchemists that also offered their clients the power to turn electoral lead into gold.

In such an environment, both the national security and domestic political worlds face strikingly similar problems. Bueno de Mesquita’s “winning coalition” in a democracy is both large and must be pacified with private goods. This inherently makes the coalition unstable. Such logic of instability also applies to the governmental sphere. A large amount of men and women must cooperate together to make the machine run. Many require access to valuable information in order to do their jobs. But the incentive to use such information for gain is immense and can overcome even the most tight-knit social and cultural bonds.

Even "quiet professionals" such as special operations soldiers and intelligence operatives blab to the press. Each leak generates more stovepiping and “plumbing,” unintentionally yet inevitably raising the market value of secret information ever higher.  Why? It’s not just about bureaucratic, partisan, or even financial advantage. Hoarding, manipulating, and leaking information also offers psychological validation. I leak, therefore I am.

Take the Wikileaks informant and military intelligence peon Bradley Manning. Unhappy with his personal life and US foreign policy, he began to hoard national security information. Though a gnat within the military-industrial complex, Manning’s information was valuable enough to someone to turn him into a celebrity. Now he elicits attention and sympathy from elites who would otherwise disregard a lowly soldier toiling away in the vast intelligence information database known as JWICS.

Mark Felt’s Children

So what does this all have to do with the misfortune of Fox Newsreporter James Rosen? The hunt for leakers makes for a debate in which two theologies—the gospel of national security and the gospel of the muckraking press—now clash head-to-head. But holy writ alone does not grant much insight.

No one would deny the importance of operational security. Yet it is still both hoarded and leaked flagrantly to grant power and advantage. Similarly, the closest thing the modern DC press has to an origin myth is the Watergate scandal. The simple version of the myth is that the press serves as a check on abuses of government power, shining a powerful light into the darkness that shrouds the machinery of state. The reality is more complex. Without a means of utilizing their hard-won information, elites within government cannot compete. Bureaucratic warfare cannot be waged without a megaphone.

Such a megaphone must also be discreet. The difference between, say, the bureaucratic warrior Mark Felt (known more popularly as “Deep Throat”) and a troubled soul like Bradley Manning is truly vast. The amateurish Manning poured his soul out to a complete stranger he met on the Internet. A man of Felt’s stature, however, had to protect himself. He needed a conduit to discreetly utilize his information without risk to himself. Blocked from moving up in the hierarchy, Felt’s confidential information could only become valuable outside the government. Enter the Washington Post.

To this day, it is striking how much Felt, for all of his pivotal impact on history, was just another DC bureaucratic leaker. Operating out of a complex mixture of principle, bureaucratic maneuvering, and personal ambition, Felt effectively made the Posthis mouthpiece and became a world-historical figure. Felt, in some respects, was also little better than the Nixon officials he denounced. He authorized black-bag jobs against domestic radicals, and was convicted of conspiracy in 1980 when he refused (at least in court) to rat out his superiors. Was he principled or mercenary? No one will ever know. But the CIA, SVR, and Mossad operatives who recruit spies deal every day with Felt-like characters.

For every Watergate, Iran-Contra, or Abu Ghraib there are likely ten to twenty (a conservative and charitable estimate) exercises in puerile partisanship and bureaucratic finger-pointing like Benghazi enabled by the political press. Indeed, some in the press have used their privileged access to elite information to become elites themselves. Journals such as Politico derive their very prominence by a claim to soothsay the pulse of “the town.”  Despite the theology of investigative journalism, the press—like many other DC institutions—is a prominent vehicle for intra-elite competition. Inasmuch as it makes such competition possible, it contributes to the very dysfunction journalists often decry.

Towards Mitigation

Seen in this light, the troubling overreach inherent in the Rosen affair becomes a microcosm of the larger tragedy of American national security. The government, seeking to exercise control over a dysfunctional and fractious bureaucracy, took affirmative action. However, like the war in Iraq or Afghanistan, such a struggle inherently juxtaposed an amorphous yet ambitious strategic aim with limited ways and means. Now we have come to the point where a blunt and dangerous tool like the Espionage Act has been deployed.

Like a Cold War security standoff, the use of special technical means to combat leaks will surely generate a counterintelligence arms race as journalists (some of whom have extensive experience in combat zones) deploy advanced tradecraft to get their scoops. In turn, such new tradecraft could very well provoke more advanced and counterproductivegovernment “plumbing.” The greater stovepiping that inevitably results also harms interagency cooperation and increases the market value of leaks by making such information more rare and valuable.

The endpoint of such a struggle surely does not benefit either national security or freedom of the press. Yet this is where we are---if the Rosen investigation says anything--are headed. Leaking, like many other crimes, will ultimately be managed rather than eradicated. The struggle to eradicate leaks has far-reaching consequences for both the information the government seeks to protect and freedoms beyond the investigative press's undeniable self-interest.

For the government prudent mitigation will be key to both the preservation of operational security and the preservation of press freedom. The government will have to be more skillful and strategic about how it protects its secrets. Difficult intelligence targets such as North Korea and al-Qaeda cannot be penetrated in an environment of rampant leaking. But in the case of Rosen, the cure may be worse than the disease. Leaks are an undeniable scourge. But acting without a plan that considers the political context does not do anyone any favors.

The first step towards progress is realizing that the problem is far bigger than the AP or Fox News alone, and that mythologies and holy gospels do not provide a sound basis for balancing liberty and security. However, at the moment—as with Benghazi, drones, and other contentious subjects—we can’t expect much more out of the “war of ideas” besides preaching to the choir.