January 18, 2014

"Secret Information": Giving Up Your Life for a Vicious Lie

I. The damaged child, who is taught that cruelty and even violence are expressions of love

When I was 48 years old, I experienced what I found to be an unusually illuminating moment. I was reflecting on Alice Miller's work; more particularly, I was thinking again about one of her central themes: how the major authority figures in our lives -- most notably and most commonly our parents, during our earliest years of life -- instill in us the primacy of obedience to authority. This is training to which virtually all of us are subjected, with extraordinarily rare exceptions; this is why I refer to America as an "obedience culture." When we are children and ask our parents why we must obey -- and most children are strongly discouraged from asking such questions -- one very common explanation of the demand for obedience is no explanation at all. It consists of the claim that our parents possess "secret information" of which we have no knowledge and which, as children, we would have no means of understanding even if they were to share it with us.

A typical expression of the claim is: "You'll understand [why you must obey me] when you're older." If the parent is pressed for an actual explanation, the conversation will often deteriorate very quickly, finally ending in: "Just do it -- because I told you to!"

It is important to understand what is meant by such a claim of "secret information." The parent or other authority figure is not claiming the advantage of specialized knowledge -- she or he is not relying, for example, on the course of education required if the child were to be asked to perform a complex mathematical task, or to address a technical question of epistemology. Except for the unusual genius, children are never asked to do such things, and many (perhaps most) parents couldn't do them either, even when they're 70. The authority figure's claim is of an entirely different kind: the authority figure claims that the child must obey with regard to matters of common understanding -- when to go to bed, why the child can't go to a party on a school night, why the child must perform assigned household chores. Or, to use an example I've discussed in detail, why the child should not make it a regular practice to splash a lot of water all over the bathroom.

Matters of this kind are completely understandable to children, even to very young children. In my discussion of the water splashing example -- a condensed version will be found here, while the longer version is here -- I described different ways in which the parent could explain the problem in terms the child would easily understand: a wet floor can be dangerous, to the child himself and to others; wet floors and walls might be damaged, requiring repairs; wet towels will have to be replaced; and so on. If the child is engaged in an examination of these issues in a non-accusatory manner, he will be led to certain conclusions himself. As a result, he will adjust his behavior accordingly in the future, without the aid of absolute prohibitions that are to be obeyed in the absence of questioning and understanding.

But the splashing story is proudly volunteered by a mother -- and she offers no explanations of this kind. Instead -- and tragically, this is the pattern followed by most parents -- she tells the young boy that he did a "bad thing," and that he did so knowing that it was a "bad thing." The mother also tells the boy that she "was very disappointed," and that she "really didn't like what he did." In this way, the mother demands that the child behave in a certain way because of the parent's own needs and feelings. Those needs and feelings have nothing to do with the reality of the child's experience, just as they have nothing to do with the facts concerning the dangers of a very wet bathroom. In effect, the mother is demanding that the young child behave "properly" so that the mother herself will not be made unhappy. And the source of the unhappiness will be the child himself.

Because most adults have internalized these methods of control and manipulation -- and, which is far worse, because they view such methods as right -- the reality of the effects of such parental domination are largely inaccessible to them. For the child, the threat of the withdrawal of the parent's love is profoundly threatening. Although he may not be able to explain it explicitly (in the case of a very young child), the child is fully aware that he depends on the parent for survival and for life itself. If he makes his mother too unhappy, and if his mother therefore no longer loves him, what will happen to him? Like most children, he will do anything to make his mother happy. He will obey. Because the child senses that his life depends on his parents, he must believe something more. It would be intolerable to the child to believe that his parents intend to harm him and, in fact, most parents have rendered themselves unable to appreciate the harm they are inflicting. So the child must believe in his parents' goodness, and in their "good intentions."

Most parents engage in such manipulation in varying degrees. Let us state the lessons the mother is teaching the young boy in this example in a somewhat different form:

1. The young boy is learning that when he behaves in ways which might be undertaken in full innocence (Splashing water is fun! Some limits are necessary, but splashing water is fun!), he might nonetheless be guilty of being "bad," and of acting in ways that he knows are "bad." If this message is delivered to the child repeatedly (and such parents rarely restrict these methods to only one very delimited area), his chances of developing a healthy, positive view of himself are fundamentally undermined. If such lessons are delivered often enough over an extended period of time, those chances will be destroyed.

2. As a result, the child is learning to distrust himself on a basic level. He cannot trust himself to know what is "good" in terms of how he behaves or, as he gets older, in terms of what he thinks. He will have to wait for emotional signals from the relevant authority figures to know whether what he does or thinks is "good" or "bad," and then adjust his behavior or views accordingly.

3. Facts concerning the issue in question are entirely irrelevant; such facts are rarely if ever discussed. Instead, what matters are feelings and emotions -- not his own, since he can't trust those, but those of the authority figures. Since he cannot access the emotions of others directly, he will have to be constantly vigilant in seeking clues to their reactions, to determine whether his actions or opinions are met with approval or not. He is being taught how to manipulate others, just as his parents manipulate him.

4. The child is learning that these methods of control, domination and manipulation are expressions of love. Just as the child cannot doubt his parents' "good intentions," it is intolerable to think that his parents might not love him since he depends on them for survival. That is, and despite most parents' inability to appreciate the cruelty involved, the child is learning that cruelty is love. In those cases where parents inflict physical violence on a child (spanking, slapping and all other forms of physical abuse are never "okay"), and such violence remains distressingly common, the child is learning that violence is love. (Please note: one adult version of these beliefs is that bombing will bring the victims "freedom.")

I offer this further explanation of the consequences of these methods of control and of demanding obedience because it is critical to understand the immense scope of the damage that is inflicted on the child. On the deepest level, the child is being prevented from forming any genuine sense of self at all. The method of functioning he is being taught requires him to survive by constantly attempting to determine the reactions of others. In any conflict between his own views and those of certain authority figures, it is the views of the authority figures that will prevail.

Here is how I have summarized the effects of this kind of training:
These are the lessons we are all taught, and that only a very small number of people manage to resist successfully: to throttle any sign of a genuine, vital thought or feeling of our own; to obey the authority figures in our lives without question or hesitation; and to attempt to survive by making ourselves constantly aware of even the subtlest emotional signals from others, especially those whose favor we regard as crucial to our success. For this mode of functioning -- which is the mode of functioning of most people -- the facts relevant to any particular question or controversy do not matter. What matters, what is of life and death importance in psychological terms, is the view of the group(s) with which we have allied ourselves.
As this method of survival is constantly reinforced, the child will also be told that he must obey because his parent or other authority figure said so, and the parent or other authority figure will also proclaim that he has "secret information" which is denied to the child, and which he could not understand in any case. We can see the effects of this training in another way. Almost all of us, and this was certainly true in my case, view the world of our parents -- what they do at work, and socially, and in most other spheres -- as mysterious and largely incomprehensible. It is a realm entirely separate from the world the child inhabits, and it is a world completely barred to us as children. The promise is that when we become adults, we will be permitted to join that world and everything will become clear to us, through some means that are also never explained to the child. Because of his training, the child will have no means of challenging any of these pronouncements, and as the years go by, he will have less and less desire to do so. To challenge such statements would be to incur the disapproval of the authority figures and to make them unhappy. But the child has learned that his life depends on avoiding that outcome. He will not challenge the authority figures' claims. He will obey.

It is widely understood and agreed that the patterns of thinking and emotional response that we learn as children, especially when those patterns are constantly reinforced over a period of years, become deeply engrained in our adult selves. And most of us are subjected to the methods of control described above. Those individuals who set out to uproot this method of survival are very rare; to uproot it systematically also requires a period of years, and usually of decades. In Alice Miller's case, it was not until she was in her middle to late fifties that she fully understood these mechanisms and was finally able to challenge them successfully. The same was true in my own case, and I also know it to be true of many people I've communicated with about these issues.

What was the realization that I found so startling at the age of 48? I still had close to another decade of study and work before I understood Miller's books, and how these mechanisms had affected me, sufficiently so that I could begin writing about these issues myself. But I had grasped a fair amount about Miller's ideas by that time. As I thought about these issues, I suddenly realized that I was now roughly the age of my parents when they had claimed to have "secret information" that explained so many of their demands. (I was the last of three children, and my parents were nearing 40 when I was born.) And I had been among the world of adults for many years at that point, so all those earlier mysteries were now supposed to be completely understandable to me. And I wondered: What exactly is this "secret information" that I have as a 48-year-old, that would justify demanding that a child obey me in the absence of any further explanation?

That was the moment when I finally understood completely what a monumental lie it was. All that "secret information" consisted of precisely nothing.

II. The damaged adult, who still believes in the crucial importance of "secret information"

Obama's speech on the NSA and surveillance is a lengthy paean to the crucial importance of "secret information." The entire "intelligence" industry is founded on the belief that "secret information" is an absolute necessity for the survival and well-being of the United States. To one degree or another, most adult Americans share this belief.

It's a lie -- a vicious, cruel, murderous lie. I have written many, many articles about the fraud of "intelligence" over a period of almost ten years. I have often been astonished that very few people seem to understand in any meaningful way what I'm talking about. Even those people who I know have read at least two of three of my essays, and who have expressed their agreement with my argument, usually forget that argument the next time "intelligence" becomes an issue of debate and importance. Unless we work unrelentingly to uproot them, those patterns of thought that were instilled when we were very young remain deeply engrained in us as adults. We believe in the legitimacy of "secret information," in its utility, in its importance for our survival. It is one of the major reasons that so many Americans obey with such enthusiasm.

Insofar as "intelligence" is concerned, such "secret information" is almost always wrong; on the rare occasions when it is correct, it is likely to be disregarded, especially if it goes against a policy that has already been decided. Gabriel Kolko makes the point this way (from his book, The Age of War: The United States Confronts the World):
After 1991 the United States assumed that its objectives and desires, backed by its growing military armada, could increasingly guide change in any region it chose to intervene in. That is why the United States defines, for better or worse, the nature and course of international affairs in the future. The extent to which it acts rationally is, as with other nations throughout modern times, to a great degree dependent on the accuracy of its intelligence and the extent it uses information to guide its actions. But collective illusions have characterized the leaders of most nations since time immemorial. They have substituted their desires, ambitions, and interests for accurate estimates of what may occur from their actions. At best, intelligence organizations gather data of tactical rather than strategic utility. An infrastructure of ambitious people exists to reinforce the leaders' preconceptions, in part because they too are socialized to believe what often proves to be illusion. But bearers of bad tidings are, by and large, unwelcome and prevented from reaching the higher ranks of most political orders. It is extremely difficult for nations to behave rationally, which means accepting the limits of their power, and what is called intelligence has to confront the institutional biases and inhibitions of each social system. Thus deductive, symbolic reactions become much more likely, notwithstanding the immense risks of their being wrong. The US war in Iraq and the geopolitical folly of its larger strategy in the Persian Gulf is but one recent example of it.

It is all too rare that states overcome illusions, and the United States is no more an exception than Germany, Italy, England, or France before it. The function of intelligence anywhere is far less to encourage rational behavior--although sometimes that occurs--than to justify a nation's illusions, and it is the false expectations that conventional wisdom encourages that make wars more likely, a pattern that has only increased since the early twentieth century. By and large, US, Soviet, and British strategic intelligence since 1945 has been inaccurate and often misleading, and although it accumulated pieces of information that were useful, the leaders of these nations failed to grasp the inherent dangers of their overall policies. When accurate, such intelligence has been ignored most of the time if there were overriding preconceptions or bureaucratic reasons for doing so.
Some will nonetheless insist that "intelligence" is of vital significance, and that it depends on specialized knowledge, i.e., "secret information." That, too, is a lie. Here is Ray McGovern, who worked for the CIA (excerpted in my article, "You, Too, Can and Should Be an 'Intelligence Analyst'"):
The craft of CIA analysis was designed to be an all-source operation, meaning that we analysts were responsible - and held accountable - for assimilating information from all sources and coming to judgments on what it all meant. We used data of various kinds, from the most sophisticated technical collection platforms, to spies, to - not least - open media.

Here I must reveal a trade secret and risk puncturing the mystique of intelligence analysis. Generally speaking, 80 percent of the information one needs to form judgments on key intelligence targets or issues is available in open media. It helps to have been trained - as my contemporaries and I had the good fortune to be trained - by past masters of the discipline of media analysis, which began in a structured way in targeting Japanese and German media in the 1940s. But, truth be told, anyone with a high school education can do it. It is not rocket science.
In thinking about this issue during the years since I first excerpted McGovern, and given the intervening events, I've concluded that the 80% figure is almost certainly too low. I think the more accurate figure would be 90%, or even 95%. (Among other things, I doubt that McGovern wants to put his former colleagues, and possibly many friends of his today, largely or even completely out of work.)

I underscored this point when I wrote about the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran. You may recall that the NIE was the subject of much commentary. But one central fact was overlooked by almost everyone:
It deserves emphasis that this latest NIE tells us nothing -- let me repeat that, nothing -- that was not entirely obvious to a reasonably intelligent layperson who followed mainstream media reports about Iran for the last several years. As just one example, see my post, "Iran: The Growing Threat that Isn't," from close to a year ago.
You can read my article, "Played for Fools Yet Again: About that Iran 'Intelligence' Report," for the detailed argument about "intelligence" generally. It should also be noted that I and many others had been making the argument about Iran's entirely non-threatening status for quite a while, and almost no one paid us any mind. Suddenly, when the National Intelligence Estimate is issued by the government, what we had been saying all along became the incontrovertible truth. But I stress that I was entirely consistent in my argument. From later in "Played for Fools": "In the most critical sense, I don't care about this latest assessment, just as I did not care about the earlier ones, about Iran or on any other subject at all -- for in addition to the rather important fact that such assessments are invariably wrong, I recognize that policy decisions are made on different grounds altogether."

And here is Chalmers Johnson, in his review of the book Legacy of Ashes, about the CIA's decades of failure. I urge you to read this with care, for many of Johnson's arguments are critically relevant to the current debate about the NSA and all the other means of "intelligence" gathering:
The historical record is unequivocal. The United States is ham-handed and brutal in conceiving and executing clandestine operations, and it is simply no good at espionage; its operatives never have enough linguistic and cultural knowledge of target countries to recruit spies effectively. The CIA also appears to be one of the most easily penetrated espionage organizations on the planet. From the beginning, it repeatedly lost its assets to double agents.


Over the years, in order to compensate for these serious inadequacies, the CIA turned increasingly to signals intelligence and other technological means of spying like U-2 reconnaissance aircraft and satellites. In 1952, the top leaders of the CIA created the National Security Agency -- an eavesdropping and cryptological unit -- to overcome the Agency's abject failure to place any spies in North Korea during the Korean War. The Agency debacle at the Bay of Pigs in Cuba led a frustrated Pentagon to create its own Defense Intelligence Agency as a check on the military amateurism of the CIA's clandestine service officers.

Still, technological means, whether satellite spying or electronic eavesdropping, will seldom reveal intentions -- and that is the raison d'ĂȘtre of intelligence estimates. As Haviland Smith, who ran operations against the USSR in the 1960s and 1970s, lamented, "The only thing missing is -- we don't have anything on Soviet intentions. And I don't know how you get that. And that's the charter of the clandestine service [emphasis in original, pp. 360-61])."

The actual intelligence collected was just as problematic. On the most important annual intelligence estimate throughout the Cold War -- that of the Soviet order of battle -- the CIA invariably overstated its size and menace. Then, to add insult to injury, under George H. W. Bush's tenure as DCI (1976-77), the agency tore itself apart over ill-informed right-wing claims that it was actually underestimating Soviet military forces. The result was the appointment of "Team B" during the Ford presidency, led by Polish exiles and neoconservative fanatics. It was tasked to "correct" the work of the Office of National Estimates.

"After the Cold War was over," writes Weiner, "the agency put Team B's findings to the test. Every one of them was wrong." [p. 352] But the problem was not simply one of the CIA succumbing to political pressure. It was also structural: "[F]or thirteen years, from Nixon's era to the dying days of the Cold War, every estimate of Soviet strategic nuclear forces overstated [emphasis in original] the rate at which Moscow was modernizing its weaponry." [p. 297]

From 1967 to 1973, I served as an outside consultant to the Office of National Estimates, one of about a dozen specialists brought in to try to overcome the myopia and bureaucratism involved in the writing of these national intelligence estimates. I recall agonized debates over how the mechanical highlighting of worst-case analyses of Soviet weapons was helping to promote the arms race. Some senior intelligence analysts tried to resist the pressures of the Air Force and the military-industrial complex. Nonetheless, the late John Huizenga, an erudite intelligence analyst who headed the Office of National Estimates from 1971 until the wholesale purge of the Agency by DCI James Schlesinger in 1973, bluntly said to the CIA's historians:
"In retrospect.... I really do not believe that an intelligence organization in this government is able to deliver an honest analytical product without facing the risk of political contention. . . . I think that intelligence has had relatively little impact on the policies that we've made over the years. Relatively none. . . . Ideally, what had been supposed was that . . . serious intelligence analysis could.... assist the policy side to reexamine premises, render policymaking more sophisticated, closer to the reality of the world. Those were the large ambitions which I think were never realized."
You will find still more Johnson excerpts in this essay. Much more recently, we witnessed the "intelligence" follies in Boston, which I documented here.

In his review, Johnson urges the abolishment of the CIA, a recommendation with which I heartily concur. I would add to that the abolishment of the NSA. All right, I'll be reasonable: let's go with McGovern's estimate of the proportion of "intelligence" that relies on "open media." So cut the CIA and NSA budgets by 80%. That would be a good start, and then we can discuss all the other agencies and programs devoted to "intelligence" and decide which of them should be abolished or cut down by 80% (or 90% or 95%).

You can consult the articles linked above (and follow the internal links for much more on this) to appreciate the full scope of the fraud represented by "intelligence." The crucial point is that "intelligence" as it is thought of by most people -- and as it is marketed by the State -- is a fraud from start to finish. It is a damnable, unforgivable lie. I will probably have some narrower comments about Obama's speech, but the speech in its entirety is premised on a complete fabrication, on a conception of "intelligence" that corresponds to the facts and the truth at not even a single point. In that sense, Obama's speech is nothing but a lie.

I am painfully aware that my position represents an almost undetectable minority view. Very few people agree with me. Among other things, that is a testament to the training and conditioning to which all of us have been subjected. As children, we often had no choice but to accept our parents' and other authority figures' claims to "secret information," which was one of the supposed justifications for commanding our obedience. Most people carry this belief system into adulthood without alteration or serious challenge. An authority figure makes a serious pronouncement, and most adults are prepared to accept it; you see this dynamic with "experts" in all fields, even when what they say is obvious nonsense. The President makes a series of claims that have nothing to do with the truth, and there is no wise child -- and there are almost no adults -- who will declare: "You're a liar, and you're naked, too."

But I'll say it: You, Barack Obama, are a goddamned, bloody liar. And put some fucking clothes on.