Pssst! Wanna Know a Secret?

Secrecy has been a facet of
government and international affairs since government and international affairs
were invented.  Sumerian diplomats were
already negotiating secret treaties in the early third millennium B.C., hard on
the heels of the birth of civilization itself.
The classical Greeks sent coded messages, and the Roman Senate
occasionally met in closed session to keep sensitive information from the
public.  None of this is surprising.  Any state, from ancient Ur to modern America, can be expected to seize whatever advantage it
believes inherent in keeping secret from other states certain military and
diplomatic information.  In war and peace
the side that knows more, particularly more about the other guy, has a distinct
advantage.

And so it remained for almost five thousand years –
secrecy as a basic military and diplomatic weapon – and the uses and extent of
government secrecy at the end of the nineteenth century had not changed
appreciably since the days of the pharaohs.
The twentieth century, however, witnessed an emergence from this
stagnation, and the uses of secrecy – or classification, as it is now called –
have multiplied dramatically.  Not only
have the old hallowed grounds of classification been expanded, but upon the
traditional foundation of national security entire new edifices of secrecy have
been erected.  And in the vanguard of
these developments is the United States, ironically a country known for its freedom of
expression.

The age-old goal of keeping  military
codes,  operational plans  and
force  dispositions secret is  still
important,  though altered somewhat
by technological developments.   Codes
and plans can  be secured,  if a careful eye is kept out for  clever
teen-agers  with  personal
computers,  but the  advent  of
satellite reconnaissance
allows  a  state
to keep  the  location
of  its military  forces secret only from its own
citizens.  As a kind of compensation for
this loss,  though, the requirements of
military secrecy  have  expanded to cover the technology  and
even the basic research  behind
the tools of the military.  Business,
already concerned about keeping its own proprietary information secret, has
responded enthusiastically, and increasingly contracts with the government contain
“commercial-in-confidence” clauses, rendering the entire transaction
opaque to the public.  This preserves the
technological secrets from competitors and enemies, but of course it also
allows industry and government to hide any malfeasance or incompetence.  And such secrecy is hardly good for overall
progress, since the scientific community depends upon the free flow of information
to function properly.  One ironic result
of this passion for technological secrecy is the occasional reluctance to actually
use advanced weaponry out of fear of revealing secrets.  America, for example, refused to use its cruise missiles
against a Libyan chemical plant in 1986, fearing that one might fall unexploded
into enemy hands.  One is reminded of
British and German reluctance in WW I to send out their incredibly expensive
fleets because they might lose ships.

But all these developments are a logical extension of the
ancient desire to keep certain information out of foreign hands.  It is in the relatively modern arena of
keeping information out of the hands of ones own citizens that the United States in particular has demonstrated considerable
innovation.  What might be called
“political” secrecy is as old as kingship, but its use by the
American government and military has made it as much a part of the political
system as patronage and reelection.  To
elected officials and the bureaucracy classification is a sort of Holy Grail,
absolving all who use it of the political sin of responsibility.  Who can discover your mistakes and
malfeasance when what you do is classified secret?  Who can impugn your motives when your refusal
to discuss certain affairs is based on the pure patriotic grounds of national
security?  In 1983 12 year old Todd
Patterson discovered he was being watched by the FBI for writing to foreign
missions; learning that the activity was innocent, the agency agreed to close
the file.  They did not, and in 1987
Patterson finally obtained  a copy  of
his  FBI file, only to discover it
was censored to the point of illegibility.
The explanation given with a straight face by the FBI: national
security.

In the last several decades classification, which had
formerly been an essentially passive device, covering incompetence and outright
criminality (still a vital function in the defense industry), has evolved into
a generally accepted active political weapon.
National security based secrecy can now be used to further private
political agendas; not even the Congress knew the content of most of the National
Security Directives emanating from the Reagan White House.  Or consider a twist by the Bush
administration: reluctant to reveal the identities of the business leaders he
was making deals with, VP Cheney refused to release the visitors logs, claiming
that that these alleged advisors could not “speak freely” unless
anonymous, an argument commonly used to close meetings to the public.  Further, a careful program of classifying and
leaking can also be used to attack other branches of government and the media and
as a bonus, justify further secrecy.  These
tactics were clearly in play when the Bush White House outed CIA agent Valerie
Plame in order to embarrass her and her husband.  And remember back to Oliver North, who showed
us all how secrecy can be used to protect you even after you have been caught
blatantly violating the law. 

Those in power may well have the interests of the
American people at least partially in view, however.  At least I can see no purpose other than
public entertainment in the relatively recent emergence of what might be
labeled “comic” secrecy.  An
early example of this was evident in the Iran-Contra hearings, when the
participants insisted on referring to the states involved as Countries A, B, C,
etc., despite the fact that every human being watching knew their true
identities.  Or an early shuttle launch,
the utterly secret payload of which was being described in detail on television
before it was even in orbit.  And of
course there is the first Stealth aircraft, an especially good instance of
“comic” secrecy; while the government and  military were denying the very existence of
the plane, kids were building fairly accurate models of it.  The cost of the Stealth program was classified,  probably because if the Soviets knew how  much each plane cost, they would have realized
they had nothing to fear.  Even now the
military is withholding information on events and projects, some of them a half
century old, that are already known to the public and/or involve now obsolete
technology.  It’s like a sickness.

WikiLeaks has certainly underscored just how seriously
those in authority take their secrecy.  No
vital information was revealed, no lives were lost and America’s interests were not materially harmed, but Julian Assange
is viewed as the greatest threat to our security since the Japanese.  Actually, what was harmed was our diplomatic
face, when all the nasty and petty things said in private were revealed,
embarrassing important people everywhere, even though every diplomat knows such
remarks are constantly being made.  And
big business, ever an enthusiastic partner in creating greater opaqueness, is
doing its part, as Amazon, Bank of America, PayPal and others severed all ties
with WikiLeaks.

Well, we in Americahave certainly come a long way since the days of the Founding
Fathers, when almost all government business was rather foolishly conducted in
full public view, thus endangering our national security.  Would we have had to fight all  those invading British troops if the
Declaration of Independence had been properly classified?  Would Nathan Hale have had to regret that he
had only one life to give to his country if his country had provided him with plausible
deniability?  Could we have been spared two
hundred years of social turmoil and the weakening of our security if the Bill
of Rights had been available only on a “need to know” basis?

America has made great strides in the past decades, but the
road to national security is a long one.
If this great nation is to remain strong and free, we must be ever
vigilant, for inAmerica the price of freedom is secret.

 

 

 

 

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Outburst #1: Abuse of English

Occasionally
I must scream.

 

Those of us who treasure our
language have become accustomed to its abuse – mismatched pronouns, nouns used
as verbs, confusion of adverbs and adjectives, etc. – increasingly even by
“educated” people.  But the two
following examples are driving me up the wall.
Otherwise articulate people in the media and semi-articulate people in
politics are using these mis-definitions seemingly because they heard someone
else do it.

 

“existential”  This word does NOT mean “relating to
existing,” as in “an existential threat to Israel.”  It is a philosophical term dealing with human
existence, logic and such concerns. “An existential threat to Israel”
does not mean a threat to Israel’s
existence but rather something about the meaning of Israel’s
being.

 

begs
the question” 
This does NOT
mean something suggests another question to be considered, but rather it means
the statement is a logical fallacy in which a premise or assumption is employed
to demonstrate its own truth, a type of petitio principii.

 

OK, enough of this.  Please proceed to the next post about Hannibal’s
last years.

 

 

Stuff from Way Back #5: Hannibal: The Sunset Years

"Die, Roman scum!"

Most everyone has heard of Hannibal Barca and his
exploits against the Romans during the Second Punic War (218-201 BC).  Undefeated in Italy, he fought his last engagement in 202 at Zama in
North Africa, where P. Cornelius Scipio Africanus gained the distinction
of being the only man to defeat him in battle.
Not quite.  There was also Eudamus
the Rhodian.

By the terms of the peace treaty that was signed in 201 Carthage was stripped of her possessions and reduced to being a
Roman client, her independence and political importance at an end.  Her commercial activities certainly did not
cease and she was able to pay her annual war
indemnity to Rome, but a corrupt and oppressive oligarchic government
began to exploit the people, who at last turned to Hannibal.  In 196 he was
chosen suffete, one of the two annually elected chief magistrates of the
Carthaginian republic.  Under his
leadership the popular assembly broke the back of oligarchic power, and Hannibal attended to the finances of the state, so improving matters
that in 191 Carthage offered to pay off the remaining forty years of
reparation payments in one lump sum.

Loved by the people, Hannibal nevertheless had in the dispossessed oligarchs a block
of powerful enemies, who in turn had influential friends in Rome.  Prominent among
these friends was M. Porcius Cato, a rival of Scipio and a man soon to be consumed
with an almost hysterical fear and loathing of Carthage.  Acting on
behalf of the anti-Barcid oligarchs, Cato claimed that Hannibal was conspiring with the Seleucid king Antiochus  III, with whom Rome was gradually sliding towards war.  In 195 a commission was sent to Carthage to complain, and Hannibal, suspecting what the outcome would be, fled east to Tyre, the mother city of Carthage.  He then moved on
to Antioch, the Seleucid capital, and thence to Ephesus, where he found the king.  A frightened Carthaginian government
meanwhile formally exiled him.

The arrival of Rome’s worst nightmare at the Seleucid court only worsened
the deteriorating situation in the east, and in 192 the Aetolians captured the
key port of Demetrias and convinced Antiochus to strike now by sending an
army to the Balkan peninsula.  Hannibal is said to have urged the king to give him ten thousand
infantry and one thousand cavalry, with which he would stir up Carthage and then invade Italy.  But it is difficult
to believe that Hannibal could possibly imagine assaulting Italy with such a meager force, and more likely he suggested
simply that an attempt be made to arouse Carthage, a plan that would fit better with Antiochus’ apparent more
limited goal of asserting his equality as a Mediterranean power by rebuffing Rome in the Balkans.
These limited war aims, potential jealousy and discontent among the his
generals and the reluctance of Greek troops to serve under a “barbarian”
probably explain why Antiochus made such little use of the great captain.  In fact, Hannibal’s sole command in the war was a naval squadron.

When Antiochus was booted out of Greece in 191, the naval war heated up, and later in the year
the king sent Hannibal to Phoenicia to collect reinforcements for the main Seleucid fleet
at Ephesus.  It is hard to
avoid the impression that Hannibal
was sent simply to give him something to do, and the king probably did not
expect that Hannibal would actually be fighting a naval engagement on his
own.  But in the summer of the following
year as he was bringing his ships north, he ran into a Rhodian squadron sent to
block him off Side on the Anatolian shore.
Hannibal formed a line perpendicular to the shore and awaited the
Rhodian attack.

The Rhodian force was inferior in numbers, but the skill
of Rhodian sailors was legendary, while the Phoenician crews were unused to the
heavier warships Antiochus had ordered built after his taste of Roman boarding
tactics the previous year.  Actually, as
the battle opened, the Rhodian admiral, Eudamus, hardly displayed great
skill.   Because of a poor deployment and resulting
confusion, he found  himself engaging the
enemy left, commanded by Hannibal,
with only five ships.  But the Rhodians
quickly sorted themselves out, and superior seamanship began to tell as Rhodian
ramming tactics punched hole after hole in the Seleucid line.  Hannibal’s right and center were soon in serious trouble, and
ships from the victorious Rhodian left were able to speed to the rescue of
Eudamus.  With the battle now clearly
lost, Hannibal began to retire and was followed by the rest of his
fleet, more than half his ships having
been disabled.

Hannibal had been defeated in a serious engagement for only the
second time in his life. The battle of Side was a relatively small-scale affair,
but it did prevent the linkup of the two Seleucid fleets, and control of the
sea was decisively lost a month later at the battle of Myonnesus.  The war ended in early 189 with
Antiochus’  defeat at Magnesia in Asia Minor, at which battle Hannibal
does not seem to have been present, probably for the reasons mentioned earlier
and perhaps because Antiochus was overconfident.  The peace settlement included a demand for
the surrender of the Carthaginian, but the Romans, probably influenced by
Scipio Africanus, who was with the Roman delegation, took no real action.  Hannibal escaped first to Gortyn on Crete
and then on to King Artaxias I of Armenia.

The last stage of Hannibal’s military career took place under King Prusias I of Bithynia on the Black
Sea coast.  Sometime around 186 Prusias began a war with
his major Anatolian rival and loyal client of Rome, Eumenes II of Pergamum, but all that survives of this war is a naval
anecdote.  Pressed by a numerically
superior Pergamene fleet, Hannibal
defeated them by hurling aboard the enemy ships pots filled with poisonous
snakes, causing panic among the crews. The war became a stalemate, and both
kings appealed to Rome, which in 183 sent T. Quinctius Flamininus to settle
the war.

Whether on instructions from the Senate or his own
initiative, Flamininus demanded from Prusias the surrender of Hannibal.  Seeking to
avoid violating at least the letter of the law of hospitality, Prusias left it
to the Romans to capture the Carthaginian themselves, and they surrounded his
house with troops.  Discovering that
every exit was guarded, Hannibal
committed suicide by taking poison.  At
the end, according to Livy and Plutarch, he proclaimed “Let us relieve the
Roman people of their long anxiety, since they find it tedious to wait for the
death of an old man.”

One of the greatest captains in history was dead,
needlessly, at the age of sixty-three. Ironically, his old rival Scipio
Africanus died in the same year, himself an exile from his mother city.  And thirty-seven years later Carthage would follow its most famous son into extinction, also
at the hands of Rome.

Marketing Our Democracy

In the
Constitution the Founding Fathers created an amazingly flexible charter, able
to accommodate the social, economic and technological changes of the next
couple centuries, yet one difficult enough to change that it has been largely
protected from the fleeting whims of society.
But something the convention delegates could not imagine, even standing
at the door to the Industrial Revolution, something that two hundred and fifty
years later has dramatically undermined our democracy is marketing.  Economic power is political power, and
history has amply demonstrated that any economically powerful group must gain
access to the political apparatus or revolution will result.  Traditionally that has meant that the
economic elite are in fact identical to the political elite, but modern
corporations and nations, particularly the democracies, have opened the door to
indirect access to and control of the political system.  Rather than actually occupying the seats of
power, wealth can simply manage those who do.

Bribing or
buying politicians, functionaries and princes has of course been around since
the birth of civilization, but it is marketing, itself little more than a
century old, that has institutionalized such corruption and carried it to
undreamed of levels in the industrial democracies.  Having money has always helped in attaining
political office, but when campaigning essentially comprised personal
appearances, speeches, debates and pamphlets, getting elected could be achieved
on a very tiny budget.  The geographic
growth of our country made electioneering more difficult and expensive,
especially for national office, but men of modest and even humble backgrounds
could still be viable candidates for state houses, Congress and even the White
House.  And party supporters could help
cover those train rides, rented halls and newspaper ads.

This began
to change dramatically with the development of radio and television and the
concomitant burgeoning of mass marketing.
Access to air time rapidly became the key to a successful campaign,
dwarfing even the character and competence of the candidate himself.  It became clear that you could market a
candidate as easily as you could market a detergent and that the approach was
essentially the same: hammer the voter over and over with a simple
message.  This has resulted in two very
pernicious developments, a continuing and staggering increase in the cost of
election and a continuing and often staggering decline in the quality of
candidates.

Foolish or
stupid candidates are certainly nothing new in American politics, but marketing
now makes it far easier for these people to get elected, which can only
encourage more intellectually unfit candidates.
A candidate can mostly avoid the personal exchange and debate that would
reveal ignorance and instead bombard the voter with slogans and images.  This situation is not helped by the
precipitous decline in American education, which exacerbates the inherent flaw
in democracy: that high school dropout with his pants around his knees has a
vote equal to yours.  Democracy rises and
falls with the educational level of the electorate, and we seem now to be
considering for office some very ignorant and consequently dangerous
individuals.

Having
stupid politicians is bad enough, but having politicians, stupid or otherwise,
who are essentially controlled by the economic powers in the society must be
ultimately fatal to the democracy.  And
this is the price of marketing.  The
incredible cost of a serious campaign, especially on the national level,
absolutely demands that the candidate be funded by others, by the corporations,
banks, unions, organized lobbies and wealthy individuals that constitute the
economic muscle in and increasingly, out of the country.  And their protests notwithstanding, these
donors all expect something in return, and the potential office-holder is
already compromised.  His protests also
notwithstanding, he has been bought.  This is all nothing less than legalized
corruption.

The two
major candidates in the 2008 Presidential election together spent a billion
dollars, most of it on air time.  The
average voter simply can not compete for political leverage in such a fiscal
environment.  All he can hope to buy with
his contribution is the election of his candidate, while the big donors are
buying influence over the candidate once he is elected, which influence
typically pulls the official away from what the voters were led to expect.  The so-called “soft” money
contributed to the party rather than an individual candidate follows the same
rules, the two major parties being concerned less with ideology than electing
their candidates.  Reelection, the
apparent goal of virtually every politician, means the collection of money does
not stop on election night, and the big money sources can thus continue to
pressure the office holder, who in turn gains an advantage as the incumbent,
since unlike the challenger he can offer action instead of promises.   With no term limits the office thus tends to
become a life-time job and the incumbent part of a very slowly changing
political oligarchy.  The American Senate
has become almost a mirror of the Roman Senate, whose members served for
life.  Indeed, during the 1980s there was
greater turnover in the Soviet Politbureau than in the American Senate.

These huge
amounts of money are also one of the reasons that two parties, the Republicans
and the Democrats, have managed to monopolize the political process and become
virtually extensions of our political structure.  Party organization has always provided an
edge in political activity, and now it provides an edge in what has become
perhaps the most important aspect of that political activity, raising
money.  Further, the constant need to
raise ever larger amounts of money has rapidly lengthened campaigning almost to
the eve of the previous election, which in turn fuels the need for money.

Campaign
finance laws have been a complete failure.
Politicians are hardly likely to be enthusiastic about limiting their
own access to funds, especially if their party is better at raising money, and
in any case limiting what an individual or even a corporation can donate
immediately runs afoul of the First Amendment.  Exclusive public funding of elections will
also have constitutional problems, and in any case would never be passed by
Congress.  Perhaps the solution may be
found in the joke that politicians should dress like NASCAR drivers, covered
with patches identifying their supporters: a candidate can receive any amount
of money from any source, even foreign governments, but it must all be
publicized on websites and in major newspapers.
Failure to do this would result in the immediate ejection of the
offender from the race.  If voters
nevertheless still elect candidates bearing suspicious financial strings, then
we deserve what we get.