Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Role of Secrecy in a Democracy

One of the things that I think we will need to tackle in order to ensure that this country never again tortures is to think about the role of secrecy in a democracy. Last week I wrote a bit about the fact that, especially since the Cold War, our intelligence services have routinely been engaged in torture. The one difference between those incidents and the Bush administration is that the later had the hubris to make it official policy and tried to give it a ridiculous cloak of legality. Under previous administrations, it was practiced with even more secrecy and often took decades for the amount of information we know to become public.

It seems to me that there is an inherent contradiction between democracy - a form of government that is based on an informed citizenry - and secrecy. And I think the very nature of giving power to human beings to operate in secret is almost guaranteed to produce abuses of that power. If our intelligence services are allowed to continue to operate in secret, we are left with very little means to hold them accountable for what they do. As a matter of fact, it becomes incredibly circular. As I write this, I recognize that I know very little about how our intelligence services operate and it becomes difficult to proscribe solutions. So I am left to "trust" them and the oversight provided by elected officials to tell me where the lines about secrecy should be drawn. This is especially frustrating for those of us who have seen the abuses of power that are so often cloaked in secrecy.

But what I do know is that the world has changed. That doesn't mean that the abuses of the past should be ignored. But the Cold War - on which so much of the need for secrecy was based - is over. And just as we should have seen a "peace dividend" in a reduced need for the build-up of our military, I think its time to implement that dividend in shinning more sunlight on our intelligence practices.

A simple look at the wiki article on the Freedom of Information Act will give us an idea of the challenge there is to doing that. It was passed in 1966 and signed into law by Lyndon Johnson. Since that time, just as we saw with the Bush administration, it has been expanded or curtailed depending on the position of the President and/or Congress. But there has been a pretty clear pattern...most Democratic Presidents have expanded it and most Republicans have curtailed it. So Obama is not the first Democratic President to have placed increased emphasis on transparency. As a matter of fact, much of what we know about the abuses of power committed by intelligence agencies during the Cold War is public information because Clinton "issued executive directives (and amendments to the directives) that allowed the release of previously classified national security documents more than 25 years old and of historical interest, as part of the FOIA." So the pendulum of secrecy has been swinging back and forth for years now at the whim of those in office.

To further highlight the problem and our challenge, in the 1990's, we had the Moynihan Commission on Government Secrecy whose task was "to conduct 'an investigation into all matters in any way related to any legislation, executive order, regulation, practice, or procedure relating to classified information or granting security clearances' and to submit a final report with recommendations". It was a bi-partisan commission who's findings were unanimous:

1. that secrecy is a form of government regulation
2. that excessive secrecy has significant consequences for the national interest when policy makers are not fully informed
3. the government is not held accountable for its actions
4. the public cannot engage fully in informed debate


So we've had commissions, laws and executive orders...but the reality is that, without advocacy from the people and groups like the ACLU, it looks to me like we continue to be at the whims of whoever happens to be in office at the time. 

I'd suggest that at this time, with so much of the media paying attention to surfacing documents that demonstrate the abuses of power that happen in secret, its time for us to have this issue be explored. Its no longer good enough to have my government tell me that there are "evildoers" out there that they must protect me from as a way to coerce me into giving up my right to know. I grant that there is information (particularly private information about individuals), that needs to remain secret. But to me, the burden of keeping the secrets needs to be placed back on the holder of them to be justified rather than on a citizenry that generally has the right to information about what our government is doing.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Another narrative

Its been pretty clear to me for awhile now that I seem to be looking at the world through a different lens than many who blog here these days. I've been taking some time to think and reflect about that these last couple of weeks and have been helped in that process tremendously by a couple of diaries NCrissieB wrote at dkos titled Religion as Politics, Politics as Religion and Religion, Politics and Big Narratives. In these, she describes our tendency to create Big Narratives that provide "global, unifying lenses through which to view the events in our lives." But here's the problem:

...we meet difficulty when Big Narratives collide. When two people or groups are constructing experience through different narratives, it seems as if they inhabit different worlds. Each can easily think the other out of touch with reality, when the problem is that each is out of touch with the others' narrative. They've gone through life writing different stories, along different patterns, in part from events unique to their own experiences. Even where the stories are "based on" common events, they are different stories, each with its own heroes, villains, victims, motivations, strategies, and resolutions. And while each offers a sense of completeness, none is truly complete.


One of the ways to explain both my experience as well as much of the discord we've seen at dkos and other blogs is that we're having a clash of Big Narratives - none of which is complete. Of course there are other reasons why communication is difficult. But I think this is a big one.

So the question becomes, do we replicate so much of what happens with political discourse in this country and splinter off into groups of people who share a common Big Narrative? Or is it possible to discuss these differences in the hopes of either expanding our own narrative or at least limiting the derision of those who see things differently?

I thought I'd share some of the things my Big Narrative has led me to think about over this past week - things that look very different from what I've seen written about here - in hopes that you'll see it as my incomplete narrative in progress.

Over a year ago, I wrote about my tendency to be the "hare" in the Tortoise and the Hare fable. Growing up with a father who always had "bigger than life" dreams but never found a way to make any of them come true, I must have learned early on that it pays to think about the process of implementation. I have very big dreams for our country and the world - that's because I also grew up with the privilege of that kind of optimism. But as soon as I articulate a dream, I begin to think about step one in what might actually be doable to make those dreams come true. Its often a small step that I can see leading the way to step two...and on that path to eventually reach the goal.

I think this is one of the reasons I so identify with what Obama is doing. From his book, Dreams from My Father, it seems that he learned the same lesson from his father. Obama often compares the kind of change he's working on to turning around a big ship...its not going to happen overnight. But slowly, one small step at a time, you eventually right a wrong course.

I know there is a good argument for the idea that we don't have the time for this kind of slow course correction. But I also see that Obama is aware of the potential failure - the kind we both saw in our fathers - of trying to do too much too fast without plotting the course for success. I think this is a HUGE tension between two narratives that needs to be recognized, acknowledged, and discussed.

Just yesterday, we began to see Obama's step-by-step course correction begin to bear fruit in our relationship with the countries of Latin America - particularly as it relates to Cuba. He did a small thing - opened the door to travel and money exchanges for Cubans living in the United States. That led to a momentous response from Raul Castro and we're off to the races on the possibility of ending a failed strategy that has lasted over 50 years.

We also heard some words from Obama yesterday that signaled a real change in how our relationships with Latin America will go forward after decades of U.S. hegemony.

All of us must now renew the common stake that we have in one another. I know that promises of partnership have gone unfulfilled in the past, and that trust has to be earned over time. While the United States has done much to promote peace and prosperity in the hemisphere, we have at times been disengaged, and at times we sought to dictate our terms. But I pledge to you that we seek an equal partnership. There is no senior partner and junior partner in our relations; there is simply engagement based on mutual respect and common interests and shared values. So I’m here to launch a new chapter of engagement that will be sustained throughout my administration.


These statements are particularly powerful in light of our current discussions about the U.S. and torture. The people of Latin America are very well aware of the fact that the Bush administration is not the first to engage in such practices. Greg Grandin connects the dots for us in an article titled America's trinity of terrorism.

Throughout the second half of the Cold War, Washington's anti-communist allies killed more than 300,000 civilians, many of whom were simply desaparecido -- "disappeared"...

The victims were often not the most politically active, but the most popular, and were generally chosen to ensure that their sudden absence would generate a chilling ripple effect.

Like rendition, disappearances can't be carried out without a synchronized, sophisticated and increasingly transnational infrastructure, which, back in the 1960s and 1970s, the United States was instrumental in creating. In fact, it was in Latin America that the CIA and U.S. military intelligence agents, working closely with local allies, first helped put into place the unholy trinity of government-sponsored terrorism now on display in Iraq and elsewhere: death squads, disappearances and torture.


These kinds of things have been going on in our intelligence communities for decades now under the administrations of everyone from at least Kennedy to Bush. For example, as much as I admire and respect Jimmy Carter, his involvement with atrocities in places like East Timor and El Salvador would at least indicate complicity, if not direct involvement, in war crimes. And who was ever prosecuted for the war crimes we commited in Viet Nam? I even have trouble with the term "war crimes." Isn't war, by its very nature, most often a crime? As if we could mitigate the murder and destruction by developing rules and regulations for how it is to be done.

This is why, for me, calls for investigation and prosecution of torture would need to include every administration in which it was practiced in order to meet the litmus test of "restoring the rule of law." We have, perhaps since our founding as a nation, committed crimes against our citizens and those of the world when it comes to death squads, disappearances and torture. As just one example, I am reminded of the powerful story of Sister Dianna Ortiz who was abducted and tortured in Guatemala in 1989.

MARGARET MONTOYA: Who else was in the room while you were being tortured, besides the Guatemalan torturers?

SISTER DIANNA ORTIZ: After a while, there was—an American walked in.

...

MARGARET MONTOYA: Do you remember what was said?

SISTER DIANNA ORTIZ: Yes. It was evident that he was upset. He ordered the men to stop the torture, telling them that I was a North American nun, and that my disappearance had become public, and it was because—my disappearance was beginning to cause an uproar.

MARGARET MONTOYA: And how did they respond?

SISTER DIANNA ORTIZ: They followed his orders, and they didn’t rape me again, and they left the room. I asked him if he was an American, and his answer was evasive. “Why do you want to know?” he asked me. I told him that he had used a word that was common in the United States. He, Alejandro, tried to help me put my clothes back on and eventually led me out of the building.

MARGARET MONTOYA: And then what happened?

SISTER DIANNA ORTIZ: The American, Alejandro, put me into his jeep and drove off, and during the ride he told me to forgive my torturers, telling me that they were all just trying to fight communism; if I didn’t, that there would be consequences. He reminded me that my torturers had made videotapes and had taken photographs of the part of the torture that I was most ashamed of. In perfect American English, Alejandro told me that if I didn’t forgive my torturers, he would have no other choice than to release the videotapes and the photos to the press.


Are Sister Ortiz or any of the other thousands of victims in Latin America who experienced rendition and torture at the hands of U.S. intelligence any less deserving of "justice" than those who are victims of the Bush administration's practices? I think not. The history of this country (like most) has been paved with crimes and horrors committed against those we define as our "enemies." I'm not sure what "justice" means when put into that larger context. But as I've written before, I don't think our current justice system is capable of addressing the breadth of what we've done. It is, afterall, a system that has been set up primarily to protect the powerful and punish the those who threaten that power...the very thing that needs to be changed.

So I'm seriously asking myself questions about all of that.

In the meantime, I'll just keep watching as Obama slowly but surely takes the small effective steps that I think are necessary to change this awful course we've been on for a very long time. Like this one...




(Too bad they didn't do a fist bump. Wouldn't that have made the winger's heads explode?)

Yesterday, at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad, the US president extended a long overdue hand of friendship to his Venezuelan counterpart, a democratically elected leader that suffered an attempted military coup d’etat that was cheered, if not planned, by Washington. The President, in short time, has already defused an entire string of similar policy time bombs left by previous administrations (Republican and Democratic alike). Will there be more tensions between Ch├ívez and the US? Very likely the answer is yes, but the gravity and context of them has shifted positively. This hemisphere is already a safer place for dissident journalists, community organizers, governments of the left and other grassroots change agents. That, alone, makes it more possible for us to organize and make bigger and better changes – of the kind for which we do not need any government’s permission – in the days and years ahead.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Renewal Questions

I'm not a religious person. But the Easter holiday still means a lot to me in the sense that it's about spring, renewal, rebirth, and the return of the light.



I've lived a lot of places - almost all areas of this country and a couple of stints overseas. But I've never lived anywhere that spring is as important as it is here in Minnesota. I would imagine that the reasons for that are obvious, even to those who don't live in the "tundra." While we haven't seen the green around here yet - the anticipation is palpable. During the years I lived in Florida and Southern California, I remember that the passage of the seasons was hardly noticeable. And, while I appreciated the general warmth that prevailed, there was something in me that missed this moment of anticipation followed by the burst of reality.

So in the spirit of the day, I looked up the definition of renewal and this is the one that stood out to me.

filling again by supplying what has been used up


I wonder...as this spring approaches...what has been used up that needs refilling? In answering that question, I certainly can't speak for anyone else. But I can tell you what has been used up for me. I think most of it relates to things that became a defense for surviving the 8 years of Bushco. Things like rage and powerlessness and enemies and being so goddamned sure that I was right.

I've quoted this from Nezua several times here. So I hope you'll bear with me as I do so again.

We are always new. Every moment is new. No moment need be like anything that came before, even when the resemblance is striking and our imagination lacking. And yet, of course we must learn from who we once were. But to let a lesson that once helped inform every step forward is to walk an old path, and to preclude the sight of new horizons from our view...

Because life is not like a series of books in a course on ...anything. It fluctuates. We fluctuate. We are not a being, but a becoming, as Friedrich once said. And sometimes ideas are hammered out and we draw lines and walls and are told we fall on one side or the other and so do our thoughts and so does all that follows from them...and so it goes. We buy into these illusory borders...

Being sure is but the borderwall we place around a heart to ward off the skinstripping wind of the next living moment.


The place in me where battle lines were drawn so clearly and walls constructed so surely has been used up. And it needs refilling. But with something new. That "skinstripping wind of the next living moment" is what spring is all about. And the anticipation is palpable.

So the next question becomes...what is the new "filling." I don't know yet - except that I think it has to do with questions. And they are not questions that I need to ask anyone else. But the ones I need to ask myself.

Sometimes
By David Whyte

Sometimes
if you move carefully
through the forest

breathing
like the ones
in the old stories

who could cross
a shimmering bed of dry leaves
without a sound.

you come
to a place
whose only task

is to trouble you
with tiny
but frightening requests

conceived out of nowhere
but in this place
beginning to lead everywhere.

Requests to stop what
you are doing right now,
and

to stop what you
are becoming
while you do it,


questions
that can make
or unmake
a life,

questions
that have patiently
waited for you,

questions
that have no right
to go away.


I am especially struck by the lines I bolded. Because I no longer want to be what I was becoming. As Nezua said, "Every moment is new." And whether we like the change that has happened or not...the questions are there asking us to adapt to that newness.

So on this day that signifies renewal, I wonder if we dare expose our hearts to the "skinstripping wind of the next living moment" and listen to the "questions that have no right to go away."