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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
So what does this
all have to do with the misfortune of Fox News reporter 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
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 Post his
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
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 counterproductive government “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
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.