Changes to America's security clearance culture, document classification system, and economic sanctions regime are beyond due.
The new administration, like all its predecessors since the start of the Cold War, will perpetuate three features of Washington life that Americans have been lulled into taking for granted, whose continuation is supported by powerful Washington bureaucracies in the defense-intelligence complex, in the FBI, and in the Treasury Department. The practices are hard to curb because of the herd instinct of an increasingly decadent Washington press corps and the self-interest of thousands of job-holders.
The Bloated Security Clearance System
The first of these is the security clearance culture, which for practical purposes did not exist until President Truman’s loyalty-security order in 1947. President Truman’s most influential aide, Clark Clifford, stated in his 1991 memoirs that his “greatest regret” was his failure “to make more of an effort to kill the loyalty program at its inception in 1946-47.” The program was adopted to defend the administration against criticism by the House Un-American Activities Committee and, later, Senator Joseph McCarthy. It was subsequently greatly broadened by the Eisenhower administration to weed out not merely the “disloyal” but “security risks.” It was aimed at a real danger, that posed by the hundred thousand odd American intellectuals that the Depression led into affiliation with the Communist party and its affiliates who were not readily distinguishable from the rest of the American population. Its administration was rather unwisely confided to J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, not the most tolerant of agencies.
Initially, applicants for federal employment had to fill out a brief questionnaire of about four pages listing such things as relatives and prior places of residence. Over the years, this has metastisized into larger documents; each new administrator thinks of further goblins to guard against and further information that might conceivably be useful. There are now some five million Americans who have received security clearances; awards of secret or top secret clearances involve not merely examination of police, litigation and tax records but field interviews with large number of persons who have crossed the applicant’s path, college landladies for example. One wonders what some of these are supposed to discover: (“I remember him well. He used to beat his wife regularly every Wednesday evening. The screams were just terrible!”). The clearance process can take from 6 to 18 months, and is a major clog to the staffing of new administrations. Worse still, it delays and burdens appointments to lesser posts, discouraging new high school and college graduates from federal service. Indeed, possession of an extant security clearance is said to add 13% to one’s expected salary.
When the program was instituted, these inquisitions into private behavior were not taken for granted. The labor lawyer Lloyd Garrison in an article published in the University of Chicago Law Review in 1955 suggested needed reforms, including separating loyalty cases from security risk cases and treating the latter as part of the ordinary employment process and limiting loyalty cases to those involving truly secret information or the ability to mold national policy. A more general objection was raised by the eminent journalist Alistair Cooke:
“There was an alarmed minority ready to make political hay by blurring distinction between an old sympathizer and an old spy. [The trouble with the exploitation of the issue of domestic Communism] was that it brought back into favor the odious trade of the public informer. It gave the FBI an unparalleled power of inquiry into private lives that. . . could open up for generations of mischief-makers an official wholesale house of blackmail. It tended to make conformity sheepish and to limit by intimidation what no Western society worth the name can safely limit: the curiosity and idealism of the young. It helped therefore to usher in a period when a high premium would be put on the chameleon and the politically neutral slob.”
The dangers presented by terrorists with their origins in more primitive countries are not equivalent to those of less readily identifiable native American Communist or Fascist fifth columnists. The five million security clearance investigations of the present population that have taken place are a wretched and wasteful excess. Curbing the culture would involve relegating to private life many of the less gifted members of the ever-expanding FBI assigned to counterintelligence investigations. Tears should not be shed for them; FBI-trained personnel are welcomed in local law enforcement.
The Overclassification Crisis
The second even more remarkable excess is the document classification system. This is not confined to papers like the plans for the Normandy invasion or to recently generated documents whose premature disclosure might inhibit free discussion. Documents referring in any way to sources of information, even if more than 50 years old are barred from disclosure until 75 years have passed; even after that, they may be designated for nondisclosure. A recent Freedom of Information request by the present writer relating to the alleged suicide of an official in 1953 was not responded to for seven years; when documents were produced, there was scarcely a page without a “sources” redaction, although virtually all the “sources” were either dead or in nursing homes. Commendable efforts have been made since 1973 to declassify protected documents; these projects have involved 1.1 billion pages, which gives some idea of the extent of over-classification. It is hard to believe that the decisions to classify or de-classify are done well; as Justice Jackson once observed in a different context, “he who must look for a needle in a haystack is apt to conclude that the needle is not worth the search.” Taken in all, the program exists in its present dimensions not to protect vital secrets but to protect the reputation of agencies and of political actors. It needs to be drastically pruned. Its administrators are not confined to the FBI; they infest all government agencies.
Sanctions Regimes Run Amok
The third yet more damaging practice, both from an humanitarian and political point of view, is the enthusiasm for economic sanctions on foreign governments and officials. These are infected by the “don’t stand there, do something!” syndrome endemic in the foreign policy establishment.
As the former British Ambassador to the UN, Sir Jeremy Greenstock, has observed: “there is nothing else between words and military action if you want to bring pressure on a government.” The trouble is, as Herbert Hoover observed after viewing the consequences of the British blockade of Germany after the Armistice and before the Versailles peace conference, economic sanctions are not measures short of war, they are measures of total war. They victimize and embitter innocent civilian populations while leaving privileged rulers untouched. They increase the social controls imposed by the existing regime by fostering discretionary rationing. Their usual object, as with Cuba, Iran, and Venezuela is regime change, but they are rarely successful in that object.
Their proponents seem to believe that if the population becomes sufficiently miserable, it will replicate the storming of the Bastille and will overthrow the government. But totalitarian mechanisms of social control have been greatly perfected since 1789; modern dictatorships have at their disposal block captains, eavesdropping and surveillance devices, computers, and now facial and voice recognition. Modern revolutions come from above, not below; they require a failure of nerve and belief on the part of the existing leadership, the product of both comparative information and social change. Creating hermit kingdoms whose leadership is isolated from the outside world and rules over a static society is not the way to foster political change. The decisive event in the fall of the Soviet Union was not the Star Wars program of the 1980s but took place in the mid-1950s when two middle-level apparatchiks from Stavropol were allowed to take a two-week vacation in France and Italy. The even more insulated leadership of Iran is accorded no such opportunity.
The celebrated diarist of Nazi and Communist Germany, Victor Klemperer, has similarly recorded the impression that a visit to France made on him while he was a member of the Volkskammer and a pillar of the East German regime. Following Willy Brandt’s and Hans Dietrich Genscher’s Ostpolitik, a generation of Soviet middle managers had similar experiences. Revolutions, Hannah Arendt observed, “are not the result of conspiracies or the propaganda of revolutionary parties but the almost automatic outcome of processes of disintegration in the powers that be, of their loss of authority.” “The revolutionaries are those who know when power is lying in the street and then they can pick it up.” There will not be many of them in North Korea, in Cuba, in Iran, or even in Venezuela if the sanctions bureaucrats in the American Treasury continue to pursue the policies that have failed since 1953, 1962, 1979, and 2015.
We will see whether the Biden administration is a change agent or whether it perpetuates vested interests. Drift is more likely than mastery.
George Liebmann is the author of numerous works on law and history, most recently America’s Political Inventors (Bloomsbury 2019).
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