America’s Real Red Scare

We’re witnessing the slow-motion collapse of the American empire.

America’s Real Red Scare

US and Russian flags wave in the wind upon US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s arrival in Moscow on April 11, 2017. (Photo by Gleb Schelkunov/Kommersant via Getty Images)

This post originally appeared at TomDispatch.

Jump into your time machine and let me transport you back to another age.

It’s May 2001 and The Atlantic has just arrived in the mail. I’m tantalized by the cover article. “Russia is finished,” the magazine announces. The subtitle minces no words: “The unstoppable descent into social catastrophe and strategic irrelevance.” Could it be that the country I had worried most about as a military officer during all those grim years of the Cold War, the famed “Evil Empire” that had threatened us with annihilation, was truly kaput, even in its Russian rather than Soviet guise?

Sixteen years later, the article’s message seems just a tad premature. Today’s Russia surely has its problems — from poverty to pollution to prostitution to a rickety petro-economy — but on the geopolitical world stage it is “finished” no longer. Vladimir Putin’s Russia has recently been enjoying heightened influence, largely at the expense of a divided and disputatious superpower that now itself seems to be on an “unstoppable descent.”

More than a generation after defeating the Soviet Union in the Cold War, the United States of 2017 seems to be doing its level best to emulate some of the worst aspects of its former foe and once rival superpower.

Sixteen years after Russia was declared irrelevant, a catastrophe, finito, it is once again a colossus — at least on the American political scene, if nowhere else. And that should disturb you far less than this: more than a generation after defeating the Soviet Union in the Cold War, the United States of 2017 seems to be doing its level best to emulate some of the worst aspects of its former foe and once rival superpower.

Yes, the US has a Soviet problem, and I’m not referring to the allegations of the moment in Washington: that the Trump campaign and Russian officials colluded, that money may have flowed into that campaign via Russian oligarchs tied to Putin, that the Russians hacked the US election to aid Donald Trump, that those close to the president-elect dreamed of setting up a secret back channel to Moscow and suggested to the Russian ambassador that it be done through the Russian embassy or even that Putin has a genuine hold of some sort on Donald Trump. All of this is, of course, generating attention galore, as well as outrage, in the mainstream media and among the chattering classes, leading some to talk of a new “red scare” in America. All of it is also being investigated, whether by congressional intelligence committees or by former FBI director — now special counsel — Robert Mueller.

When it comes to what I’m talking about, though, you don’t need a committee or a counsel or a back channel or a leaker from some intelligence agency to ferret it out. Whatever Trump campaign officials, Russian oligarchs or Vladimir Putin himself did or didn’t do, America’s Soviet problem is all around us: a creeping (and creepy) version of authoritarianism that anyone who lived through the Cold War years should recognize. It involves an erosion of democratic values; the ever-expanding powers exercised by a national security state operating as a shadow government and defined by militarism, surveillance, secrecy, prisons and other structures of dominance and control; ever-widening gaps between the richest few and the impoverished many; and, of course, ever more weapons, along with ever more wars.

That’s a real red scare, America, and it’s right here in the homeland.

In February, if you remember — and given the deluge of news, half news, rumor and innuendo, who can remember anything these days? — Donald Trump memorably compared the US to Russia. When Bill O’Reilly called Vladimir Putin “a killer” in an interview with the new president, he responded that there was little difference between us and them, for — as he put it — we had our killers, too, and weren’t exactly innocents abroad when it came to world affairs. (“There are a lot of killers. You think our country’s so innocent?”) The president has said a lot of outlandish things in his first months in office, but here he was on to something.

My Secret Briefing on the Soviet Union

When I was a young lieutenant in the Air Force, in 1986 if memory serves, I attended a secret briefing on the Soviet Union. Ronald Reagan was president, and we had no clue that we were living through the waning years of the Cold War. Back then, believing that I should know my enemy, I was reading a lot about the Soviets in “open sources”; you know, books, magazines and newspapers. The “secret” briefing I attended revealed little that was new to me. (Classified information is often overhyped.) I certainly heard no audacious predictions of a Soviet collapse in five years (though the Soviet Union would indeed implode in 1991). Like nearly everyone at the time, the briefers assumed the USSR would be our archenemy for decades to come and it went without saying that the Berlin Wall was a permanent fixture in a divided Europe, a forever symbol of ruthless Communist oppression.

Little did we know that, three years later, the Soviet military would stand aside as East Germans tore down that wall. And who then would have believed that a man might be elected president of the United States a generation later on the promise of building a “big, fat, beautiful wall” on our shared border with Mexico?

I wasn’t allowed to take notes during that briefing, but I remember the impression I was left with: that the USSR was deeply authoritarian, a grim surveillance state with an economy dependent on global weapons sales; that it was intent on nuclear domination; that it was imperialist and expansionist; that it persecuted its critics and dissidents; and that it had serious internal problems carefully suppressed in the cause of world mastery, including rampant alcohol and drug abuse, bad health care and declining longevity (notably for men), a poisoned environment and an extensive prison system featuring gulags. All of this was exacerbated by festering sores overseas, especially a costly and stalemated war in Afghanistan and client-states that absorbed its resources (think: Cuba) while offering little in return.

This list of Soviet problems, vintage 1986, should have a familiar ring to it, since it sounds uncannily like a description of what’s wrong with the United States today.

This list of Soviet problems, vintage 1986, should have a familiar ring to it, since it sounds uncannily like a description of what’s wrong with the United States today.

In case you think that’s an over-the-top statement, let’s take that list from the briefing — eight points in all — one item at a time.

1. An authoritarian, surveillance state: The last time the US Congress formally declared war was in 1941. Since then, American presidents have embarked on foreign wars and interventions ever more often with ever less oversight from Congress. Power continues to grow and coalesce in the executive branch, strengthening an imperial presidency enhanced by staggering technologies of surveillance, greatly expanded in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Indeed, America now has 17 intelligence agencies with a combined yearly budget of $80 billion. Unsurprisingly, Americans are surveilled more than ever, allegedly for our safety even if such a system breeds meekness and stifles dissent.

2. An economy dependent on global weapons sales: The US continues to dominate the global arms trade in a striking fashion. It was no mistake that a centerpiece of President Trump’s recent trip was a $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia. On the same trip, he told the Emir of Qatar that he was in the Middle East to facilitate “the purchase of lots of beautiful military equipment.” Now more than ever, beautiful weaponry made in the USA is a significant driver of domestic economic growth as well as of the country’s foreign policy.

3. Bent on nuclear domination: Continuing the policies of President Obama, the Trump administration envisions a massive modernization of America’s nuclear arsenal, to the tune of at least a trillion dollars over the next generation. Much like an old-guard Soviet premier, Trump has boasted that America will always remain at “the top of the pack” when it comes to nuclear weapons.

4. Imperialist and expansionist: Historians speak of America’s “informal” empire, by which they mean the US is less hands-on than past imperial powers like the Romans and the British. But there’s nothing informal or hands-off about America’s 800 overseas military bases or the fact that its Special Operations forces are being deployed in 130 or more countries yearly. When the US military speaks of global reach, global power and full-spectrum dominance, this is traditional imperialism cloaked in banal catchphrases. Put differently, Soviet imperialism, which American leaders always professed to fear, never had a reach of this sort.

5. Persecutes critics and dissidents: Whether it’s been the use of the Patriot Act under George W. Bush’s presidency, the persecution of whistleblowers using the World War I-era Espionage Act under the Obama administration or the vilification of the media by the new Trump administration, the US is far less tolerant of dissent today than it was prior to the Soviet collapse. As Homeland Security Secretary and retired four-star Marine Gen. John Kelly recently put it, speaking of news stories about the Trump administration based on anonymous intelligence sources, such leaks are “darn close to treason.” Add to such an atmosphere Trump’s attacks on the media as the “enemy” of the people and on critical news stories as “fake” and you have an environment ripe for the future suppression of dissent.

In the Soviet Union, political opponents were often threatened with jail or worse, and those threats were regularly enforced by men wearing military or secret police uniforms. In that context, let’s not forget the “Lock her up!” chants led by retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn at the Republican National Convention and aimed at Donald Trump’s political opponent of that moment, Hillary Clinton.

6. Internal problems like drug abuse, inadequate health care and a poisoned environment: Alcoholism is still rife in Russia and environmental damage widespread, but consider the US today. An opioid crisis is killing more than 30,000 people a year. Lead poisoning in places like Flint, Michigan, and New Orleans is causing irreparable harm to the young. The disposal of wastewater from fracking operations is generating earthquakes in Ohio and Oklahoma. Even as environmental hazards proliferate, the Trump administration is gutting the Environmental Protection Agency. As health crises grow more serious, the Trump administration, abetted by a Republican-led Congress, is attempting to cut health-care coverage and benefits, as well as the funding that might protect Americans from deadly pathogens. Disturbingly, as with the Soviet Union in the era of its collapse, life expectancy among white men is declining, mainly due to drug abuse, suicide and other despair-driven problems.

7. Extensive prison systems: As a percentage of its population, no countryimprisons more of its own people than the United States. While more than two million of their fellow citizens languish in prisons, Americans continue to see their nation as a beacon of freedom, ignoring Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. In addition, the country now has a president who believes in torture, who has called for the murder of terrorists’ families, and who wants to refill Guantánamo with prisoners. It also has an attorney general who wants to make prison terms for low-level drug offenders ever more draconian.

8. Stalemated wars: You have to hand it to the Soviets. They did at least exhibit a learning curve in their disastrous war in Afghanistan and so the Red Army finally left that country in 1989 after a decade of high casualties and frustration (even if its troops returned to a land on the verge of implosion). US forces, on the other hand, have been in Afghanistan for 16 years, with the Taliban growing ever stronger, yet its military’s response has once again been to call for investing more money and sending in more troops to reverse the “stalemate” there. Meanwhile, after 14 years, Iraq War 3.0 festers, bringing devastation to places like Mosul, even as its destabilizing results continue to manifest themselves in Syria and indeed throughout the greater Middle East. Despite or rather because of these disastrous results, US leaders continue to over-deploy US Special Operations forces, contributing to exhaustion and higher suicide rates in the ranks.

In light of these eight points, that lighthearted Beatles tune and relic of the Cold War, “Back in the USSR,” takes on a new, and far harsher, meaning.

What Is to Be Done?

Slowly, seemingly inexorably, the US is becoming more like the former Soviet Union.

Slowly, seemingly inexorably, the US is becoming more like the former Soviet Union. Just to begin the list of similarities: too many resources are being devoted to the military and the national security state; too many over-decorated generals are being given too much authority in government; bleeding-ulcer wars continue unstanched in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere; infrastructure (roads, bridges, pipelines, dams and so on) continues to crumble; restless “republics” grumble about separating from the union (Calexit!); rampant drug abuse and declining life expectancy are now American facts of life. Meanwhile, the latest US president is, in temperament, authoritarian, even as government “services” take on an increasingly nepotistic flavor at the top.

I’m worried, comrade! Echoing the cry of the great Lenin, what is to be done? Given the list of symptoms, here’s one obvious 10-step approach to the de-sovietization of America:

1. Decrease “defense” spending by 10 percent annually for the next five years. In the Soviet spirit, think of it as a five-year plan to restore our revolution (as in the American Revolution), which was, after all, directed against imperial policies exercised by a “bigly” king.

2. Cut the number of generals and admirals in the military by half, and get rid of all the meaningless ribbons, badges and medals they wear. In other words, don’t just cut down on the high command but on their tendency to look (and increasingly to act) like Soviet generals of old. And don’t allow them to serve in high governmental positions until they’ve been retired for at least 10 years.

3. Get our military out of Afghanistan, Iraq and other war-torn countries in the Greater Middle East and Africa. Reduce that imperial footprint overseas by closing costly military bases.

4. Work to eliminate nuclear weapons globally by, as a first step, cutting the vast US arsenal in half and forgetting about that trillion-dollar “modernization” program. Eliminate land-based ICBMs first; they are no longer needed for any meaningful deterrent purposes.

5. Take the money saved on “modernizing” nukes and invest it in updating America’s infrastructure.

6. Curtail state surveillance. Freedom needs privacy to flourish. As a nation, we need to remember that security is not the bedrock of democracy — the US Constitution is.

7. Work to curb drug abuse by cutting back on criminalization. Leave the war mentality behind, including the “war on drugs,” and focus instead on providing better treatment programs for addicts. Set a goal of cutting America’s prison population in half over the next decade.

8. Life expectancy will increase with better health care. Provide health care coverage for all using a single-payer system. Every American should have the same coverage as a member of Congress. People shouldn’t be suffering and dying because they can’t afford to see a doctor or pay for their prescriptions.

9. Nothing is more fundamental to “national security” than clean air and water. It’s folly to risk poisoning the environment in the name of either economic productivity or building up the military. If you doubt this, ask citizens of Russia and the former Soviet Republics, who still struggle with the fallout from the poisonous environmental policies of Soviet days.

10. Congress needs to assert its constitutional authority over war and the budget, and begin to act like the “check and balance” it’s supposed to be when it comes to executive power.

There you have it. These 10 steps should go some way toward solving America’s real Russian problem — the Soviet one. Won’t you join me, comrade?

William J. Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF), is a regular contributor to TomDispatch. He has taught at the Air Force Academy and the Naval Postgraduate School, and now teaches history at the Pennsylvania College of Technology.

http://billmoyers.com/story/americas-real-red-scare/

Advertisements

America is becoming more like the illiberal pseudo-democracies and kleptocracies.

Can American Democracy Survive Against Rising Political Corruption and Privatization?

images

In 1932, on the eve of FDR’s presidency, Benito Mussolini proclaimed, “The liberal state is destined to perish.” He added, all too accurately, “All the political experiments of our day are anti-liberal.”

The democracies were doomed, Il Duce declared, because they could not solve crucial problems. Unlike the dictatorships, which were willing to forcefully use a strong state, the democracies could not fix their broken economies. Parliamentary systems were hamstrung politically. The democracies were also war-weary, conflict-averse, and ill-prepared to fight. The fascists, unlike the democracies, had solved the problem of who was part of the community.

Mussolini’s ally, Adolf Hitler, was further contemptuous of “mongrelization” in American democracy. Who was an American? How did immigrants fit in? What about Negroes? The fascist states, by contrast, rallied their citizens to a common vision and a common purpose. Hitler was quite confident that he knew who was a German and who was not. To prove it, he fashioned the Nuremberg laws; he annexed German-speaking regions of his neighbors. As Hitler infamously put it, Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Fuehrer.

Though he was a buffoonish dictator, Il Duce was not such a bad political scientist. In the 1930s, a lot of liberal democrats wondered the same thing, and for the same reasons. As Ira Katznelson wrote in Fear Itself: “Such beliefs and opinions were not limited to dictators and dictatorships. As Roosevelt prepared to speak [in his first inaugural], skepticism was prevalent about whether representative parliamentary democracies could cope within their liberal constitutional bounds with capitalism’s utter collapse, the manifest military ambitions by the dictatorships, or international politics characterized by ultranationalist territorial demands. Hesitation, alarm, and democratic exhaustion were widespread.”

The democracies did survive, of course, and they flourished. The New Deal got us halfway out of the Great Depression, and the war buildup did the rest. Fascism was defeated, militarily and ideologically. The collapse of Soviet communism took another half-century. Thanks to the wisdom of containment, Stalinism fell of its own weight, as both an economic and political failure.

Not only did the democracies endure—by the 1980s, America had broadened the inclusiveness of its polity. Europe had embarked on a bold experiment toward continental democracy. In the final days of communism, there was triumphalism in the West. Francis Fukuyama even proclaimed, incautiously, in his 1989 essay, “The End of History?” that all societies were necessarily gravitating toward capitalism and democracy, two ideals that were supposedly linked.

***

Today, it is Mussolini’s words that resonate. Once again, the democracies are having grave difficulty pulling their economies out of a prolonged economic slump. Once again, they are suffering from parliamentary deadlock and loss of faith in democratic institutions. The American version reflects a radically obstructionist Republican Party taking advantage of constitutional provisions that Madison (and Obama) imagined as promoting compromise; instead, the result is deadlock. The European variant is enfeebled by the multiple veto points of a flawed European Union unable to pursue anything but crippling austerity. Once again, several anti-liberal alternatives are on the march. “All the political experiments of our day are anti-liberal.”

Take a tour of the horizon. Mussolini would not be surprised. The fastest-growing economy, China’s, is nothing if not anti-liberal, and getting steadily more adroit at suppressing liberal aspirations. The Beijing regime, which has learned the virtues of patience since Tiananmen, waited out the Hong Kong protests and efficiently shut them down. The Hong Kong elections of 2017 will be limited to candidates approved by the communist regime on the mainland. Capitalism was supposed to bring with it democracy and rule of law. But the Chinese have been superbly effective at combining dynamic state-led capitalism with one-party rule.

What unites regimes as dissimilar as Iran, Turkey, Hungary, Egypt, Venezuela, and Russia is that they combine some of the outward forms of democracy with illiberal rule. The press is not truly free, but is mostly a tool of the government. Editors and journalists are in personal danger of disappearing. There are elections, but  the opposition somehow doesn’t get to come to power. Minority religion and ethnic groups are repressed, sometimes subtly, sometimes brutally. Dissidents, even if they break no laws, risk life and limb. The regimes in these nations have varying degrees of corruption between the state and economic oligarchs, which helps keep both in power. In Hungary, a member of the E.U., which is a union of liberal democracies, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has expressly invoked the ideal of an illiberal state. In Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has dramatically increased enrollments in state-supported religious schools and automatically assigned some children to them, against the wishes of their secular parents.

Turkey is a stalwart member of NATO. Elsewhere in the Middle East, our closest allies don’t even go through the motions of democracy; they are proud monarchies. Israel, our most intimate friend in the region, is becoming less of a democracy almost daily. Israelis are seriously debating whether to formally sacrifice elements of democracy for Jewish identity. And this tally doesn’t even include the flagrant tyrannies such as the insurgency that calls itself the Islamic State, or ISIL. All the political experiments of our day are anti-liberal.

Ironically, some liberals are pinning great hopes on recent stirrings in a venerable institution of hierarchy, autocracy, secrecy, and privilege that has been the antithesis of liberal for nearly two millennia—the Catholic Church, now under a reformist pope. One has to wish Francis well and hope that his new openness extends to the entire institution, but these reforms are fragile. It has been a few centuries since the Church murdered its rivals, but in my lifetime the Church was very cozy with fascists.

One of the great inventions of liberal democracy was the concept of a loyal opposition. You could oppose the government without being considered treasonous. A leader, conversely, could be tossed out of office by the electorate without fearing imprisonment or execution by successors. In much of the world, this ideal now seems almost quaint, and certainly imprudent. A corrupt or dictatorial regime has much to fear from displacement, including jail and even death at the hands of an opposition in power.

There are a few bright spots. Some of Africa has managed to have roughly free and fair elections. South Africa’s young democracy is fragile, but seems to be holding. Some of the Pacific Rim is moving in the direction of genuine democracy. Many former Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe are functioning democracies, even liberal ones. And democratic aspiration is far from dead, as events in Ukraine show. Latin America has more democratically elected governments than it has had in a generation, but it also has several nominal democracies that are illiberal, or prone to coups, or simply corrupt. Mexico, our close NAFTA partner, epitomizes illiberal democracy.

***

But it is the democratic heartland, Europe and North America, that presents the most cause for dismay. Rather than the United States serving as a beacon to inspire repressed peoples seeking true liberal democracy, America is becoming more like the illiberal pseudo-democracies and kleptocracies. A dispassionate review of what is occurring in our own country has to include deliberate suppression of the right to vote; ever more cynical manipulation of voting districts in the nation that invented gerrymandering; the deepening displacement of citizenship with money and rise of plutocracy; the corruption of the regulatory process; a steep decline in public confidence in government and in democracy itself; and a concomitant doubt that democratic participation is worth the trouble. In my piece in this issue’s special report, I address some of these questions in the context of markets versus government, but the challenge goes much deeper.

Obstruction feeds public cynicism about government. Though the mischief and refusal to compromise are mostly one-sided—it is hard to recall a Democratic president more genuinely eager to accommodate the opposition than Barack Obama—the resulting deadlock erodes confidence in democracy and government in general. Why can’t these people just get along and work for the common good? Democrats, as the party that believes in government, take the blame more than Republicans. Government’s failure to address festering, complex problems feeds the dynamic.

This is all the more alarming because the challenges ahead will require strong government and above all legitimate government. At best, global climate change and sea level rise will require public coordination and some personal dislocation. Transition to a sustainable economy demands far more intensive public measures, as well as public trust in the hope that changes in old habits of carbon energy use need not result in reduced living standards. The risk of epidemics such as Ebola will require more effective government to coordinate responses that the private sector can’t manage. The popular frustration with flat or declining earnings for all but the top demands more government intervention. Weak government can’t accomplish any of this. Mussolini’s taunt burns: The liberal democracies are incapable of solving national problems.

A generation ago, political scientists coined a useful phrase—strong democracy. The Prospect published some pieces making this case, by authors like Benjamin Barber. Others, such as Jane Mansbridge and James Fishkin, writing in the same spirit, called for more participatory democracy. The common theme was that democracy needed to be re-energized, with more citizen involvement, more direct deliberation. What has happened is the reverse. The combination of economic stresses, the allure of other entertainments, the rise of the Internet as a venue for more social interchange but less civic renewal, has left democracy weaker when it needs to be stronger.

The other contention of the fascists—that the democracies had trouble with the vexing questions of community and membership—was never more of a challenge. In Europe, the poisonous mix of high unemployment, anxiety about terrorism, and influx of refugees and immigrants is feeding a vicious nationalist backlash and nurturing the far right. At home, the failure to normalize the status of an estimated 12 million immigrants lacking proper documents deprives large numbers of residents of normal rights and stokes nativism. Assaults on voting rights even for citizens, coupled with physical assaults by police, make African Americans less than full members of the democracy, despite the civil rights revolution of half a century ago.

Mussolini’s other taunt was that the liberal democracies were too divided and war-weary to fight. When Hitler remilitarized the Rhineland in March 1936, in defiance of the Treaty of Versailles, the democracies did nothing. They dithered right up until Germany’s invasion of Poland in September 1939. As late as 1940, Roosevelt was more eager to keep America out of another European war than to help the British make a stand against the Nazis.

The military challenge today is more complex. America in this century has vacillated between grandiosity and timidity. It fought the wrong war in Iraq, and then may have pulled out prematurely. The administration has been weak and divided in its policies toward Syria and ISIL. To some extent this is understandable; these are hydra-headed threats, with no easy solutions. If President Obama is ambivalent, the public is even more so. Yet the greatest military threats to American democracy are not the risks of invasion or terrorist assault, but what we are doing to ourselves. The Obama administration, like that of George W. Bush, has been all too willing to subordinate liberty to security, secrecy, and autocracy, even in cases where these objectives are not in direct contention.

The risk is not that American democracy will abruptly “perish,” but that it will be slowly denuded of its vital content. If we are to reverse the appeal of anti-liberal society globally, we have to repair our democracy at home. The challenge is multifaceted, and will take time. It should be the great project of the next president and the ongoing work of the citizenry.

Robert Kuttner is the former co-editor of the American Prospect and a senior fellow at Demos. His latest book is “Obama’s Challenge: America’s Economic Crisis and the Power of a Transformative Presidency.”

 

http://www.alternet.org/news-amp-politics/can-american-democracy-survive-against-rising-political-corruption-and?akid=12900.265072.Crh72K&rd=1&src=newsletter1033428&t=11

What Does a Soviet Submarine Have to Do With U.S. Government Secrecy?

 

By Nathan Freed Wessler, Staff Attorney, ACLU Speech, Privacy & Technology Project at 11:54am

 

It is the height of the Cold War. A nuclear-missile-equipped Soviet submarine sinks in the Pacific Ocean, in suspicious circumstances. The CIA commissions reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes to secretly build a massive ship capable of lifting the submarine off the ocean floor using a colossal extendable claw. The ship is built, christened the “Glomar Explorer,” and — disguised as a deep-sea mining vessel — sent on a top-secret recovery mission. Out on the high seas, the Glomar’s claw locks onto the sub and raises it toward the surface — until it breaks into pieces with the crew watching helplessly. The crew recovers only a portion of it, the entombed bodies of Russian seamen still inside.

 

Soon, intrepid journalists get wind of the operation and file Freedom of Information Act requests for more information. A CIA lawyer — operating under the cover name Walt Logan — thinks up a novel way to keep the mission secret without telling an all-out lie: refuse to confirm or deny whether records about the Glomar Explorer’s mission exist. One journalist sues over this confusing non-response, and a battle over government secrecy follows in court.

 

This is not the plot of a new Hollywood thriller. It is the true story of the origin of what is now known as the “Glomar response,” recently presented in a fascinating Radiolab podcast featuring the ACLU’s Jameel Jaffer. It is well worth a listen.

 

Why should we care? It’s not just because we all like a good tale of intrigue at sea; it’s because the CIA and other government agencies continue to use the Glomar response to facilitate excessive government secrecy when Americans seek records under the Freedom of Information Act. Building off that first episode of Cold War concealment four decades ago, in answer to requests by the ACLU and others, the government has refused to confirm or deny whether it has records about drone strikes, the targeted killing of U.S. citizens, secret detention and abuse of prisoners at the U.S. airbase in Bagram, Afghanistan, NSA surveillance, and torture and rendition of detainees. These are all areas where the public has a vital interest in accurate information about the government’s actions and abuses. By relying on the Glomar response, the government seeks not only to keep the public in the dark and cut off debate, but also to preempt efforts to get courts to order release of specific documents.

 

There are limited circumstances in which a Glomar response may be necessary to protect veritable government secrets, but as I’ve written before in The New York Times (with Jameel Jaffer) and in the NYU Law Review, it has been deployed far beyond acceptable bounds. Perhaps most disturbing is the way the government uses Glomar to facilitate selective and misleading disclosures. Government officials often “leak” information to the press that paints controversial programs in a positive light on the condition that the press withholds their names. But when asked to officially release records under FOIA, those officials clam up and hide behind the Glomar response. The result is an absurd double standard, and our democracy suffers for it.

 

As Radiolab’s story illustrates, the Glomar response was spawned in the clandestine depths of Cold War spycraft. It has unfortunately grown to typify the duplicitous government secrecy of our modern age.