Poli-tricks, poli-ticks, politics. The intricacies of government and society are supposed to make your head hurt—simply because none of them actually make a shred of sense. Game theory never helped anyone either. But that’s what defines politics: a bunch of nonsense packaged into a somewhat sustainable rule of law. We know the topic can be yawn-inducing, confusing and nauseating but, hey, it’s in the news so we might as well take a shot at disassembling and digesting this mess for the greater good. And that’s what “Local Learns Politics” is all about.
By this point, you should know about drone warfare. Even if you don’t enjoy politics, you should still know that the U.S. government has this fondness for human-activated flying war robots that spray missiles at warranted targets from afar. Call it the “future of war,” a “new age of combat” or “Ishmael.” Yeah, it’s kinda fucked up. And, yeah, our government likes to use them a lot.
So the leaked memo from the Justice Department that NBC News found this week wasn’t too surprising. It was basically the legal equivalent of the leaked torture memos left over from the Bush administration; both had the same underlying suggestions: “Here’s what we’re doing. And here’s just how we’re actually getting away with it.”
But the story here is not the subject of drone warfare. Or the fact that the U.S. government can kinda/sorta/totally kill American citizens if they are put on a drone list (how Orwellian does that sound?). We’ll talk about that another time. As mentioned before, we get it. No, what we’re learning right about now is a simple truth from that strange, twisted intersection of transparency and government: all you need is one leak for the expected levees to break.
Here’s how a leak works.
The term “leak” comes from a pipe of information leaking out into the wrong hands? Not sure. But, in the hyperspeed year of 2013, there are pretty much only two ways leaks can happen.
The first (and most recent) form is the hacker leak. Think: Anonymous, LulzSec, 4Chan community, etc. With hacker leaks, the Internet is used as a battleground, where Geek Squad revolutionaries take to the Web to access “confidential” digital data and then publish said information for the entire world to see. Anonymous just did this recently with the Westboro Baptist Church—the group everyone loves to/probably should hate—and managed to leak names and addresses of members online. The hacker leak is forceful action for information; someone is purposefully cyber-stalking an authority figure or group to find out what’s going on. It’s like The Matrix meets Catfish.
The second form is the “Look what I found!” leak. Think: WikiLeaks, the Pentagon Papers, this aforementioned NBC News story, etc. Basically, in these cases, someone from inside the bureaucracy jumps ship and opens his or her mouth to a media organization (usually for good reason, though). WikiLeaks had Bradley Manning; the Pentagon Papers had Daniel Ellsburg; and NBC News probably had some pissed-off intern at the Justice Department. This type of leak is much more hands-on: the organization gets a physical copy of said information from someone else and hits the “Publish” button. No hacking needed here.
Regardless of access type, the aftermath of an intergovernmental leak—breadth of controversy aside—follows a standard plot line in Washington. The leak happens. The government is naturally frustrated about it, leading to lots of half-assed denials and lots of shrugs. Then, Congress gets involved, holding some sort of committee meeting where some old white guy slams his finger on a piece of paper and asks, “IS THIS TRUE?”, to the involved agency’s representative. They say yes (because they have to) and swear that nothing they did was really wrong. Afterwards, the agency willingly releases the information Congress demands so everyone will stop talking about it and go back to watching reruns of The Golden Girls. End leak.
We can take this plot line and apply it to what’s happened in the past five days or so. First, NBC News gets its hands on the 16-page memo from 2010. Second, the Obama administration officials act all upset about the “breach of privacy” but, in the end, say, “Yeah, your guys have known about the drones.” Third, a Senate panel holds a noisy, protestor-filled confirmation hearing yesterday for John O. Brennan—Obama’s pick to replace Petraeus as CIA Director (oh God, remember that bullshit?)—and, coincidentally, Brennan is the architect of the entire program. Two birds, one drone.
As per leak usual, Brennan accepted the charges but argued that the drone attacks are really about self-defense. And, just the night before, the White House announced that Congress can see all the memos about the program if it wanted to. They should’ve just asked. We’re all about transparency here anyway.
Unless you’re Nixon and take the New York Times to the Supreme Court for publishing “state secrets,” a leak is the first domino in a horribly custom pattern that always ends in a surplus of known truths for the public. The breach is cornering and leaves little room for the higher figure to escape. So releasing more information is the Next Best Thing: every critic puts down their pitchforks, gasps and says, “Thank you.” And we move on.
When it leaks, it pours. About that “it’s okay to kill Americans” thing, though…