21 August 2013

Miranda Warning

The "detention" of a reporter's partner at Heathrow because that reporter had a part in the Snowden contretemps angers me a great deal. Unfortunately, it is also merely a more-visible-than-usual, but almost expected, consequence of the interplay among three cultural factors that are unrelated to actual security, but nonetheless dominate the mindset of all national security apparatchiks*. Within that warped little world — a world that believes it encompasses all —

  • Political and personal reputation are essential elements of national security. From this perspective, what is even worse than rumors is confirmation that rumors that a significant portion of people — or, at minimum, significant personages — believed, with at least some factual support, to be true all along. This is an extension of the "all secrets have value" meme that has taken hold of world (not just Western) politics since the adoption of the printing press made it relatively easy and cheap to disseminate secrets once discerned.
  • The ends have nothing whatsoever to do with the means used to achieve them. That is not to say that there is never a necessity to evade the strict (and often not-so-strict) requirements of the law to protect the foundational systems for the rule of law. Such evasion must be explicitly considered by all involved, must come only after trying just about everything practicable short of that point, and above all must be vanishingly rare. It cannot become sub rosa, the first option, or above all routine, merely because it's more convenient or perpetuates/advances power and ambition.
  • No individual is ever accountable for anything. Ever. Except, that is, if it is politically convenient to throw that individual under the steamroller of institutional politics. This has less to do with ideology than with the self-perpetuation of the unelected, secretive, shadowy national security apparatus. "Intelligence" and "special operations" and "counterterrorism" are the last refuge of "I was only following orders, or at least I was only being creative in support of mission requirements."

Somewhat cynically, one might consider this the British intelligence community's attempt to demonstrate that it's got assholes just as big and brazen as those in the US after the unlawful, unjustified by any need, and ultimately counterproductive pretrial treatment of Bradley Manning. Listen, guys, Manning was always going to get what was coming to him — he was held accountable for his violations of the rule of law, however twisted the law and circumstances may have been. As a smart, if amoral, political operative once said on The West Wing, "A truly self-sacrificing act usually involves some sacrifice." The corollary for national security apparatchiks is a bit more verbose: "Selecting the lesser of the evils usually involves accepting that all of the choices being considered are evil" — and that runs exactly counter to each of the three cultural factors I described above.

Shakespeare's Miranda presents a warning of change, of time, of the inability to permanently control others so long as we recognize that those others are individuals and not merely extensions of ourselves. When the US courts drew a line over treatment of Ernesto Miranda, they implicitly warned of the need for the State to explicitly warn people that the State's interests and presumptions might not match those of the people under State scrutiny. It is perhaps too early to discern the implications of Britain's treatment of David Miranda... except that once we untangle everything (or even just a lot of things under circumstances preventing us from knowing everything — just like in the shadowing world of intelligence) we'll find corollaries of both.

* This invocation of the Cold War is with malice aforethought. This isn't just about national interests; it's about ideology, and hypocrisy in the face of ideology, and ideology as the toreador's cape distracting from the naked steel of power.