Watching the United States government trying to keep secrets is highly amusing. It's an organization completely dedicated to keeping as many things as possible covert, which makes it a government in the first place. But it's not able to accomplish this task, as shown by the very significant documents that were dumped onto a tiny online group chat on the Discord platform, allegedly by 21-year-old data specialist Jack Teixeira, eventually making their way everywhere. It's damaging and security must be tightened, urge various commentators yet again. But keeping state secrets isn’t the job of opinion journalists. Informing people is, and these documents are useful in that regard.
The Washington Post calls Teixeira a new kind of leaker: not driven by motives like espionage for a foreign power, nor "ideological" objections to secrecy, nor, as in Chelsea Manning's case, ideological objections to calling in airstrikes on a wedding and then pretending it never happened. Not, like Edward Snowden, outraged that the American government has its own people secretly and routinely under surveillance. Not, like Reality Winner, concerned about what the Russians were trying to do to the 2016 American election.
But whatever his motive, Teixeira’s documents have been astonishingly informative about all sorts of things. Day after day, story after story, they just keep giving. This is often described as "one of the worst leaks in the history of the Department of Defense," perhaps the worst since the Pentagon Papers in 1971. I'd rather think of it as the best. I know a lot that I didn't before. I'm grateful, as we all should’ve been grateful for Daniel Ellsberg's leak of the Pentagon Papers.
The secrecy of governments is often presented as essential to their operations, and under some conditions it is. On the other hand, keeping secrets from their own people gets to be a hobby that political, military, and intelligence officials engage in for its own sake. People are shocked that Teixeira seemed just to be kind of showing off for a group of friends, not spying for Belarus, calling the Intercept or trying to contact Julian Assange. But showing off is also the primary motivation for many people inside the Office of National Security Intelligence and elsewhere in the infinite archipelago of concealment. We know stuff that you don't!, which is both a symptom and a source of our power over you. Teixeira’s the sort of person who grows up to be #2 at CIA, where the cachet of secrecy is the most important way of fixing the pecking order.
The Post points out that "guarding against a Snowden requires searching for security-cleared individuals—a large but knowable universe—who have an ax to grind and who may have a public record of expressing political views, online or in person. Guarding against someone like the Discord leaker would mean confronting a far bigger, far better-hidden world of people who frequent forums that are largely invisible to authorities."
This indicates that the way the NSA and other so-called security and so-called intelligence agencies addressed the leak crisis created by Snowden and Manning was an ideological crackdown, what you'd expect out of China's Communist Party, for example. We fired you or failed to hire you because you expressed political opinions online: that is, we tried to induce blank political unanimity on the staff. The solution, roughly, would be to eliminate anyone with anti-war or pro-liberty standpoints. This, I'm sure, has led to a much more uniform workforce of unanimous mediocrities, as dissenters get eliminated from "the knowable universe."
This might leave only evil idiots to staff the covert world, rendering it radically vulnerable. But what the hack.
Evidently, the political crackdown didn't work either. Maybe you should just give up on this secrecy shit, because it’s really not working out whatsoever, despite your implacable cleverness and efficiency. People might reveal your secrets for any reason at all: because they’re enemies of the state; because they’re agents of a foreign power; because they’re committed to human freedom or something like democracy and you so palpably aren't; because they want to impress their friends; because they had a bad day and are pissed at their boss; because the government of the United States just did something horribly wrong again; because they can.
How can you stop them? You did a sudden political crackdown to stop people like Snowden. Now you'll do another crackdown on... who? You've got no idea who's coming next or why, do you? So, you must increase general cyber-security, again. But that means hiring or contracting with a bunch of new security people, each of whom is a further security risk. It means throwing more programs onto the computer systems, each of which will have its own bugs and each of which was made by people who know how it works. Then it means hiring security consulting firms to monitor your security consulting firms and so on.
This degree of secrecy is completely incompatible with democracy in any form. People who have no idea why we're in the war or how it's going don't have an accurate means of deciding whom to vote for. Jack Teixeira’s crime is another interruption of the information autocracy that every government, in particular those of China and the United States, aspire to be.
Meanwhile, how can our systems be rendered secure? (a) They can't be, you doinks, and (b) this isn’t my job. My job this morning is just to enjoy the leak.
—Follow Crispin Sartwell on Twitter: @CrispinSartwell