In the end it always comes down to the secret stuff. You know, the stuff that Mommy and Daddy know but you don’t. They can’t tell you, they’re sorry to say. They would love to, just that you’re not big enough to understand. But trust them. They know all the stuff they need to know to help you and take care of you. So please don’t doubt their decision. It’s based on all that stuff. Just please, always come to them with your concerns. They would be hurt if you were ever not comfortable to approach them. Their door is always open.
This familiar refrain has been sounded again in Washington. President Bush assures us that the guys we don’t know whose job it is to know the stuff that we don’t know can certainly be trusted to do their job and check out the Dubai port deal which may look a bit shaky based on the stuff we know but really looks rosy based on the stuff we don’t know. Immediately this conjures up images of high-level conferences in the office of the Secretary of Defense. Except that Rumsfeld, when asked, said, “Whuh? First I hear of it.” This matter was handled by mid-level bureaucrats at Treasury, about the same attention we would pay to the question of whether Benjamin Franklin should be flying a kite on the twenty-dollar bill.
We bought this appeal when it concerned the NSA wiretapping. It’s a secret program for a secret reason, so trust the busy beavers burrowing in the mysterious underground headquarters. They’d love to tell us but then they’d have to kill us. Okay, we said, keep us safe and we won’t be too fussy. But now they’re trying it in reverse. Let us be less paranoid, they tell us, because we know things you don’t know. This time we’re raising an eyebrow, some questions and, if necessary, a bit of Cain.
IN ACTUALITY, this is a generational shift. Once upon a time, Americans had this reflex. If the government said it was true, then it must be so. I recall vividly sitting in Cincinnati a few days after the Amtrak train was derailed by sabotage in Arizona on Oct. 9, 1995. People were discussing the incident and one fellow said with the utmost naivete: “President Clinton said we will catch them.” We all looked up at him sharply but opted to remain silent. He was a carryover from a bygone era, and we respected his status as a relic worth preserving. Back in the real world, that crime has still never been solved, and its memory has long since dissolved in the public consciousness.
In World War II, it is only a small exaggeration to say that the fate of the world hung on secret activities. Would our secret atom bomb program be completed before the German equivalent? And could it be kept secret from the Soviets? Would our cryptographers succeed in breaking the secret codes that the enemy used to issue military instructions over their radios? Later, when we did break the code, everything depended on keeping the enemy unsuspecting. We managed to fool them and they did not switch codes, gaining us an untold advantage.
With secrecy at such a premium, we learned to be satisfied knowing less. In return, public servants were more conscientious about earning our trust. For the most part, whenever we discover today the filed-away secrets of yesterday, we find that our leaders of then acted upon them wisely. Those days are long gone. Nixon’s perfidy and Carter’s incompetence, Reagan’s occasional distractedness and Clinton’s pathological duplicity, have all taught us to regard their caveats as emptier than their predecessors. Nine times out of ten, daylight is better. And the secrets tend not to be so darned big anyway.
Still, there is no question that executives all love operating in twilight. It’s not just that they prefer less scrutiny but that this feeds their sense of importance. From childhood, they yearned to be in the inner circle, in the know. Probably the most distressing story to emerge from the Clinton administration was in Webster Hubbell’s tell-nothing-at-all book. He wrote that when Bill placed him in the Justice Department, he asked him to check if there was any secret info there on the Kennedy assassination and the Roswell, New Mexico flying saucer story. Besides being unspeakably puerile, it’s an index to this atavistic impulse to imagine that there are always wondrous things behind the scenes — and that the elected get to tour the magical treasure house.
The truth is that there is usually less to these things than doesn’t meet the eye. It’s healthier for us to forfeit that wonderful innocent faith in government and its hoard of arcane wisdom; the flip side of that pathway in the soul is the weird conspiracy theorists who manufacture fears from the same unseen information that the patriots turn to for solace. Better pass on that succor and not get played for suckers.