Why a Government That Collects Everyone's Private Data Won't Let Its Employees Access Public Information

Dysfunctional bureaucracies in action.


We already mentioned this story in the morning links, but it deserves a post of its own. The Monterey Herald reports that

Network Management 101

The Army admitted Thursday to not only restricting access to The Guardian news website at the Presidio of Monterey, as reported in Thursday's Herald, but Armywide.

Presidio employees said the site had been blocked since The Guardian broke several stories on data collection by the National Security Agency.

Gordon Van Vleet, an Arizona-based spokesman for the Army Network Enterprise Technology Command…wrote it is routine for the Department of Defense to take preventative "network hygiene" measures to mitigate unauthorized disclosures of classified information.

Sure enough, the government did the same thing when the WikiLeaks revelations gushed forth in 2010, trying to cut off access to the leaked cables and even to outlets that discussed the leaked cables. At the Air Force, employees' computers were blocked from accessing more than 25 publications, including The New York Times, Le Monde, Der Spiegel, and, yes, The Guardian. No longer able to prevent information from reaching the public, the government instead attempted to prevent it from reaching itself.

This speaks to a deeper issue. It's an established principle that the people at the top of a hierarchy tend to be woefully ignorant of what happens at the bottom. The people at the bottom, meanwhile, feel pressure to see the world in the manner prescribed by the people above them. As Robert Anton Wilson once put it,

Information Theory 101
Seth Tobacman

Every authoritarian structure can be visualized as a pyramid with an eye on the top. This is the typical flow-chart of any government, any corporation, any Army, any bureaucracy, any mammalian pack. On each rung, participants bear a burden of nescience in relation to those above them. That is, they must be very, very careful that the natural sensory activities of being conscious organisms—the acts of seeing, hearing, smelling, drawing inferences from perception, etc.—are in accord with the reality-tunnel of those above them. This is absolutely vital; pack status (and "job security") depends on it. It is much less important—a luxury that can easily be discarded—that these perceptions be in accord with objective fact.

But this leads to an equal and opposite burden of omniscience upon those at the top, in the eye of the pyramid. All that is forbidden to those at the bottom—the conscious activities of perception and evaluation—is demanded of the Power Elite, the master class. They must attempt to do the seeing, hearing, smelling, etc. and all the thinking and evaluating for the whole pyramid.

Primatology 101

But a man with a gun (the power to punish) is told only what the target thinks will not cause him to pull the trigger (write the pink slip, order the court-martial). The elite, with their burden of omniscience, face the underlings, with their burden of nescience, and receive only the feedback consistent with their own preconceived notions and reality-tunnels. The burden of omniscience becomes, over time, another and more complex burden of nescience. Nobody really knows anything anymore, or if they do, they are careful to hide the fact. The burden of nescience becomes omnipresent. More and more of sensory experience becomes unspeakable.

Relatively healthy hierarchies are able to receive signals—market pressures, employee revolts—that push back against those dysfunctions. The more closed and controlled a bureaucracy is, the less likely those signals are to get through. And few bureaucracies are as closed and controlled as the institutions devoted to national security.

Political Science 101

Julian Assange was aware of this when he created WikiLeaks. Indeed, he was counting on it. In an essay called "State and Terrorist Conspiracies"—originally circulated in 2006, but not particularly well-known until Aaron Bady discussed it on his blog four years later—Assange explained his thinking. In Bady's words, "the more opaque [an organization] becomes to itself (as a defense against the outside gaze), the less able it will be to 'think' as a system, to communicate with itself. The more conspiratorial it becomes, in a certain sense, the less effective it will be as a conspiracy." When leaks appear, an authoritarian organization "will turn against itself in self-defense, clamping down on its own information flows in ways that will then impede its own cognitive function." WikiLeaks would make its target "so paranoid of itself that it can no longer conspire."

It's the ju-jitsu school of subversion. And if you're an Army officer trying to read The Guardian at the office, you might start to suspect that it's working.

Further reading: "Our Leaky World" and "If This Is a New Cold War, Who's the Enemy Supposed to Be?"

NEXT: Snowden's Father Says His Son is Not a Traitor

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  1. There is nothing nefarious here. This is just bureaucratic inertia and ineptness. The fact is the information is “classified” until the person who made it declassifies it. There is no “it is all over the media and everyone knows about it” exception. So the IT guys are told “no classified information on unclassified networks”. Hey there is classified information on the Daily Mail. Well, we better block that site them.

    It really is that simple and that stupid.

    1. Yep. Pure bureaucracy. Hard and fast rules that can’t be broken even when the outcome is clearly just plain dumb.

    2. Yeah, there’s nothing 1984 here. It’s just what John said, the people who run these networks don’t want to risk someone clicking on a site, pulling up excerpts of a classified document, and reporting it. Then they would have to go through the long and expensive process of sanitizing the computer. Stupid? Yes. Nefarious? No.

      1. That said, I was reflecting on the sort of effect described in the OP with respect to the radical movements of the 60s and how their leaders seem to actually fear the very freedom they claim to have sought because their members might actually choose other paths. (The way the fringe gay rights leaders hate marriage and the feminists of the last generation ridicule women for choosing to be housewives and stay-at-home mothers.)

  2. When leaks appear, an authoritarian organization “will turn against itself in self-defense, clamping down on its own information flows in ways that will then impede its own cognitive function.”

    How many more impediments to its cognitive function can the US government take?

  3. Can’t have the loyalty of anyone in the armed forces affected by knowing how f-ed up government has become. That whole oath about fighting enemies of the United States, both foreign and domestic thing, is a doozy the tyrants would like to keep under control..

  4. The way such hierarchies work out in reality is even worse: people are put into positions of power not according to how qualified they are for the position, but for other reasons (degree from the right school, a buddy of somebody important, length of service, etc). They then do not stay on the same position long enough to have to suffer the consequences of their own bad decisions.

    I have been in quite a few meetings where some idiot upper manager presented his “new” approach. When we then told the imbecile that this had already been tried a dozen times, and had always failed, he ignored all warnings and pushed ahead, with entirely predictable results.

    1. We have this every day where I work. Them: “We can’t keep doing what we’ve done because it results in low quality results and production problems.” Us: “It’s going to take longer than it did before because before we were overloaded and pulled off miracles for the sake of the project.” Them: “You’re saying now things will take 50% longer?! But before it only took you….” Us: “Will you accept low quality work and production problems? Because we can crank these things out at warp speed if you don’t care if they’re right. Not to mention the R&D dept tripled in size and is cranking out new product ideas we’ve never done before and we have the same staff to implement it we had when we were overloaded.”

      I fucking hate people.
      I fucking hate people.

  5. The explanation for this is simple: it’s important to ensure that members of the Outer Party think properly. No one gives a shit what the proles know.

  6. Let the proles drink and smoke and fuck. We need conscripts. Besides, they’re too stupid and lazy and ignorant to pay attention.

  7. The intellectual bankruptcy is really on display when they take public documents (newspaper articles, etc.) and classify them.

    Then they have to classify the fact that they classified it because the fact they classified it could give the opposition information.

    When they could have avoided the problem just by ignoring the public information in the first place. Put a footnote in a for-real classified document and move on.

  8. Excellent article on the Establishment’s War on America.

    There is an additional point. The Armed Forces from top to bottom are sworn to protect the Constitution, not the people in D.C. At some point the deviation between what is being done to the American people, and what the oath promises to protect, begins to destabilize that part of the system. The less the Armed Forces know, the more stable they will be. Mayor Bloomberg and the FBI were able to mobilize America’s police forces against the Occupy movement, but the group of outraged targets here is more than a bit larger. And to send a message:

    Wear Black on Independence Day:

  9. The Army (and all government agencies) are put in a no-win situation in cases like this. Remember, unauthorized disclosure of classified data does not change its status. We take great care to avoid spillage, of the introduction of classified material on an unclassified network, and any time classified data is found on an unclassified system it affects work and productivity while networks are isolated, machines are scanned and sanitized and investigations are conducted to determine how it happened, regardless if the data was accidentally saved by a user or simply cached by a web browser. True, in the internet age once the story is out it’s in a million places, but limiting exposure to the primary vector is the best way to inoculate.

    This is not the Army trying to hide anything from soldiers or acting like the leak didn’t happen. This is just the Army trying to proactively avoid needless (and costly) “clean up” on its computers and networks.

  10. “Hey bawth man, I think I just saw something. Should I say something?”

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