National Security Blanket

[ Posted Thursday, May 28th, 2009 – 17:30 UTC ]

Debates about national security always fascinate me, because almost without exception nobody bothers to define the term itself. This, to me, is a key feature of any debate about national security versus the people's right to know what their government is doing in their name -- such as the one currently raging over whether to publicly release thousands of photographs of detainee abuse. But the definition of "national security" is always conspicuous in its absence in the debate. Which allows the government to get away with using two definitions of the term interchangeably, when only one should be legally allowed.

You may think I am picking semantic nits here, but I don't think that is true. Because the word "security" in the phrase "national security" has two separate dictionary definitions which are vital to understanding how the government uses the term. One of these definitions is physical, and one is mental. Only the physical should legally apply, but the mental definition is used time and again by those whose business it is to classify state secrets.

The first definition of "security" is: "Freedom from risk or danger; safety." This is the physical definition. National security means keeping our country safe. Secrets must be kept, using this definition, in order to reduce risk or danger to the people of the United States and the country itself. Almost everyone would agree that this is indeed a noble goal, and that sometimes secrets must be kept to achieve this goal.

But the second definition is less tangible: "Freedom from doubt, anxiety, or fear; confidence." This is the why Linus Van Pelt drags around a blanket in the comic strip Peanuts -- to help him achieve the goal of feeling secure. But Linus' security blanket does not contribute to his physical security (under the first definition), it only contributes to his mental security. He feels more secure with his blanket handy, but not because he actually is more secure with it. It's a mental crutch, in other words -- which even Linus occasionally admits.

But because no one bothers to define what they are talking about when throwing around the term "national security," the end result is that the government winds up having it both ways. In a lot of instances, publicly admitting something bad or wrong the government was responsible for would not harm the physical security of the United States in any way, but it would be highly embarrassing to the government if it was publicly known. Which, under the second definition of the term, harms the "security" of the United States. If the citizens are kept in the dark about something shameful or just embarrassing the government did, then they "feel more secure" as a result -- because by withholding the facts, embarrassing questions are not raised, and therefore nobody has to doubt the government's actions.

There is a long history of the government using the term "national security" in its "security blanket" meaning, starting with the first court case the Supreme Court ever decided on the case. Up until World War II, the issue of "national security" and "state secrets" had not been formally codified. But with the advent of the Cold War and the Atomic Age, there were secrets which if released could indeed harm the physical security of the state.

In United States v. Reynolds, the United States was being sued by the relatives of men who had died in a military plane crash in 1948. The plane, a B-29, was at the time conducting tests of a new (and quite secret) electronic navigational system. The plaintiffs wanted the military records of the plane crash, and the government argued that they contained secrets which would harm the national security if they were released. The lower courts agreed with the plaintiffs, but the Supreme Court sided with the government. The government did eventually pay a settlement to the plaintiffs, but only under the condition that they drop their efforts into finding out what had really happened.

In 2000, the documents were declassified, and showed that the government was largely concerned with protecting itself from an embarrassing disclosure -- which had nothing to do with actual "national security." Meaning that the first court case ever on the issue allowed the government to use both definitions of "national security" interchangeably. Which they have been doing ever since, it should be noted.

For instance, the records of the investigation into the assassination of President John F. Kennedy have never fully been released. For decades, the government has held that they contain national security secrets, and therefore cannot be safely released. Then, in the 1990s, a new rationale was given -- the records were being held to protect the Kennedy family's privacy. The Kennedys, led by Senator Ted Kennedy, publicly came out for the documents' release, saying in essence "don't blame us for continuing to keep them secret." As far as I know, these documents have still never been made public.

Are there actual national security secrets in the Kennedy investigation? Or are there just secrets which would be highly embarrassing to the government? There is simply no way to tell, because they are still secret.

The Kennedy example is a good one when talking about the "right to know" versus "national security," because the president's assassination has now become the granddaddy of all conspiracy theories. When the government refuses to provide the facts, then people will instead guess what those facts actually are. Which leads to some seriously wild and off-the-wall theories, in the end.

It all boils down to a very basic question: should the government be allowed to keep things from the public "for our own good" just so we feel more secure? Or, conversely, should the government be limited to keeping things from us only in the case where it actually contributes to our safety not to know them?

Now, I'm not arguing the specific case of the torture photos here. There's a very good case to be made that not releasing those photos does indeed contribute to the country's physical safety -- most especially for our soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq. Just as there is a case to be made that suppressing the photos is solely to save people in the government from embarrassment or even prosecution. I'm not arguing either side of this case (at least not here today).

All I'm saying is that in any discussion or debate on "national security" people should pay a lot more attention to how the word "security" is being defined on both sides of the argument. Because while few would argue that the physical national security of our country is a valid reason for the government to classify things, this does not mean that the government should legally be able to hold things from us "for our own good." Because this gives the government a blanket power it should not have -- the power to tell us: "You don't have to worry about all of that, here's your national security blanket, sleep tight...."


-- Chris Weigant


14 Comments on “National Security Blanket”

  1. [1] 
    BashiBazouk wrote:

    And to refine that further, what about "defense". We have a defense budget, but most of it is offense. Some of that offense is there to protect our "interests" rather than territory and could be considered your more psychological security as you have defined it.

    I wonder what level of military would be required to purely defend the US and it's territories. Looking at large scale invasions like D-Day, island hopping in the pacific theater and the first gulf war, the logistics required in invade across an ocean are huge and complex. Few countries exist with that capability, even fewer that could even make a showing against the US military on home soil, especially in the age of satellites.

    I have always thought it would be interesting to separate the two as far as politics and budget are concerned. I have no problem with the people through the legislative process having a huge military but they should know and be able to control the size, expense, and reach of it. Blind support of defense is IMO a huge political problem. It's hard to beat a candidate that is pushing a strong "defense". Would it still be so if there was a rough idea of what level of military spending was needed for pure defense and what beyond that was for extending our power overseas?

  2. [2] 
    Osborne Ink wrote:

    Ultimately, we KNOW the government's case in US v Reynolds was bogus because the Soviets were already building a B-29 knockoff. The US Army Air Corps / US Air Force (the incident happened during the force's transition to an independent defense department) was quite aware that two of their bombers had been interned by the USSR at the end of WWII, and there was absolutely nothing secret about this airplane that Joe Stalin didn't already know.

  3. [3] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    BashiBazouk -

    That is indeed an interesting question.

    Up until WWII, it was known (a lot more straightforwardly) as the "War Department."


  4. [4] 
    akadjian wrote:

    "National security" really is brilliant marketing, isn't it?

    You don't have to define what it means and you can use it to justify just about anything. And then, if anyone questions you, you can claim that you can't divulge any details in the interests of "national security."

    Joseph Heller would have been proud.

    - David

  5. [5] 
    Michale wrote:

    Yes, there is a danger to invoking the spectre of "National Security"..

    But what's the flip side?? A government that has no secrets is a government that will last only one single day.

    That is the very reason we HAVE elected officials. So that they can know the information we don't WANT to know... So they can make the decisions that we can't.

    "If you have a better idea, now's the time."
    -Admiral James T. Kirk


  6. [6] 
    akadjian wrote:

    How foolish of me. And here I thought elected officials were there to represent the people. All of that "We the People ..." Democracy stuff is just so much blah, blah, blah.

    Elected officials shouldn't be responsible to us. Once we elect them, they should rule us. For our own good.

    Especially since the people are too stupid to govern themselves. What we really need is a government where the people don't know what is going on and elected officials aren't responsible to anyone.

    Because we can't handle the truth. That there is no wizard. That there is no spoon.

    - David

    p.s. Apologies for mixing in so many cliched movie references at once, but one cliched post deserves another. And they're kinda fun to toss around. Maybe we need a battle of movie quotes.

  7. [7] 
    Michale wrote:

    So, you're advocating a completely open government where the people make ALL the decisions.

    Shirley ( :D ) you can realize how completely and utterly impossible that would be? You simply cannot prosecute a war by committee. Which is why we have a COMMANDER IN CHIEF.

    For better or worse, the US is a Republic, not a Democracy..

    Where I have a problem is when people elect leaders to LEAD, to make the tough calls and then those same people that ELECTED those leaders whine and bitch and moan that they aren't doing what they were elected for when, in fact, that is EXACTLY what they are doing.

    Lead, follow or get the hell outta the way...

    And they're kinda fun to toss around. Maybe we need a battle of movie quotes.

    Don't tease me..... :D


  8. [8] 
    akadjian wrote:

    It's also important that our Commander be an elected civilian who is ultimately responsible to the people so that we don't become like so many of these other nations run by a military commander.

    Why is it that so many conservatives who claim to fight for freedom want to take away rights from the people and create a country run solely by the President?

    Why do you hate Democracy, Michale?

    - David

  9. [9] 
    Michale wrote:

    The simple fact is, no American's rights or liberties have been taken away. Unless, of course, you count carrying hair gel on an air craft.

    What I oppose is the hysterical Left who wants to give those rights to terrorists..

    Why do you hate Democracy, Michale?

    Why do you love terrorists, David??


  10. [10] 
    akadjian wrote:

    You're getting emotional and letting your gut talk for you, Michale.

    A fact is a truth known by actual experience or observation. The sky is blue. A tomato plant grows from a seed.

    The statement "no American's rights or liberties have been taken away" is an assertion of yours. A belief. Now you may have facts to support this belief, but please don't tell me that this is a "simple fact."

    By definition, it is not a fact.

    And in reality, this belief of yours seems to be contradicted by actual events or facts such as:
    - The disclosure that the government illegally spied on citizens thought FISA
    - The suspension of Habeus Corpus to imprison people indefinitely for undisclosed reasons and without access to the justice system

    Come back to the rational side, Michale!

    Because you're right, this country needs to start thinking with it's head and not it's gut.

    - David

  11. [11] 
    akadjian wrote:

    And p.s. the "hysterical Left" sounds pretty rational these days when you compare them to Rush Limbaugh and some of the right-wing pundits.

  12. [12] 
    Michale wrote:

    FISA, by it's very creation and definition, is legal.

    No American's Habeus Corpus rights were suspended. And, prior to the SCOTUS ruling, enemy combatants and terrorists were not afforded Habeus Corpus rights.

    But, thank you for proving my point for me.

    The Hysterical Left is going ballistic in it's efforts to give terrorists rights that Americans have fought and died for. The Hysterical Left is giving American rights to the very people that have KILLED Americans.

    Where is the logic in that?

    As I have said time and time again (and has been ignored) terrorists incarcerated at Gitmo have more rights than American civilian prisoners..

    Why is that???

    And p.s. the "hysterical Left" sounds pretty rational these days when you compare them to Rush Limbaugh and some of the right-wing pundits.

    So??? A drunk Josef Stalin would sound "pretty rational" compared to Limbaugh when he gets a snit going.

    Is THAT the Hysterical Left's excuse for being Hysterical??

    "Oh, it's OK that we are hysterical and want to sell out American. Limbaugh is such a jackass, after all."

    Yea... GREAT reasoning there... :^/


  13. [13] 
    Osborne Ink wrote:

    (don't feed the trolls)

  14. [14] 
    akadjian wrote:

    Hey, don't talk about Michale or I that way :)!

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