It’s been a banner week for the intelligence community. First David Miranda (note the irony in the name) was detained by British police at Heathrow Airport under the aegis of “terrorism”, and then Bradley Manning was sentenced to 35 years in Leavenworth for leaking classified documents to WikiLeaks. As if that wasn’t enough, Pfc. Manning then announced that he would be living as a woman named Chelsea and seeking gender reassignment therapy. Oh, and the NSA admitted they maybe, possibly, might have accidentally illegally intercepted up to 56,000 emails from American citizens per year between 2008 and 2011, in “a direct breach of US law and constitution.” But really, that bit’s not important.
So what do all of these things have in common, other than security leaks and embarrassing the United States government? Step back a minute and think about what you really know about these cases. You certainly know the name Bradley/Chelsea Manning. You may know Mr. Miranda and his partner, Glenn Greenwald. No doubt you know the name of Mr. Greenwald’s source, Edward Snowden. But how familiar are you with the substance of the issues they represent? Other than the words “leaked government documents”, “WikiLeaks”, and “NSA”, do you really know anything?
Probably not. And that’s just how the government wants it.
You may be familiar with the phrase “security theater”. It’s most often used to describe the TSA, one of the greatest examples of security theater of all time. The purpose of security theater is a feel good measure, the political class’ response to the general outcry to “do something!” Unfortunately while the TSA might be compared to stand-up comedians, there’s another kind of performer who shows up in theaters that most folks have forgotten about: magicians.
The greatest, arguably the only, trick in the magician’s bag is misdirection. When the trick is going on here, he convinces you to look there. There are countless ways to accomplish it, from the simple to the insane, and a great magician knows them all. So while we’re all looking over there at Edward Snowden touring around Russia, what are we not paying attention to? As we enjoy the media salivating over Chelsea Manning’s fight for the right to gender reassignment surgery, what aren’t we being bothered by? Even something as potentially unnerving as Mr. Miranda being detained can be forgotten in the space of a news cycle, but so can a report about illegal activity at the NSA. After all, that’s so two years ago.
The truth is we’re being sold personalities instead of facts. I’m not saying I’m for or against what Manning did, nor am I trying to justify the actions that Snowden took. In order to even have that conversation we would need to have a full grasp of what happened, and the cloak of secrecy that keeps being drawn over the events surrounding their actions in the name of “national security” is growing thinner by the day. But that’s okay, because the show goes on, and the audience is getting all the entertainment they need.
So please, all those in Washington who have the power to actually do something about this: take a bow.