Fantasy and Treason in the Post-Truth Era

September 22, 2016 Topic: Intelligence Region: United States Blog Brand: Paul Pillar

Fantasy and Treason in the Post-Truth Era

A feature article in a recent issue of The Economist examines the disturbing rise in lying in politics and public affairs. The biggest current stimulus for such an examination is, of course, Donald Trump, who has gone far beyond lying as a common byproduct of statesmanship and has made a Niagara of fabrications a main element of his campaign. Part of Trump's approach is to lie so often and so shamelessly about so many things that fact-checking resources are overloaded and the fact that he is lying ceases to be news. The general practice of which Trump is an extreme example is what The Economist calls “post-truth” political discourse (the magazine credits environmentalist blogger David Roberts with coining the term), in which “feelings trump facts more freely and with less resistance than used to be the case.”

The Economist cites two major developments that have made post-truth politics possible. One is a decline in public trust in institutions, as well as in experts who advise on public policy. The second, probably even more important, is the internet and the vast proliferation of sources of information, or what readers and listeners take to be information. Most of this cascade of material is unencumbered by anything resembling standards of accuracy and verifiability that the respectable mainstream press tries to observe. Falsehoods, rather than being culled out, get amplified as they reverberate and are replayed among subsets of the population that rely on sites that spew the sorts of ideas that members of the subset already believe in.

Columnist Nicholas Kristof mentions another reason, which can be blamed on the mainstream press and which he discusses with particular reference to the current presidential campaign. This is the problem of false equivalence, in which the press, for the well-intentioned reason of trying to be impartial, treats the statements of two different candidates as entitled to comparable treatment. Kristof has in mind the whole panoply of reasons that make Trump, in Kristof's words, an “abnormal candidate” and a “crackpot,” but he focuses in large part on the matter of truthfulness. “Is it journalistic malpractice,” he asks, “to quote each side and leave it to readers to reach their own conclusions, even if one side seems to fabricate facts or make ludicrous comments?”

There is another underlying trend that has led to the post-truth era, one that reaches farther back in time and involves the arts and literature. This is the blurring of genres, and of the line between fiction and nonfiction. The roman à clef is an art form that dates back to the seventeenth century and has long been used as a device to spin current events or to settle scores while hiding behind the fiction-writer's pen. Former Nixon aide John Ehrlichman wrote such a novel, later turned into a television mini-series, that was inspired by the Watergate cover-up and populated by characters who were thinly disguised versions of real people. Ehrlichman reaped the benefit of his Watergate-related notoriety but when challenged on how his story diverged from the real events would say, “it's just a novel.”

At least something labeled as a novel will be found in the fiction section of the public library. But distinctions between genres have become even more blurred than in the technique that the roman à clef represents, as exemplified by Edmund Morris's book on Ronald Reagan that was labeled as a “memoir” but included fictitious scenes. By the turn of the century the blurring of the fact/fiction line had leached from literature to politics enough for an appointee of the George W. Bush administration to express disdain for the “reality-based community.”

Cinema, probably even more so than written literature, has had a particularly strong role in cultivating false beliefs about real people, institutions, and events. This is partly because of the additional multi-sensory impact of seeing a movie rather than reading the printed word. It also is because, apart from some documentaries clearly billed as such, there is no particular line categorizing movies that is comparable to the one between the fiction and nonfiction sections at the library. Dramatizations of real-life events constitute a significant proportion of feature films. The version of such an event that is left with the public leaving the theater is whatever version the filmmaker wants to impart. Academy awards do not depend on fact-checkers. In political terms, this probably means more versions tilting to the left than to the right, even if Hollywood is not as consistently left-wing as sometimes perceived.

One prominent filmmaker definitely on the left, Oliver Stone, made a movie 25 years ago about the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The movie gave weight to a conspiracy theory in which government agencies such as the FBI and CIA, among others, were involved in the assassination. Some of the critics' responses to the film took exception to Stone's fanciful rendering of a real and important event in U.S. history, but the overall critical response was positive. The movie had dramatic impact. And many people who saw it then believed that large portions of the U.S. government—really, not just in the movie—had been involved in a conspiracy to assassinate President Kennedy.

Now Stone is at it again, with a movie about the former NSA technician and wholesale divulger of national security secrets, Edward Snowden. Washington Post movie critic Ann Hornaday liked the movie, writing that it showed “Stone's instinctive brilliance as a filmmaker.” As for the thesis Stone propounds, Hornaday says that Stone makes “no bones about admiring the central character's actions and motivations” and that the case presented “is that Snowden is an idealist and a patriot.” Hornaday's review shows some signs of accepting at least part of that case, although she notes, “Not surprisingly, 'Snowden' spends less time on how Snowden's revelations might have compromised sensitive military and security operations.” New York Times critic A. O. Scott seems to have swallowed Stone's case entirely, making no mention of the tilt and omissions that Hornaday notes, and praising the film for making that case “with skill and discretion.”

So once again, as with the film about Kennedy, the filmmaker's skill will shape much of the public's perceptions about real events in the way the filmmaker wants to shape them, no matter how inaccurate or slanted that way may be. That part of the public would do well to turn to the unclassified portion of the House Intelligence Committee's report on the Snowden disclosures. Committee reports aren't as entertaining as a movie, of course. And they aren't gospel either. There is plenty of recent history of Congressional committee reports beset by partisan motives or by attempts to shift blame from Congressional overseers to executive branch departments and agencies. But this report does not seem to have been plagued by either of those tendencies. It is fully bipartisan. If blame-shifting were the primary motivation then members might be expected to have pushed a different story line, according to which excesses by an intelligence agency were at the root of the problem. Those with a stake in defending Snowden's actions pick away at some of the minor details about Snowden's life that the report may have gotten wrong, but on the essential issues the report makes clear and correct statements.

The report's first main conclusion is the most important one: “Snowden caused tremendous damage to national security, and the vast majority of the documents he stole have nothing to do with programs impacting individual privacy interests—they instead pertain to military, defense, and intelligence programs of great interest to America's adversaries.” No matter how much importance one places on the issue of bulk electronic collection concerning communications of American citizens, and no matter how strongly one may be opposed to, or outraged about, some activities in that area, that is no excuse for what Snowden did, because most of what he divulged had no connection whatever to those issues. Instead, he and his collaborators in the serial divulging of secrets were compromising legitimate, legal, normal foreign intelligence collection.

The report also makes clear that rather than turning to his illegal actions as a last resort, Snowden ignored available channels for pursuing reforms or grievances. Far from being a “whistleblower,” he was—as with many others to whom that much-misused term has been applied—a disgruntled worker who had frictions with management.

The intelligence committees themselves are an important part of the available channels. Being outside the chain of command in the executive branch, they can be considered a “last resort” part of those channels, in addition to the oversight boards, inspectors general, and other mechanisms.

The committees also serve as a way of reconciling, on one hand, the need for secrecy in implementing foreign and security policy and supporting it with intelligence collection, and on the other hand, maintaining democratic accountability. Some committee members, especially on the Senate side, were actively raising, before any of Snowden's disclosures, issues of whether some electronic collection activity was infringing on privacy more than was necessary to serve national security needs. And they were doing so properly, without publicly divulging secret information. If their views did not prevail it is because they were outvoted or outnumbered by members with different views.