Printed: 2020-07-15

Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

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On the Transparency Front: Secrecy, Drones and War

David Brin

Contrary Brin

July 07, 2012

Since 9/11 the budget for the USA Special Ops has quadrupled. Under President Obama, the forces of the Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), which includes the Green Berets, Navy SEALS and Army Rangers, have been granted more latitude and greater autonomy, engaged in counter-terrorism, surveillance and reconnaissance in as many as 120 countries around the world.

According to an appraisal published in Mother Jones, America’s Rising Shadow Wars: “They are displacing conventional forces, becoming the “force of choice” in operations with far less civilian oversight, accountability or control—i.e. no Congressional approval or consultation necessary, no press coverage, their operating budget a black book…”

Hm. Well now… as “Mr. Transparency” I naturally feel my hackles rise over any systematic increase in secrecy.  It’s not that secrecy in military operations and intelligence matters cannot be justified - I am actually quite moderate about that.  It is the fact that such secrecy should always face demands for justification.  It should bear a burden of proof, or else a “ratchet effect” will carry us down an ever deeper pit of unaccountable obscurity.  That’s simply human nature and, across the last 6000 years, we’ve seen where that leads.

But, having said that, there is the other side to all of this.  The clear and blatant fact that there is a profound, staggeringly clear difference between Democratic and Republican styles of waging war.

Now, let’s put aside the fact that large democratic constituencies have always despised war in principle and have given the party a reputation for pacifist leanings.  In fact, that reputation seems rather undeserved, if you scan history.  Indeed, across the last 100 years, democrats were ready and willing to confront militarism in 1917 Germany, and then Hitler and Imperial Japan, then the communists, far more than the isolationist republicans of those eras.

But Democrats, going back to JFK, have always favored special forces.  “Surgical” responses. And, after the fiasco of Vietnam, their record in that department is pretty strong.  Both positive (e.g. from the Balkans and Libya to the killing of Osama bin Laden and today’s search for Joseph Kony) and negative (e.g. Somalia), it is the preferred approach of Democratic presidents.

In rather sharp contrast, Republicans go for heavy firepower, tens of thousands of boots and treads on the ground.  Toe-to toe battle! Armies in motion and flag pins stuck into a map. For example Grenada, Panama, both Iraq Wars and and the endless, interminable quagmire attrition of Afghanistan.

(Note: Afghanistan actually had two phases.  Phase one, right after 9/11, was undertaken swiftly, with minimal presidential meddling, and followed Clintonian military doctrines, even though the President who said “go!” was George W. Bush.  That first part, toppling the Taliban, used mostly special ops and air power and worked with savage effectiveness. But the decision to stay and occupy with a massive army for 12 years? That was phase II and entirely Bush’s decision.

More on Transparency

Speaking of transparency, Wired Magazine has published a map showing 64 locations where the US government maintains drones on American soil.  Creepy signs of Big Brother? Wellllll… I am always more concerned about things we don’t see, or efforts to prevent us from performing sousveillance or looking back.  (Of which the Wired article is an example.)  I’ll be furious if the government winds up with a monopoly on look-down vision.  See Existence for a number of scenes that lay out some interesting possibilities.

And what happens if and when they get drones?

In the last half of 2011, Google received over 1,000 official requests to remove content from its search results or YouTube videos. Google denounced what it calls an alarming trend—but it complied with 65% of court orders and 47% of informal requests to remove content. And yet, Google has not complied with Spanish regulators who asked Google to remove links to blogs and articles criticizing public figures, mayors and public prosecutors. In some countries, Google submits to such requests, because certain types of political speech are unlawful. For example, in Germany, references to Nazis are banned, so Google removes such videos from YouTube. And then there are issues of pornography and copyright…

The following item isn’t as bad as it first appears… but still it is disturbing: “The NYPD has created a “wanted” poster for a Harlem couple who films cops conducting stop-and-frisks (posting the videos on YouTube). The poster brands them “professional agitators” who portray cops in a bad light—and lists their home address.”  Not as bad as it first appears?  Well, this was an internal flyer, posted on a few precinct bulletin boards, not in public or on the web.  And I guess cops have a right to tell each other “watch yourselves around these vexatious citizens.” Still, it’s offensive, probably illegal, and certainly the sort of thing that could easily get out of hand.  But in any event, note this: light did shine on this event. The ones who posted it now probably regret it. The next such flyer will be more cautiously worded, knowing it, too, will leak.

David Brin Ph.D. is a scientist and best-selling author whose future-oriented novels include Earth, The Postman, and Hugo Award winners Startide Rising and The Uplift War. David's newest novel - Existence - is now available, published by Tor Books."


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