The People Must Never Know

An essential ingredient of conspiracy theories is that those in power do not want us to know the truth.  Of course, some conspiracy theories are true, such as those behind Watergate, Bridgegate, and the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, because government officials often collude to violate the law or the public’s trust and do not want us to know about it.  And the fact that some conspiracies are real is the basis for the fantastic ones like those that claim that the government knows about aliens from outer space but is keeping it under wraps because we can’t handle the truth.

There are, of course, legitimate reasons for the government to keep secrets, as when national security is at stake.  Information is classified so that our adversaries will not be able to make good use of it.  But sometimes the government’s secrecy does seem to be directed toward the American people rather than our adversaries.  David Sanger of The New York Times quoted President Obama regarding Russia’s attempt to influence our elections through hacking:

“Our goal continues to be to send a clear message to Russia or others not to do this to us because we can do stuff to you,” he said. “But it is also important to us to do that in a thoughtful, methodical way. Some of it, we will do publicly. Some of it we will do in a way that they know, but not everybody will.”

I am not sure what to make of that last sentence.  We will do something to the Russians, and the Russians will know that we did it, but “not everybody will.”  By “not everybody,” Obama must surely mean the American people.  It is important, apparently, that we not know.

Perhaps the best explanation why the American people cannot be allowed to know what the Russians will know was given by David Pertraeus, according to the same article:

“Is there something we can do to them, that they would see, they would realize 98 percent that we did it, but that wouldn’t be so obvious that they would then have to respond for their own honor?” David H. Petraeus, the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency under Mr. Obama, asked on Friday, at a conference here sponsored by Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. “The question is how subtle do you want it, how damaging do you want it, how do you try to end it here rather than just ratchet it up?”

This is like getting into a fistfight with someone and thinking, “I’d better not hit him too hard, because then he might knock my teeth out.”  Furthermore, if 2% doubt would be all that stands in the way of the Russians retaliating in a manner we might regret, then the prudent thing would be for us not to do anything. Besides, if they might strike back to defend their honor, then they might strike back even if their honor is not at stake, but just to make sure we understand that they can hurt us more than we can hurt them.

In the end, the safest thing would be for us not to retaliate at all, but simply to improve our cyber security so as to minimize the threat of future interference from foreign adversaries.  But admitting that there is nothing our government can safely do to punish the Russians would be politically disastrous.  And so, we are told that our government may do something that only the Russians will know about, but not the American people.

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