Why US government's spy world must be kept in check by leaks
In the age of 24/7 instant media, Wikileaks’ recent disclosures regarding US military operations wasn’t totally stunning news.
But, according to the man who was among the first to expose the shadowy world of covert US government activities decades ago, it did underscore both the importance — and delicacy — of information dissemination in the modern world.
“So much of governmental activity is unaccountable, because it is secret, that we need leaks. We desperately need leaks. But we need responsible leaks,” Professor Chris Pyle told the Belfast Telegraph from his home in Massachusetts.
“We do need Wikileaks. But we need Wikileaks to be run by highly competent, knowledgeable, thoughtful people,” added Pyle, professor of constitutional law at Mount Holyoke College.
In 1968, while teaching a US Army course on crowd-control intelligence, the then Army captain was invited to tour a huge, secret spy complex in Baltimore, Maryland.
Stunned by the breadth and technical sophistication of the population surveillance he witnessed, Pyle later went on to pen a ground-breaking 1970 magazine article that revealed an unprecedented view of domestic spying by the US government.
Eventually, the revelations of Pyle and other intelligence whistle-blowers that he persuaded to tell their stories pushed Congress to pass privacy laws in the 1970s that shielded ordinary Americans from excessive and unwarranted government intrusion. However, in the post-9/11 world, surveillance protocols have been rewritten. And, along with many others, Chris Pyle worries about the long-term, civil liberties ramifications.
But he’s also concerned about the process by which information is divulged.
“We have a massive system of secrecy in the United States. We have a massive number of intelligence agencies — 16 federal ones alone,” said Pyle.
“We have a thousand corporations who do secret work for the [federal] government. The Germans are having this problem right now, in relations to the files of the Stasi [the former East German secret police].
“But there is a serious question as to whether everybody needs to know who betrayed them under the pressures of that time.
“That can lead to reprisal, killings — it can destroy families.”
In the late-1980s, Professor Pyle took Mount Holyoke students to Northern Ireland, where they met the likes of Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness, the SDLP’s John Hume and UDA leader John McMichael.
He said that all who met his students gave candid and insightful assessments of a society in the grips of a seemingly intractable conflict. Pyle, who has just written a book regarding the use of torture in the world, said that he views the process of truth-recovery and reconciliation in post-conflict societies as particularly delicate.
“There are instances where it is very important to know who was running the torture chambers — and there was torture in Northern Ireland,” he said
“There is a need to know that. There are people who should be prosecuted, people involved in the cover-up of criminal activity. That needs to be known. I certainly think that the public interest is in knowing the identities of those people who carried out those crimes, as well as the people who ordered those crimes.
“And I think that that would be true in Cambodia, or Algeria, or Belfast.”
But he also believes in carefully aimed truth-recovery.
“The general facts need to be known,” said Pyle. “But every specific instance? I don’t think so.”
Regarding the US, Professor Pyle was adamant that America is on the cusp of a new, and potentially disturbing, world. “We have a secret government. A massive secret government. Now, I can’t say that it’s run by horrible people. But it certainly could fall into the hands of very nasty people,” he continued.
“We have a government now that is engaged in torture. And we have a current administration that is protecting the torturers from accountability.
“So when the country has gone that far, and the government has gone that far, all Americans should be alarmed.”