One thing about teaching community college history is that you wind up hearing quite a few conspiracy theories — some well-established, some mythical, some indeterminate.
When the subject of conspiracy comes up in my classes, one thing I sometimes say is that there are three basic ways to keep a secret a secret. First, you can make sure that very few people know it. Second, you can let a lot of people know it, but make sure they’re committed to keeping quiet. And third, you can let a lot of people know it, but set things up so that they don’t consider the secret worth talking about.
The first of these three is the safest, of course. Someone who doesn’t know your secret can’t betray it. But it’s often hard to get a really good conspiracy going with a really small group of conspirators. This is a big reason that I’ve concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald probably acted alone — all the plausible alternative theories I’ve seen require conspiracies so broad as to be unsustainable. Big secrets are hard to keep secret when lots of people know them.
Which brings us to the third, often neglected, way of maintaining a secret — don’t treat it as a big deal. The Tuskeegee syphilis experiments involved an ever-growing list of practitioners, bureaucrats, and observers, but it took forty years for the story to break. Why? Not because the folks involved pledged themselves to keeping the horrible truth from the public, but because most of them didn’t think the truth was horrible at all. The study wasn’t broadly acknowledged, but it wasn’t a scandal within the US Public Health Service. And because it wasn’t a scandal, most of the folks who knew didn’t treat their knowledge as a moral dilemma. The secret was kept secret because nobody treated it like a secret.
Now, clearly the nature of the NSA/Verizon and PRISM surveillance programs, leaked this week to huge public outcry, were in one sense treated as very big secrets. Even the fact of their existence was highly classified, with potentially serious legal consequences for anyone — even a member of Congress — who spilled the beans.
But at the same time, the existence of the programs appear to have been regarded by those who knew about it as less explosive than one might have assumed. The first leaks regarding the PRISM internet spying program came in the form of a PowerPoint presentation of the sort you might see at a middling corporate conference — the primary aesthetic impression left by the material is one of banal ordinariness. And as the New York Times reported this morning, “after days of speculation that the source behind [the leaks] must have been a high-level official at one of America’s spy agencies,” the whistleblower was revealed yesterday to be “a relatively low-level employee of a giant government contractor.”
The reporting on this story is still in its preliminary stages, of course, but in the early going one gets the distinct sense that these huge surveillance projects, so appalling to so many of us, were treated within intelligence circles less as dire forbidden knowledge to be protected at all costs than as ordinary government programs, hardly worth making a big deal over.
When we look back at the process by which the Watergate conspiracy became public, the whistleblowers who come to mind are highly-placed figures tortured by conflicting moral and institutional pressures: White House counsel John Dean, for instance, and Deep Throat himself, who was in 2005 revealed as Mark Felt, the former Associate Director of the FBI.
Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden have little in common with Dean and Felt. Any conspiracy that depended on the principled collusion of figures like these would be a poor conspiracy indeed. Instead, it begins to appear that our current national security establishment relies on Mannings and Snowdens not as active conspirators but as disinterested hired hands — not as Watergate burglars or grassy knoll sharpshooters but as Tuskegee physicians and pencil pushers.
If this is the case — if this information was as broadly held and as casually regarded as it’s begun to appear — then what’s been revealed so far may be just a taste of what’s to come.