A Philosopher's Blog

HRC’s Servergate

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 20, 2015

As promised, here is a place for people to comment on H.R. Clinton’s Servergate. My own view is that HRC did not break official policy or the law, but made some poor decisions. I certainly don’t buy the “one device” argument. As others have noted, she has bragged about having many devices. I might be wrong about this, but I infer that if I can have several email accounts on my iPhone, the same sort of thing could have been done for HRC. But, to be fair, perhaps there are some good reasons why that could not occur in her case. But probably not.

While her decision to go with the private server and to decide what to delete turned out to be bad decisions and contrary to how such things should be done, the magnitude of this “scandal” seems to be blown out of proportion. Yes, HRC is sneaky, has a huge sense of entitlement, is suspicious of others, and devoted to unnecessary secrecy. But none of these seem to be disqualifications for office.

But, I welcome the comments of others and I am very interested in seeing arguments presented showing how this shows why HRC should not be president. That is, how this makes her worse than all her competitors.

Is Manning a Hero?

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on December 15, 2010
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The town of Berkeley recently considered a motion to declare Private Manning a hero. Manning is, of course, accused of leaking classified information to WikiLeaks. While some see him as an obvious villain and other see him as an obvious hero, this is a matter worthy of some consideration.

The first point of concern is to provide a rough idea of what it is to be a hero. While I do not purport to be giving a necessary and sufficient definition of what it is to be a hero, I think that there are two core requirements.

The first is that a person must put herself at significant risk. Since risk comes in degrees is would thus seem to follow that there are degrees of heroism. This is intuitively plausible. For example, if I merely risk a minor injury, then I am only being (at most) somewhat heroic. If, however, I run a considerable risk of being horribly killed, then my potential heroism would seem far more significant.

Obviously enough, putting oneself at risk is not sufficient for heroism. After all, if a person drinks several Four Loko and runs out into traffic, he is putting himself at risk. However, he is not being heroic. This leads to the second core requirement.

The second requirement is the moral element. An act of heroism is, intuitively, an act that aims at a moral good. We would not, for example, call someone who undertook considerable risk to commit a murder or rape a hero.

As with the risk, the goodness can come in varying degrees. So, for example, if someone risks an injury by climbing a tree to rescue a cat, then she is being a little bit heroic. As another example, Ginger Littleton acted to try to save the lives of her fellow school board members which would make her rather heroic.

Naturally, there are all sorts of other factors that must be taken into account when assessing specific acts for heroism. For example, there is the matter of whether the person acted knowingly. As another example, there is the question of intent. However, I do not want to become bogged down in this point (I’ll leave that up to commentators) and will now switch to the main issue or whether Manning is a hero or not.

Since it has yet to be proven that Manning leaked the information, the discussion of his heroism (or lack thereof) is hypothetical. For the sake of the discussion, it will be assumed that he did leak the information. However, this is not to be taken as a claim that he did, in fact, leak the information.

Manning’s alleged leak does meet the first condition. Such a leak brings with it considerable risk (such as the possibility of an extended amount of jail time) and presumably Manning was aware of these consequences. However, the critical requirement is the moral requirement.

While Assange seems to regard himself on a moral crusade, it is not entirely clear what motivated Manning nor what Manning hoped to achieve with the leak. There has been some speculation that he leaked the information because of his dislike of the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. If so, it could perhaps be argued that his leak was a moral protest against what he regarded as an immoral policy.

However, the information about Manning seems to indicate that he was unhappy about his job for various other reasons. As such, his leak might have been a case of a disgruntled worked who aimed at getting back at his employer. This is hardly an act of heroism.

The above is, of course, speculation. At this point it is not certain what motivated Manning nor what he hoped to accomplish with the alleged leak. As such, there seems to be little evidence of heroism.

In cases in which the potential hero’s intent and aims are unknown, it does make sense to try to assess the action itself as well as the consequences. For example, if someone rescues a drowning person from a frozen lake, then we are inclined to call her a hero-even if she slips away without revealing anything about her motivations or aims.

The ethics of the leak is, of course, a matter of great contention. Some people hold it to be an act of wickedness, on par with 9/11. Others hold it to be a morally upstanding act that strikes a blow against the evil of America in specific and states in general. Those who assess the matter more with reason than emotions generally seem to hold the leak to have caused some problems in diplomacy but to be neither a great good nor a significant evil.  As such, there does not seem to be  clear case for Manning being a great hero (or an epic villain).

At this point, the most likely narrative is that Manning leaked the information because of his dissatisfaction with his situation. The leak itself does not seem to have done significant good nor very significant damage. As such, it would seem that Manning is not a hero.

There are, of course, alternative narratives. Some that paint him as a hero and others that cast him as a traitor.

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Secret America

Posted in Business, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 23, 2010
NSA Eagle
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After 9/11 there was a huge spike in the “top secret sector.”This situation is ably covered by a recent Washington Post investigation.While there is a need for top secrecy, this spike does raise some important concerns. I will focus mainly on the privatization of secrecy.

One concern is purely economic. While some folks argue that the private sector is able to do its tasks cheaper than the “bloated” and “wasteful” government, the reality seems to be quite different. To be specific, the spike in the private sector intelligence operations made people with clearance a valuable commodity. These people were often able to leave the public sector and take jobs in the private sector at a significant salary increase. This is, of course, nothing new. Over the years I have heard of numerous cases of the state trying to save money by privatizing and then paying private contractors significantly more than they paid the former state workers.  Naturally, this concern only applies in cases in which privatizing is more expensive than keeping the operation entirely within the government. While some private companies no doubt do exemplary work, it would be rather unusual if some intelligence contractors were not using the situation as a gravy train.

A second concern is that these sort of operations seem to arguable fall under the domain of the state. Privatizing intelligence gathering seems comparable to privatizing the police or the military. Blackwater serves as an excellent example of cautionary tale about this sort of approach. Since the United States is supposed to be a democracy, such private sector secrecy is worrisome. State agencies are at least supposed to be servants of the nation, but the business of private business is just that-business.

A third concern is with the vast size of this shadowy empire of secrecy. While having a robust intelligence community is useful, having such a large number of people with such clearance increases the odds of leaks. Also, as history has shown, people who work in intelligence have sometimes been willing to sell secrets. As such, having a vast system of secrecy increases our vulnerability. The challenge is comparable to the classic problem of having enough cooks, but not so many that the soup is spoiled.

A fourth concern is based on the classic problem of the ivory tower in academics. This problem is the tendency of professors and other academics to become insular and isolated within the confines of the academy. In the case of the intelligence community, the same sort of effect can easily occur. For example, professionals in the filed can easily fall into a closed circle of interaction that nicely replicates the closed circles of the academy. The top secret community also is well hidden from the public eye, thus making it even easier for people to become isolated in the shadowy caves. This can lead to a serious disconnection from the actual world and lead to serious problems.

A fifth concern is that these dwellers in the shadowy caves can become arrogant and develop a sense that they are privileged. As was shown in the Blackwater incidents, this can lead to rather serious problems. History shows, unfortunately, that Socrates was right-those who are able to act without criticism will tend to act badly. There are, obviously enough, few better ways to avoid criticism than being able to hide behind the shield of top secrecy.

This is not to say that there is not a place for private contractors in the intelligence business. However, it seems that there is a need to reign in the ever expanding shadows of secrecy-hopefully before some sort of disaster arises.

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Obama & Leaks

Posted in Ethics, Law by Michael LaBossiere on June 17, 2010
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Obama has, in many ways, attempted to define his presidency in terms of doing things differently from his predecessor. One change that is being put into place is that the Obama administration seems intent on cracking down on leaks of classified material. This is supposed to involve a more streamlined process for handling leaks as well as commitment to dealing with leaks rapidly. One rather interesting aspect of the new approach is that the Obama administration seems to be more willing to go after journalists. Naturally, this approach raises numerous concerns.

On one hand, an excellent case can be made for cracking down on leaks. The defense of the United States from foreign and domestic enemies often requires strict secrecy. Leaked information of this sort could do serious harm to the United States. As such, cracking down on leaks seems to be an excellent idea and perfectly legitimate.

On the other hand, there is the concern that the crackdown on leaks will also serve to be a crackdown on those who would expose corruption, incompetence, mismanagement, and other serious problems. For example, a formed NSA official was recently indicted for allegedly revealing a mismanaged computer program.

This nicely reveals the two key concerns here. First, there is the need to ensure that legitimate classified information is properly protected. One way to help reach this goal is to ensure that leaks are swiftly investigated and properly punished.

Second, there is the need to ensure that misdeeds are not allowed to flourish in the shadows created by secrecy. As such, there also needs to be a proper mechanism in place for cases involving legitimate whistle blowing. While it is tempting to say that such cases should always be handled within the cloak of government secrecy, there is the obvious concern that such secrecy will often allow such problems to remain uncorrected. As such, whistle blowers might have to turn to the press to reveal certain problems.

While such whistle blowing might be seen as being against the interest of the United States, this need not be the case. After all, wasting money on useless programs, engaging in deeply flawed operations, or participating in grossly illegal activities do not help the United States become safer. In fact, the opposite is true. As such, those who blow the whistle in cases in which the official channels cannot or will not address the problems should not be treated as criminals. Rather, the investigation should focus on the problem as well as the defects in the official channels that allowed the problem to remain hidden.

As far as the press goes, the general principle should be that if the leaked information exposes misdeeds, corruption or similar problems, then the people involved should be regarded as doing service to the country. If, however, information that should be legitimately kept secret is leaked, then those involved should be regarded as acting in a harmful manner. Of course, officials will tend to believe that exposing their problems or misdeeds is harmful. It would be, of course, to them. But, since they are harming America in this manner, they have no right to expect to be able to hide within the shadows.

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