Secret Writing

September 6, 2013

Liberties, NSA, Surveillance


The political philosopher, Leo Strauss, argued convincingly that most of the great works of philosophy and political philosophy before the Enlightenment cannot be just “read” because they were written to conceal as much as they revealed. This makes sense, because before the emergence of secular liberal democracies authors had to be particularly sensitive to the power of church and state, and to pass the censors their works had to be disguised, sometimes as attacks on the very liberal arguments the authors wished to promote. Furthermore, these authors wrote only for the elites, deliberately misleading the common man in case it could be argued that their writings contributed to social disorder. In short, it is likely that the entire canon of Western philosophy was deliberately mangled and distorted as a precautionary measure because of the existence of forerunners to today’s National Security Agency (NSA).

Similar distortions might be expected from the recent metamorphosis of the “war on terror” into a wider war on civil liberties. As the “war” has changed from a hunt for actual terrorists to a hunt for all those with the ability to expose the horrendous crimes of the power elite, such as the extent of civilian deaths and suffering in Afghanistan and Iraq, it is not just the whistle blowers (representing civil disobedience in our technological age) who are being persecuted but also journalists just doing their job, and their family members too. The effect on some journalists will be chilling but other journalists will expect special favors and handouts from the NSA in return for their continued deference, subordination and ingratiation. But also expect a surge of creativity in response to these attacks on press freedom. Remember Shakespeare’s cunning in Antony’s speech over Caesar’s body. Antony continually emphasizes that Brutus is an honorable man, but he also describes the deed in such a way as to let the facts speak for themselves. Expect to have to work much harder than usual to obtain the real news behind the newspaper story you just read. Technological ripostes to the prying eyes of Big Government will continue to proliferate.

Why so many people continue to trust the NSA is beyond me. August 7, 2013 was the 49th anniversary of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution authorizing the Vietnam War. On August 2, 1964, the U.S.S. Maddox came under fire while gathering signals intelligence in Vietnamese territorial waters. But it was the alleged second attack, confirmed by the NSA, that LBJ seized upon to order retaliatory bombings and push the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution through Congress. As we now know the “second attack” never happened. A National Security Agency historian later concluded that “N.S.A. officers had deliberately falsified intercepted communications in the incident to make it look like the attack on Aug. 4, 1964 had occurred although he said they acted not out of political motives but to cover up earlier errors.”

I dedicate this post to three unsung heroes who have given so much to a country that appreciates them so little: Julian Assange, Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning.


“By subverting the internet at every level to make it a vast, multi-layered and robust  surveillance platform, the NSA has undermined a fundamental social contract. The companies that build and manage our internet infrastructure, the companies that create and sell us our hardware and software, or the companies that host our data: we can no longer trust them to be ethical internet stewards. This is not the internet the world needs, or the internet its creators envisioned. We need to take it back.”  Bruce Schneier (Guardian journalist)

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About Malcolm Greenhill

Malcolm Greenhill is President of Sterling Futures, a fee-based financial advisory firm, based in San Francisco. I write about wealth related issues in the broadest sense of the word. When I am not writing, reading, working and spending time with family, I try to spend as much time as possible backpacking in the wilderness.

View all posts by Malcolm Greenhill


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35 Comments on “Secret Writing”

  1. NicoLite Великий Says:

    Kind of sounds like the primary justification for GW’s war on Iraq, when the CIA falsified reports of WMD’s…


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      “…they acted not out of political motives but to cover up earlier errors.”

      Nico, thank you. I added the above end of the quotation from the NSA historian after you left your comment. I believe both with GW and LBJ there were strong expectations as to what they would like the intelligence services to find and this influenced the judgment of these services and in the Gulf of Tonkin case led to deliberate deception.


  2. aaforringer Says:

    Wow, deep and good stuff my friend, I posted a link on my Facebook page.


  3. matt Says:

    Well put, Malcolm. Now is the time we have to make a stand for our sovereignty; the price for security is too high.


  4. Jeff Nguyen Says:

    So what you’re saying is we should critically examine every single piece of information disseminated by the state through their corporate media and entertainment outlets? That sounds like a lot of work…


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      No, the corporate industrial complex in partnership with the state influences most mainstream media content today but the point of the post is that the NSA surveillance program together with the recent attacks on civil liberties means that media distortions are likely to go to a whole new level. For example, the entire weight of at least a dozen American governmental agencies have been assigned to the WikiLeaks case including the Pentagon, the FBI, the Army’s Criminal Investigative Department, the Department of Justice, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and the Diplomatic Security Service. With the deployment of this type of firepower stories will be suppressed at source, journalists will be given powerful incentives to ignore certain avenues of inquiry, media stories will have to be worded in a particular way to pass the silent censors, even academic inquiry will be compromised more than it currently is.


  5. chr1 Says:


    Great writing. Randy Barnett and Richard Epstein disagreed on the importance of the work that the NSA does that people couldn’t do for themselves, with Epstein presuming it’s worthy of his trust if he presumes the collected data stays in a ‘lockbox.’

    1. Let’s assume this is a dangerous world, with those who would do us harm, from stealing secrets to sabotage on critical infrastructure to revenge and onwards to war. Russian mafia to Chinese, state-sponsored hackers are out there etc. You probably agree some of us need to stay very alert, very vigilant, and strategically ahead of the threats pretty much all of the time.

    Hopefully that ‘esoteric’ vigilance and alertness doesn’t erode into conspiracy, nor paranoia.

    2. You don’t seem to trust any permanent institution to fulfill this role (nor human nature itself, maybe, with these incentives), because this institution will create its own inertia, follow its own incentives and essentially end-up operating without oversight, encroaching upon freedoms and possibly turning upon the people its supposed to protect.

    At best, like a gov’t program, it will creep, creep, creep into part of the furniture, and then it’s too big to handle and not answerable to the people who made it any longer.

    It could end being controlled by the worse appetites of worse people.

    So, if you accept my characterization of 1 and 2, how do we voluntarily come together otherwise handle no. 1, without devolving into number 2?.


    • Michael R. Edelstein Says:


      I would respond to your question by suggesting we examine the causes of your assumption, “this is a dangerous world.”

      As Ron Paul regularly notes, the predatory U.S. State has created much of the danger to itself and the people it rules as a natural consequence of ruthlessly bombing, invading, and occupying countries worldwide. This creates enemies seeking retribution and revenge.

      The solution consists of building and participating in movements that educate and radicalize the populace. Libertarian and other anti-war groups are at the forefront of this effort. When a critical mass withdraws consent from the tyrannical regime and, even more important, from the structure that incentivizes it, danger will diminish, not grow.

      To read more about withdrawing consent from the State, see malcolmscorner’s fascinating and insightful blog, “Does Anarchy Have A Bad Rap.”


      • chr1 Says:

        I respectfully disagree with both anarchy and a libertarianism founded in Enlightenment reason that once extended, envisions a perpetual revolution towards the ideal of voluntary associations of people overthrowing authority.

        I think this gets human nature wrong, is rather ahistorical, and doesn’t line up with my experience of just how radically different other cultures, and people in them, tend to think and act.


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Chris, thank you for your usual thoughtful response. While I would distance myself from Ron Paul I think Michael has a point that many if not most foreign policy problems arise from a form of ‘blowback’ as a result of the U.S. reaping the whirlwind of its own ill-considered actions.

      As far as your “permanent institution” is concerned you seem to have answered your own question. In 1) you state that “Hopefully that ‘esoteric’ vigilance and alertness doesn’t erode into conspiracy, nor paranoia.”, but in 2) you state that the best that can be hoped for is that this permanent program “will creep, creep, creep into part of the furniture,and then it’s too big to handle and not answerable to the people who made it any longer.” You and I both understand that the reason this happens has to do with the incentives that accompany any government program. The only way to avoid this is to keep the government out of any proposed solution. I don’t see why this should occasion too much surprise or alarm. For example, if we are talking about threats to the internet from China or elsewhere there are plenty of interested parties (Microsoft, Google, Intel etc. that have the incentive to cooperate together to come up with solutions.


      • chr1 Says:

        Malcolm, thanks for replying.

        I’ll try and play the devil’s advocate.

        Not all of our problems are blowback. Even if a majority were, it’s partly because a vigorous and free economy grows and extends its interests. Those interests need some kind of protection, ultimately. The world isn’t a group of individuals clamoring to be free as we in the West understand it, within the libertarian tradition, or that of a Constitutional Republic with a functioning democracy.

        The NSA’s only been around since after WWII, and it’s much more than a ‘program’ at this point, for better or worse. I’d put it as not as necessary as the military.

        Microsoft, Google, and Intel will have incentives, but:

        1. When the shit really hits the fan, they may not have the public interest in mind as much as the NSA claims it does. These companies have contractual obligations to their clients, but potentially not deep enough to deal with the threat without as necessary to defend the public interest as they public might like. We’re back, almost, to Nozick or David Friedman.

        2. Even now, in serving their own interest by coughing up data to the NSA, or what it is claimed to be the national interest, these companies are in danger of violating their obligations to their clients, or they’re simply going to end up not looking out for their clients by working with the NSA in a kind of cronyist fashion.

        How much do they look out for you now, and if you can’t entirely trust them with your data, can you trust them with your life? Do you trust in your own ability, and that of the rest of us to choose to defend ourselves from the kind of threat that requires the kind of monitoring and coordination that making sure terrorist orgs don’t get dirty bombs and kill us at home?

        Wouldn’t we end up setting some kind of permanent or semi-permanent organization to not keep making the same mistakes, and stay ahead of the problems?

        Are we up to that job, and if we are, how do we contain the same human nature and incentives these organizations must deal with, protecting against those same inside and outside threats?

        Military institutions are much more, forming hierarchical structures which endure for generations through tradition, passing on the wisdom and experience of said previous generations through teaching, ritual, drill, guided by the virtues of duty, honor, courage etc.

        Can voluntary associations and incorporated entities fill that role without the authority and hierarchy of military institutions?


        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          “a vigorous and free economy grows and extends its interests. Those interests need some kind of protection”

          Yes, and few choose trial by combat as a dispute settlement mechanism because it is unpredictable and too expensive. Most international trading parties submit their disputes to the London Commercial Court, a British court known for the commercial expertise of its judges and its speedy resolution of cases that non-British parties may use for a fee. Others subscribe to companies such as the American Arbitration Association that provide mediation and arbitration services. Most do whatever they can to avoid becoming enmeshed in the coils of the courts provided by the federal and state governments of the US which move at a glacial pace and provide relatively unpredictable results. The evidence suggests that international commercial law not only functions quite well without government courts, it functions better because of their absence.

          “When the shit really hits the fan, they (Microsoft and Google etc) may not have the public interest in mind as much as the NSA claims it does.”

          There is no such thing as the “public interest”. The term is used as a clever cover by sectional political interests to gain public support. The interests of consumers, which are always the weakest because they are so disparate, are best served by genuinely free competition.

          “Even now, in serving their own interest by coughing up data to the NSA, or what it is claimed to be the national interest, these companies are in danger of violating their obligations to their clients”

          Exactly my point. The moment the NSA (a political entity) starts throwing its weight around companies have to violate their contractual obligations to clients. Keep the government out of it and companies will have no option but to act in a way that will keep their customers happy.

          “Do you trust in your own ability, and that of the rest of us to choose to defend ourselves from the kind of threat that requires the kind of monitoring and coordination that making sure terrorist orgs don’t get dirty bombs and kill us at home?”

          Chris, this is like saying that only governments must provide police services. The proper answer to this is “look around you”. Campus police force, private armored cars, private security companies, Security Zone stores selling personal and home protection equipment, private detective agencies, club bouncers and bodyguards, neighborhood watch etc. Private security firms are now touring districts in Oakland because of the cutbacks in police services. There is a reason that the U.S. government coerces private technology corporations into performing criminal investigations for it.

          “Can voluntary associations and incorporated entities fill that role without the authority and hierarchy of military institutions?”

          No one believes that we can transition from a world of states to a world of voluntary military associations instantaneously. No reasonable voluntarist advocates the total dissolution of government tomorrow. National defense would be one of the last governmental functions to be de-politicized. There may be no way to have non-government sources fund almost any level of expenditure required for national defense, especially if national defense includes propping up middle-eastern dictators and killing innocent men, women and children around the world. But if the argument for voluntarism is flawed and voluntarism is not a viable method of social organization, this will undoubtedly be revealed long before doing away with national defense becomes an issue.

  6. Michael R. Edelstein Says:

    Thank you, chr1.

    I take it by this you mean you disagree with my response to your question anent how “we voluntarily come together.”

    What, then, do you suggest?


    • chr1 Says:

      Michael, not a problem.

      See above. I find myself philosophically inclined towards Malcolm’s position, which he states quite well, but I also find myself depending on a certain amount of Statism and national security in the way that I think about current foreign policy.

      Some of this habit, and experience. I’m trying to think the matter through myself, because that which I support for my ends, ideals and which I’m inclined to trust, can also be used against me, and requires examination.


  7. chr1 Says:

    Great point about the incentive to avoid conflict and go through another entity for redress.

    I guess I suspect that the reason Westphalian States, led by governments, legitimate or not, are often so aggressive themselves, with much to do of what I’ve experienced of human nature itself. You can argue that the nation-state model can incentivize some of the aggression, and I think you’d be right. But I also suspect private security agencies would also eventually have to deal with that same human nature.

    I’m ok with the constrained vision when people are responsible for power. Even among the best I know.

    Hopefully voluntary interest freely chosen by parties would determine conflict, or do away with conflict, but on Earth you might be waiting a REALLY long time for that day to come.


    • Michael R. Edelstein Says:


      You’re correct private security agencies would “have to deal with that same human nature.” This is exactly the reason to prohibit the State, an agency that bestows upon itself a territorial monopoly of ultimate decision-making, taxation, and force. This incentivizes the worst in human nature.


      • chr1 Says:

        So how do your agencies propose dealing with this same nature?

        I just don’t understand how you presume that the State/liberty axis is the only variable here.


  8. Michael R. Edelstein Says:


    Good question. Answer: by competing in a freed market and respecting the Non- Aggression Principle.

    It’s the only axis I’m familiar with. Humans get their preferences satisfied through either political means (initiation of force) or economic means (voluntary trade). Is there a third way?


  9. campfirememories Says:

    Another provocative post! Thank you, Malcolm. I think there needs to be a line between creative writing and investigative journalism. Most journalists are writers first and investigators last. 90% true is ok for a novel-memoir, but not for the news.


  10. The Savvy Senorita Says:

    Couldn’t agree more with you on this Malcolm. Really interesting points, and thought provoking.
    Protection of rights, freedoms and so on becomes skewed by those who deem themselves above the law, and scrutiny and for those possessing some type of secure tenure. It is scary what power can do in the wrong hands, unchecked and when it has control over those people who ought to be in control. When these ‘protectors’ allow megalomania to build, and run free to injure those they are supposed to be protecting, who is then left to do the job they are supposed to do? Who is control exactly, and what is that control really about?


  11. Michele Seminara Says:

    I love the vigorous debate this fine post has sparked. Interesting and thoughtful views all round. Thank you.


  12. hunt4thought Says:

    These days “freedom” is simply the twinky held in front of your face that keeps you running on the treadmills providing power to the ones “guarding” you. If you really think you are free, you have simply accepted your handlers, and made a home of your cage. Which happens to be exactly the topic I used to to return to my blog today.


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      I agree, but I would also add that to make the cage disappear it is merely sufficient to convince a sufficient number of people that it is a cage. Slavery disappeared in people’s minds long before it disappeared on the ground but the latter event followed inexorably from the former.


  13. swabby429 Says:

    I noticed that at least one national poll stated that now 51% of Americans consider Edward Snowden to be a hero to them. I’m heartened to see that there is skepticism among news consumers.


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