Balloons, Secrecy and Paranoia

The news last week was the Chinese invasion of the country with a balloon. As the  apparently harmless balloon floated across the country it sparked a great deal of angst, speculation, misinformation and plain stupidity.

One wonders if anyone, our government leaders, the news media or the American people ever stop to think before overreacting. The Chinese spy balloon saga and the ongoing classified documents scandals are examples. Critical thinking skills are in short supply but paranoia is abundant.

Of course, the balloon was immediately branded as a “spy balloon.” The Chinese claim it was a civilian atmospheric research balloon that blew off course. The Chinese have, as we do, satellites for spying on other nations. It doesn’t make sense that they would bother with less reliable balloons. But very little ever makes sense in our relationships with other countries.

The bi-partisan march to confrontation with China is totally senseless. After decades of better relations, trade and economic interdependence, why are we demonizing the Chinese? Practically everything in our stores is made in China. You think the pandemic created supply chain issues, think what a war over Taiwan will do to the economy.

This balloon incident raises more questions than the “answers” coming from our government or the mainstream news media. The media is famous for reporting rumor and spreading speculation. Few news stories provide any context, relevant history or perspective on any story.

Our government routinely lies about war and foreign policy. For the government a “spy balloon” is a convenient story to hype the fear about Chinese “aggression.” It reinforces the current China bashing agenda.

How do we know it was a spy balloon? We don’t. We may never know the truth because the balloon was blown up off the coast of South Carolina. But this doesn’t stop the government and news media from spreading unsubstantiated accusations.

Another unasked question is how can a 200 foot balloon go undetected until some civilians saw it over Montana? We have allegedly the best and most powerful military and “intelligence” bureaucracy in the world. It is certainly the most expensive. Are we getting our money’s worth?

The bipartisan manufacturing of national security hysteria is common. It only makes sense if you follow the money. National paranoia is required to keep the defense contractors well fed. It takes an endless supply of “enemies” to maintain annual trillion dollar “defense” budgets.

It certainly cost a lot to intercept and shoot down the Chinese balloon. An F-22 Raptor – an “all-weather stealth tactical fighter” – costs $85,325 an hour to operate. The AIM-9 Sidewinder “air intercept missile” used to down the balloon costs $381,069.74 each (per Wikipedia).

What was this spy balloon supposed to discover? What vital secrets was it beaming back to the evil communists?  Did the balloon locate the airbases or the ICBM missile silos in the Great Plains? Were they listening to our telephone conversations and snooping through our emails (like our NSA does)? It would have been easier for the Chinese to look this up on the Internet. The U.S. Air Force has a search-able database of all their bases worldwide. Wikipedia provides all the details about military units and planes at each location. Google Earth has great views of everything on the base with labels for many of the buildings.

In a similar fashion the flap over Trump, Biden and Pence inappropriately having “classified documents” illustrates our excessive paranoia about national security. The issues are not who took what, why or was any harm done, nor is it that everyone does it. Clearly Trump deliberately took a large quantity of documents and aggressively fought giving them back. This was not the case with Biden or Pence. The real issue is why do we have such an obsession with secrecy?

Governments have always had secrets. Other governments have always had spies trying to ferret out those secrets. But in the the “land of the free” our government has taken secrecy to the absurd. There are an estimated 4.2 million people with security clearances including 1.3 million top secret clearances. Apparently no one knows how many classified documents exit. But there are estimates that 50 million new documents are created each year. A document can remain classified for decades. One expert claims the U.S. government has more classified than unclassified documents.

The classification system has there basic levels: top secret, secret, and confidential. In addition there are numerous subcategories and restrictions on access to information based on one’s job duties or “need to know.” Inexplicably even documents that are not classified can have restrictions on who can see them.

In short the whole system is a bureaucratic nightmare that makes little sense and is out of control. Over the years many experts and blue ribbon commissions have recommended declassifying most documents. In 1956 a report by the Pentagon estimated that 90% of its classified documents could be made public without harming national security. Nothing has changed since except the increase in classified documents.

In a democracy people should know what their government is doing and why. Excessive secrecy is bad for democracy. It stifles open public debate on national security issues. It hampers oversight by Congress and the courts. Secrecy even hurts cooperation between national security agencies. Secrecy undermines the rule of law. Declaring actions secret can be used to shield governmental misconduct.

“In the years since 9/11, the United States has paid a staggering price for excessive secrecy. Time and again, national security policies crafted behind closed doors and shielded from public scrutiny have proved to be deeply flawed, with far-reaching consequences for life, liberty, and security.” This is the conclusion of Jameel Jaffer, a human rights attorney who writes about secrecy and government whistleblowers. A few examples include Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, black torture sites, drone attacks on civilians, Iraq and Afghanistan.

None of this secrecy hides anything from our enemies. It just hides the waste and stupidity from the American taxpayer.

Why are we so paranoid about secrecy? Why can’t we see the danger? Secrecy breeds mistrust, misunderstanding and mistakes. This is what starts disastrous wars. It would be better to openly and honestly talk with with our neighbors and adversaries. The Golden Rule – do unto others as you would have them do unto you – would be a much better national security strategy.