The Authoritarian Reflex

The Authoritarian Reflex

The preferred response of the Bush administration.

Those who still remember their high school biology lessons will recall how a simple reflex works: touch a hot stove and “instinctively” your hand jerks away; it is automatic—no thought involved. Although most animal behavior is instinctive, almost all of human behavior is learned and requires thought even when life is threatened; firefighters enter burning buildings to save the lives of others. Because “certainty” is rarely, if ever, present in human affairs, Vice President Dick Cheney believes that our response to a perceived threat must be like a simple reflex: without “analysis.” In The One Percent Doctrine, Ron Suskind quotes him as saying, “If there’s a one percent chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response. . . . It’s not about our analysis or finding a preponderance of evidence. . . .It’s about our response.” But, what about that response? Two news stories provide essential clues to the answer:

Beijing, June 14: The trial of a researcher for the New York Times. . .is evidence of China’s increasing reliance on state secrecy laws to tighten control over information. . . .A powerful government agency, the State Secret Bureau, has absolute authority to decide whether disclosed information is a state secret . . . .Courts have no power to challenge these rulings . . . .the authorities can limit contact between lawyers and their clients, deny access to evidence and hold closed hearings (New York Times, June 15, 2006).

San Francisco, June 23: A Justice Department lawyer pressed a federal judge on Friday to dismiss a lawsuit against AT&T over a government surveillance operation. . . .As it had in April, the government said the very premise of the lawsuit could not be established without disclosing state and military secrets. “Whether AT&T is collaborating with the government is a secret of the highest order,” said . . . an assistant attorney general (New York Times, June 24, 2006).

If we assign the keyword “state secrets” to these stories and allow some other keywords—Patriot Act, Guantánamo, torture, military tribunals, surveillance, Geneva Conventions, among others—to jog our memories of government action since September 11, 2001, it is clear that the “state secrets” response is not an anomaly; it is like one jigsaw puzzle piece that is part of a complete picture. So, for example, “Guantánamo”—Washington’s claim that it can hold closed hearings there and deny lawyers’ access to clients and to evidence—fits into “state secrets,” and both are joined to “Gene...