The 9/11 Official Mystery Novel and the Information State
July 22, 2003
The new September 11 report published by the Congressional Joint Inquiry committee is a work of literary pre-eminence for the skill of its evasions. By providing a text that on the one hand discusses mis-coordination of intelligence opportunities and lack of official fortuitousness, and on the other hand demonstratively deletes large passages concerning presidential knowledge and Saudi support for terrorism, the Joint Committee has published a mixed-genre work that is both official report and mystery novel. Readers willing to suffer over 800 pages of heavily redacted prose will discover both an elaborate evidentiary review and a refusal to make public fundamental knowledge contained within that review.
Except for those bald fields of empty deletion lines, which read a bit too quickly, this is all an inside-narrator, outside-reader strategy that would make Tom Clancy absolutely pop for envy.
As readers, we come to know that the Republic contains answers and we learn that good citizenship lies in not asking for more answers than one receives. To accept state-sponsored mystery quietly becomes an act of faith in the beneficial purposes of a state that denies the capacity of its citizens to debate and make public policy based upon full evidence. Instead, the state reverses this relationship entirely by implicitly informing the citizenry that it is the state that manifests confidence in them by withholding crucial information about the history of a national crisis. The theory of government here is that what outside-reader citizens do not know is good for them, a theory similar to that which led the Chinese government so disastrously to refuse its public information on the SARS epidemic.
While the suggestion that public servants are responsible for providing the public with accurate information seems to be a quaint notion from another era, even one that arguably never happened, what we encounter here is the power of public deletion. The political capacities of this exercise derive from its refusal of transparency, one that is nonetheless transparent for that very reason. The power of modern state security historically has lain in the denial of state information to a public readership, witness the Official Secrets Act in Britain or the secret archives of the Cheka and its successor organizations in the former Soviet Union. By secreting information about acts positive or events negative, a state gains or maintains power that it would otherwise jeopardize or lose. In the paradox created by censorship, however, this report represents the proposition that investigation of informational failures must rest with the further concealment of information.
The Bush administration is little different than governments of most other democratic states in regards outright concealment and non-publication, and indeed has the obligation to refrain from doing so for tactical details, means and methods, or prejudicial evidence in cases under prosecution. Yet when the White House prevailed on the Joint Committee to publish its intelligence critique minus political — as distinguished from tactical — information on presidential briefings and Saudi involvement, it created a narrative of September 11 that raised more questions than it answered. The deletions did not stop there, but also censored such materials as the Reagan administration's findings and directives from the mid-1980s regarding counter-terrorism; an entire section on September 11 signal intelligence; one entire finding, reportedly concerning CIA plans to dispatch Osama bin Laden (as if he were unaware); and numerous unidentifiable sections. Part Four — "Findings, Discussion and Narrative Regarding Certain Sensitive National Security Matters" — deals with Saudi Arabia and, since oil is at stake, all its 28 pages disappear like a woman under Saudi gender apartheid. Present, but absent.
Several pages of congressional testimony by former National Security Advisor Sandy Berger are censored, leading to Berger's final words "We do not have a rogue CIA." On what basis can this conclusion be established, given that pages of blank lines precede Berger's statement? Evidence disappears; the conclusion remains. Alternately, where both the evidence and conclusion disappear, there remains only the refusal to provide information. One section begins "The White House refused to allow the Joint Inquiry to review the relevant documents, but. . .." and again trails off into a near-endless stream of blank lines. If the White House did not allow access to its documents, those clever congressional investigators nonetheless seem able to intuit at great length.
Then there is the immense tantalization of "The Joint Inquiry became aware of the existence of [------]. The White House declined to provide access, but the Joint Inquiry was able to develop information about their content." No part of the heavily-censored report narrative that follows reveals the subject under discussion. Readers are left to speculate on the unnamable image of [------] and conjure the notion of Sam Spade hired to discover the indescribable at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.
This report is largely the self-examination of a bureaucratic system coming to terms with its own complexity and difficult flexibility in the face of a new non-state opponent. The center of the report is information, its provision and non-provision between government agencies. Yet the Joint Committee report engages in the very same studied non-provision of information to a public entitled to receive reasonable knowledge concerning security agencies and their policies. The proliferation of blank lines throughout the report represents information arrogance.
Senator Richard Shelby, committee co-chair, proposes to extend and codify precisely that same arrogance. His comments included in the report make clear his support for the leveling 'the legally-fallacious Wall' that has separated domestic and foreign intelligence operations under US law since the National Security Act of 1947, in order to create a seamless flow of information between the CIA and domestic law enforcement organizations. "In addition," Shelby rationalizes, "the imbalance between analysis and collection makes clear that in addition to being empowered to conduct true 'all-source' analysis, our analysts will also need to be supplied with powerful new tools if they are to provide analytical value-added to the huge volumes of information the [Intelligence Community] brings in every day. Recent development and initiatives in comprehensive databasing and data-mining suggest that solutions to these challenges may be within our reach."
Since 'true all-source analysis' means coordinating all available databases within a Total Information Awareness scheme, what deters Shelby and other such Homeland Security ideologists is the inconvenience of the Fourth Amendment. Under section 215 of the Patriot Act, which provides the legislative basis for virtually any information demanded by federal authorities for counter-terrorism purposes, once-private domestic information has been converted into a newly-available data resource for federal law enforcement authorities. The new information order being installed in the name of national security is fundamentally global, one that applies the same standard of legal non-protection to citizens of the American Empire and all others.
The Joint Committee report has September 11 as its stated subject, but has as its simultaneous unrecognized subject the state of the information nation. It has been published within the social context of a proliferation of new state and regional centers for intelligence sharing, supported by massive new budgets for information technology. At the same time as such information sharing proliferates, in critical documents such as this investigative report that nominally represents governmental oversight, the public has very narrow information access and perspective. If in many passages the report reads as mystery, that is an accurate and alarming measure of the current information disequilibrium between the US government and its citizens.
Joe Lockard is an assistant professor of American literature at Arizona State University and a member of the Bad Subjects Collective.