If you follow the news these days, you might be worried about the American government and the secrecy and ruthlessness with which it has been conducting itself. You might be concerned about the National Security Agency (NSA) reading your email, or dismayed by Bradley Manning’s 35-year sentence, or horrified by the Joint Special Operations Command’s (JSOC) dirty wars. But if you’ve been worrying, there’s good news: you needn’t anymore. Because President Obama made a Tumblr blog.
Actually, to be clear, the White House has already been on Tumblr for some time, and that blog is filled with GIFs and infographics and pictures of the Obamas’ dogs. But on August 9 the President mandated the creation of a new “website,” and this one, called IC on the Record, “provides immediate, ongoing and direct access to factual information related to the lawful foreign surveillance activities carried out by the U.S. Intelligence Community.” Oh, it’s such a relief to know that all the spying is lawful! I guess we can assume that anything unlawful just isn’t worth tumbling.
To Obama’s credit, making IC on the Record is a savvy and sort of brilliant move. The White House is clearly facing an image crisis: people are pissed off and freaked out about surveillance; they want information and someone to be held accountable. A tumblelog is an easy way of doing something without actually doing anything: it makes the Office of the Director of National Intelligence seem open while avoiding real engagement or change. Give some intern or low-level staffer material to post and watch the kiddos like and reblog into the night.
It’s also a great way for the intelligence community to construct and control its own narrative. Despite being framed as something of a liberal media darling, at least initially, Obama has not been particularly kind to or enthusiastic about journalists, particularly the ones reporting on national security. So why not just bypass them? Tellingly, the first post on IC on the Record today, after the introduction, was an announcement of the declassification of a number of documents relating to the Intelligence Community’s work under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), followed by two more in the same vein. You wouldn’t necessarily know from that bland statement that the documents include previously secret court rulings declaring the NSA’s email collection illegal. That was the story reported in dozens of news outlets today. Will people see that National Intelligence posted these documents, possibly like or reblog them without reading, and then assume there’s no need to check out the news? I don’t know.
I don’t mean to imply that only journalists should have access to firsthand sources, or even that the Obama administration has such sinister intentions. But surfing the web is a passive activity by nature, and that laziness just might work in the government’s favor.
I’m all for Obama and the Director of National Intelligence declassifying and releasing documents, even (or especially) on a tumblelog. But here’s a line of description from IC on the Record:
In addition to comprehensive explanations of the authorities under which the Intelligence Community conducts foreign surveillance, the site will address methods of collection, use of collected data, and oversight and compliance.
This blog, in other words, will be about
justifying explaining surveillance, just another method of open-source propaganda. This is the world we live in: we ask for more government transparency, demand accountability for police-state-like surveillance, and our President responds with Tumblr.