Power is a force for change and progress, but it will inexorably lead to abuse when its use is hidden or has to be justified, rather than explained.
Oh my God! Astonishment and disbelief! How could it be? It was shockingly revealed this week that government, our government, has been using its power to intrude on the everyday privacy of everyday Americans.
It’s true. The government has been “exposed” for using its power to “data mine” information about the activities of Americans on their phones, in e-mails, on the Internet, using credit cards and in social media. It turns out that even Skype was compromised. As threatening as this type of government activity may be, the most shocking aspect of this disclosure is that the media, politicians and watchdog groups are all expressing astonishment that the government would use its power in this fashion.
You have got to be kidding.
For the media and others to be “shocked” that the government is actually using its power to invade the privacy of average Americans is an even greater wrong, because it is a conspiracy of complicity. It turns out that most leaders in all three branches of government – Congress, Executive and Judicial – not only knew about the activity, but condoned and approved it. There is more than just a whiff of hypocrisy when you grant an individual or institution power and then feign disbelief when they use it.
A Peculiar Alliance
The apparent universal abhorrence to this “shocking and alarming” violation of the constitutional right of individual privacy has created a strange mingling of disparate critters: The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Fox News, MSNBC, the American Civil Liberties Union and The Tea Party have all come together to condemn these nefarious, surreptitious actions of the government. And they express even greater disbelief that it is happening in a government led by the bleeding-heart Liberal Barack Obama, no less.
If you have fallen for all this malarkey being served up in the form of howls of protest, wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth and are dismayed by this latest “exposure” of government “abuse of power,” you don’t understand power. What we are witnessing is not new and certainly not surprising since the abuse of power is as old as power.
The English historian Lord Acton is credited with the most famous quote about power, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The problem with this concept is that it is too simplistic. Power in and of itself does not corrupt, but it can be a potent aphrodisiac to stimulate abuse by those who are corruptible. So it is not power itself, but rather the ability to apply power without transparency, constraint or accountability that corrupts and leads to abuse. Power is a force for change and progress, but power will inexorably lead to abuse when its use is hidden or has to be justified, rather than explained. When the abuse is exposed, the justifications are offered in a manner that creates a philosophical conundrum designed to deflect attention from the actual abuse. Unfortunately, examples of this approach to justifying the abuse of power abound, both in government and business.
The Presidential “Patriot” Acts
After the attacks of 911, President Bush authorized (among other questionable tactics) the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” on suspected terrorist captives. We know now that was a flowery euphuism for blatant torture that was contrary to (what we thought were) basic American principles. Other countries may torture, but that was not what we Americans condone. We are different. Yet President Bush and members of his administration clearly recognized that their sweeping, warrantless surveillance and interrogation activities were contrary to traditional American concepts of individual freedom and privacy. Recognizing it as such they spun an intricate web of deception seeking at first to hide and then later to justify the abuse of power.
When the use of torture was exposed, as abuse of power ultimately always is, the Bush administration hid behind a series of byzantine and convoluted legal memos that argued the torture of prisoners was within the scope of the president’s power and responsibility. To buttress the arcane legal justification for these actions, President Busch offered up a simple rationalization: Yes it was torture. Yes it was “technically” illegal. But it was done to “protect” the American people. The argument was that these prisoners might have information about future terrorist attacks on America and if the only way to get them to talk was to torture them, then it was okay because it would save American lives.
It may be that these arguments had validity and if they had been offered up by President Bush as an explanation, prior to the implementation, the actions may still have been wrong, but it would not have been an abuse of power. (Most of the rest of the world – and certainly the terrorists – knew that America had begun to use torture. It was only the American citizens who were kept hooded from the truth.)
“No one promised Americans total security and total privacy.”
The same use of justification rather than explanation is being followed by the Obama administration as its extensive “data mining” efforts are exposed. President Obama argues that he did not act alone and in fact had the “bipartisan support and approval” of both houses of Congress (although they were sworn to secrecy) as well as the judiciary. (It is ironic that the only thing the Republicans and Democrats can agree on is the abuse of power.)
In addition, President Obama has dragged out the old, surefire argument suggesting that yes, the data-mining might have been a “technical” abusive violation of the constitutional rights of privacy, but it was done to protect Americans from further attack. In an effort to justify his actions, President Obama has said, “You can’t have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience.” He went on to say, “We are going to have to make some choices as a society.”
President Obama is correct (as George Bush may have been as well), that these are choices that must be made openly before they happen, in a debate among an informed citizenship, not in secret or as an after the fact justification. The potential for the abuse of power flourishes when it is exercised in secret with no debate, transparency, constraint or accountability.
In fairness to both Presidents Bush and Obama, if there had been further domestic terrorist attacks and it came out later that they had the power to possibly prevent them – using surveillance and data mining – but failed to exercise that power, they would have been susceptible to even harsher criticism. Take note of how the FBI was excoriated in the media for having previously interviewed one the Boston Marathon bombers, but failed to take action. The abuse of power of the Bush and Obama administrations may not be in the actions they took, but in the manner the actions were taken – in secret.
And the Moral of the Story …
There is a valuable lesson to learn here when it comes to power and its use or abuse, in either government or business. There are many who believe power is defined and enhanced by the ability to exercise it in a vacuum, devoid of debate, transparency, constraint and accountability, but that is incorrect. Power exercised under a veil of secrecy – for good or bad – will ultimately be constrained and lost. True power is defined and enhanced when it is shared, debated, transparent and practiced openly.
The decision of President Obama to secretly expand the electronic surveillance and data-mining capabilities of the government against American citizens – even if done with the highest integrity of intentions – has damaged his moral credibility. For one to denounce – as Obama did – such activity as a candidate and then as president to – without explanation – not only validate, but expand that activity is nothing more than an abuse of power and a self-inflicted wound to his credibility. Without credibility, there can be no power.
For one with power, it is important to understand that actions taken without explanation, debate or transparency – “because you know what is best” – are an abuse of power that will ultimately lead to a loss of power. Fortunately, there is a very simple solution for this: Never exercise your power in such a way that causes you to worry about what will happen when others find out what you have done. If you can adhere to this dictum then neither you nor your followers will have to worry about you being corrupted by power and you will become even more powerful.