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Friday, February 28

File under Famous Last Words: For Washington "the age of easy hypocrisy is over"

October  30; DW (Deutsche Welle, Germany's international broadcaster): For US, 'the age of easy hypocrisy is over' 
In the age of WikiLeaks and revelations by the likes of Edward Snowden, the US can no longer get away with hypocrisy as a strategic tool on the world stage, [American] political scientist Henry Farrell tells DW [...]
January 17; Reuters: Obama bans spying on leaders of U.S. allies

February 23; DWReport: NSA spying on Merkel aides after Obama said U.S. wouldn't spy on Merkel anymore
US intelligence switched to spying on senior German officials after last year's order from President Barack Obama to stop eavesdropping on Merkel, the Bild am Sonntag (BamS) newspaper said on Sunday.
"We have had the order not to miss out on any information now that we are no longer able to monitor the chancellor's communication directly," said a source described by BamS as a high-ranking employee of the National Security Agency (NSA). [...]
I guess it didn't occur to the White House that even though Ed Snowden is safely boxed in, in Russia, where he's under orders from President Vladimir Putin not to leak new damaging information about the U.S. government, that new leaks can come from anywhere now, even the upper echelon at NSA.  This was one of Henry Farrell's points to DW, and also in a paper he co-authored for Foreign Affairs magazine on the same theme.  From the DW interview (see the DW site for link to the paper) :
DW: What's your advice to the US, given their self-imposed objective of being a global liberal role model?

Farrell: The age of easy hypocrisy is over. The US could go in one of two directions. It could bring its rhetoric in line with its behavior. So, rather than pretending to adhere to various broad liberal norms, the US could, when it's in its interest, abrogate these norms. But that would be problematic, as the US has created a liberal order, in which it's going to have a much tougher time of it, if other states start behaving in the same way, then many of the principles the US has come up with, which make life easier for the US, are going to be far more difficult to deliver on.

DW: What's the alternative?

Farrell: The alternative is for the US to change its behavior to bring it more in line with the commitments and the norms that it formally declares. It's going to be more difficult, but it's the better option long-term. It allows the US to maintain the kind of broad consensus the US has been able to work with quite successfully in the past.
That NSA continued to spy on Merkel by monitoring the phones of officials she speaks with, even after the U.S. President declared spying on her wouldn't continue, suggests the U.S. government still has a way to go before it understands it needs to change its behavior.

I'll concede that Farrell might have called it right in that hypocrisy on an official level is no longer quite as easy as it was in the pre-Snowden era.  The question is the price that Americans are having to pay in the attempt to keep their government halfway honest. Farrell observes that "the whistleblowers are acting like the small boy [from the story The Emperor's new clothes] who points out the emperor's nakedness when no one else dared speak up."  I'm sorry but I don't recall that small boy facing charges of treason and espionage for daring to speak out.  Edward Snowden has had to risk his freedom and even his life to do the job that the U.S. Congress should have done.  How many Americans can reasonably be expected to do that?

This isn't a criticism of Henry Farrell's entire analysis; I think he makes some good points in other parts of the interview.  But he's dreaming if he thinks that whistleblowers and watchdog organizations such as the ACLU are enough manpower to keep a government that shows no inclination toward honesty on the right side of the law not to mention the Constitution.

The watchdogs are so stretched that I'm now in the position where I have to thank Al-Jazeera America for filing a FOIA to get hold of an NSA propaganda talking points memorandum. "Sound Bites That Resonate," which NSA cooked up in the attempt to persuade the American public that a surveillance police state is in its best interests.
What next?  Do we have to press every American adult into volunteering five hours a day to file FOIAs?  Or should we just reverse the surveillance state?  Instead of surveilling the public, install CCTVs in every U.S. government office and home of every official, and every golf course and restaurant where officials congregate? 

However, that would leave the problem of who's going to monitor the CCTV tapes on a daily basis.  There are only so many people in the United States.  And they have things to do other than watch their government. The whole point of a representative government is that the people don't have to do everything themselves.  But if it turns out that this is the case it's time to rethink our type of government.

Your tax money at work: U.S., British spies in cahoots to collect and store

The latest revelation from the Snowden Files.  Man, when he said "Truth is coming," nobody had any idea at the time how much and what kind of truth he was talking about. Imagine the tax money that's been sunk into just this one project to secretly violate privacy of individual citizens and with no justification.
Think of what it means.  Hundreds of millions of hardworking people are making it possible for bottom feeders in government to earn a good living -- with good health benefits, vacation pay, and generous pension -- courtesy of the tax collection system.

I've linked to the Salon report on the situation even though it leans heavily on a Guardian report for the source document. But I like the phrase in the Salon report, "totalized surveillance."  First time I've come across it:
Civil liberties defenders have also stressed that the Optic Nerve program constitutes a profound violation of privacy and reflects the troubling state of totalized surveillance constitutive of our time.

“This is a truly shocking revelation that underscores the importance of the debate on privacy now taking place and the reforms being considered,” said Alex Abdo, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project. “In a world in which there is no technological barrier to pervasive surveillance, the scope of the government’s surveillance activities must be decided by the public, not secretive spy agencies interpreting secret legal authorities. This report also raises troubling questions about the NSA’s complicity in what is a massive and unprecedented violation of privacy. We need to know more about what the NSA knew, and what role it played.”

Thursday, February 27

Um, is NSA IG George Ellard calling the NSA Director a "wacko bureaucrat?"

On Tuesday  the NSA Inspector General, in a spirited defense of his office's record of handling complaints by NSA employees, got his tongue tangled in the bungee cord.  This was during the course of his heated argument that Ed Snowden should have come to him with his complaints rather than stealing highly classified government property to make his points: 
“The losses…were not the result of some wacko bureaucrat wanting to classify everything and anything.”
All right; let's untangle this.  By "losses" Dr George Ellard meant that Snowden's theft had been a catastrophic blow to U.S. national security. By "result" Ellard meant his idea of Snowden's rationale for the theft, which he dismissed as a baseless fear; i.e., a "wacko bureaucrat wanting to classify everything and anything.”
But the whole reason Snowden had to risk his freedom and even his life to steal a mountain of government property was because not even the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff would have believed him without proof that under the direction of Gen. Keith B. Alexander the National Security Agency was in the process of collecting and storing every single human utterance in the entire world that was digitized. 

George Ellard wouldn't have believed him, either, because Ellard doesn't have the security clearances to have seen what Snowden saw during the course of his work at NSA.  As I pointed out in the Genie post, only the topmost echelon at NSA had the big picture -- exact knowledge of how much and what kind of data was being collected by NSA. 

The rest, to include the White House, Congress and Pentagon, even with top security clearances only had a vague understanding that Alexander had run away with the metadata concept of intelligence gathering.  This is because a complete understanding would have meant falling down the rabbit hole and facing the Red Queen.  What started out as a great idea that Alexander had developed and applied in a battlespace -- Iraq -- had snowballed, if you'll pardon the expression, into an idée fixe in which he redesignated the battlespace as "everywhere."  He set out to collect and store every and any utterance made via digital communications. And because this was being done in the name of national defense, "classified" was stamped on everything and anything that was collected and stored!

The result was the mother of all Catch-22 rules: Because everything is secret there are no secrets but you will be jailed for telling no secrets. Ergo, Snowden's complaints, if he'd taken them to the IG,  would have been thrown out on the grounds that they were ipso facto mooted or dispo fatso prima facie, whichever applied. 

Put another way: within less than a decade the system of classifying information as secret was made obsolete by the metadata approach to intelligence gathering, as implemented by the NSA under Alexander's direction.  It was no longer possible to distinguish between secret and non-secret when even the most mundane and superfluous data had to be classified as secret merely by the act of storing it for possible future retrieval.
Instead of confronting the dilemma, the Congress, White House and U.S. military command kicked the can down the road.  But because nature abhors a vacuum Keith Alexander kept the National Security Agency busy filling up the boundless.

Tuesday, February 25

Tale of NSA Department, Ed Snowden, the Magic Lamp and the Stovepipe

The NSA Department and the Magic Lamp

Set aside the techno-babble and the tale of the purloined password.(1)  Edward Snowden got access to top secret levels of surveillance at NSA through the most simple, nontechnical means imaginable, and all he got all the help he needed from one of human nature's most famous weaknesses.  Here's how it happened, as told to Forbes data privacy columnist Andy Greenberg by a colleague of Snowden's at NSA, whose name for understandable reasons had to be withheld for publication. If you're already familiar with the account, which was published December 16 under the title An NSA Co-Worker Remembers The Real Edward Snowden: "A Genius Among Geniuses," bear with me while I quote certain passages; I'm going to analyze them in a way I'm pretty sure hasn't been done before.
"Before coming to NSA Hawaii, Snowden had impressed NSA officials by developing a backup system that the agency had widely implemented in its codebreaking operations.

He also frequently reported security vulnerabilities in NSA software. Many of the bugs were never patched.[2] 
Snowden had been brought to Hawaii as a cybersecurity expert working for Dell’s services division but due to a problem with the contract was reassigned to become an administrator for the Microsoft intranet management system known as Sharepoint.

Impressed with his technical abilities, Snowden’s managers decided that he was the most qualified candidate to build a new web front-end for one of its projects, despite his contractor status. As his coworker tells it, he was given full administrator privileges, with virtually unlimited access to NSA data.

“Big mistake in hindsight,” says Snowden’s former colleague. “But if you had a guy who could do things nobody else could, and the only problem was that his badge was green [contractor] instead of blue [employee], what would you do?”
So those who've claimed that Snowden didn't have the "authorities" or technical ability to access certain NSA files were misinformed or dissembling.  Yes he did have the authorities, and there was no need for him to figure out how to break into any security level at NSA.  Snowden's managers simply handed him the keys to the kingdom.

This means there was no need for Snowden to work out subterfuges to access the files -- a point the colleague emphasized in another part in the account.

Here one can be forgiven for asking if his superiors were crazy to give that much power to a contractor (technically, a subcontractor). The answer in this particular case is that they didn't quite see him as a contractor.  They thought they'd stumbled across a magic lamp with a genie inside.  In a way, they had:
“That kid was a genius among geniuses,” says the NSA staffer. “NSA is full of smart people, but anybody who sat in a meeting with Ed will tell you he was in a class of his own …I’ve never seen anything like it.”
The colleague also said that Snowden kept a copy of the U.S. Constitution on his desk at NSA to reference when he argued about the legality of certain NSA surveillance methods, and it seems he argued frequently.  Didn't Snowden's superiors find this troubling?  So the genie blew off steam on occasion. Genies do such things.

Snowden also wore at work a hoodie with a logo that was a clear criticism of the agency's surveillance methods. Well, genies are known to dress strangely.
And while the colleague's account doesn't mention this, according to Snowden he did everything but rent a marching band to alert his superiors and coworkers at NSA to the kind of surveillance programs he was finding after he'd been given access to the most top secret files, and to explicitly state that he was deeply troubled by his findings.(3)  There is much in the public record to suggest his claim is true.

Even his postings over a period of years at Ars Technica website clearly indicate that this is someone who doesn't believe in stewing in silence. Once he got access to certain files it would have been completely in character for Snowden to show his superiors at NSA what he was finding and fume, 'Look at this! This is illegal!'

But of course matters of law are seen differently by a being whose home is a lamp.
While they didn't put it quite that way, that was how his superiors blinded themselves to the fact that Ed Snowden had "security risk" stamped all over him.  They'd become experts on genie behavior, you understand.
Translation: Snowden's superiors had stumbled across a brilliant "kid" who was going to help them pull off a special project, one that would put a feather in the cap of at least one department at the Hawaii branch office.

So at the bottom of the heist of the century is an ageless story, told in countless fables, fairy tales, myths and legends, of acquisitiveness overpowering caution.
Does this mean the supervisors in question shouldn't faulted for being human?  Actually every employee manual should provide instructions on what to do if you find a mysterious lamp in the parking garage.  Take it to a homeless shelter or a destitute widow; under no circumstances bring it into the office and say let's see what happens if we shake it.

If it wasn't in the manual, then technically the NSA human resources department is to blame for the whole thing. However, there was something else at work in addition to a magic lamp, something that would raise an eyebrow among those who constantly scan the horizon for Signs and Portents -- these types the least likely to read Forbes, this writer being an exception. Go over the NSA employee's account with a fine comb and you will note an astounding run of accidental incidents, convergences of events and coincidences,  a run that couldn't be replicated in a million years.

Here I'm reminded of a saying at NSA:  "In God we trust. All others we surveil."

Ah, but the question is whether God trusts NSA.

From that viewpoint, and considering the incredible and one might even say mysterious run of luck at Edward Snowden's back, I don't think his supervisors at the NSA Hawaii branch office should continue to beat themselves up for being fools.  There are times when the play's the thing and the best the players can do is avoid bumping into the stage sets.  If what happened at the Hawaii branch was one of those times, then Snowden was himself pointed to his chalk marks on the stage.
This said, and before I leave the topic of magic lamps, I think I can add to the lore on genies that the NSA Hawaii branch collected.  There are, according to the Quran, good genies and bad genies -- or jinn or djinn, as they're called in Arabic. But all the lore about genies, which predates the religion of the Mohammedans and even the Old Testament, agrees that they are very powerful. How, then, did genies get associated with a humble household lamp?  Why not a symbol of great worldly or supernatural power?
The answer is lost in the mists of prehistory, and Wikipedia is silent on the question. But we can always fall back on the little gray cells in the attempt to solve a mystery.  I'd guess genies are associated with a lamp because they are bringers of light.
The debate about whether Edward Snowden is a hero or traitor obscures the fact that his theft of NSA files was designed as a teaching mission.  Glenn Greenwald told Buzzfeed that the NSA files Snowden gave him were organized to an astonishing degree -- "almost scary."  Greenwald had been expecting to receive the kind of mess that Bradley Manning dumped on Wikileaks, which in turn dumped the mess on newspaper reporters, which after a passing attempt at organizing the huge of cache of files, dumped the hideous tangle of data on the public.
That is just why the incident blew over so quickly; the only people who could understand the implications of the massive dump of leaked files were hackers, and others who were very knowledgeable about highly technical IT matters. The public continued to remain in the dark.
It is actually Julian Assange, not Snowden, who sounded the alarm, as you can learn from the Wikipedia article about him. As early as 1998 he discovered patents that NSA was taking out, patents that spelled doom for human freedom.  Yet for all his technical skill with computers and intellectual brilliance, Assange couldn't communicate the implications of his discovery to the general public. Many others in the IT field also tried and failed. It would require the gifts of a teacher, an extraordinary teacher, one who could break down highly abstract concepts in such a way that all adults could understand, no matter what their level of knowledge about computer matters.

Snowden is just that teacher.  The way in which he presented the data was carefully designed to illustrate specific principles. And the stepwise sequence of leaks he arranged was in the manner of course work. This was so the journalists he chose to publish the NSA documents, and the general public, could absorb and understand the very complicated issues informing the technical aspects of NSA surveillance.
This doesn't mean he didn't copy data that could be very destructive to U.S. national security if released to the public.  The current estimate of defense officials is that the NSA data he copied only represent about 10 percent of the files at other defense agencies that he at least viewed if not copied. I wouldn't be surprised if he worked a kind of nuclear option into all the files he copied in case his teaching mission was cut short by his assassination or arrest. But his intent is clearly not to destroy; everything he's done is to bring light to where the darkness of great ignorance exists. In this he's been successful, and on a world scale.

And so when all is said and done, the NSA Hawaii branch office's blinkered belief in genies might be vindicated.  Maybe in the original meaning of the term Ed Snowden is indeed a genie, a real genie, a specially gifted teacher.

The NSA Department and the Stovepipe

Snowden maintains that his alerts and complaints were ignored by his superiors at NSA. Yet he also claims that the reactions of NSA employees he spoke to about his discoveries ranged from "greatly concerned" to "appalled" that NSA had very greatly exceeded its mandate.(3)

How could that be?  How could NSA employees be unaware of the extent of their own organization's surveillance?

The answer is that it's perfectly possible; indeed, it's standard practice in a large bureaucracy set up along military lines (or quasi-military lines) for only the top echelon to be aware in any detail of how the organization's many pieces fit together.
All such bureaucracies depend on something termed "stovepiping" of information gathered from within the organization; this in order to control knowledge of the big picture from within the organization.  From Wikipedia's discussion of a stovepipe organization:
A stovepipe organization is one where the structure of the organisation largely or entirely restricts the flow of information within the organisation to up-down through lines of control but inhibits or prevents cross organisational communication.
Another way to describe stovepiping is to say that it's an internalized form of guerrilla cell organization, where each cell is unaware of the activity of the other cells in the organization.  So it's very likely that the majority of NSA's employees were as surprised as the public about the big picture that Snowden's revelations painted.(4)

Stovepiping has many critics, as the Wikipedia article explains, and it contributes to the oligarchic aspect of bureaucratic organizations that Robert Michels decried in his dictum "Who says organization says oligarchy."  (See the Pundita post, The Devil and Departmentalization.)

The defenders of stovepiping argue that it's necessary for command and control in an organization, such as the military, which must keep many secrets. This argument goes out the window in an era when a bureaucracy such as NSA is opened up to hordes of outsiders.

From Ross Slutsky's The NSA’s Contractor Problem (VOA News blog, August 16, 2013):
In his book on the NSA, The Shadow Factory, intelligence journalist James Bamford claims that the size and scale of the NSA workforce exploded after 9/11.  “With the billions pouring in, [then-NSA director Michael Hayden] launched the largest recruiting drive in the agency’s history,” writes Bamford. “By 2008, 40 percent of the NSA’s workforce had been hired since 2001.” 
“At the same time Hayden was building his empire within Fort Meade, he was also creating a shadow NSA: of the $60 billion going to the intelligence community, most of it -- about $42 billion, an enormous 70 percent -- was going to outside contractors,” says Bamford.
James Bamford is not the only one to have made such claims about the size of the temp workforce in the U.S. intelligence community.  Angela Canterbury, Director of Public Policy, Project On Government Oversight, noted last year that there are "millions of contractors inside the nation's intelligence agencies," although to be precise she was also referring to subcontractors; i.e., employees of contracting firms.

And it's not only the IC that's overwhelmed by this tide of temp workers; the contracting firms, the ones that do high volume business with the U.S. government, haven't been able to keep up with vetting all the temps they employ.

Despite this, Congress and U.S. government and its advisers  -- and the intelligence agencies -- are playing ostrich.  I hesitated to quote from this November 7 Reuters report because its headliner claim (Exclusive: Snowden persuaded other NSA workers to give up passwords - sources) was disputed, not only by Ed Snowden but also by the NSA staffer who spoke to Andy Greenberg; indeed, a major reason the staffer risked being fired for speaking out was to dispute the claim.  However, there's much of interest in the report, especially this jaw dropper:
"In the classified world, there is a sharp distinction between insiders and outsiders. If you've been cleared and especially if you've been polygraphed, you're an insider and you are presumed to be trustworthy," said Steven Aftergood, a secrecy expert with the Federation of American Scientists. "What agencies are having a hard time grappling with is the insider threat, the idea that the guy in the next cubicle may not be reliable," he added.
With all respect to security experts at the federation they need to pay more attention to the present era.  Who has time to polygraph hordes of temps if nobody even has time to do adequate background checks?

There is no more 'insider outsider' distinction in U.S. government.  Yet there are enough people in government who want to believe there's still an "inside" that they go to lengths to keep up the pretense.
The situation provides a sound basis for the dispute that hactivists such as Julian Assange have with overweening attempts at secrecy in government.  The reasoning informing the attempts is outdated; it doesn't account for the fact that the rationale for cells, for stovepiping, collapses when the organization controlling the cells becomes a makeshift superhighway for outsiders.

Moreover, attempts to monitor traffic on the superhighway have led to over-classification of information as "secret" and to draconian nondisclosure agreements -- both of which discourage and also quash complaints from the people best positioned to warn about trouble in their department.

The outcome is that while the superhighway transports "inside" information about the organization to the "outside," stovepiping keeps many of employees in the dark about what's happening in their own organization!

1)  From the account provided to Andy Greenberg:
As further evidence that Snowden didn’t hijack his colleagues’ accounts for his leak, the NSA staffer points to an occasion when Snowden was given a manager’s password so that he could cover for him while he was on vacation. Even then, investigators found no evidence Snowden had misused that staffer’s privileges, and the source says nothing he could have uniquely accessed from the account has shown up in news reports.
The manager and the unnamed employee mentioned in the tale of the purloined password -- the February 10 NSA memo to a congressional oversight committee --  are the same person. As to how I can be sure of this, because if NSA could have scared up two employees who'd shared their password with Snowden, there would have been two sacrificial goats to haul to Capitol Hill, not one.

2) Security was so lax at NSA that it wouldn't be surprising if the agency had been hit repeatedly by industrial spies and even spies for foreign defense agencies. Snowden himself warned NSA that it was rife with security lapses that weren't being addressed, as the NSA staffer's account indicates.  As to the claim that security was tighter at NSA headquarters:  After Bradley Manning stole a huge cache of files the U.S. military instituted the "two-man rule" to ward against the unauthorized removal of computer files. Snowden claims that he recommended in 2009 that NSA institute the same rule, which is that two system administrators must be present when one accesses certain sensitive information. What's in the public record about Snowden's security warnings tends to support his claim. In any case NSA, its headquarters as well as branch offices, didn't even take this simple, nontechnical security measure until after Snowden struck.

3) From Wikipedia's article on Edward Snowden (see the webpage for links to the source notes): 
Using 'internal channels of dissent', Snowden said that he told multiple employees and two supervisors about his concerns. An NSA spokesperson responded, saying they had "not found any evidence to support Mr. Snowden's contention that he brought these matters to anyone's attention".(81)  Snowden elaborated in January 2014, saying "[I] made tremendous efforts to report these programs to co-workers, supervisors, and anyone with the proper clearance who would listen. The reactions of those I told about the scale of the constitutional violations ranged from deeply concerned to appalled, but no one was willing to risk their jobs, families, and possibly even freedom to go to through what [NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake] did." (79)
4)  Stovepiping might have been the key factor in Edward Snowden receiving an invisibility cloak from the next 'department' he worked for at NSA (Threat Operation Center, also at the Hawaii branch), after he switched employers from Dell to Booz Allen Hamilton.  While it's unlikely that a discussion of genie behavior would have figured in his performance review after he completed the special project, a free exchange of information about Snowden between the first and second departments would have raised a red flag for his new supervisors. No flag was raised:
"My position with Booz Allen Hamilton granted me access to lists of machines all over the world the NSA hacked," Snowden told the South China Morning Post, adding that this was exactly why he'd accepted it. He was one of around 1,000 NSA "sysadmins" allowed to look at many parts of this system. (Other users with top-secret clearance weren't allowed to see all classified files.) He could open a file without leaving an electronic trace. He was, in the words of one intelligence source, a "ghost user", able to haunt the agency's hallowed places.
This meant it wasn't possible for investigators to track which files he accessed or copied after he received the invisibility cloak!  This in turn means the outdated security software at the Hawaii branch wasn't the only factor in limiting the investigations.  It seems the only way the FBI and other investigators could hope to get an idea of what files he accessed while he wore the invisibility cloak was by reading the newspapers.

Monday, February 3

Report: "Staggering" levels of government corruption in EU countries

I'm posting a few excerpts from the following BBC report not to criticize European Union leaders but to remind that this is the era for countries to be tending their own fences. 
In 2005 Hurricane Katrina blew the lid off corruption in government administrations scattered in states throughout the U.S., including the state of Louisiana.  My stab at black humor at the time was that I was found under my desk, breathing into a paper bag and screaming, "Louisiana is a third world country and its foreign policy is run out of Quebec!") 
That was before the lid blew off what was happening in Michigan and specifically Detroit.

BBC, 3 February 2014:
The EU's Home Affairs Commissioner has warned of staggering levels of corruption in member countries.

Presenting the first EU-wide anti-corruption report, Cecilia Malmstrom said the problem eroded trust in democratic institutions and provided a breeding ground for organised crime.

She said the true cost of corruption was at least 120bn euros (£99bn) annually.

The BBC's Chris Morris reports. [...]

Sunday, February 2

The Devil and Departmentalization

One day God and the Devil were debating each other when they spied a man discover a bit of truth.  They exulted in one voice, "Score for my side!"  God snapped, "How do you figure the point goes to you?"  "Because," replied the Devil smoothly, "I'm going to help him organize his discovery."

The Operation Was a Success But

The old joke about the Devil and organization harks to the Iron Law of Oligarchy, formulated in 1911 by a German sociologist named Robert Michels.  Simply stated the Iron Law is: "Who says organization says oligarchy."
The Iron Law has influenced generations of political thinkers and is considered the perennial bugaboo of large organizations, including government ones and dominant political parties. Oligarchy is seen as an inevitable byproduct of humans organizing themselves, with the few exceptions representing a unique set of circumstances. No type of government, even the most liberal democratic one, is considered immune from the operation of the Iron Law of Oligarchy.

I had cause to question the Iron Law after I read passages in Arvind Kejriwal's 2011 e-book Swaraj (Self Rule), available for free in PDF in both Hindi and English. The passages outline how, starting in the 1860s, the British Raj used a process of departmentalization to gain control of an ancient system of self-government in India's villages:
Earlier the villagers ran the establishment for irrigation, which the British started to control through an irrigation department.

The villagers earlier had the education establishment under their control.  Now the British formed an education department.

All areas of life and living were soon controlled by the British through one or other government department. ...
The passages illustrate that without a shot fired, and with no need for secret police and forced labor camps, it's possible through a process of departmentalization to rob a people of their ability to govern their affairs. 

Yet Kejriwal was wrong when he assumed the British Empire's departmentalization effort was specific to India. Once the British government's civil service went into high gear, starting in the mid-1850s, it did to its own populace what it later did to Indian villagers!  

However, departmentalizing villages in the homeland would be one thing. But because there are so many villages in India that only God has ever known exactly how many there are, the question would be the extent to which the British Empire had extended itself in India as the 19th Century drew to a close. At least as early as the 1890s it was clear the empire was greatly overextended. Another question, perhaps an unanswered one, would be the extent to which the civil service applied its departmentalization effort to lands the British controlled other than the homeland and India.     

What is known for certain is that Her Majesty's Civil Service survived with flying colors the collapse of the British Empire. An odd fact when one stops to think about it. Was this a case where the operation was a success but the patient died?  Had the British Empire departmentalized itself out of existence? 

With that thought in mind I decided to investigate whether the Iron Law of Oligarchy is as iron as it's cracked up to be.

The Iron Law of Oligarchy

Wikipedia's article on representative democracy, which the majority of the world's nations have adopted in one form or another, cites the criticism that this type of government inevitably devolves into a particracy or oligarchy because of the Iron Law of Oligarchy -- a particracy being "a de facto form of government where one or more political parties dominate the political process, rather than citizens and/or individual politicians."  (Wikipedia)

As to the Iron Law itself, it was first presented in Robert Michels' 1911 magnum opus, Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy
Any large organization, Michels pointed out, has to create a bureaucracy in order to maintain its efficiency as it becomes larger. Many decisions have to be made daily that cannot be made by large numbers of disorganized people. 

For the organization to function effectively, centralization has to occur and power will end up in the hands of a few. Those few -- the oligarchy -- will use all means necessary to preserve and further increase their power. ... [Wikipedia]

I found weak links in Michels' chain of reasoning.

1.  Michels over-applied the concept of bureaucracy, as have all those who apply the concept to the operational structure of any large organization.  Bureaucracy is specific to a government (or quasi-governmental organization such as the World Bank).  It literally means a rule of bureaus or 'desks' (or departments, as they're more commonly called today). 

The term was coined in the mid-1700s by Jacques Claude Marie Vincent de Gournay, a French economist and government official, as a sarcastic commentary on the craze in the French government for setting up bureaus to handle the burgeoning specialties represented by modern government administration. He also called the craze "bureaumania." 

The joke was on the economist, if John Stuart Mill was correct; he argued that bureaucracy is a type of government distinct from other types, including representative democracy, and that the most successful monarchies were actually bureaucracies.  If Mill is correct this could explain why no matter how different their politics and economic views, governments that administer through a bureaucracy tend to develop the same or remarkably similar problems. The most consistent feature of the problems isn't oligarchy. It's department heads acting with the zeal of a duke defending his dukedom to protect their department's turf and expand their budget allocations.

2. Even by the time he died, in 1936, Michels couldn't have imagined the number of specializations that would arise in the post-World War II era and reflect in the creation of a dizzying number of departments in government.

3.  Nor could he have imagined how the concept of the rule of law, when over-applied,  works out in practice over time in a representative democracy.  Once people are elected to legislate and are paid to do so -- once it's their job -- they can't be expected to play badminton when they convene.  They will write as much legislation as they possibly can, which must be administered by one or more departments in government. This generally leads to the creation of a new department(s) or expansion of existing ones.

The Iron Law of Departmentalization

If Michels could have imagined unchecked specialization in government and legislation, I venture he would have noticed that galloping departmentalization is the result, and all that goes with it:

1.  Pretty soon the myriad departments are fiercely protecting their mandates and budget allocations.

2.  This puts them in conflict with myriad other departments doing the same.

3.  This leads to departments working at cross-purposes and the weaponization of information; i.e., 'information capture' or extreme compartmentalization of information. (What has also been called stovepiping or silo-ing of information.) When this happens the people at the top and even those in key departments might have no knowledge of vital information held by other department(s). 

4.  The volume of data generated by a large number of departments means that key information can easily be overlooked by decision makers. And when combined with compartmentalization of specializations across numerous departments, key information can be misunderstood or not even recognized as key by decision makers.   

The upshot isn't oligarchy, which presumes a reasonably united front among a few people; it's chaos.

(This might have been the Devil's plan all along).

Thusly, when the number of departments in a government reaches the magic number, the juggernaut of departmentalization crushes everything in its path, including the Iron Law of Oligarchy. 

Now what is the magic number?  From my back of the envelope calculations it's the number at which everyone gives up trying to make an accurate count of the number of departments.
(Departments would include agencies, commissions, services, etc., as well as departments within a department no matter how they're named; e.g., division, section, etc.)
From all this I'd say there's an Iron Law of Departmentalization, which simply stated is that chaos cancels out oligarchy when departments proliferate like rabbits.

Here American readers might want to know whether the U.S. government has reached the magic number yet. From these two articles about bureaucracy in the U.S. government, the answer is yes. 

Grand Illusion

But how could generations of political thinkers have overlooked the Iron Law of Departmentalization?  To put the question another way, how can a government administration continue functioning if it's in chaos?  The answer is that it can't, not without factors that offset or mitigate chaos in the decision-making processes.  Here are three factors that apply to the USA:

1.  The introduction of 'czars' to government administration.  In the USA a czar is appointed by the U.S. President and answerable only to the President, so he can override chaos at the Cabinet level of departments and lower on the bureaucratic food chain. 
2.  A de facto plutocracy.  While the rich can be in disagreement with each other on many issues, they're staunchly united around the goal of remaining rich. This gives their decisions as a bloc great coherence.  And as a bloc the rich have the power to greatly influence many types of government decisions. This helps mask chaos at the operational level of government.    
3.  This factor would only apply to a few governments in history.  It's when a nation or empire's currency is the dominant one used in international trade.  This currency hegemony allows a government a virtually unlimited line of credit -- or the ability to kite checks, in a manner of speaking, without penalty. This allows the government to evade the full consequences for bad decisions, including those arising from chaos at the government's operational level. 

From the post-World War II period onward, the U.S. dollar's status as the world's major reserve currency has in effect provided the U.S. government with an unlimited line of credit.  This has repeatedly let administrations off the hook when chaos at the operational level has led to consequences that would destabilize if not crash any other government.
Yet the most problematical aspect of a government relying on its currency for bailouts is that this shields decision-makers in the government from the full consequences of any bad decisions.  This interferes with the famous feedback loop by which humans increase their intelligence, which is also known as learning from mistakes.  One doesn't have to learn from mistakes if there's always a safety net with a soft cushion underneath.  In government this translates to people not being fired or demoted even for catastrophically bad decisions.
The Devil is in the Detail

So if the Devil does not actually reside in the human tendency to get organized, where does he reside when it comes to government?
One of Michels' professors was the German sociologist Max Weber, whose prolific writings on bureaucracy helped establish public administration as a field of study distinct from political science. Weber believed that bureaucracy was the only efficient means for modern governments to organize themselves, but he was very wary of bureaucratic administration. He saw it as trapping individuality in an "iron cage" of rules-based or 'by the book' decision making.

I've not made a study of Weber's works so I don't want to short his research and conclusions.  But from what I know of his writings I don't think he paid much attention to nonprofessional government.  I'd say it was the same for Robert Michels.  Weber was analyzing paid professional government administration.  In fact, he wasn't so much studying government administration as the career of government administration. 
Weber's neglect of nonprofessional systems of government, if it was neglect, would be understandable.  Even if he'd wanted to study examples of nonprofessional government he was limited by his era's sketchy histories of governments that predated written historical records.  

As for the early American experience with governing, which was in the do it yourself mode -- while Weber surely had some knowledge of that, the American experience couldn't be applied to Europe, where his attention was focused.  Weber, as with Michels and many other European political thinkers of the day, was trying to find ways to democratize government administration in a region of the world that for thousands of years had only known one form or another of authoritarian rule and professional government administration.

This said, those millennia are a drop in the bucket next to the ages when government was a do it yourself affair.  For most of humanity's history governing wasn't a profession. It was an unpaid activity -- and a costly activity in some respects, in that people had to take time away from the means by which they supported themselves to participate in governing. (I think it's just because of this cost that decisions in nonprofessional governing are oriented to solving a problem rather than making a career out of it.)

Nonprofessional governing does generate organizations and also hierarchies, but to say that an oligarchy inevitably derives from these is to distort the concept of oligarchy.

To boil it down, there is no such thing as a volunteer bureaucrat.  Those who swear by the Iron Law of Oligarchy are overlooking this detail.


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