What are they hiding?!

This one is born out of a post on Mental Floss – or at least, that’s the most recent thing to provoke the thoughts; the attitude is remarkably common and can be found connected to countless topics. In short: if a government agency or some otherwise official organization is keeping information from us, it is important that we know what it is. It must be something that we should know, something that is controlling us or depriving us or evidence of illegal shenanigans. In this case, the third “burning question” in that post refers to the CIA files regarding the Kennedy assassination which have not been released to the public. “Aha!” say the conspiracists. “This is evidence that the CIA was doing… something.” I mean, what other purpose would the CIA have in keeping information from public consumption and redistribution?

And just by asking that question, it virtually becomes rhetorical – we recognize that, for instance, national security pretty much necessitates that certain information not be freely disseminated. The same holds true for the military, of any country; making specific details of defenses readily available means circumventing those defenses becomes exponentially easier. The idea here is that the information is not exactly being kept from us, but from them. Since there is no way to share it only with us and not them, it is kept from both.

Certainly, this does not mean that the CIA (or the NSA or the FBI or the DAR) is not keeping stuff from us that we really should know, such as unethical and illegal practices. But that’s not really the issue – we’re not going to start playing a “guilty until proven innocent” game. The practice of not releasing information is not at all suspicious; it is standard operating procedure. Pointing out that files are being withheld is not support for any conspiracy in the slightest, since it occurs all of the time in countless topics and circumstances, and is to be expected. Still using the assassination as an example, Lee Harvey Oswald was thoroughly investigated following the shooting, and among many other things, it was determined that he not only spent time in the Soviet Union, in fact renouncing his citizenship of the US, he also made a trip to Cuba not long before the assassination. “AHA!” No, sit down – he was very well known as a dissident, as were countless other people in the US at the time. The information revealed that, even when he attempted to sell radar secrets to the Soviets, they wanted nothing to do with him – he wasn’t exactly low-key, nor connected any longer. He was, in fact, exactly the kind of guy you would never use for spying, because he was exactly the kind of guy you’d suspect and keep an eye on. Oswald’s trip to Havana was brief, and he didn’t even get the audience with government officials there that he was hoping for – just as any blue-collar doofus from any other country will not get an audience with any government official here when showing up unannounced and with nothing of compelling importance to show.

However, the CIA did not simply phone up the embassy in Havana and ask for this information, nor would it have been trustworthy in any way had something truly been going on. So the information came from… where? CIA spies in the Cuban government, ones that it would be a supremely bad idea to reveal? Exactly – that’s pretty much what the CIA exists to do. Moreover, this fits in precisely with the situation that we have, where there is a moratorium on the files, yet they can be made public past a certain date. Is that something that it would be a good idea to do if the files contained truly damning information? Or is it something that could be done once the operatives were long retired, the information long obsolete?

There’s a lot of common sense that gets ignored in such situations as well, such as how bloody stupid it would be to keep funding an organization that had any hand whatsoever in the assassination of the Chief Executive (and on whose orders?) Or the idea that Cuba actually arranged the hit, as if every President since would sweep that under the rug and not, you know, Iraq the shit out of them – for dog’s sake, Reagan was openly spoiling for a winnable war, to the point where he invaded Grenada because, you know, something. And no, the Soviet Union would not have stuck its neck out to protect its interests in Cuba, as massive as they might be (yes, that’s sarcasm.) It almost goes without saying that the justifications proposed for these heinous secret files shows a child’s understanding of foreign politics.

Once again, I have to stress that none of this suggests the CIA is innocent in any way, and their track record is not supportive of this either, nor will you ever find me blindly defending the agency. The point is, such secrecy cannot be considered suspicious behavior if it’s exactly what we should expect to see in any given situation. While investigation of any potential wrongdoing or coverup is commendable and encouraged, it should only be undertaken with a commitment towards objectivity, and certainly not an effort to establish a preconceived notion. We have, or like to think that we have anyway, a remarkably open government, but this should not be extrapolated to mean that it is completely open, or should be.

There are a lot of potential motives for those who embrace the idea of conspiracies, and it’s likely a deeply involved and convoluted field of study, but in some cases the prevalent attitudes carry over into popular culture. The very question, “What could they be hiding?” not only assumes dastardly intent, but the unwarranted concept that they shouldn’t be hiding anything – it’s a good example of a leading question, and one that we should always be wary of. In fact, sowing doubt is often the only purpose in such circumstances, as if doubt supports any case at all.

[And by the way, it’s a lot of fun to give an immediate, matter-of-fact answer to such questions and deflate the whole thing right from the start.]

Another common aspect to be wary of – in fact, it’s almost impossible to avoid – is the desperate attempt to propose a scenario that fits the idea of something being hidden; in essence, this is picking a conclusion and then trying to find support for it. But this is not a fiction-writing workshop; trying to rescue a weak idea is a pursuit only for the obsessive. “It’s possible,” is, as I’ve posted about before, the lowest bar we can create; we should be concerned about what’s probable instead, and efforts to establish that it’s more probable than any mundane explanation. That means evidence, and plenty of it. Suspicion is not evidence, and suspicion because it fits with some personal indulgence is especially lame. Righteous indignation is a very common trait, and all too often, the struggle to maintain it fosters a lot of bias.

Much is often made about the reports of UFO investigations obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, which permits details that may be detrimental to security to be redacted – frequently, when such reports are received they are so edited that little information can be derived from them. Isn’t this evidence of… something? Well, yes, it’s evidence of something, but something unexpected? Hardly. Let’s consider an imaginary example. Say that, in investigating a sighting, there was information from an Air Force Base, but most of it was cut out. Why? Well, for starters, anything airborne stands the potential of being an unauthorized and possibly hostile incursion, and we’re not talking about aliens here, but the proven-to-exist other nations which may be probing our defensive systems, as happens pretty much constantly. Details in the report may give the type of radar, the range of its effectiveness, the speed of the response, and so on. In fact, if this was an actual incursion, then it’s valuable information concerning how effective the mission was. Even the mention of a commanding officer means that any further appearances of his/her name pins down what base is being referred to and that it is a defensive installation. None of this is the faintest indication of alien life, but all of it is information that we might not want to make freely accessible.

Which starts coming around to a key point in a lot of these topics: if someone doesn’t want us to know about something, then no amount of whining or petitioning or demands for satisfaction are going to accomplish jack. Good or bad, it’s being withheld for a reason, and that reason is not going to be outweighed by even a large percentage of the public getting pissed off – indeed, that might even be what they’re trying to avoid. But most assuredly, going through official channels isn’t going to produce evidence of a conspiracy or a coverup or whatever; organizations don’t set themselves up to shoot themselves in the foot. To find anything of the sort, we’re going to have to dig deep, and not just voice suspicions.

And most especially, if there are secret files that contain seriously damaging information, no one’s going to be stupid enough to tell us they exist. Sometimes, just the barest hint of common sense is all that’s needed.