Public Secrets and the Rise of the U.S. Security State


Tim Melley is Professor of Literature and Director of the Humanities Center at Miami University. His research interests include U.S. literary and cultural history since 1950, Cold War studies, postmodernism, and fiction writing. He is the author of The Covert Sphere: Secrecy, Fiction, and the National Security State (Cornell University Press, 2012) and Empire of Conspiracy: The Culture of Paranoia in Postwar America (Cornell University Press, 2000). Melley is currently completing a collection of short stories and writing about the cultural politics of contemporary terrorism.

Melley gave a lecture entitled “Public Secrets and the Rise of the U.S. Security State” at the Havighurst Colloquium “Secrecy, Sovereignty, and Power,” organized by Neringa Klumbytė, Associate Professor of Anthropology, on October 27, 2014. Dennis Kontorovich, a MU REES major, interviewed Melley about his research on the covert public sphere, brainwashing, fictions we believe in, and the rise of the U.S. security state.

Dennis Kontorovich: How did you go about conducting your research for the book, The Covert Sphere? Did you use any declassified documents and were there any issues with getting a hold of these documents?

Tim Melley: Yes, I did use declassified documents and no, it was fairly easy to get them. A lot of them have been dug up by activist groups and individuals who have made a living finding these documents. There is a site called the Black Vault, where activists have put a lot of CIA documents online. A lot of the material that I was interested in was declassified quite a long time ago, especially the stuff on brainwashing and the MK Ultra program, which I write about in the first chapter of the book. A lot of the stuff on the spy trials of the 1950’s, which I cover as well, is declassified. So a lot of the archival material really isn’t even in an archive anymore, as it has been gathered by advocates and it has been put online. A lot of the documents are declassified, but they are redacted. What that means is that some details, especially the names of persons in the reports, are blacked out. So, it’s not like you are getting the original document. Fortunately, the work that I do does not really rely on biography much; it is usually not that important to me who did what because I am not tracing individual actors through time. For example, I am not trying to trace, say, Richard Bisel, a high ranking CIA official, and accounting for everything that he knew or did not know. What I am interested in instead is what is public knowledge at any given time. And lot of what the public “knows” comes from fiction. Public knowledge is a particular kind of knowledge that is part fantasy and part factual knowledge. There is a strange mixture of those things in the history of the covert U.S. state. In fact, part of what is interesting is, part of what those documents reveal is that the CIA itself, often relies on fiction. In part, that is because knowledge inside covert agencies is so highly compartmentalized. What is going on in compartment A is not being shared with what is going on in compartment B. So what happens is that even the agents within covert government have to speculate a great deal. We often forget that they are normal people who go home and watch spy movies on TV like the rest of us—and their knowledge is also influenced by those fictional forms.

Dennis Kontorovich: So, how did the Cold War idea of brainwashing, a piece of fiction which emerged from the Korean War, become part of CIA policy? And then, could you think of some other important fictions that we live with?

Tim Melley: The story of brainwashing is fascinating. Brainwashing originally was a concept promulgated by a CIA psychological warfare officer named Edward Hunter. Hunter wrote a newspaper article during the Korean War that claimed the Chinese had developed a technique called “brainwashing.” Hunter then wrote a series of books about the practice, which he described as an incredibly powerful process of mind control. A strange thing happened at this point. Officials in the CIA read Hunter’s report and took it seriously. This was an unintended consequence of the compartmentalization I mentioned earlier. The CIA’s psychological warfare division is putting out this material saying that the Chinese have developed a mind control weapon and the CIA operations directorate and leadership begin to worry that the Chinese really did have such a weapon. Pretty soon concern mounted. When soldiers and politicians came back from abroad they were checked to make sure they had not been brainwashed. More important, the CIA felt it needed to compete with the Chinese by developing its own mind control weapon. This quest led to one of the ugliest chapters in CIA history. The CIA funded a series of truly awful experiments and projects designed to create a mind control weapon. They used prostitutes to lure ordinary American men into rooms where they gave the men LSD and observed them. In a drug rehab hospital in Kentucky, they gave recovering addicts LSD for 80 straight days to see what would happen. There were many such experiments on human guinea pigs, some of which resulted in death. After many years of study, what they discovered is that there really is no such thing as brainwashing in the sense of a magical mind control weapon. But there are ways to control people powerfully. For example, if you isolate people, and keep them in really horrible conditions for extended periods of time, they will basically do or say whatever you want. This practice has become what is now known as enhanced interrogation. In short, “brainwashing” is essentially torture.

One of the interesting things about the brainwashing story is that it has led to a huge popular culture that is very much alive today. And this is because it is a kind of metaphor for the ideological struggle that was the essence of the Cold War. After all, a “cold” war consists primarily in trying to change the minds of your opponents. If everybody decides to adopt communism, then the Cold War is over, the communists have won—or vice versa. The Cold War was a war of ideas—but of course clandestine agencies were operating as flak organizations that attempted to influence the public sphere, which was supposed to be a free marketplace of ideas.

Dennis Kontorovich: Why do you believe the public sphere almost wants to proclaim their ignorance?

Tim Melley: I don’t think the public sphere wants anything. The public sphere is just a place where we talk about public policy. You and I are in it right now because we are having this conversation. So, the public sphere itself doesn’t want something. What you are getting at, I think, is the public wants to see itself as innocent and this is partly because citizenship has been redefined in the United States. The public has been encouraged, in a whole variety of conscious and unconscious ways, to disavow its knowledge and responsibility for what the U.S. government does overseas. We do not have state censors that prohibit us from knowing what is going on in the world, but our state secrecy policy suggests that we need not, or should not, know. It suggests that there are people in our government that are paid and trained to do certain things and that the rest of us are better off not knowing about. The message is powerful; it comes from state policy and from popular culture. It tells us not to worry about the messy details; others will take care of everything. It is no accident that after 9/11 George Bush suggested that citizens could help out by shopping. This suggestion is consistent with the idea that to be a good citizen means being involved in the market and managing your daily life and allowing the government to do that stuff that happens on the “dark side.” Of course, people are in some ways desperate to know what covert agencies do on the “dark side.” We are all fascinated by this secret work, which is why we watch movies and TV shows that depict thrilling, but also terrifying and awful, done on behalf of the United States. At the same time, we don’t really want to know. Our interest in covert action is conflicted, marked by both curiosity and revulsion. Hence our “knowledge” or belief about the activity of our own government is marked by a paradoxical mix of knowing and not knowing. We want to know—but mostly at the level of fantasy. This is why one of the biggest media experiences in human history “Modern Warfare: Call of Duty.” More hours of human energy have been spent in playing this covert ops game than on almost any other media experience. And what is this experience? It is essentially a fantasy of citizenship. It allows us to lie on ours sofas pretending to be black ops soldiers risking our lives for our country. At the same time, there are really people who are going overseas and risking life and limb, and in many ways we do not want to think about the real work they are doing. We want to know, but we also don’t want to know. We have created a system of half-knowledge.

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