Sunday, June 07, 2009


Blank Spots

"The history of secret geographies shows that when they do come into contact with the legal system, the legal system tends to change in order to accommodate them." Thus writes Trevor Paglen, author of Blank Spots on the Map: The Dark Geography of the Pentagon's Secret World (p. 140). One of the legal cases discussed by Paglen is 1953 United States v. Reynolds decision, which cemented the "state secrets privilege" in American law. But the privilege did not protect national security but rather a lie that implicated the US Air Force in the death of Bob Reynolds in a swampy field near Waycross, Georgia. This is just one of the places Paglen ties to "blank spots" in the law or on a map, including Area 51.

Paglen also discusses the blank spots in the federal budget, writing (pp. 183-4):
The Founding Fathers understood the golden rule: "He who has the gold makes the rules." They understood that, in the halls of government as it is in so many other affairs, money is both information and power. As such, [Article I, Section 9, Clause 7] is a rebuke to the old monarchism the Founding Fathers wanted to free themselves from. "The people," argued George Mason, "had a right to know the expenditures of their money." Open books, argued James Madison, imparted both knowledge and responsibility upon a democratic citizenry: "A popular Government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy or perhaps both," he wrote. "Knowledge will forever govern ignorance. And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives."
Yet, as Paglen notes, even the amount, let alone what it pays for, of the "black budget" is secret . Nevertheless Paglen offers an estimate from R. J. Hillhouse of $60 billion--"roughly comparable to to what the Chinese military--the second-largest military in the world--spends each year." Two-thirds of that figure goes to even less accountable private contractors (p. 205).

In the book's epilogue (p. 275), Paglen says:
The black world has sculpted the United States in numerous ways. Creating secret geographies has meant erasing parts of the Constitution, creating blank spots in the law, institutionalizing dishonesty in the halls of government, handing sovereign powers--what used to be the unlimited power of monarchs over their subjects and territories--to the executive branch, making the nation's economy dependent upon military spending, and turning our own history into a state secret.
All in all Blank Spots on the Map was a quick and fascinating read. It is highly recommended.

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