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Saturday, October 17, 2015

ISSS-ISAC 2015: Springfield, MA


Last weekend, I traveled to Springfield, MA, to attend the Annual Joint Meeting of the International Security Studies Section of ISA and the International Security and Arms Control Section of APSA.

For a panel "Thinking About Security," I presented a paper, "Thinking the Unthinkable About National Security Narratives," (latter requires ISA archive access) which considers the often-deceptive narratives constructed and employed by American national security elites to identify threats, justify policy actions (including war and intervention), and sustain support for policy -- including war and intervention. The field is characterized by secrecy and limited participation in both public debate and internal decision-making. Deception and secrecy are arguably endemic and enduring problems in national security affairs and not readily addressed by the ordinary "thinkable" solutions.

It's a very rough paper that needs a great deal of work. The empirical section of the paper is especially crude, only briefly surveying a lot of literature on threat inflation, the misapplication of the Munich analogy, and other instances when security elites employed deceptive narratives. Along with various cold war examples, I mention deceptions involving the Gulf of Tonkin incident, Persian Gulf War, and Iraq war. I also mention a few lesser deceptions, involving Jessica Lynch and Pat Tillman, for example.

Today, I just read a long and interesting piece in the New York Times Magazine by Jonathan Mahler that covers much the same ground (including many of the same examples and concerns about secrecy and deception) though with terrific reporting and analysis of the narrative about the killing of Osama bin Laden. As I said last weekend in Springfield (and this was in my conference proposal), my inspiration for the paper was the Seymour Hersh story about the killing of Osama bin Laden. My paper briefly mentions the various versions of the bin Laden story, but primarily emphasizes the difficulty of finding "truth" on any significant national security issue.

I ran out of time writing, but the paper concludes by arguing (as I often have) the need for more open and inclusive debate in the public sphere. A "marketplace of ideas" is likely not going to work if we want anything like democratic decision-making on national security affairs.

Among other avenues, I plan to look at what the US government used to say about Soviet "disinformation" and deception.

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