Michael Barkun: Reverse Transparency in Post-9/11 America

Barkun - Chasing PhantomsWe welcome a guest post today from Michael Barkun, author of Chasing Phantoms: Reality, Imagination, and Homeland Security Since 9/11, which will be available in paperback next month. In the book, Barkun identifies a gap between the realities of terrorism—“violence without a return address”—and the everyday discourse about it among government officials and the general public. Demonstrating that U.S. homeland security policy reflects significant nonrational thinking, Barkun offers new recommendations for effective—and rational—policymaking.

In the following post, Barkun addresses new revelations about government surveillance that have come to light since the original publication of the book in 2011.


I wrote Chasing Phantoms: Reality, Imagination, and Homeland Security Since 9/11 before Edward Snowden released his massive accumulation of National Security Agency documents. Like most Americans, I was stunned by the extent to which the NSA had penetrated domestic as well as foreign communications. While my book did not anticipate the Snowden disclosures, what we now know about government surveillance is consistent with an argument I made in Chasing Phantoms.

That argument appeared in a chapter I called “Making the Invisible Visible: Reverse Transparency and Privacy.” One of the immediate post–9/11 fears was that terrorists and their weapons of mass destruction would be able to move about indistinguishable from the general population and ordinary articles of commerce. As a result, much of the early emphasis of homeland security was on making these putatively invisible entities visible and thus separate them from the surrounding environment. If this could be done, it would result in a distinction of the dangerous from the harmless. Although many of these ventures turned out to be unsuccessful for technical reasons, the emphasis on bringing supposedly invisible dangers to visibility necessitated infringements upon privacy.

Unlike the covert electronic infringements by the NSA, some other infringements are open and obvious—for example, security check-points at airports and government buildings, or surveillance cameras covering public spaces. These are examples of what I term “reverse transparency.” Traditionally, transparency has been a standard applied to organizations, such as corporations or governments, by which we require that their decisions be clear and open in order to permit accountability. Increasingly, however, under the pressure of homeland security concerns, this traditional conception has been, as it were, stood on its head.

Reverse transparency implies two changes. First, it is now the individual to whom transparency applies. He or she must demonstrate harmlessness, by submitting to searches or examinations, or by being subject to some form of oversight. Second, government, which was once subject to transparency, is increasingly immune from it, hedged about by secrecy in the name of national security. To the extent that domestic communications, such as phone calls and emails, are also monitored, they, too, reinforce reverse transparency, for personal messages, as well as personal behavior, must now be innocent.

Clearly, some of the limitations on privacy would have occurred even without a terrorist attack, simply as a result of technological developments—social media, closed-circuit television systems, and so on. However, the pressure to prevent a repetition of September 11th unquestionably accelerated and exploited factors that were already present.

Michael Barkun is professor emeritus of political science at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University and is a former FBI consultant in domestic terrorism cases. He is author of several books, including Religion and the Racist Right: The Origins of the Christian Identity MovementChasing Phantoms: Reality, Imagination, and Homeland Security Since 9/11 is now available in hardcover and will be available in paperback in December 2014.