Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The art of obfuscation

with 2 comments

In the book Obfuscation: A User’s Guide for Privacy and Protest, a long excerpt of which recently appeared on Nautilus, the academics Finn Brunton and Helen Nissenbaum investigate the ways in which short-term sources of distraction can be used to conceal or obscure the truth. One of their most striking examples is drawn from The Art of Political Murder by Francisco Goldman, which recounts the aftermath of the brutal assassination of the Guatemalan bishop Juan José Gerardi Conedera. Brunton and Nissenbaum write:   

As Goldman documented the long and dangerous process of bringing at least a few of those responsible within the Guatemalan military to justice for this murder, he observed that those threatened by the investigation didn’t merely plant evidence to conceal their role. Framing someone else would be an obvious tactic, and the planted evidence would be assumed to be false. Rather, they produced too much conflicting evidence, too many witnesses and testimonials, too many possible stories. The goal was not to construct an airtight lie, but rather to multiply the possible hypotheses so prolifically that observers would despair of ever arriving at the truth. The circumstances of the bishop’s murder produced what Goldman terms an “endlessly exploitable situation,” full of leads that led nowhere and mountains of seized evidence, each factual element calling the others into question. “So much could be made and so much would be made to seem to connect,” Goldman writes, his italics emphasizing the power of the ambiguity.

What interests me the most about this account is how the players took the existing features of this “endlessly exploitable situation,” which was already too complicated for any one person to easily understand, and simply turned up the volume. They didn’t need to create distractions out of nothing—they just had to leverage and intensify what was naturally there. It’s a clever strategy, because it only needs to last long for enough to run out the clock until the possibility of any real investigation has diminished. Brunton and Nissenbaum draw a useful analogy to the concept of “chaff” in radar countermeasures:

During World War II, a radar operator tracks an airplane over Hamburg, guiding searchlights and anti-aircraft guns in relation to a phosphor dot whose position is updated with each sweep of the antenna. Abruptly, dots that seem to represent airplanes begin to multiply, quickly swamping the display. The actual plane is in there somewhere, impossible to locate owing to the presence of “false echoes.” The plane has released chaff—strips of black paper backed with aluminum foil and cut to half the target radar’s wavelength. Thrown out by the pound and then floating down through the air, they fill the radar screen with signals. The chaff has exactly met the conditions of data the radar is configured to look for, and has given it more “planes,” scattered all across the sky, than it can handle…That the chaff worked only briefly as it fluttered to the ground and was not a permanent solution wasn’t relevant under the circumstances. It only had to work well enough and long enough for the plane to get past the range of the radar.

The authors conclude: “Many forms of obfuscation work best as time-buying ‘throw-away’ moves. They can get you only a few minutes, but sometimes a few minutes is all the time you need.”

The book Obfuscation appeared almost exactly a year ago, but its argument takes on an additional resonance now, when the level of noise in our politics has risen to a degree that makes the culture wars of the past seem positively quaint. It can largely, but not entirely, be attributed to just one man, and there’s an ongoing debate over whether Trump’s use of the rhetorical equivalent of chaff is instinctive, like a squid squirting ink at its enemies, or a deliberate strategy. I tend to see it as the former, but that doesn’t mean that his impulsiveness can’t product the same result—and perhaps even more effectively—as a considered program of disinformation and distraction. What really scares me is the prospect of such tricks becoming channeled and institutionalized the hands of more capable surrogates, as soon as an “endlessly exploitable situation” comes to pass. In The Art of Political Murder, Goldman sums up “the seemingly irresistible logic behind so much of the suspicion, speculation, and tendentiousness” that enveloped the bishop’s death: “Something like this can seem to have a connection to a crime like that.” All you need is an event that produces a flood of data that can be assembled in any number of ways by selectively emphasizing certain connections while deemphasizing others. The great example here is the Kennedy assassination, which generated an unbelievable amount of raw ore for obsessive personalities to sift, like a bin of tesserae that could be put together into any mosaic imaginable. Compiling huge masses of documentation and testimony and placing it before the public is generally something that we only see in a governmental investigation, which has the time and resources to accumulate the information that will inevitably be used to undermine its own conclusions.   

At the moment, there’s one obvious scenario in which this precise situation could arise. I’ve often found myself thinking of Robert Mueller in much the way that Quinta Jurecic of the Washington Post characterizes him in an opinion piece starkly titled “Robert Mueller Can’t Save Us”: “In the American imagination, Mueller is more than Trump’s adversary or the man who happens to be investigating him. He’s the president’s mythic opposite—the anti-Trump…Mueller is an avatar of our hope that justice and meaning will reassert themselves against Trumpian insincerity.” And I frequently console myself with the image of the Mueller investigation as a kind of bucket in which every passing outrage, briefly flaring up in the media only to be obscured by its successors, is filed away for later reckoning. As Jurecic points out, these hopes are misplaced:

There’s no way of knowing how long [Mueller’s] investigation will take and what it will turn up. It could be years before the probe is completed. It could be that Mueller’s team finds no evidence of criminal misconduct on the part of the president himself. And because the special counsel has no obligation to report his conclusions to the public—indeed, the special-counsel regulations do not give him the power to do so without the approval of Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein—we may never know what he uncovers.

She’s right, but she also misses what I think is the most frightening possibility of all, which is that the Russia investigation will provide the exact combination of factors—“too many witnesses and testimonials, too many possible stories”—to create the situation that Goldman described in Guatemala. It’s hard to imagine a better breeding ground for conspiracy theories, alternate narratives, and false connections, and the likely purveyors are already practicing on a smaller scale. The Mueller investigation is necessary and important. But it will also provide the artists of obfuscation with the materials to paint their masterpiece.

2 Responses

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  1. Excellent. This seems to be the theme for Politicians, news reporting and domestic and foreign affairs. This should be also a wake up call to all American and the World Wide populous seeking real truths.

    chumlyfelix

    October 12, 2017 at 6:39 pm

  2. Wow!

    Andrea Kenner

    October 14, 2017 at 2:45 pm


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