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Copyright

Who Needs a Stacked Deck?

 

February 25, 1998

Trial balloons made of lead? Prescriptions for the nation's ills being rejected because they conflict with medicines already in the system? When it's time to bring everything into line and get everyone going in the same direction, invite 'em to Washington, give 'em security clearances, and make 'em part of the policy making family.

The Clinton Administration is trying a familiar strategy to manufacture consensus on the escrowed encryption issue. While not every committee empaneled in DC gives its members security clearances, the government saw fit do so in the case of the 20-person Export Council Encryption Subcommittee. There are representatives from banks, credit card companies, technology firms, police associations, and nonprofit groups, though Declan McCollough notes in a recent Netly News opinion piece that one of the police organizations, the National Sheriffs' Assocation, is pressing for domestic escrow ensuring immediate access to any encrypted communication or file.

How Dare You Disagree?

Of course, the idea behind these committees is that everyone gets together to talk and, with luck, a form of what Irving Janis calls "groupthink" will take over. The principle is that members of a group won't want to make waves; experiments with groups of ten, where nine of the participants are instructed to insist on a position contrary to fact, have shown that the remaining member, rather than upset the group, will eventually agree that one line is shorter than the other when they are actually the same length. The Administration can't overload the Subcommittee so obviously, but it can try to co-opt its recalcitrant members with displays of trust and the appearance of access to and participation in the policy making process.

The problem is that the industry reps are used to playing for huge stakes on a daily basis and aren't easily awed by government claims that certain issues are life or death, particularly in the case of encryption. Banks and credit card companies use encryption all the time and, what's worse from a groupthink perspective, are natural enemies of regulators. The freer the market, the better they like it. So, it's not entirely surprising that a Citibank executive and Commerce Undersecretary William Reinsch mixed it up a little. It was a brief exchange, but when the industry rep pointed out FBI chief Louis Freeh's calls for mandatory key escrow, broadcast on C-SPAN, contradicted Reinsch's claim that "mandatory key escrow is not the administration's policy," Reinsch came back with a real gem: "You believe everything you see on television?"

On the Cartoon Network? No. On C-SPAN? Am I not supposed to? What, is Oliver North testifying again?

McCollough takes the Citibank exec to task for not pressing the point, but in Policyland that sort of thing just doesn't happen. Also, from a rhetorical standpoint, letting Reinsch's sarcastic response stand as the last word is a sound strategy. When someone makes an ass of themselves, take a picture and move on -- the last thing you want to do is prolong the exchange and give them a chance to crawl out of the hole they dug.

No Crystal Ball Required

Setting groupthink aside, don't doubt for a moment that this Subcommittee's conclusions aren't preordained. If there's a report to be written at the end, which no Subcommittee can resist, it will support the government's position in one way or another. The industrial and public interest members should put up resistance in the Subcommitte's public hearings, but the most effective strategy would be to write a separate report and try to apply lobbying muscle more effectively. This battle will be fought in Congress, though the courts are there as a last line of defense.

An Administration that adopted Clipper in the face of public comments running against them 100-to-1 won't care about the Subcommittee's findings, especially if they're not what the Administration wants to hear.