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How Dystopian Secrecy Contributes to Clueless Wars

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Posted on Jun 11, 2013
atevendepolo (CC BY 2.0)

By Chase Madar, TomDispatch

(Page 2)

What if the entire nation had had access to that highly classified document?  What if bloggers, veterans’ groups, clergy, journalists, educators, and other opinion leaders had been able to see the full intelligence estimate, not just the morsels cherry-picked by Cheney and his mates?  Even then, of course, there was enough information around to convince millions of people across the globe of the folly of such an invasion, but what if some insider had really laid out the whole truth, not just the cherry-picked pseudofacts in those months and the games being played by other insiders to fool Congress and the American people into a war of choice and design in the Middle East?  As we now know, whatever potentially helpful information there was remained conveniently beyond our sight until a military and humanitarian disaster was unleashed.

Any private-sector employee who screwed up this badly would be fired on the spot, or at the very least put under full-scale supervision.  And this was the gift of Bradley Manning: thanks to his trove of declassified documents our incompetent foreign policy elites finally have the supervision they manifestly need.

Not surprisingly, foreign policy elites don’t much enjoy being supervised.  Like orthopedic surgeons, police departments, and every other professional group under the sun, the military brass and their junior partners in the diplomatic corps feel deeply that they should be exempt from public oversight.  Every volley of revealed documents from WikiLeaks has stimulated the same outraged response from that crew: near-total secrecy is essential to the delicate arts of diplomacy and war.

Let us humor our foreign policy elites (who have feelings too), despite their abysmal 10-year resumé of charred rubble and mangled limbs.  There may be a time and a place for secrecy, even duplicity, in statecraft.  But history shows that a heavy blood-price is often attached to diplomats saying one thing in public and meaning something else in private. In the late 1940s, for instance, the United States publicly declared that the Korean peninsula was not viewed by Washington as a vital interest, emboldening the North to invade the South and begin the Korean War.  Our government infamously escalated the Vietnam War behind a smokescreen of official secrecy, distortion, and lies.  Saddam Hussein rolled into Kuwait after U.S. Ambassador to Iraq April Glaspie told the Ba’athist strongman that he could do what he pleased on his southern border and still bask in the good graces of Washington. This is not a record of success.

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So what’s wrong with diplomats doing more of their business in the daylight—a very old idea not cooked up at Julian Assange’s kitchen table five years ago?  Check out the mainstream political science literature on international relations and you’ll find rigorous, respectable, borderline-boring studies touting the virtues of relative transparency in statecraft—as, for example, in making the post-Napoleonic Concert of Europe such a durable peace deal.  On the other hand, when nation-states get coy about their commitments to other states or to their own citizenry, violent disaster is often in the offing.

Dystopian Secrecy

Foreign policy elites regularly swear that the WikiLeaks example, if allowed to stand, puts us on a perilous path towards “total transparency.” Wrong again. In fact, without the help of WikiLeaks and others, there is no question that the U.S. national security state, as the most recent phone and Internet revelations indicate, is moving towards something remarkably like total state secrecy.  The classification of documents has gone through the roof.  Washington classified a staggering 92 million public records in 2011, up from 77 million the year before and from 14 million in 2003.  (By way of comparison, the various troves of documents Manning leaked add up to less than 1% of what Washington classifies annually—not exactly the definition of “total transparency”.)

Meanwhile, the declassification of ancient secrets within the national security state moves at a near-geological tempo.  The National Security Agency, for example, only finished declassifying documents from the Madison presidency (1809-1817) in 2011. No less indicative of Washington’s course, the prosecution of governmental whistleblowers in the Obama years has burned with a particularly vindictive fury, fueled by both political parties and Congress as well as the White House.

Our government secrecy fetishists invest their security clearances (held by an elite coterie of 4.8 million people) and the information security (InfoSec) regime they continue to elaborate with all sorts of protective powers over life and limb.  But what gets people killed, no matter how much our pols and pundits strain to deny it, aren’t InfoSec breaches or media leaks, but foolish and clueless strategic choices. Putting the blame on leaks is a nice way to pass the buck, but at the risk of stating the obvious, what has killed 1,605 U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan since 2009 is the war in Afghanistan—not Bradley Manning or any of the other five leakers whom Obama has prosecuted under the Espionage Act of 1917.  Leaks and whistleblowers should not be made scapegoats for bad strategic choices, which would have been a whole lot less bad had they been informed by all the relevant facts.

Pardon my utopian extremism, but knowing what your government is doing really isn’t such a bad thing and it has to do with aiding the (American) public, not the enemy.  Knowing what your government is doing is not some special privilege that the government generously bestows on us when we’re good and obedient citizens, it’s an obligation that goes to the heart of the matter in a free country.  After all, it should be ordinary citizens like us who make the ultimate decision about whether war X is worth fighting or not, worth escalating or not, worth ending or not.

When such momentous public decisions are made and the public doesn’t have—isn’t allowed to have—a clue, you end up in a fantasy land of aggressive actions that, over the past dozen years, have gotten hundreds of thousands killed and left us in a far more dangerous world. These are the wages of dystopian government secrecy.


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