What You Should Think About State Secrets

October 16, 2007

“Secrecy, once accepted, becomes an addiction.”

–Edward Teller

It has recently come to light that an inventory of corruption in Nouri Al-Maliki’s regime was kept from public scrutiny because it was classified as an American state secret. It seems rarely a month goes by that there is not some news of a bizarre application of official secrecy by White House officials. After all, what possible purpose could this assessment serve if it was not intended to inform decisions related to our nation’s Iraq policy?

The pattern of secrecy practiced by the current administration supports a common criticism of their methods. It would seem they believe national discussions of Iraq policy have no place in national decisions about Iraq policy. In fact, the word “Iraq” could be struck from the previous sentence without rendering it untrue. From requiring audience members at campaign events sign oaths of political loyalty to banning protests anywhere near a location the President might catch sight of them, this administration seems to have an “out of sight, out of mind” attitude about political dissent.

Dragging such an attitude into the loftiest halls of power is directly at odds with the traditions, and functional mechanisms, of democracy itself. In instances where dissent rests on falsehoods and misunderstandings, confronting it improves the quality of public information and increases support for legitimate policies. In instances where dissent derives from insightful critique, acknowledging that critique and adapting policy to the truths it contains will produce better results. Either way, the quality of national leadership suffers to the degree the existence of dissent is denied.

Ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu once wrote of secrecy, “through you we learn to be invisible, through you inaudible; and hence we can hold the enemy’s fate in our hands.” Countless follies have emerged from business managers applying Sun Tzu’s teachings without regard for the enormous differences between armies of slave-conscripts engaged in ancient warfare and workforces of free citizens engaged in economic productivity. I have no idea to what extent the Bush-Cheney team are students of Sun Tzu. Yet it would seem that they take this approach to secrecy into the realm of political debate.

A lesson learned too late, if it has been learned at all by White House insiders, is that there are real differences between methods that are effective in the short term and methods that produce sustainable success. At its simplest level this is an obvious lesson. Armed robbery is an effective way to get money. Yet it is no way to make a steady living. Destroying the reputations of political opponents is an effective way to win elections. Yet it is no substitute for leadership driven by good ideas along with clear communication that enables the public to understand the goodness of those ideas.

It should be no secret that authoritarian leadership rests uneasily on the backs of a population inclined to believe their homeland is governed by and for its people. As early as the transition from our second to our third President, this had been established. John Adams wielded the powers of his office in one blatant political maneuver after another. Thomas Jefferson was able to unseat the incumbent in no small part because of widespread concern that power had been abused.

A cynic might argue that there would have been a second term for our second President if only he had followed through on ambitions of a war against revolutionary France. A groundswell of public support appears to be a primal response to warfare. As it happened, more people felt threatened by authoritarian action menacing American civil liberties than French naval actions menacing American shipping. The end result was the empowerment of a liberal thinker who did much to expand the scope of the federal government, both institutionally and via the Louisiana Purchase.

A cynic might also argue that a state of perpetual warfare in Iraq provided a political form of job security. It seems an unreasonable assertion to argue that any President would wreak so much havoc for purely political reasons. No doubt the architects of existing Iraq policy were driven by a complex mixture of motives that varied from person to person. As hindsight now reveals even to them, mistakes were made in the planning and implementation of the initiative to remove Saddam Hussein from power.

Yet it is not as if the foresight to avoid these mistakes was missing from the entire American population. Credible weapons inspection experts recognized that prewar Iraq had become largely compliant with UN mandates. Credible military experts recognized that a large occupying force would be required to maintain order in the aftermath of an invasion. A wide range of credible voices recognized that a jubilant reception and instant harmony would not greet an army of foreigners on Iraqi soil. It seems as if much more effort was made to undermine the credibility of public figures expressing such views than was made to deal with potential problems at the heart of their concerns.

Terrorists attacking America and/or our allies certainly are enemies of the state. Insurgents intent on killing American personnel may reasonably be considered enemies. However, there is nothing reasonable at all about regarding political critics or even rival politicians as enemies of the state. For the most part, keeping sources and methods of intelligence gathering secret will give us an advantage over our enemies. In appropriate contexts, keeping the deployment and capabilities of military assets secret can also provide such an advantage. By contrast, there is no advantage to be gained through distorting public debate about the merits of major national objectives by concealing crucial relevant information.

It is lamentable yet understandable that there will always be some fringe of hotheads intent on characterizing the party out of power as “the enemy.” A mind both volatile and simple does not easily grasp concepts like friendly competition or loyal opposition. What is harder to understand is how this dangerous mode of thought should come to shape the work product of the executive branch. Do they desire an end to public debate about national priorities? Do they believe suppressing discussion of potential problems will alter reality to insure no actual problems occur?

From expanding domestic surveillance to conducting extraordinary renditions to reshaping interrogation policies to so many other bold initiatives undertaken by this administration, the quality of public information has been seriously degraded by sweeping exercise of the power to classify information a state secret. Has our enemy so succeeded in terrorizing us that all these national discussions must be silenced for fear of forfeiting a strategic advantage? Is it really plausible that any campaign of terrorist attacks could deprive our society of more than our leaders willingly sacrifice to the War on Terror as an institution?

Clearly a matter like the extent of corruption in the present Iraqi government has a crucial role to play in the ongoing national debate about Iraq policy. It may be fair to argue that a comprehensive report of this nature should remain classified in part, since it may contain plenty of innuendo along with real evidence. Yet to keep the real evidence classified as a state secret too — that leaves no doubt this administration wishes to suppress informed and honest debate about the future of U.S.-Iraqi relations.

It would be wrong to claim this pattern of behavior establishes George W. Bush as the real enemy of our nation. Yet it is not at all wrong to conclude that his administration regularly makes a mistake similar in form. Millions of loyal American dissenters should never be treated as enemies against which the need to gain advantage justifies exploiting the power of state secrecy.

Civic discourse is degraded to the degree participants sink to that level. Negative emotions can draw well-intentioned citizens into that trap, prompting even more politics of personal destruction. Yet, if you really think about it, demanding the best available information to inform public discussion of national priorities is the right response to this problem of pathologically secretive governance.

What You Should Think About the War

September 30, 2007

“We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

–Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Bonus points go out to readers reacting to this title with the thought, “which war?” Efforts ongoing in Afghanistan could be said to constitute a war. The stage has been set for perpetual warfare in Iraq. The latter is clearly the 800 lbs. gorilla in any room where American politics are up for discussion. Operation Iraqi Freedom is a worthy topic unto itself, as are many facets of it. It would be wrong to avoid it entirely in my first essay here to go beyond self-reference.

Yet I do want to take it in context. That means examining the Global War on Terror. Like the War on Drugs or the War on Poverty, it is an idea that wears its faults in its name. “War” is the clash of great powers employing force of arms to defeat dangerous enemies. Terror (as defined by the creators of GWoT) does not come at us with legions of uniformed soldiers. This is as true as the fact that there are no marines set to storm beaches in the name of Poverty nor an air force poised to rain down fire on enemies of Drugs.

The decision to couch counterterrorism policy in the language of war is deliberately misleading. The false narrative it promotes empowers Al Qaeda and so many copycat groups by raising them up to the level of dire threats capable of destroying the American way of life. Without that lie, their power is actually fairly feeble. What’s that? Terrorists are weak, and they do not deserve our fear? Then why has the world turned so in these past six years?

The world seemed to shake on September 11th, 2001. Actually, the globe’s vibrations were fairly normal. It was the hazy atmosphere around our world that was abuzz with the news of the day. Nearly 3,000 people, including citizens from dozens of other nations, died in attacks against powerful American institutions. Many great human beings were murdered by those malicious hijackers. Yet the most notable casualty of the day might be the myth of American invulnerability.

The desire to restore perfect national security was real, even if the security itself never was. Much time would pass before any voices of prominence asked, “how much safety is enough?” It would be a happy occurrence if we could keep traffic fatalities below 3,000 in any given month. Taking a rational approach, we should be a great deal more afraid of our cars than we should be of Al Qaeda. Unfortunately for the world, a pair of religious extremists (both formerly oil money playboys) made it their business to crush rational approaches to terrorism.

Admittedly, Osama bin Laden would be out of a job if his followers had the good sense to abandon violence and pursue other methods of advancing their agendas. On the other hand, it seems bizarre that an American President would want actual terrorist attacks (never mind intercepted chatter about terrorist attacks or idle speculation about possible terrorism) to successfully terrorize people. Yet again and again and again, this real threat is made to seem cause for much greater concern than many other equally real, and much more threatening, phenomena.

A false narrative exaggerating the power of terrorists is a really lousy thing for American morale, prosperity, etc. However, it is a very useful thing for purposes of consolidating political power and expanding the scope of the police state. Perhaps the executive branch really is run by some sinister Machiavellian throwback, or perhaps it is only that public policy has been painted with too broad a brush. Whatever the mechanism, its output is unmistakable.

“We have to do everything we can to support the troops,” becomes a mandate to ignore the humanitarian crisis in Iraq, ignore the shamelessly incompetent planning behind that war, and even turn a blind eye to the misdeeds of mercenaries far more eager to cash in on our flag than to honor it. “We have to do everything we can to keep secrets from our enemies,” becomes a mandate to stonewall all manner of legitimate investigations, conduct unwarranted surveillance on American citizens, and even operate secret prisons in far off lands where civilized oversight becomes a non-issue.

The Department of Homeland Security’s spending is so disordered that adequate records to certify an audit simply do not exist. Meanwhile the Pentagon continues a long string of failed audits. Hey, there’s a war on – bean counting will have to wait, right? The missile defense shield as it is already being built cannot defend against missiles? Don’t anybody dare let the public understand this or we’ll all look weak in front of those deadly terrorists! Even something like the political tactics that spawned the term “swiftboating” becomes excusable to an American coward living in constant terror of Al Qaeda’s next move (provided that same fearful patriot also buys into a false narrative implying a partisan monopoly on security and strength.)

If you live in, work at, or commute across a landmark famed the world over, perhaps it is excusable to indulge in a moment’s fear from time to time. Fear of terrorism is much like fear of flying. As feelings, neither can really be “wrong,” though preoccupation with such fears can be unhealthy. After all, we would be fools to let people living in constant fear of flying set aviation policy for the entire nation. By the same logic, our counterterrorism policy should not rest on a foundation of constant fear.

Did we need to expand our intelligence services and special forces programs so as to better locate and neutralize confirmed terrorist operatives? That sounds like a reasonable response to world events. Did we need to accelerate spending on a brand new fleet of stealthy air superiority warplanes? That has nothing to do with terrorism, but under the umbrella of “the best equipment for our armed forces” it adds many billions more to this unprecedented borrowing binge.

In the contorted self-serving logic of the political insider, this unilateral arms race must continue because the defense industry performs the indispensable role of funding political campaigns for individuals willing to facilitate runaway spending on big ticket military technology. From Russkies to ragheads, the true nature of a demonized adversary matters little. It is the climate of fear, promoted more effectively by our own public officials than any foreign attackers, that stifles vital legitimate questions about the usefulness of vast swaths of appropriations to the Pentagon.

While big (taxpayer) bucks for big aerospace remain untouched by present policy, several of America’s proudest traditions were not to be preserved intact. The terrorist menace demands that expanded security services possess expanded powers, and those damned terrorists are so clever and dangerous that not even investigative journalists with well-earned security clearances should get the facts about how these services actually operate. Imagine how quickly Katie Couric would lose her job if she ever modified the phrase “secret police force” with “American.” Yet what else are these security agents, legally exempted from judicial oversight while hauling suspects off to obscure foreign prisons, but America’s new secret police?

Soon I intend to address operations in Iraq and operations in Afghanistan. Actual “army in the field” wars certainly merit ample attention. Yet I believe this political context is the only way to make sense of executive work product shaping the courses of events in those nations. There was, and continues to be, far too much emphasis on preserving false narratives used to popularize White House policies. Reasonable informed discourse is typically crowded out by bickering about misinformation. Understanding the extent, and perceived value, of those lies may help pave the way for their decisive dismissal.

So, what should you think about the war? When it comes to the Global War on Terror, you should first and foremost think that terrorists are, in terms of actually killing Americans, somewhere in the same league as movie theater popcorn butter or black ice on the highway. A governmental response to terrorism is sensible . . . but this response?!? It seems to only validate the theory that America has been well and truly terrorized.

Whether or not that is true, just imagine the progress that could have been made concentrating hundreds of billions of dollars of American ingenuity and industriousness into an anti-cancer effort or an Apollo Program for alternative energy research. I’m enough of a patriot to think that we could have kicked cancer’s ass by now. What did our nation really gain . . . and what did we lose . . . by pursuing priorities emergent from the Global War on Terror?