Belaboring the Obvious

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Just a few random thoughts...

... on Wikileaks, and its recent document dump.

Ostensibly, the leaked documents simply confirm in some detail what many people have either known, or suspected, for some time: that the war in Afghanistan was militarily unwise and has been going downhill almost from the start.

In that way, they do resemble the Pentagon Papers. Unlike the Pentagon Papers, they weren't written as a history of an ongoing war, but, nevertheless, they constitute a history of sorts--and that makes them substantial.

The responses to the leaks are utterly predictable. They aren't substantial, because what's been leaked has been known in general (which sort of ignores that the power and impact of the leaks are in the details). The people leaking the material to Wikileaks are traitorous and vile. Wikileaks can't be thought of as journalists because they're anti-war, and are, therefore, activists. Jim Jones, Obama's national security advisor, even invoked Bush-era White House/NYT cooperation: "WikiLeaks made no effort to contact the U.S. government about the documents, said Jones, who added that the administration learned from news organizations that the documents would be posted," wrote the LA Times. (The LA Times did not mention, in context or otherwise, that the U.S. government is spearheading a manhunt for Julian Assange in an attempt to shut down Wikileaks. One would think that would be a good reason for not contacting the White House. The paper did mention that all the newspapers receiving the documents did contact the White House.)

All of which ignores the truism that the first casualty of war is the truth, and that's the great problem with secrecy. As the process of starting and prosecuting war becomes ever more bureaucratic and political, the veil of secrecy becomes progressively more opaque, and the need to enlist the press in the propaganda effort becomes ever more urgent.

For the ordinary citizen, maybe it boils down to trusting the government, or not trusting it. If one trusts the government, one's inclination is to assume that secrecy is not only necessary, but that the government's application of security measures and classification are wholly benign, i.e., that the government has nothing to hide that wouldn't directly harm the American people or the soldiers fighting the war. If one doesn't trust the government, one can find plenty of reasons to doubt the honesty of the government and its system of security (and to doubt the motives of the government in vigorously prosecuting unauthorized leaks).

Unfortunately, there's little reason to trust the government in matters which have been labeled as important to national security, if only because the history of the government and its elected officials is replete with substantive examples of the government using that rubric to hide wrongdoing, send embarrassing fuck-ups down the memory hole and to generally bamboozle the public into thinking its government is behaving honorably when it is doing quite the opposite.

In this context, it's instructive to remember a few of those examples. During the 20th anniversary proceedings of the National Security Archive, co-founder Scott Armstrong said, in rather unequivocal terms, that the government expended its greatest amount of effort in preventing the American people from knowing what it was doing. This might be why every administration pays lip service to transparency and then uses every tool available to prevent that transparency. Both the Bush and Obama administrations have made extensive use of the so-called state secrets privilege to prevent exposure in court of government wrongdoing, including state-sponsored kidnapping, denial of due process and torture. That privilege was established in a 1953 Supreme Court case, U.S v. Reynolds, in which the evidence provided by the government was itself an outright lie. (The government claimed that accident reports involving the deaths of several scientists in a B-29 crash could not be revealed in court because of national security concerns, and further claimed that the government had the special privilege of denying its own citizens information during discovery that would effectively deny them the Constitutional right to redress in court, if the government itself determined that national security might be endangered by disclosure. Nearly fifty years later, the documents withheld in U.S. v. Reynolds were declassified, and it was found that the accident reports not only did not contain national security information, but also contained details of negligent engine maintenance that directly contributed to multiple engine failures and the crash which killed the scientists. Despite the truth in the matter, the state secrets privilege continues to be an essential item in the government's toolbox in preventing redress in open court.)

So, early on in the post-WWII years, we have solid evidence that the government consciously chose to give itself powers to protect itself from its own citizens. Through the `50s and `60s, in part because of the influence of the Doolittle Report on the clandestine agencies, "national security" became an all-purpose excuse to engage in illegal and inadvisable behavior and to consciously construct the circumstances necessary to position American forces all around the world, to engage in discretionary war and, perniciously, to see substantial segments of the American public as the enemy.

This attitude is a root cause (but, by no means, the only cause) of the intelligence and military excesses behind Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Watergate, the assaults on civil rights common to several administrations (including Operation CHAOS and COINTELPRO), Nicaragua and the contras, the invasion of Panama and the circumstances leading to the first and successive wars in the Gulf, the second Bush administration's concentrated legislative attacks on the Constitution, and, yes, Afghanistan, too.

Apropos of the above, but lost in most discussions of government secrecy, is that when the government is in complete control of so-called national security information, the government decides what it wants the public to know, and that the government itself is the biggest leaker of all--in furtherance of promoting its own views. The leadership of government, in both its official and unofficial capacities, becomes the arbiter of public information. If the government wants to take us to war because of decidedly mixed motives, it is not only likely, but virtually certain, that the government will provide the public and the press only the information which the leadership deems necessary to justify that war, or which will incite the public toward support for war. It's rare to never that the government provides all the information it has on a given national security issue in an effort to further a genuinely democratic debate on matters which affect both national blood and treasure, and, as events of the last few decades have shown conclusively, that leadership uses the national security apparatus to actively deceive the public, along with the press which is purportedly tasked with informing the public.

Which brings me to Wikileaks. In a society in which information of national importance is both limited and selected by those in power, all protestations of transparency and openness by those in power are ludicrous and without substance. In days long past, the press understood that, when it comes to the self-interest of government leadership, it had to be somewhat adversarial. For a host of reasons unrelated to national security matters, the press has become much less adversarial over the years. Congress has become fractured along ideological lines and, as a result, is now virtually ineffectual in its oversight role. As a consequence of these changes, there's no force left which consistently challenges the government's version of the facts. Without all the facts, democracy becomes a pretense, while the opportunity to choose only between candidates who will further the pretense just adds insult to injury.

Someone or something has to fill that void in democracy for democracy to survive. Over several decades, the country's government has been transformed from a republic (in which representative democracy depends upon a fully-informed public) into a national security state in which its leadership determines what we can know about what our government does and does not do, almost always making those determinations on the basis of some degree of self-interest, either political or personal or corporate or institutional, or some combination of all those motives.

It's a sign of the degree of decay of democracy under the national security state that a small group of individuals decided, on their own, to seek out and publish the information the government refuses to provide, to create a secure conduit for national security whistleblowers which previously did not exist and to make that information widely available without exclusively depending upon the press for dissemination of the information. Congress has refused to include national security whistleblowers in protections it has mandated for other government workers (as marginal as those protections are), so a secure means of maintaining anonymity for such people is their only protection, and without that protection, we might otherwise not know what is common knowledge in the bowels of the national security apparatus. It's a very rare person who chooses to be incarcerated or have his life destroyed for doing the right thing.

And, that's the crux of the biscuit: doing the right thing. If we are, indeed, a democracy, we are able to make distinctions about what is right and what is not in the national security arena. Spying for money grates on our sensibilities. So does burning a spy for partisan political purposes. Using taxpayer-funded information which the national security state has hidden behind a cloak of secrecy to paint a truer picture of a war's prosecution should not, especially if that war has been both promoted and continued out of extreme self-interest.

It may well turn out that, even with that information, the public would choose to continue that war, for any number of reasons, but, at least the public gets a better sense of what it's actually supporting. On the other hand, if the release of the information shatters the aura of respectability and altruism which the government has carefully constructed around the war by its selective and propagandistic use of information, leading to a strong reversal of opinion about the war and much wider demands for its cessation, then democracy has been well-served, even though the institutional integrity of the national security state has been harmed (which is quite a different matter than actual harm to the people of the country).

One of the great myths of the post-WWII years has been that we remain a country which adheres to strong democratic principles and maintains strong democratic institutions when, in fact, those principles and institutions have been steadily eroded by government secrecy and appeals to fear in the name of national security, which are intended to make a drift toward authoritarianism seem less dangerous and more palatable. The simple truth is altogether different: the national security state and democracy are antithetical to each other. As the former becomes ascendant in power and priority, the latter is descendant and diminished. The core value of the national security state is its own survival and the survival of the elites who nurture it. The core value of democracy is governance through citizen participation, which ultimately depends upon the quality of the information available to all citizens and the breadth and timeliness of its dissemination among them.

Which entity is pro-democracy? The government which seeks to hide from its own citizens what it is doing and what is happening in the country and the world because of its actions, or the group that exposes what the government seeks to suppress?


  • This is a wonderful, well written, well supported article.

    By Blogger Spocko, at 10:12 AM  

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