How Dystopian Secrecy Contributes to Clueless Wars
Cross-posted with TomDispatch.com
The prosecution of Bradley Manning, WikiLeaks’ source inside the U.S. Army, will be pulling out all the stops when it calls to the stand a member of Navy SEAL Team 6, the unit that assassinated Osama bin Laden. The SEAL (in partial disguise, as his identity is secret) is expected to tell the military judge that classified documents leaked by Manning to WikiLeaks were found on bin Laden’s laptop. That will, in turn, be offered as proof not that bin Laden had internet access like two billion other earthlings, but that Manning has “aided the enemy,” a capital offense.
Think of it as courtroom cartoon theater: the heroic slayer of the jihadi super-villain testifying against the ultimate bad soldier, a five-foot-two-inch gay man facing 22 charges in military court and accused of the biggest security breach in U.S. history.
But let’s be clear on one thing: Manning, the young Army intelligence analyst who leaked thousands of public documents and passed them on to WikiLeaks, has done far more for U.S. national security than SEAL Team 6.
The assassination of Osama bin Laden, the spiritual (but not operational) leader of al-Qaeda, was a fist-pumping moment of triumphalism for a lot of Americans, as the Saudi fanatic had come to incarnate not just al-Qaeda but all national security threats. This was true despite the fact that, since 9/11, al-Qaeda has been able to do remarkably little harm to the United States or to the West in general. (The deadliest attack in a Western nation since 9/11, the 2004 Atocha bombing in Madrid, was not committed by bin Laden’s organization, though white-shoe foreign policy magazines and think tanks routinely get this wrong, “al-Qaeda” being such a handy/sloppy metonym for all terrorism.)
Al-Qaeda remains a simmering menace, but as an organization hardly the greatest threat to the United States. In fact, if you measure national security in blood and money, as many of us still do, by far the greatest threat to the United States over the past dozen years has been our own clueless foreign policy.
The Wages of Cluelessness Is Death
Look at the numbers. The attacks of September 11, 2001, killed 3,000 people, a large-scale atrocity by any definition. Still, roughly double that number of American military personnel have been killed in Washington’s invasion and occupation of Iraq and its no-end-in-sight war in Afghanistan. Add in private military contractors who have died in both war zones, along with recently discharged veterans who have committed suicide, and the figure triples. The number of seriously wounded in both wars is cautiously estimated at 50,000. And if you dare to add in as well the number of Iraqis, Afghans, and foreign coalition personnel killed in both wars, the death toll reaches at least a hundred 9/11s and probably more.
Did these people die to make America safer? Don’t insult our intelligence. Virtually no one thinks the Iraq War has made the U.S. more secure, though many believe the war created new threats. After all, the Iraq we liberated is now in danger of collapsing into another bitter, bloody civil war, is a close ally of Iran, and sells the preponderance of its oil to China. Over the years, the drain on the U.S. treasury for all of this will be at least several trillion dollars. As for Afghanistan, after the disruption of al-Qaeda camps, accomplished 10 years ago, it is difficult to see how the ongoing pacification campaign there and the CIA drone war across the border in Pakistan’s tribal areas have enhanced the security of the U.S. in any significant way. Both wars of occupation were ghastly strategic choices that have killed hundreds of thousands, wounded many more, sent millions into exile, and destabilized what Washington, in good times, used to call “the arc of instability.”
Why have our strategic choices been so disastrous? In large part because they have been militantly clueless. Starved of important information, both the media and public opinion were putty in the hands the Bush administration and its neocon followers as they dreamt up and then put into action their geopolitical fantasies. It has since become fashion for politicians who supported the war to blame the Iraq debacle on “bad intelligence.” But as former CIA analyst Paul Pillar reminds us, the carefully cherry-picked “Intel” about Saddam Hussein’s WMD program was really never the issue. After all, the CIA’s classified intelligence estimate on Iraq argued that, even if that country’s ruler Saddam Hussein did have weapons of mass destruction (which he didn’t), he would never use them and was therefore not a threat.
Senator Bob Graham, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2003, was one of the few people with access to that CIA report who bothered to take the time to read it. Initially keen on the idea of invading Iraq, he changed his mind and voted against the invasion.
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.
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.
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.
Despite endless panic and hysteria on the subject from both major parties, the White House, and Congress, leaks have been good for us. They’re how we came to learn much about the Vietnam War, much about the Watergate scandal, and most recently, far more about state surveillance of our phone calls and email. Bradley Manning’s leaks in particular have already yielded real, tangible benefits, most vividly their small but significant role in sparking the rebellion that ejected a dictator in Tunisia and the way they indirectly expedited our military exit from Iraq. Manning’s leaked reports of U.S. atrocities in Iraq, displayed in newspapers globally, made it politically impossible for the Iraqi authorities to perpetuate domestic legal immunity for America troops, Washington’s bedrock condition for a much-desired continuing presence there. If it weren’t for Manning’s leaks, the U.S. might still be in Iraq, killing and being killed for no legitimate reason, and that is the very opposite of national security.
Knowledge is Not Evil
Thanks to Bradley Manning, our disaster-prone elites have gotten a dose of the adult supervision they so clearly require. Instead of charging him with aiding the enemy, the Obama administration ought to send him a get-out-of-jail-free card and a basket of fruit. If we’re going to stop the self-inflicted wars that continue to hemorrhage blood and money, we need to get a clue, fast. Should we ever bother to learn from the uncensored truth of our foreign policy failures, which have destroyed so many more lives than the late bin Laden could ever have hoped, we at least stand a chance of not repeating them.
I am not trying to soft-peddle or sanitize Manning’s magnificent act of civil disobedience. The young private humiliated the U.S. Army by displaying for all to see their complete lack of real information security. Manning has revealed the diplomatic corps to be hard at work shilling for garment manufacturers in Haiti, for Big Pharma in Europe, and under signed orders from then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to collect biometric data and credit card numbers from their foreign counterparts. Most important, Manning brought us face to face with two disastrous wars, forcing Americans to share a burden of knowledge previously shouldered only by our soldiers, whom we love to call heroes from a very safe distance.
Did Manning violate provisions of the Uniform Code of Military Justice? He certainly did, and a crushing sentence of possibly decades in military prison is surely on its way. Military law is marvelously elastic when it comes to rape and sexual assault and perfectly easygoing about the slaughter of foreign civilians, but it puts on a stern face for the unspeakable act of declassifying documents. But the young private’s act of civil defiance was in fact a first step in reversing the pathologies that have made our foreign policy a string of self-inflicted homicidal disasters. By letting us in on more than a half million “secrets,” Bradley Manning has done far more for American national security than SEAL Team 6 ever did.
Chase Madar is an attorney and the author of The Passion of Bradley Manning: The Story Behind the WikiLeaks Whistleblower. A TomDispatch regular, he writes for the London Review of Books, Le Monde Diplomatique, the American Conservative, and CounterPunch. He is covering the Manning trial daily for the Nation magazine.
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