The recent flap over the WikiLeak disclosures reminded me of lessons I drew from my experiences as a communications officer in the Marines with top secret crypto clearance. When I was with the 6th fleet in the Mediterranean during the period of Hungarian revolt and the Suez crisis I would often have the responsibility of deciphering what amounted to a long, top secret, daily intelligence digest. When finished I would take it around to designated high ranking officers. They would read it and then initial it. After my shift, I would often go to the wardroom for a cup of coffee where I would pick up and read the latest issue of one of the American weekly magazines—Time, US News. Invariably I found that these magazines reported on all of the top secret items contained in the daily intelligence digest—at least all those of importance.
As a consequence I was not surprised that one of the initial reactions to WikiLeak’s disclosures was simply, “there’s nothing new here.” I might add the same can be said of the Pentagon Papers. (I recall observing this at the time of their release, a fact which led me to the issues I explore below.) That classified materials, even in the top secret category, contains little, if anything, that is not in the public arena is also consistent with the well known tendency of government to classify just about everything. This practice, too, I was able to confirm from my tour of duty.
Now, by way of clearing the path for what follows, I do not mean to deny that there is a need for secrecy, but this need usually relates in one way or another to relative discrete items of information that involve military operations during hostilities and for reasons that are obvious. For instance, we didn’t want the Japanese to know that we had broken their code or the Germans to know of our D-day plans. But my experience and subsequent events have led me to wonder about the role of intelligence in a wider and somewhat different, albeit highly crucial, context. Specifically, I came to entertain substantial doubts about an argument or proposition which I first encountered at the time of the Vietnam War and which was later used in the controversy preceding our invasion of Iraq that runs as follows: ordinary citizens don’t have all the relevant intelligence at their disposal to make a truly informed decision, but the president does. Thus, so the argument runs, we must trust the president to make the right decision in light of more complete information; information to which citizens are not privy. And so, too, with the conduct of war; the president and his military advisers know best.
The Pentagon Papers, whose content confirmed my earlier crypto experiences, served as a catalyst in leading me to critically question this line of argumentation. What the Pentagon Papers showed is that the back and forth among policy makers concerning Vietnam, the information and considerations they took into account in formulating policy, were not essentially different from those aired in the public arena. To this I should add in passing, the president-knows-best line of argument, it seems to me, is used by those who support the president’s eventual decision with the intention of placing those who oppose it at a disadvantage impossible to overcome. What is often overlooked, of course, is that the intelligence presumably not available to the public might actually militate against the president’s decision; that is, there is no a priori reason to assume that all such intelligence points in just one direction. In any event, this line of argument assumes that the president and his advisers can be trusted to interpret this intelligence properly in light of their best judgment of the broader national interest.
Perhaps, it can be argued, the Pentagon Papers really didn’t reveal all the classified information upon which the president and his advisers based their Vietnam strategy; that extremely vital classified materials for one reason or another didn’t find their way into these papers. Speaking more generally, this kind of contention often takes the form of maintaining that those who oppose a president’s decision on issues of this nature would change their mind if only they knew what the president knew.
Yet, if we inquire into what character of information this could be, it seems quite unlikely that it would not find its way into the public arena. Clearly such information would have to be compelling, sufficient at least to “tip the balance” in the decision making process. Surely, from what we know about the character of our public debates and the multiple sources of information now available, it seems safe to conclude that the more important the decision—in terms of our national interest, the commitment of resources, both human and material, and the like—the greater the certainty that the information (and considerations) upon which the president acts will be publicly known. To this should be added, those in power have an incentive and propensity to release whatever information might engender support for their policies. While this might not always be the case, the claim that the president possesses such critical information—i.e., information upon which his decision turns that is not to be found in the public arena—should still be viewed, in my judgment, with great skepticism.
Suffice it to say, the lead up to the Iraq War opens up new dimensions in the use and abuse of intelligence. This time around, for instance, bogus and distorted intelligence was used to smother the opposition to the invasion; to overwhelm it with scenarios of disaster if decisive action were not taken. The initial success of this strategy relied on the trust the American people still reposed in the president and his advisers to honestly assess the available intelligence and act in accordance with the national well being. But this trust was misplaced: we still wait to learn the whereabouts of those Weapons of Mass Destruction, even after Bush II made light of this tragic, costly fabrication in a skit performed for the Washington Press Corps.
The Iraq War experience, however, drives home larger lessons we should take to heart. It decisively shows that whenever decisions to go to war or not turn on intelligence, whether classified or that which is revealed to the public, the president holds all the cards. In fact, intelligence will be fashioned (or, as we have seen, even manufactured) to justify his decisions. Given the degraded state of our politics today such is to be expected. But, perhaps more importantly, the Iraq experience also convincingly shows once again that this should not be the case; that the public should not be cowed by its presumed lack of relevant classified information; that, above all, it should entertain a deep skepticism toward the claims of the administration in power, particularly when there is controversy over the commitment of American forces to hostilities.
It is, I grant at once, wishful thinking to suppose that the public’s attitude will change in the manner I suggest. There will always be factions that will play the “intelligence card” with success. Nor can we rely upon the disemboweled Congress to control executive excess and dishonesty and to insure full and open debates at least on issues involving the nation’s military commitments.
This constitutes one more good reason for asking: Whatever happened to our constitutional republic?
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