the imaginative conservative logo

wikileaks_metal_by_bmmd-d37o2sp.pngThe 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 magazinesTime, US News. Invariably I found that these magazines reported on all of the top secret items contained in the daily intelligence digestat 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 decisionin terms of our national interest, the commitment of resources, both human and material, and the likethe 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 informationi.e., information upon which his decision turns that is not to be found in the public arenashould 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?

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
17 replies to this post
  1. Thank you much for this, George. Thank you for your patriotism as a Marine and thank you for your continued patriotism as a scholar. Yes, where is the constitutional republic? Can we uncover it, or is it so buried that our arms would be withered to nothing should we even attempt to begin the digging process?

  2. George,

    Thanks for writing on this very important question. As a patriot, and the proud father of an officer in the 82nd Airborne, I think it is important that we discuss this very significant issue.

    Thank you for serving our nation.

  3. I think George is right about the level of classification of material in the USG. It is ridiculous. It is classic CYA. I had a very high-level SCI clearance during and after Operation Iraq Freedom, in which I participated in a small way. I stopped reading the classified material because I learned as much or more in open sources.

    However, George’s charge of “manufactured” intelligence regarding WMD in Iraq is completely off-base and, in fact, irresponsible. Every investigation into this malicious charge has shown there is no evidence for it. I worked with some of the people accused of manufacturing intelligence – including one who is now a Democratic congressman – and know it not to be true.

    I was custom-fitted for a gas mask and chemical suite and trained to use an atropin injector before I want to Iraq. I also had to get the controversial anthrax immunization shots. So was everyone I went with. I put on that gas mask when I was in a bomb shelter in Kuwait as Saddam was firing missiles toward us. We did not know what was in the warheads. No one did.

    Was all this part of a giant deception? The political climate – Bush lied; people died — so insisted that this was true that when several hundred sarin-filled warheads did turn up, it was ignored as “news.”

    One of my unpleasant tasks was assembling the film footage shot by the Saddam regime of what it had done to the Iraqi people. It is as bad or worse than anything in the Holocaust Museum. With the help of several Iraqis, I edited it into a documentary called “Victims of Saddam’s Regime.” I invite anyone to watch it and then dare raise the subject of WMDs again.

  4. George,

    The great virtue of your little conservative polemic is, of course, that you agree with me! One could easily make the case that the man who "released" the Pentagon Papers was the true conservative, and that those who persecuted him (in both parties) were the ideologue/statists.

    But that aside, and becoming more serious, you have described one of the true inner moral problems of the modern national state, which always claims to rule of, by, and for the people: the people must be brought on board, and also duped and manipulated. There was no doubt that the JFK administration was complicit in the murder of the Diem brothers; but then they had to be made to look like they deserved to die, and anyway, it was the corrupt South Vietnamese military that did the deed. In that case, "intelligence" was a two-way street (and always is).

    Wasn't it Talleyrand who, when hearing of Napoleon ordering the assassination of an opponent and it being suggested to him that the deed was a crime, said something like, "Crime? It's worse than a crime. It's a mistake!" I know I'm drifting off the subtlety of your argument here; but what is right now happening to both men and information relating the to new demon, Persia?

  5. George Carey doesn't need me or anyone else to defend the quality of his prose or his arguments. I do think it is necessary, however to point out a couple of difficulties with Mr. Reilly's response. Bob knows, I think, that neither George Carey nor I is "irresponsible." That's a serious charge, and won't hold up under any reasonable scrutiny.

    While the question of WMD's isn't central to George Carey's argument, it obviously evokes strong emotional responses to those who are still committed to something called "Operation Iraqi Freedom. Bob's response, it seems to me, is based on the (correct) conviction that Saddam was a bad guy, who may or may not have had WMDs. If that were reason enough to invade a country, we have probably several dozen other candidates right now.

    I do appreciate the difficulty of making decisions about the Middle East. But George's point about making decisions the right way is still superior to justifying what we actually did in Iraq because of Saddam's nastiness.

  6. NPR reports that "Government workers classified over 15 million documents last year, more than twice the number classified in 2001. The cost? About $7 billion." This is despite government efforts in 2000 to reduce the volume of classified documentation and to cut the length of time over which such papers remain classified.

    US officials tell me, bluntly, that unless they label their briefs as secret or top secret or whatever, nobody will read them. They are inundated with paper (or soft copies), much facilitated by emails batched off to scores of recipients for no better reason that the laziness of hitting the 'repond to all' button. so, on one hand, overworked officials play it safe and read the secret stuff while often ignoring the rest, on the other they label all their works secret in hope that they get read, ensuring that more and more of the in-boxes fill with classified traffic until there is too much to read there too. The virtues of the Information Age may be overstated somewhat.

    Parenthetically, when I dabbled in journalism a gleeful US official showed me a cable labelled unclassified overall, but throughout which each constituent paragraph was classified. The sum of the parts was greater than the whole. I asked for a copy but he could not oblige – each of the paragraphs was classified even though the entire document was not. He offered to remove every (classified) paragraph and then give me the unclassified document (blank apart from the title and the 'unclass' subtitle), but we agreed that this would rather spoil the fun.

  7. John,

    The charge that the intelligence was cooked has not held up to "reasonable scrutiny" — ask the Democratic members of Congress and the press who pursued it. To insist on making or repeating the charge in the absence of evidence would then be irresponsible, would it not, as it impugns the integrity of the people so accused?



  8. Dear Bob and John

    To me and to a majority of people in Britain at least, the investigations following the Iraq war have been a whitewash, with the possible exception of the UK's Chilcot Inquiry which has yet to report findings. even that, as refreshingly transparent as it has been compared to its predecessors, either ignored important events or has discussed them in closed sessions which may (or may not) come out in the report forthcoming. we shall see. We do know from public testimony, that some of the UK's foremost legal and intelligence experts informed Downing Street beforehand that the intelligence was unconvincing and the invasion illegal.

    Examples of serious misbehavior? The black-arts 'botch job' of documents on Saddam ostensibly trying to buy uranium from Niger, where the authors even got the names and dates all wrong. These were widely trumpeted by Bush and Blair governments and those documents did not write themselves. They were forgeries, designed to help traduce democracies into war, and of a most humiliatingly incompetent kind. (This is why I believe that the Americans produced them and handed them over to Mr. Blair's poodles for marketing: when the Brits fabricated the Zimmerman Telegram they did rather a better job of it).

    Considering the duplicitous behaviour of some senior NY Times reporters in covert flakking for the war-drive (well-reported elsewhere), and the refusal of the Obama administration and Congress to conduct investigations such as the UK Chilcot enquiry, I am not brimming with faith in the media and the legislature. thus far, little has been done in America to convince me that the biggest casualty of the Iraq War was not America herself.

    Stephen Masty

  9. Stephen Masty’s comments apply as well to the United States. We have had no congressional investigation regarding the issue of whether the Bush administration was guilty of lying in the lead up to the Iraq War. The primary reasons for this are not hard to see: Certainly, the Republicans, when they controlled Congress, weren’t about to launch an investigation and the Democrats, at least a significant portion of them, didn’t exactly have clean hands. In other words, there was no significant partisan advantage to be gained by the Democrats. In any event, any prospect of an investigation of this nature now seems out of the question. Obama, for his part, set the tone by saying he wants to look ahead, not back. (Additional evidence that something is drastically amiss in our political system.)

    This does not mean that evidence of deception and lies is not available in abundance. Just Google “Bush Lies Iraq” to see this. I would suggest the extensive report of January, 2008 by the Center for Public Integrity:

    But there are many other good and reliable sites. I would simply note that the fact a majority of the American people at the time of our invasion believed Saddam was one of the prime movers in the 9/11 attack attests to the effectiveness of the Bush administration’s efforts.
    But let’s leave to one side the matter of lies and deception and pick up a thread from John Willson’s comment. We can look at our invasion from a broader perspective and ask, How responsible was the Bush administration in its decision to invade Iraq? In answering this, I offer up just one critical consideration: Isn’t a nation that is going to engage in a “preventive” war morally bound to make damn well sure, almost to the point of certainty, that conditions exist that justify such a war? Such seems to me to be inherent in the very idea of “preventive” war. Yet, I think it beyond question that this maxim was not observed by the Bush administration.

    The result of this failure is that we initiated a needless war that has not enhanced our security but rendered us more vulnerable to the very threat we sought to eliminate. More devastating even are the consequences of this: Over four thousand American troops dead; more than thirty thousand wounded, many suffering loss of limbs, sight, or normal brain function. But we should think as well of the innocent Iraqis who we “liberated”: Four million displaced, half that number to foreign lands where many have encountered unspeakable conditions. And while the “official” estimate of Iraqi deaths due to the war is put in the range of one hundred thousand, most probably – according to independent surveys – it runs in the many hundreds of thousands.

    To all this, of course, must be added the costs of the war which, when all the bills come due, will run well in excess of a trillion dollars.

    These are the costs of an act of monstrous irresponsibility on the part of the Bush administration that, at the urging of the Neocons, was hell bent on war whether justified or not.

    I would agree with Mr. Masty: America has been the biggest casualty. What’s more, the lack of accountability, an imperial presidency, a perpetual war, feckless politicians, a compliant media, and an apathetic and ignorant people is a recipe for even a greater calamity down the line.

  10. Your belief that it was an unjust war is based upon a misstatement of its rationale. So yes, the “conditions exist[ed] that justify such a war;” you have simply ignored them or moved on to allegations that Bush never made about Saddam’s complicity in 9/11.

    The US had the lawful authority to wage this war, as it was the primary signatory to the agreement to end the First Gulf War in 1991. Saddam Hussein was in violation of its major provisions. You gentlemen seem to think that ignoring this wholesale violation of the cease-fire agreement was preferable to the war that was necessary to enforce them. However, please give some account of the costs of this neglect or at least suggest an alternative way to end the Gulf War. In the three years before the 2003 war, Iraqi forces fired more than 1,600 times upon U.S. and British aircraft in the no-fly zones of northern and southern Iraq. Those were acts of war.

    In terms of jus ad bellum, the only coherent case against the 2003 war would have to claim that the First Gulf War was in violation of just war principles and that, therefore, the armed enforcement of the terms bringing it to a close was also unjust.
    Have subsequent events shown that the rationale for the war was wrong? Everything discovered in Iraq after the 2003 war has borne out the justness of the US cause. We know from captured Iraqi documents that Saddam was training several thousand terrorists a year and hosted some 23 terrorist organizations from around the world. I personally saw the intelligence for this, so please don’t tell me it was “manufactured.”

    Saddam also maintained his WMD programs until the very end. Dr. David Kay, the head of the Iraq Survey Group, reported, “we have discovered dozens of WMD related program activities and significant amounts of equipment that Iraq concealed from the UN during the inspections that began in late 2002.” The discovery of more than 500 sarin-filled warheads in 2006 would be WMD by anyone’s definition. Neither Steve nor George bothers with this fact.

    George mentions the figures for the refugees and displaced people resulting from the invasion and our bungled occupation. These are indeed egregious. But why not compare them with what went before so they can be understood within some perspective? The magnitude of what took place in Saddam's Iraq has been captured in a French book, Le Livre Noir de Saddam Hussein, with an introduction by the now French foreign minister (Socialist) Bernard Kouchner, giving an account of the some one million Iraqi victims.

    In terms of the intelligence, you gentleman seem determined to impute deception to the Bush administration (and George Tenet?). The repetition of the accusation is not evidence. Since these are criminal matters, I wonder why there have been no indictments in the face of such abundant evidence. Be sure to include in your condemnation not only the British but the intelligence agencies of all the other Western powers, the other Middle Eastern countries (who told the United States that Saddam would use such weapons against us), and of course, Russia’s intelligence agency, as well – all of whom reached the same conclusion. Yes, they were all wrong, but were they the product of deception? I really wish we were that good.

    I repeat that the case for the war rested not on the existence of these weapons, but on the failure of Saddam’s regime to comply with the terms of the 1991 cease fire. You have not won a war until you force compliance with the terms of its cessation. To leave this out of the conversation is to miss the whole thing. It makes it very easy to offer the alternative of doing nothing when doing nothing carries no costs. But the costs of doing nothing were really very great. Before one renders judgment on this as a just or unjust war, one must consider them. In fact, until one does, one has no right to render such a judgment.

  11. Bob,
    Respecting your use of evidence, I wonder indeed about your statement (this without evidence) that "the costs of doing nothing were really very great." Such as? I suspect you would say the same thing about Korea, Vietnam, Somalia, the Balkans, etc. I have a very simple way of dealing with just war: If they kill us, we have to kill them; if they aren't killing us, there is probably a better way to do things than to kill them first. "Preventive" war is almost never just (maybe Israel in 1967), and is defensible only by the legalistic evidence you give. From John Dickinson to Russell Kirk Americans have known that "preventive war" is destructive of the republic.

  12. Such as? The US stood between Saddam and the resumption of his megalomaniac plans for a new Babylonian empire, based upon the threat of massive destruction and the political power his control of some 40% of the world’s known oil reserves would give him. Those reserves had almost been within his grasp in 1990 when he invaded Kuwait and threatened Saudi Arabia, and there is little doubt from his subsequent behavior that, given the opportunity, he would try for them again. That is why he wished to resume his WMD programs with the end of UN sanctions. He did invade two countries; he did fire his ballistic missiles into four. He did portray himself in giant bronze statuary as the new Saladin.

    The prospective price of our failure? Success against the Soviets in Afghanistan had a hugely galvanizing effect on the forces of radical Islam. However, Afghanistan is at the periphery of the Muslim world; Iraq is the former seat of the Abbasid caliphate and at its very heart. The consequences of a loss there would be incomparably greater, stirring the Islamic world and validating the al-Qaeda narrative. Our allies in the Middle East would be subverted and most likely unable to withstand the growing Islamist forces seeking their overthrow. If the United States could not defeat these forces, how could these countries hope to do so? They would first try to accommodate these forces and then be taken over by them. Failure would also be the death sentence for the Sistani quietist version of Shi'ism and the vindication of Iranian theocracy.
    The leverage that radical Islamist forces would gain over oil supplies critical to the functioning and survival of the industrialized world would be enormous. In fact, it would be intolerable. In other words, failure would be a prescription for more war, and a worse one.
    Speaking of failure, Al-Qaeda and other radical Islamist adversaries frequently invoke Vietnam as their model. As Ayman al-Zawahiri, second in command to Osama bin Laden, wrote to the now late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq in 2005: "the aftermath of the collapse of American power in Vietnam – and how they ran and left their agents – is noteworthy." Ditto for Somali – just read Osama bin Laden invocation of it as signal of American weakness. Weakness is provocative. It incited the 9/11 attacks.

    You persist in saying it was a “preventive war.” I persist in saying it was a war of enforcement. Please regard, and rebut if you can, the following missive sent to me by an America officer: “I appreciate the recognition that the 2nd Iraq war was truly the continuation of the first. Every day (EVERY day) for the previous 12 years, my friends and I had been flying no-fly zone enforcement missions over northern and southern Iraq. We were fired at often, and we fired back often–even during the Clinton years. Nobody questioned the just war rationale for the hundreds of bombing missions President Clinton approved in response to Saddam's NFZ violations. Why should they? They were part of the original, just, conflict, still unresolved.”

    There is really no point in continuing the conversation unless you offer your suggestion as to how the first Iraq war could have been ended short of the invasion. Also, you have surely noticed that we are facing a nulcear-armed North Korea due to our failure to win that war.

    In terms of your general theory of waiting until we are shot at, I would suggest that waiting for a threat to become imminent is to wait too long. The statesman seeks to prevent the development of an imminent threat. One may legitimately undertake a whole host of actions, including military ones, to ensure that one’s existence is not, in fact, at stake. It is highly irresponsible and immoral to allow conditions to degenerate to the point where one’s very survival is threatened and to take action only then, when it may be too late.

  13. OK, Bob, you have now defined the territory. First of all, let's get rid of a "nuclear armed North Korea." My goodness, are a they a threat to what, San Francisco? The Aleutian Islands? Get real.

    Then, let's back up. The only country that has ever, ever used nuclear weapons is, guess? The only country that has ever bombed another on Shrove Tuesday, or another on Good Friday, is guess?

    So when you say that the conversation must be continued only on your terms, "how the first Iraq war could have been ended short of the invasion," I suggest you are being disingenuous, or at least misleading.

    Now, if you are suggesting that the real war is between us and Islam–not "radical Islam", which is an oxymoron–then we might have something to talk about. I do believe that there is a world struggle going on, and I don't believe that there is much of a difference between the dumb-ass Persians and their friends in Dearborn, MI or the Wahabi schools in Washington, DC.

    I just don't think spending our children's lives in Iraq is doing anything but wrong to solve the problem. You studs who stand up to the bad guys should get the bad guys straight, then maybe wimps like me will get in line.

    And if you read carefully the things that men like Steve Masty write from inside the other guys' culture, the best thing might be just to let them alone, and compete on the basis of truth, or just live and let live.

  14. John,

    As an act of mutual charity, I think we should now end this exchnge or at least suspend it until we can meet over properly chilled adult beverages at a Philadelphia Society meeting.



  15. Thank you for a thoughtful article. I think you make a very good point about the problem of removing decisions to go to war from the public domain by reference to classified information.

    Two observations about the two wars you referenced:

    1. I can think of one set of facts that would have justified the President’s claim we would support it if we knew what he did – if intelligence indicated with a high degree of probability the facts we now know decades later – that the North Vietnamese considered themselves nearly defeated but for the erosion of our will by our own media.

    2. I think the propaganda/public relations aspect of the decision to resume hostilities against Iraq in 2003 was mishandled. Yes – IMHO it was a resumption of hostilities after nearly 11 years of a ceasefire that simply was never honored, and which cost us billions and involved sending our pilots into harm’s way daily to maintain two “no-fly” zones. That, for me, was the real justification for resuming hostilities, that and the knowledge Saddam was running out the clock on sanctions that were unravelling and would readily resume his WMD programs as soon as he was out from under them. While the available intelligence from all national intelligence agencies agreed there were WMDs, the notion that there were stockpiles deliverable to our homeland was never likely or a necessary justification for completing the job started in Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

    As for Snowden and Wikileaks disclosure of NSA capabilities, my four ears of service with ASA/INSCOM in the late ’70s – half of which time I was tasked by the NSA taught me that the most important reason for the TSSI clearance applied to most of my work was not so much the content of the reports, but rather what their disclosure would reveal about our capabilities and limitations when it came to SIGINT.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: