Massive National Security Leaks Are Good for Us

Government secrecy is terrible for us, and this isn’t a philosophical argument

One of the major factors that led us to perpetrate this tragedy was Washington’s deeply ingrained habit of extreme secrecy. We didn’t know what our government was doing. We didn’t know what they knew. We only knew what they told us, and most of our media didn’t bother to question it.

Many war supporters, like John McCain, now blame their support for the war on “bad intelligence”—the reports supplied by the CIA. This will not do. The National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction was quite skeptical, but the public was not allowed to see it.

One senator who did manage to see the complete CIA report, Bob Graham of Florida, voted against the war resolution. Most senators never saw the NIE, because it was classified, and neither the media nor ordinary citizens ever got a chance to read it. The CIA didn’t fail us; government secrecy and over-classification did.

Government secrecy is terrible for us, and this isn’t a philosophical argument; it’s a matter of real-life consequences. Official secrecy has reached extreme levels: Washington classified 92 million documents in 2011, up from 17 million in 2003.This comes at a terrible price. And I don’t just mean the $11 billion spent on classification, a figure provided by the federal Information Security Oversight Office, but big-ticket items like the Iraq War and the Vietnam War, a conflict which, from the Gulf of Tonkin “attack” to the carpet-bombing of Cambodia, was sustained by evasions, misinformation and the suppression of unpleasant facts.

manningYet despite the hideous results of so much secrecy, official Washington is aggressively defending its shambolic regimen of “information security.” The Obama administration has launched twice as many Espionage Act prosecutions against leakers and whistleblowers as have all previous administrations combined. In the Senate, a bipartisan coalition led by McCain and Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) demands more and harsher crackdowns.

The most important target of a leaks-whistleblower prosecution right now is Pfc. Bradley Manning, an Army intelligence analyst once based in Iraq who in 2010 supplied Wikileaks with the Iraq War Logs, the Afghan War Logs and 250,000 State Department cables. It is the biggest leak of classified material in U.S. history—even if it doesn’t amount to one percent of what Washington classified last year. That did not prevent the Secretary of State and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from issuing lurid warnings about diplomatic Armageddon and accusations that the private had “blood on his hands.” This from the great moralists who sent people to die (and kill) in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But three years after Manning’s arrest, no one has shown the slightest harm to any soldier, civilian,or diplomat, anywhere, from the leaks. On the other hand, the leaks helped fuel the Tunisian revolt against a hated dictator, have spurred reforms from the Dominican Republic to Iraq, and have nourished important studies of international affairs—two of which I’ve reviewed in these pages.

Some have called Manning “the conscience of his generation.” I’m cool with that, I even indulge in a bit of this myself in my book. But the main reason I support Manning—and why you should too—is cold-blooded self-interest. We need some transparency. This is not some bogus theory. It’s wisdom that’s long been a part of the American political tradition. After all, it was James Madison, our fourth president and primary author of the Constitution, who wrote that “a popular government, without popular information, is but a prelude to a tragedy or a farce, or perhaps both.” In the year2013, this should not sound like a radical slogan.

 

 

Chase Madar is an attorney in New York and the author of The Passion of Bradley Manning: The Story Behind the Wikileaks Whistleblower (Verso).

(Image courtesy of Frontline)