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Copyright by John T. Reed
Someone leaked 10,000 pages of classified U.S. government documents relating to the war in Afghanistan on Wikileaks.
The media is generally making a big deal out of it including comparing it to the Pentagon Papers.
First off, the Pentagon Papers were unimportant. Those who hated the war, or who had to justify heir failure to serve in it, pointed at the Pentagon Papers and screamed, “See! See! We told you so these papers prove we were right!” But they were already screaming 24/7 about a million similar things.
What the Pentagon papers mainly showed was that Democrat President Lyndon Johnson was the lying politician we all suspected or assumed he was.
All the Pentagon Papers revealed was that some escalation decisions were made before politicians had said they were made. That was tactics. The basic position of the anti-war movement during Vietnam was that the whole idea of the war was wrong and immoral. In fact, the whole idea of the war—to contain Communism—was more or less correct. The execution of that policy was inefficient and incompetent which is why we lost. The Pentagon Papers were about tactical details and various minor lies told by politicians. They were yet more evidence not to trust politicians, both in and out of uniform, not evidence that the war should not have been fought at all.
Similarly, I have not yet heard anything in the Wikileaks papers that has any significance as far as war policy is concerned.
The great hullabaloo about the Wikileaks papers is that they were “Top Secret!” Oh, Wow! “Top Secret!” Golly Gee! They must really be hot stuff.
If you think that, you folks have been watching too many episodes of 24 and too many Rambo and Mission Impossible movies. The U.S. military and the U.S. government is a SNAFU gang that couldn’t shoot straight, not the hyper competent, extremely efficient government operatives in those Hollywood depictions. They are bureaucrats. Bureaucracy makes diligent people lazy and intelligent people behave as though they were stupid.
The public does not understand that there are three kinds of “top secret” or “secret” government documents:
A. legitimate military secrets like the date and location of the 1944 D-Day invasion
B. inane, routine documents that never should have been classified to begin with
C. abuse of the authority to classify documents, namely, using the “secret” stamp to hide the incompetence and/or misbehavior of the brass and/or politicians
I saw one “top secret” document when I was in Vietnam. My reaction to it was, “That’s top secret!? That was in all the news magazines weeks ago!”
Thus far, the Wikileaks Papers appears to be entirely B-type, inane routine “secrets.” The media and anti-war movements are screaming from the rooftops about treason and evidence of government wrongdoing and all that. In fact, these papers seem to reveal few true secrets. They are merely unguarded communications, brainstorming, typical political two-faced behavior, and the like. There is little divulging of information comparable to the date and location of the D-Day invasion. Divulging identites of spies and their methods, which apparently did occur in theWikileaks documents, IS D-Day type information.
The reason for classifying documents is primarily to retain the element of surprise. Surprise is one of the nine principles of war. But there is a countervailing principle of peace that is the opposite. That is that governments should publicize their capabilities to deter war. For example, suppose we had discovered how to make nuclear bombs and kept it a total secret including not bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is possible that the Soviet Union would have come up with a nuclear bomb, assumed we had none and attacked us so they could take over the world. If you study military policy over the last several centuries, you will note that much of it involved deliberately disclosing capabilities that were secret so as to deter war from starting to begin with.
Secrecy is also used with regard to intelligence gathering. Obviously, it is wrong to divulge the identities of our foreign spies or their methods of gathering or communicating intelligence. If you reavel such identities or methods, the punishment for that should be death.
I heard of one Army commander who decided to be a classified documents Nazi to his men. He told them that even “For Offical Use only” documents had be locked in the office safe at all times when they were not being used and he would tongue lash anyone who left a “For Official Use Only” stamped document out on a desk. One day he found the door of a U.S. Army car on his own desk. Why? All such doors have the words “For Official Use Only” stenciled on them.
My point here is secrecy in government operations has limited application and, at times, is the opposite of the best policy.
The dirty little secret of classified documents is that most should never have been classified to begin with. So why were they classified? Because the brass in the military and their lackeys have a “when in doubt cover it up” policy. An easy way to cover things up is to stamp them secret or top secret.
The best recent example of this sleazy, incompetent behavior was the Pat Tillman cover up. Tillman was killed by friendly fire. That’s terrible. It’s embarrassing to the Army. But friendly-fire deaths have also been going on since the beginning of warfare. The public knows that. But the instinct of the commanders on the scene when it happened—relatively low level lieutenants, captains, majors and colonels was “Ohmygosh! We have to keep this quiet.” So they stamped the secret stamp on all of it. All the soldiers in the area were ordered to say nothing about what happened to anyone.
This is knee-jerk use of the secret stamp to cover up a possibly embarrassing incident.
There is also often very conscious, deliberate use of the secret stamp to cover up executive incompetence and official misbehavior.
During World War II, troop transports rehearsing the D-Day invasion was sunk by German PT boats. 749 American were killed. We covered it up with a secret stamp. Whom were we keeping it secret from? Not the enemy. They sank the damned boat, remember? They saw what happened.
Is leaking “secret” or “top secret” material a serious crime requiring the most serious punishment?
I think it should be determined more by the content of the document in question than by the stamp some bureaucrat put on it.
U.S. military personnel are told they are required to obey lawful orders. But they are also told they are not to obey unlawful orders, for example, an order to assassinate the President. I wrote an article about the morality of obeying stupid orders. Basically, it’s a judgment call.
Neanderthals will say a soldier must NEVER leak secret or top secret documents and should be shot if he does. I disagree. It depends on the document. As I said above, many if not most classified documents should never have been classified to begin with. Many more should have be declassified not longer after they were classified. Although documents are generally declassified eventually, it takes far too long in the vast majority of cases. So a secret document that gets leaked perhaps was never really a secret to begin with or is no longer a secret.
I got sued for violating the Florida Trade Secrets Act once. I had not violated it. The plaintiff sued me five times in that case in five different courts. They were just trying to heap litigation after litigation on me to force me to capitulate. I did not. it was settled on confidential terms. But it forced me to research the Florida Trade Secrets Act.
One of the things it said was that the alleged secret really had to be a secret. If the plaintiff company did not take reasonable precautions to keep the information in question a secret, they could not invoke the Trade Secrets Act. Another defense was that the company had given express or implied consent to disclose the information. Like the top secret document I saw in Vietnam that just contained what had been in the papers weeks before. Seems that if the government reveals the secret in question on its own, then a soldier revealing the no longer secret but still stamped “secret” document should either be guilty of no crime or only a minor one.
I agree that soldiers ought to be taught to make very sure they are right before they reveal a classified document. But we cannot adopt a Befehl ist Befehl policy with regard to classified documents any more than we can to orders to massacre civilians. A secret or top secret stamp on a document is just another form of order. Furthermore, unlike the typical verbal or written order, a classified document typically has no date stamp and not even any indication of the identity or rank of the individual who stamped it. It could have been a private who wielded the secret stamp on the document in question. Is it a crime for a career major to violate the order of a private first class with regard to the secrecy of a document? All government employees, including military, have a duty to reveal incompetence or misbehavior that jeopardizes the national defense. Failure to do so is arguably participation in an immoral, illegal conspiracy. George Bernard Shaw famouly said that All professions are conspiracies against the laity. That is perhaps never more true than in the military and it is an outrage and treason.
On the other hand, when a soldier reveals a classified document that should not have been revealed, he or she should be punished severely enough to deter recidivism or copycat behavior. Daniel Ellsberg is the guy who leaked the Pentagon Papers. Was he punished in such a way that he would not do it again if he had the chance, or that others would not copy his behavior?
The guy became a life-long celebrity and a darling of the left as a result of leaking the Pentagon Papers. All charges against him were dismissed for various reasons. I do not know the economics of his post trial life, but I would not be surprised if he has made a good living off speaking fees ever since his 1973 trial ended. He gets speaking engagements solely because of his revealing the Pentagon Papers.
That’s not right. When a soldier or other trusted person (Ellsberg was a civilian government employee) reveals a legitimate secret, he should be so severely punished that he regrets it and everyone else is glad they were not him and any who considered copying his behavior change their minds. Punishment that does not deter such behavior or, worse, encourages it, is inadequate punishment.
Someimes revealing a secret doument is immoral. Sometimes it’s moral. Your obligation to do the moral thing, whether to keep secret or reveal, is constant.You cannot get out of doing the right thing by pointing to a rubber stamp on a document any more than you can escape responsibility for doing an immoral thing by saying you were ordered to do it.
The fact that military uses the secret and top secret stamps far too much—cries wolf—mitigates their ability to punish leakers. One way to reduce leaking would be to reduce the use of the stamps to those situations where the information in question is truly a legitimate secret.
Access to classified documents is highly restricted. To see such a document, you need not only an adequate security clearance but also a need to know. But access to the damned “secret” and “top secret” stamps is anything but restricted. Any idiot of any rank with a rubber stamp can classify anything.
I actually got into mild trouble with that Vietnam “top secret” document because when I delivered it to where I was told to take it, I handed it to a major who worked in that office. It turned out that the major did not have a “top secret” clearance. I assumed that someone who was two ranks above my first lieutenant rank had at least as good a security clearance as I did. Hell, I had a top secret clearance at or shortly after my graduation from West Point. And how the hell was I supposed to know whether the major had a top-secret clearance? You do not wear it on your uniform—although they wear every damned thing else. If I ever had occasion to deliver another I would have asked the guy who gave it to me to identify the exact person to whom I was supposed to deliver it and ask him to make sure that guy had the required clearance.
The military needs to restrict the authority to stamp a document classified. And they need to have the person making the decision to so stamp it give his name, signature, rank and the date. And they need to end the attitude of when in doubt stamp it out. When a document has been classified improperly for improper purpose, like a cover-up, they need to prosecute the officer repsonsible. I have never heard of such a prosecution. Classifying documents needs to be done as sparingly as letting them get seen.
Media behavior with regard to secrets is often an outrage. American have probably died because of the media’s “I am a journalist so I can reveal anything and I am a hero for doing so” attitude. Media people who reveal legitimate secrets need to be severely punished. I suspect that is not permitted because of freedom of speech and freedom of the press. That needs to be fixed. Arguably, the media who publish the classified documents are more culpable for the resulting damage than the leaker.
I favor a draft. If there was one, more journalists would have relatives or friends who are in the military or the journalists themselves would be veterans. As it stands, few, if any, journalists know people in the military because the military is largely people from the former Confederate states and the journalists are more likely from elite universities that do not allow ROTC on campus in the Northeast, Midwest, and West.
Journalists have on occasion delayed or refused to reveal legitimate secrets. More often, they seem hell bent on being the ones who scoop everyone else. When American lives are at stake, that’s evil per se.
John T. Reed