Secrecy and the War Without End

I am at a conference on war, liberty and the free press sponsored by the Liberty Fund, and there are some discussions we have held that I believe are worth passing on.

One of the most significant aspects of the relationship between the press and the military in time of war is secrecy. Almost everybody, including the most liberal advocates of a free press, seems to agree, for example, that news of plans for future troop movements or actions, at least during actual combat, should not be published lest they give the enemy information that could be valuable to defeating an attack or planning an ambush.

In practice this is hardly ever an issue; most American reporters are pretty scrupulous about such matters. The only instance of which I’m aware that something similar happened in Iraq was when Geraldo Rivera (not quite my idea of a real journalist) drew some possible plans with a stick in the sand on camera, but it also seems to be the case that he had been given a phony briefing so he wasn’t really revealing anything genuinely useful to an enemy. Still, it could have been a sticky situation, especially given the instantaneous nature of transmission of news reports today, compared with the old, old days when a story might not get into newspapers back home for three days or more.

Given that criterion, what about this story in Thursday’s USA Today? It noted that airport screeners at LAX missed 75 percent of the fake explosives and bomb parts that Transportation Security Administration testers hid in carry-on bags or under clothes, while screeners at O’Hare missed 60 percent of them. Could such a story alert potential terrorists of a vulnerability to a possible suicide bomb mission? If so, is it the kind of story that should not be published? Most of us agreed that it was better to print the story to create an incentive to correct the problem (assuming the airport screening does much good at all, which isn’t necessarily obvious). But a case could be made for suppressing it.

This leads to the larger issue of government secrecy. When I was in high school, my father, a chemist who worked for a defense contractor, got me summer jobs in the receiving department. So there I was, a punk kid who had not been scrupulously screened, routinely handling paperwork and parts ominously stamped “Confidential” or “Secret.” Some of the stuff I simply didn’t understand, but it soon became reasonably obvious to me that while they were intended for use in missiles, many of the parts were simply standard industrial items and the justification for classifying them was weak at best.

Later, when I spent time in Babylon-on-the-Potomac, it became even more obvious to me that many items are classified without any justification remotely connected to genuine national security. Some were classified to cover up embarrassments or mistakes. Others were classified simply out of inertia.

There was consensus in our group that a large portion of the stuff that is classified – perhaps as much as 95 percent? – is done so without any genuine justification in national security.

I would argue for a more radical position: that the government takes money from us by force and uses it to develop information that it then hides from us, the people. There’s an argument that since it was developed with our money, that the information really belongs to us and shouldn’t be kept secret at all. Enemies or potential enemies can usually get the stuff anyway, so the only people from whom it is hidden are the people, who in theory are supposed to be the masters of the government, which is their servant.

I don’t know if I would defend all the implications of this argument to its logical end that nothing should be classified as secret, but it’s worth putting out there for discussion.

We discussed another issue that’s sadly relevant today. Most wars of modern times have a beginning and a foreseeable end. The assumption is that once victory is won, the liberties that have been taken away for the duration, or the restrictions placed on the people, will be restored or lifted, and life will return to normal, with the presumption of liberty reigning.

The great Global War on Terror, however, is a war without a foreseeable end. What president, Democrat or Republican, would declare the war won, knowing that the next day, or the next week, or the next month, a terrorist attack could occur, making him or her look like an idiot? So we have plunged into a “war” without a foreseeable end.

This means that it is very possible that the freedoms we are losing during the current conflict – to fly without hassles, to be free from electronic surveillance, to be free from cameras stationed all over major cities, and on and on – may never be restored. The nature of the GWOT is that it has no foreseeable end. So the losses of freedom we are suffering may not only serve as a precedent for further reductions in freedom, they could be permanent features of the American landscape.

The war on Iraq was a huge mistake, but at some point it will be resolved, even if it involves relatively permanent military bases in Iraq. But will there ever be an end to the Global War on Terror? That could have much more deleterious implications for the preservation of American liberties than the Iraq war.

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Author: Alan Bock

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Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).