Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Pentagon Papers Redux

WikiLeaks has achieved exactly what the Pentagon papers did during Vietnam.

Um, no, in Vietnam, we didn’t know that the government had been lying to us systematically, whereas now we have known for years about the lies. WikiLeaks 90,000 documents largely seems to have been a case of “suspicions confirmed.”

So, what about the case for shutting down WikiLeaks and maybe shutting down Mr. Assange personally?

Well, that case revolves around two issues: 1) people could get killed, especially the people in Afghanistan who have collaborated with us, and who are named in the documents.; and, 2) whether Mr. Assange actually is guilty of committing espionage.

U.S. law defines espionage as transmitting classified national security information "with intent or reason to believe that it is to be used to the injury of the United States or to the advantage of a foreign nation." Apparently, whether Mr. Assange is guilty would depend on how he acquired the documents (did he participate in obtaining them?) and whether he believed he would be harming the nation by distributing them in the manner he did.. A jury would have to wrestle with that question.

That people almost surely will be killed based on his act seems certain. One assumes he would argue that innocent people are being killed daily, and his leakage of the documents was designed to achieve a reversal of US policy, i.e., to see us leave Afghanistan, and at least to stop the killing by Americans.

This business of transparency seems difficult to achieve during wartime. Our democracy requires a measure of secrecy if we are to be able to prosecute a war, yet democracy by its nature demands transparency. When I worked in the aerospace industry, the need to secure classified material was paramount, and we practiced a “clean-desk” policy at all times. Even though I rarely had access to top secret and never to “Q” material, I still felt constrained to not talk about what we were doing, and to never share documents outside the project. But that was when we were engaged in producing weapon systems to deter Soviet threats—the height of the Cold War.

Vietnam seemed to change everything. It is arguably true that our leaders, principally Roosevelt, lied to the people at the outset of the war (WW II) to allow us to become engaged, that war, “the Good War”, seemed worth such a challenge. Everything after that war became more doubtful, and in Vietnam Johnson and his advisers simply invented the pretext for the war, producing 50,000 American dead, and perhaps a million Vietnamese and Cambodian dead. They simply decided that, like in Korea, the North had to be contained, and “the end justified the means”.

In Iraq, George W. Bush took that approach one large step farther. He invented, out of whole cloth, a pretext for a war for purposes even now unclear. He and his advisers simply made it up, leading to more Iraqi deaths than anything contemplated or carried out by Sadaam Hussein.

But in Afghanistan, we seemingly had cause to attack. We were, after all, attacked by a group given safe haven by the Afghan government at the time. So, ridding the world of that government seemed a good and just cause. That, like everything Bush did, our government was inept in its prosecution of that war begins to make the case for transparency. Can we succeed in Afghanistan, now that we have bungled the job so badly—we after all make the Soviets look reasonable, and they eventually turned tail, giving the world an Afghanistan ruled by the Taliban.

The most hopeful outcome of the WikiLeaks saga is that we will have an honest debate about why we continue in Afghanistan, and how best to extricate ourselves. The answer is by no means clear. Leaving at all, is highly likely to result in the return of the Taliban, especially since we bungled the task of finding and killing the real leaders. But staying seems equally unlikely to result in any positive outcome. We are dealing with a 13th century people there, and conventional 21st century notions of democratic governments seem to have little meaning. Tribes, ethnic groupings, maybe villages, seem to matter more than notions of democracy. Corruption is a given, and leads one to consider bribery as an attractive exit strategy.  Even there, we have tried bribery with Pakistan for something over 50 years, and look what that produced.

But, like all else in America today, an honest debate on the merits of staying or leaving Afghanistan seems unlikely, since we have no responsible opposition party in this country. Republicans have driven themselves to the extreme edge of right wing thought and behavior to the point that they are now incapable of arguing coherently about almost any subject. Without a responsible opposition party, the democrats seem incapable of carrying out such a debate by themselves.

And in the meantime, we will continue to attempt to “shoot the messenger,” Mr. Assange and others of his ilk. But with or without Mr. Assange, the leaks will continue, because the policy seems corrupted, and people continue to die daily. Our troops deserve better.
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