More Secrecy

More Problems of Secrecy:

The Washington Post has two big headlines today in its online edition, and both are about secret wings of the GWOT. The second is more interesting than the first: "Covert CIA Program Withstands New Furor." It holds that:

The broad-based effort, known within the agency by the initials GST, is compartmentalized into dozens of highly classified individual programs, details of which are known mainly to those directly involved.
Well, that is the idea behind the whole classification system. And yet, we have learned a substantial amount about the program:
GST includes programs allowing the CIA to capture al Qaeda suspects with help from foreign intelligence services, to maintain secret prisons abroad, to use interrogation techniques that some lawyers say violate international treaties, and to maintain a fleet of aircraft to move detainees around the globe.
Emphasis added. It's of course the case that "some lawyers" will be willing to stake out any legal position -- that's why neither the ACLU nor their opponent of the week ever has trouble finding a lawyer. There are lawyers with opinions on all sides of every issue in the law.

Therein lies the problem with the debate the Post wants us to have over these programs -- a problem that poses a real puzzle for the citizen who is interested in doing his duty as a thinker and a voter. Before we join the 'rising furor,' we really ought to know what we're raising a furor about.

Yet the program is secret. Details are available only to those directly involved. We know some several details due to leaks of the sort that the Post's first article is about. Just like the case with "some lawyers," however, any government agency has dissenters. It doesn't say anything bad about you that you are a dissenter -- I've argued at length that maintaining internal dissent is a critical national security issue. What becomes a problem is when the dissenters decide to take their case to the public, in violation of their oath.

It's a problem because they are putting forward only one point of view, from a perspective that is limited. They know the details of their own part of the program; they don't know what the rest of the CIA is doing. They have their own particular reading of the details and events. They are dissenters, so we can reasonably assume that their interpretation is a minority reading at CIA.

Because of the secrecy oaths, however, we can't get a balanced view. There is no opportunity for a response from the other side. Consider Bill Roggio's response to another story in the Washington Post, one about him. It asserted that he was there doing Information Operations for the US military. Bill pointed out that this was entirely incorrect -- a reading of the facts that was flat wrong.

Almost certainly there's a response of the same type lurking in the minds of many a CIA officer. "What the #@$@#?" they are doubtless saying this morning -- just as I've found myself saying it on the occasions when I've seen press reports on topics about which I knew the truth. This has happened a time or two, and the media gets the details so badly wrong that I wonder what on earth they were thinking.

Yet the other officers at CIA can not reply. Their oath forbids it, and even if it did not, national security interests forbid disclosing the rest of the details or the alternative interpretations of the details that are available. The debate -- the "furor" -- must be carried out in public on the basis only of the information provided by the dissenters, usually without rebuttal.

The solution to this problem is the republican one -- the small "r" is intentional -- which is to elect representatives who can review the information and report to us that things are, or are not, as they ought to be. Thus the problem of secrecy is worsened by the reckless political culture lurking in D.C. these days.

Repairing that culture by replacing the currently worthless run of Congressmen is our only option, however. We cannot strip away the secrecy from the most critical programs; and we ought not to pretend to be conducting honest reasoning into these programs with only a limited, one-sided view available to us as data. To do so would be to do exactly what Bush is accused of doing by those who disagree with him: to reason within a bubble of single-minded opinion.

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