September 30, 2005

Secrecy is For Losers?

Judge Hellerstein:

The terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan do not need pretexts for their barbarism; they have proven to be aggressive and pernicious in their choice of targets and tactics. They have driven exploding trucks into groups of children at play and men seeking work; they have attacked doctors, lawyers, teachers, judges and legislators as easily as soldiers. Their pretexts for carrying out violence are patent hypocrisies, clearly recognized as such except by those who would blur the clarity of their own vision. With great respect to the concerns expressed by General Myers, my task is not to defer to our worst fears, but to interpret and apply the law, in this case, the Freedom of Information Act, which advances values important to our society, transparency and accountability in government.

More:

Suppression of information is the surest way to cause its significance to grow and persist. Clarity and openness are the best antidotes, either to dispel criticism if not merited or, if merited, to correct such errors as may be found. The fight to extend freedom has never been easy, and we are once again challenged, in Iraq and Afghanistan, by terrorists who engage in violence to intimidate our will and to force us to retreat. Our struggle to prevail must be without sacrificing the transparency and accountability of government and military officials. These are the values FOIA was intended to advance, and they are at the very heart of the values for which we fight in Afghanistan and Iraq. There is a risk that the enemy will seize upon the publicity of the photographs and seek to use such publicity as a pretext for enlistments and violent acts. But the education and debate that such publicity will foster will strengthen our purpose and, by enabling such deficiencies as may be perceived to be debated and corrected, show our strength as a vibrant and functioning democracy to be emulated.

Shorter Hellerstein: Sunlight is the best disinfectant. And strong societies let the sun shine in.

To wit, the judge quotes the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan who, in turn, quotes George Kennan:

[A] huge proportion of the government’s effort at classifying is futile anyway. Let [George F.] Kennan have the last word. In a letter of March 1997 he writes: “It is my conviction, based on some 70 years of experience, first as a government official and then in the past 45 years as an historian, that the need by our government for secret intelligence about affairs elsewhere in the world has been vastly overrated.”…

A case can be made…that secrecy is for losers. For people who don’t know how important information really is. The Soviet Union realized this too late. Openness is now a singular, and singularly American, advantage. We put it in peril by poking along in the mode of an age now past. It is time to dismantle government secrecy, this most pervasive of Cold War-era regulations. It is time to begin building the supports for the era of openness that is already upon us.

This is not to say confidential information must not be zealously safeguarded at times. But this is manifestly not one of those times, and the Abu Ghraib pics are not strategically sensitive. The contention that release of these pictures will lead to renewed insurgent firepower and the deaths of American soldiers is grossly exaggerated. It is rank hyperbole and fear-mongering. We know the killers in Iraq have no qualms about massacring innocents for no reason whatsoever, and similarly they will kill every single American soldier that they can get their hands on--Abu Ghraib pics or no Abu Ghraib pics. Ah, you say, but the ranks of the insurgency might grow? Bunk. The dirty little secret about Abu Ghraib is that it shocked the West more than it did Iraqis. They were so used to horrific mistreatement under Saddam, most of it much worse, that while disgusted and cynical (Abu Ghraib under new management!) the earlier revelations from Abu Ghraib had not lead to as much outrage as, say, the faux-Koran desecration story. No, these pictures won't swell the ranks of the insurgency. But they might force more Americans out of their sad stupor about how our reputation as leading avatar of human rights is being sullied and morally compromised in the international arena.

At least this is my hope. Meantime, I repeat, where are our 'leaders' on this? Why is McCain not louder? Warner? And why the so deafening silence by Democrats (Hillary Rodham, anyone)? I think I know. The Democrats have no spine and are scared to be deemed anti-troop--the kiss of death with its ghosts and connotations of Vietnam/McGovern era defeatism. But these are the times when leaders are meant to buck popular disinterest and lead, explain, agitate--so as to improve and rejuvenate this great nation's moral fiber and adherence to bedrock aspects of international law like the Geneva Conventions. (And, to boot, Fishback's travails provide a relatively easy avenue. Here is an honorable Army Captain, a man who struggled in vain to seize his superiors of abuses taking place around him. And he was instead ingloriously ignored and told to remember the honor of the unit and hush hush and so on. I say, defend this man, loudly, and by defending him, defend the greatest and most noble traditions of our military. Hillary could navigate this tight-rope, but she isn't, is she?) Instead, the silence of cowardice and mediocrity reigns. Is it any wonder most Americans are disgusted by their political class?

Posted by Gregory at September 30, 2005 05:26 AM | TrackBack (14)
Comments

McCain and Graham make the speeches but not the votes. Hillary makes the votes but not the speeches. I'm sick of both of them but it is false, blatantly false, to say that the Democrats have done less than the Republicans when every vote on every subpoena on every investgation has fallen along party lines. The only Congress-people responding adequately are Democrats. There are not enough of them but they exist. Leahy, Levin, Durbin, Feingold, Kennedy in the Senate. Markey and Blumenauer in the House. Those are the names that come to mind off the top of my head. Read the hearing transcripts--those are the ones trying desperately to get answers at the hearings--the test of this is less what they ask when the cameras are rolling than the detailed questions they ask when they are not. Those are the ones who sponsor every anti-torture bill they can. They're the ones who filibustered Haynes, who asked more about executive power than anything else of Roberts. Those are the ones willing to stick their necks out--though after Durbin did so and got the reaction he did, they're going to be even slower to do so in the future. Read or watch the records of the Gonzales nomination. Read Harry Reid's floor speech. Read all of the speeches. The Democrats' broke their silence, for once; the Republicans played the race card in the most shameless way imaginable; the press was indifferent. Read the hearing transcripts. Watch how few Republicans ever even attempt to get a straight answer. Compare the lists of follow up questions. Read about the time Hastert and DeLay tried to definitively legalize extraordinary rendition last fall. Look up the roll call votes. Compare the # of Republican Senators who voted to criminalize Durbin's infamous Guantanamo speech and the # of Republican Senators who have voted against

I'm not remotely satisfied with the Democrats' handling of this, it's one reason I will not support Clinton's campaign, but if you think there is no one saying anything, if you think there is not a chasm between the parties on this, you're not paying close enough attention either. This is an excellent weblog and you're better on this issue than almost any conservative, but it's a pretty late date to be talking about getting off the bus.

Posted by: Katherine at September 30, 2005 07:08 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

McCain and Graham make the speeches but not the votes. Hillary makes the votes but not the speeches. I'm sick of both of them but it is false, blatantly false, to say that the Democrats have done less than the Republicans when every vote on every subpoena on every investgation has fallen along party lines. The only Congress-people responding adequately are Democrats. There are not enough of them but they exist. Leahy, Levin, Durbin, Feingold, Kennedy in the Senate. Markey and Blumenauer in the House. Those are the names that come to mind off the top of my head. Read the hearing transcripts--those are the ones trying desperately to get answers at the hearings--the test of this is less what they ask when the cameras are rolling than the detailed questions they ask when they are not. Those are the ones who sponsor every anti-torture bill they can. They're the ones who filibustered Haynes, who asked more about executive power than anything else of Roberts. Those are the ones willing to stick their necks out--though after Durbin did so and got the reaction he did, they're going to be even slower to do so in the future. Read or watch the records of the Gonzales nomination. Read Harry Reid's floor speech. Read all of the speeches. The Democrats' broke their silence, for once; the Republicans played the race card in the most shameless way imaginable; the press was indifferent. Read the hearing transcripts. Watch how few Republicans ever even attempt to get a straight answer. Compare the lists of follow up questions. Read about the time Hastert and DeLay tried to definitively legalize extraordinary rendition last fall. Look up the roll call votes. Compare the # of Republican Senators who voted to criminalize Durbin's infamous Guantanamo speech and the # of Republican Senators who have voted against

I'm not remotely satisfied with the Democrats' handling of this, it's one reason I will not support Clinton's campaign, but if you think there is no one saying anything, if you think there is not a chasm between the parties on this, you're not paying close enough attention either. This is an excellent weblog and you're better on this issue than almost any conservative, but it's a pretty late date to be talking about getting off the bus.

Posted by: Katherine at September 30, 2005 07:09 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I completely agree that all of this stuff needs to come out. There is no good reason to keep it secret, and the U.S. should, in the tradition of good democracies, be open about its moral failures. And I agree that the military arguments about it fueling the insurgency are bunk. The thing that concerns me, however, is that the past several months and the the coming few months have been very sensitive politically within Iraq. It is important that things go well. I think the long-term political implications of these photographs in Iraq will be neutral, or even positive, showing that democracies do not up cover up their wrongs. The short-term impact, however, is unpredictable, and introducing it into a politically charged Iraqi election season--especially if the Constitution fails--may have lasting adverse effects if it damages the process. So while I want the pictures to come out, surely it can wait just a few more months? January or February, maybe, when things have (hopefully) settled down a bit? I know that there will never be a "perfect" moment in the intermediate-term to release the pictures and that this kind of argument could be extended into perpetuity by unscrupulous individuals, but certainly the next few months are not the time to be introducing potentially explosive elements into Iraq's political process.

This is why, despite the fact that I oppose the administration's position, I am gratified by the fact that their appeals will take some time to adjudicate. I'm not generous enough to extend this position to the administration (that they're really good democratic disclosers who only want to delay the release of for a modest time, and not hide, the U.S.'s moral failures--a possibility, though somehow I doubt it), but I do have to say that the position of their detractors (release them, no matter the timing) does strike me as a bit reckless.

Posted by: Dan Larsen at September 30, 2005 04:36 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I've not been following close enough to do other than venture a guess on this, but I bet if anyone did use Fishback as a "platform" or way in, it wouldn't be long before you'd start reading how he did X or Y, wasn't trustworthy, looked at a pic of Jane Fonda once, was just disgruntled, is un-American, etc. All kinds of crap would appear, and the usual character assassination would follow.

And this now standard M.O., of which those who practice it have gotten much better and effective at it largely due to digital media/cable news and the removal of pretty much any barrier on spilling personal dirt, is probably keeping a large number of potential candidates from becoming effective, fair leaders in the gov't.

So yeah, off-topic, but I just can't help but think this horrid gauntlet anyone attempting to run for office has to go through now is holding back good people, better people than we have now. Across the whole political spectrum that is, as all sides are better than ever at character assassination, but seemingly worse at maintaining any dignity or ideals. Am I wrong? Has it always been such? Doesn't seem so... ugh I'm too young to think this!

Posted by: TG at September 30, 2005 06:29 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I don't know the particulars of the prisoner photos story Greg comments on here to have a comment of my own. I can answer a few of his questions, though.

Where is John Warner, one of the genuinely good guys in the Senate, on an issue like this? Well, Warner will turn 79 in February. Where is McCain, famous for ruffling the feathers of his Senate colleagues? McCain's reputation says more about how easily his colleagues' feathers are ruffled than it does about him; his bark as always been worse than his bite, and as his own 70th birthday approaches he's no spring chicken himself. Where are Clinton and the other Senate Democrats?

This is a more complex problem. Democratic Party politics, as Zell Miller demonstrated, are dominated by "the groups": organized interest groups with parochial and usually quite specific policy agendas. Making a long story short, the groups are made up of organizations that care much more about domestic policy than about foreign affairs and especially about national security issues (the major exception, unhelpful to the Democrats in this case, is groups who care about Israel).

Democratic politicians are ultra-responsive to the groups; their support is a prerequisite for any Congressional Democrats' aspirations for higher office, and is insurance for many Democrats from safe districts (in the House of Representatives this means nearly all of them) against primary challenges. By contrast expertise in foreign affairs and defense issues has brought little return in Democratic Party politics for years. The result is that very few Democrats in Congress bring much more to their oversight of military and intelligence issues than rank ignorance, in some cases overlaid with a veneer of knowledge very recently acquired from briefings and such like. The few really knowledgable Democrats do not include among their number the kind of passionate spokesman who could make the kind of impression Greg would like to see on an issue like the one he discusses here. In any case Senator Clinton is not among their number.

Posted by: JEB at September 30, 2005 11:24 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I don't know the particulars of the prisoner photos story Greg comments on here to have a comment of my own. I can answer a few of his questions, though.

Where is John Warner, one of the genuinely good guys in the Senate, on an issue like this? Well, Warner will turn 79 in February. Where is McCain, famous for ruffling the feathers of his Senate colleagues? McCain's reputation says more about how easily his colleagues' feathers are ruffled than it does about him; his bark as always been worse than his bite, and as his own 70th birthday approaches he's no spring chicken himself. Where are Clinton and the other Senate Democrats?

This is a more complex problem. Democratic Party politics, as Zell Miller demonstrated, are dominated by "the groups": organized interest groups with parochial and usually quite specific policy agendas. Making a long story short, the groups are made up of organizations that care much more about domestic policy than about foreign affairs and especially about national security issues (the major exception, unhelpful to the Democrats in this case, is groups who care about Israel).

Democratic politicians are ultra-responsive to the groups; their support is a prerequisite for any Congressional Democrats' aspirations for higher office, and is insurance for many Democrats from safe districts (in the House of Representatives this means nearly all of them) against primary challenges. By contrast expertise in foreign affairs and defense issues has brought little return in Democratic Party politics for years. The result is that very few Democrats in Congress bring much more to their oversight of military and intelligence issues than rank ignorance, in some cases overlaid with a veneer of knowledge very recently acquired from briefings and such like. The few really knowledgable Democrats do not include among their number the kind of passionate spokesman who could make the kind of impression Greg would like to see on an issue like the one he discusses here. In any case Senator Clinton is not among their number.

Posted by: JEB at September 30, 2005 11:25 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

You want to know why Democrats don't respond more forcefully? Take a look at how John Kerry was treated for trying to deal with abuse in a previous era. That's your answer. Republicans will demagogue any attempt to do so.

Posted by: J. Michael Neal at October 4, 2005 09:12 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

The release of more photos may be cathartic to those at home in the US, tut-tut'ing at the failure of officers and nco's to police their troops and George Bush and Rumsfeld's failure to accept ultimate responsibility. For me and many others in Iraq, it just makes us angry. Do we support the abuse of detainees? Hell, no. It disgusts me that American soldiers can sink to this level. That being said, Abu Ghraib broke into the news 18 months ago. It's old news. Unfortunately, the Islamic world could care less. This is going to inflame the Muslims against us, again. It may inspire those who dislike us to hate us. It may inspire those that hate us to take up arms against us. It may get some of us, or me, killed. Think about that. Is your catharsis and hand wringing over something that is well past worth my life? Or one of my Marines lives? Not in my book. Not in our families books, either, I'm guessing. Ultimately, one has to ask oneself what the release of these pictures going to prove. Does it prove we have bad apples, both in our enlisted ranks who perpetrated the abuses, and in our leaders, who failed to stop them? We already know this. These "new" pictures add nothing to the debate and only serve to remind the Arab world of their shame and humiliation at the hands of a few of our soldiers. If they have to be released, show them to the ACLU and Amnesty International, just don't publish them. This however is not going to happen.

Thanks, Judge. We appreciate your integrity at our expense.

Lastly, Captain Fishback is an honorable soldier, he did everything he could to influence those above him with less moral courage. I don't fault him for going to Sen. McCain. I fault his leaders for failing to do the right thing months ago.

Posted by: Brandon at October 5, 2005 06:42 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
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