Transparency And National Security

“America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship.”

Aaron Sorkin’s vision of a presidential speech is beloved by many liberals and progressives, but the two sentences above are truths for all Americans. Rights are always paired with responsibilities. The boundaries between one individual’s rights and those of another are always blurred. In the constant search for balance, injustice is inescapable. We see this reality in many familiar guises; life versus choice, free ownership versus gun control, and free speech versus offensive speech. This week’s big news highlights a fourth major front, national security versus transparency.

The Wikileaks disclosure of 90,000 classified documents relating to the Afghan War has stirred the debate to life. As with all of these debates, vocal partisans have lined up on each “side”, ready to advocate for their absolute positions. On one side, the notion that the security establishment is entitled to control the flow of information; once a document is classified, any breach threatens national security. The opposite side disputes that notion, advocating instead for transparency in and around the application of deadly force. Truth, the transparency advocates are apparently arguing, will set us all free.

As with the other issues mentioned, it is the position of The Rational Middle that the optimum lies between the two absolutes. Transparency and national security are two issues only vaguely defined in the minds of most Americans. Most who I have talked with like the idea of transparency, but lack a real notion of what the concept really means to business, government, or the military. Many Americans’ understanding of national security is a Hollywood understanding of spies, code books, and terrible plots uncovered and thwarted at the last moment. A second look at these issues, perhaps, will help the process along.

In the case of transparency, Americans recognize that it makes following a business or the government easier for them. Because of this fact, many Americans assume that transparency is an easy or automatic process. In fact, no concept could be further from the truth. Transparency costs time and money…lots of both in fact. Don’t believe me? Document everything you do for a week, then prepare that document (with all supporting evidence) for public consumption. Remember, you can’t leave out a single fact, or you will be accused and vilified for withholding information. Ask a member of top-management at any publicly-traded company how much the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (the federal response to the Enron scandal) costs them every year.

The difficulties, and sometimes the impossibilities, associated with transparency are not meant to dissuade one from demanding it. I am merely making a plea for reasonable understanding of the realities of the process. It is important that we be honest in our affairs, and humans have a natural tendency to protect themselves by withholding information. Just ask your teenagers. In the case of military operations and other issues of national security, being honest in our affairs takes on a very different context. The cavalier manner with which some “journalists” dismiss that context is appalling.

National security breaches, generally, fall into three categories:

  1. Transfer of strategic information to an enemy- this transfer allows an enemy a look at our plans, and the opportunity to both counter us and get ahead. As an example, German knowledge of our D-Day ruse would have allowed their 15th Panzer to be deployed against the troops in Normandy. This might have cost us an additional two years of war, and perhaps 100,000 additional casualties.
  2. Transfer of tactical information to an enemy- this is analogous to a football team getting access to the sideline signals, audibles, and specific game-plan of their opponent. It appears that the Afghan leak might have included items like unit deployment, radio calls and frequencies, and unit operations contingencies during the period of 2004-2009. Any of those items still in use would have to be changed immediately.
  3. Highlighting specific information on civilian casualties- this relates to the ability of the troops to build relationships with the Afghan people. A similar reality was encountered in Viet-Nam and Korea.

Spying on both friends and enemies has been a fact of life for as long as humans have organized armies. The new twist in the game is the overwhelming (and reasonable) desire of we the people to know what the federal government is doing with the $600 billion or so they get for military spending every year. There has been a paradigm shift in the way Americans view “top-secret”. Journalists in the early years of the Reagan Administration and before, would stay away from major reporting on top-secret installations. Once George Knapp and other investigative reporters decided that the government might be hiding aliens, it became open season on closed installations. The installation at Groom Dry Lake (grid square 51) has hosted most of our nation’s most advanced aircraft for decades; only now are citizens desperate to see what is “hidden” there.

Strategic secrecy for weapons development has the potential to save lives, and definitely saves money. Our nation spent money on aircraft and ships with low observables technology (they are hard to see or hear throughout the e.m. spectrum), while the rest of the world spent billions on technology that ours was designed to beat. In contrast, tactical secrecy saves lives today. The tactical information in the Wikileaks cache has the potential to cost the lives of Americans and civilians. It is for that reason, I feel, that the young American source of the leaks should spend the rest of his life in prison. The news organizations that disclosed the information in its entirety are another matter. They have both charter and responsibility to report any factual and relevant information they gain access to. There remains an argument on what constitutes responsible reporting, and the third point in national security highlights why the newspapers disclosed the information.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to build good relationships with a people when you are driving through their neighborhoods in armored Humvees. When it is reported that you have killed civilians, accidentally or not, that relationship-building becomes difficult squared. It is the third point that we as a nation must come to understand. The only thing worse than killing a civilian, is lying about it and getting caught. I think the moral of this story, where point three is concerned, is to simply not hide civilian casualties from the public. If that proves to be insurmountable, then we ought not be there. Civilian casualties are part of war; any thoughts to the contrary are naive.

This episode will add to the growing question, in the media and public at large, as to whether we should be in Afghanistan at all. This war, in contrast with Iraq, was the war that America believed was necessary to fight and win. Candidate Obama promised to give this war the resources it needed, even as he promised to get us out of Iraq. As both of those promises are fulfilled, it is important that we evaluate exactly what we hope to accomplish from armed conflict in that country. I would encourage all to set aside their ideas of “victory” and “honor”, and remember that our military has already earned more than its share of both. Staying or going in that country should not be about our image or such labels we so attach. We have one more year until the President’s deadline for troop withdrawal in Afghanistan. During that time, the transparency that will support national security the most, is that which should occur in our conversations on the home front.

The Rational Middle is listening…

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