Knowing Things

That last day in the classroom was a long time ago – June 1981 – and then it was goodbye to teaching English at the prep school in upstate New York, selling most everything, and then heading off to the other end of the country, to Los Angeles, to the beach and a new life. And that new life took eight or nine months of finding someone who would hire a pleasant enough fellow who had spent every day since high school in academia – college then grad school, specializing in Swift and the processes of language that allow you to say one thing and clearly mean many others, then almost a decade of getting late adolescents to read Shakespeare and Dickens and whatnot, and then getting them to write about that, or about anything really, clearly and sensibly, and if possible, forcefully. That’s not a skill-set much in demand.

But Northrop – down in Hawthorne, not far from the beach – bit. They needed someone to lead supervisor training sessions – prepackaged stuff for geeky young engineers just promoted to their first management position, where the job would not allow them to be brilliant oddballs any longer.

Cool – it was easy work. Roll the videotape and run the role-playing session and lead a discussion about managing both specific policies and difficult people. And it paid more than double what any prep school teacher ever earned. And you didn’t have to grade papers – or deal with parent-teacher conferences. And at the end of the day you could jump in the red convertible – an old red Italian thing, bought well-used – and drive to the place you’d rented at the beach, or hit the beach bars with your buddies. This was everything California was supposed to be. This was not Rochester, New York.

But something was odd. There were things going on in the background. At the time Northrop was in the last years of producing the F-5 – the sort of baseline jet fighter sold all over the world, because it was sleek and simple and did the job, and was technologically second-rate. No one gets our good stuff. Down the street in a separate facility Northrop had a line building the airframe for the new F-18. That, at the time, was the good stuff. Only our guys got those. But even then there was talk of Lockheed doing odd things out in the desert – something invisible to radar. One has crashed. Some of the young engineers knew all about it. But they knew they weren’t supposed to talk about it, so they didn’t say much. That was what was to become the F-117 Stealth Fighter. And there were also vague rumors of Northrop being up to something at the old Ford assembly plant out in Pico Rivera – rumors of a giant flying wing, also invisible to radar. That turned out to be the B-2 bomber, but it was only a rumor back then.

It seemed California was full of things no one was supposed to know about, but that everyone sort of knew about anyway. You’d be shooting the breeze with the guys at work, or doing shots at the bar with your buddies from the Air Force Contract Compliance Office after work – and those guys could drink you under the table – and suddenly there’d be a wall of silence. It was very mysterious. But you got used to it. There were some things you weren’t supposed to know.

The next year it was the move to Hughes Aircraft – to the Space and Communications Group. That was satellites and payload for satellites, and space probes and things that landed on the moon or orbited Venus – all very cool, and most of it was out in the open. But a lot of it wasn’t, and that got odd. And maybe that was inevitable, because the new part of the job was to write and produce an industrial film – a history of Hughes and of the Space and Communications Group to be used in New Hire Orientation. You know – make ’em proud and get ’em fired up. And that was fun – the late Howard Hughes had been a gas and there were clips galore, and the Group had invented the communications satellite and built the moon rovers and all sorts of things. But the problem was the military stuff. The stuff about MilStar I – the new government satellite communications system to provide secure, jam resistant, worldwide communications to meet all possible wartime requirements – had to come out. The program manager was pissed. Yeah, everyone knew all about it from Aviation Week and such, but the contract rules were clear. It didn’t exist. So that section came out. Okay, it didn’t exist – done. The film won an award anyway. But it was an odd introduction to California. It seems there’s more to this place than surfers and movie stars. But you can’t talk about it.

That was something to think about in the evenings at the beach, sitting by the window, sipping scotch and watching the winter sun set behind Malibu way across the bay. Not that the place was that cool – it was a shabby old wall-up apartment on a side street just above the beach, not on it, with orange shag carpet and a kind of Gidget beach-bum feel. It was somehow appropriate, or seemed so at the time.

But the landlord was strange – a young fellow with two or three PhD’s who worked over in Santa Monica at the Rand Corporation. He didn’t talk much about his work – he was an expert on game theory and would mutter something about spending his days working out all possible scenarios involving global thermonuclear war – all the ways it could start and all the ways it might play out and what would happen next. But he really couldn’t talk about it. He’d just look away and sort of smile, a little embarrassed by it all. And that was unnerving. There are some things you’re not supposed to know, and maybe you don’t really want to know them. Ah heck, the monthly rent was more than reasonable. There was no need to know more.

But people always want to know more, and things have a way of slipping out of Rand Corporation – like the Pentagon Papers. Thanks to Daniel Ellsberg we found out that in 1967 Robert McNamara had commissioned a history of our policy involvement in Vietnam, and how things would have to work out. And they all knew the whole thing was a lost cause from the get-go. Ellsberg worked on that study and in late 1971 grabbed his copy and drove up here to West Hollywood to a copy place and ran off full copies for the New York Times and the Washington Post – he’d had enough of all the press-on-to-victory happy talk. He met the New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan over on the Santa Monica Pier and handed the thing to Sheehan, and the rest is history. There are some things you’re not supposed to know, but you really ought to know – like knowing that your government is flat-out lying to you, and asking that you and your friends go off and die for something that was never going to work out, and that they knew all along was never going to work out.

Has that happened again? The issue is this:

The debate over America’s longest war was fueled Monday by history’s most massive leak of classified documents.

The Pentagon launched a damage assessment of the repercussions from the unauthorized publication on a website called WikiLeaks of nearly 77,000 reports tracking six years of the war in Afghanistan, a posting the White House said could imperil U.S. intelligence-gathering. Pakistani officials denied allegations in the files of complicity between their military spy service and Taliban insurgents.

And critics of the conflict cited the huge data dump – with its portrait of U.S. forces straining to battle a resilient enemy while trying to bolster unreliable Afghan and Pakistani allies – as evidence of why the United States should extricate itself from a war they call unwinnable.

It does seem somehow parallel to the Pentagon Papers, or people fed up with that war want it to seem that way. We’re talking about a cache of 92,000 secret documents about the Afghanistan war that someone leaked to WikiLeaks – and those folks passed them on to the New York Times and the Guardian in the UK and Der Spiegel in Germany. All three published a number of these documents – what they say are the highlights. Will this, as with the Pentagon Papers, cause support for the war in Afghanistan to collapse?

That depends on what is in the documents. And Fred Kaplan argues these are not the Pentagon Papers – “No one who’s been paying attention should be surprised by the WikiLeaks documents about the war in Afghanistan.”

Some of the conclusions to be drawn from these files: Afghan civilians are sometimes killed. Many Afghan officials and police chiefs are corrupt and incompetent. Certain portions of Pakistan’s military and intelligence service have nefarious ties to the Taliban.

If any of this startles you, then welcome to the world of reading newspapers. Today’s must be the first one you’ve read.

Yes, Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, has said these documents are just like the Pentagon Papers – his press conference was in rotation all day on the cable news channels. That’s what he says, and Kaplan says the comparison is preposterous:

The Pentagon Papers – a study commissioned by former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to find out just how the United States got involved in Vietnam – was a finished, multivolume history, containing classified documents, which revealed that the Vietnam War was largely a civil war; that it might never have erupted, had the United States abided by the 1954 Geneva agreement, which called for nationwide elections to unify North and South Vietnam; and, most crucially, that, by early 1965, even as they spoke optimistically about the prospects of victory, several top U.S. officials knew the war was lost. In short, the Pentagon Papers revealed that, from the beginning and continuing through the escalation under President Lyndon B. Johnson, the war was a lie.

But Kaplan points out that no one is lying here. There’s not much that is at all inconsistent with our official statements about the war in Afghanistan and what comes out of NATO:

President Obama and various allied leaders, as well as their top aides and commanders, have acknowledged and decried all of these nightmares – civilian casualties, corruption, Pakistani collusion, and more – openly and repeatedly.

These problems were, in fact, the main reasons behind the new strategy that Obama put in place in December 2009 – after the period covered by all of the WikiLeaks documents, which date from 2004-09.

All he sees is press hype:

The Guardian’s opening statement is breathless: “The logs we publish today, a detailed chronicle of a violent conflict that has lasted longer than the Vietnam War, longer than the two world wars, shatter the illusion that conflicts could be meticulously planned and executed, and the assumption that bloodshed would be acceptable only in very limited quantities.”

This “illusion,” to the extent anybody believed it at all, was “shattered” by the opening rounds of the insurgency in Iraq in the late spring of 2003. Nobody has believed it, about Iraq or Afghanistan, for a moment ever since. No official, at least not since former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, has tried to pull the notion over on anybody. Quite the contrary, every official has acknowledged that war generally, and this war in particular, is messy and deadly, that the enemy adapts and so we must change our plans, too, and that in any case blood will flow. The Guardian’s dispatches from Afghanistan have been excellent. Surely none of this comes as news to its editors.

Of course the New York Times is less strident, saying that the documents offer “an unvarnished, ground-level picture of the war in Afghanistan that is in many respects more grim than the official portrayal.” Kaplan says notice “the wide-open hedge” – “in many respects.” They seem to know that they should know better.

But it doesn’t matter. Kaplan points to the Defense Department’s official, unclassified, one-hundred-fifty page report, from April – Report and Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan – and Kaplan has read this:

Taken as a whole, it’s much grimmer than the scattershot of documents in the WikiLeaks file. More to the point, the documents, which are given half of the Times’ front page and five full pages inside, are nowhere nearly as grim – to say nothing of insightful, close-up, or comprehensive – as any number of reports from Afghanistan by the Times’ own Dexter Filkins or Carlotta Gall.

Moreover, several of the WikiLeaks documents don’t really indicate what they seem at first glance to indicate, as sometimes the Times’ editors acknowledge. For example, an “incident report” from Helmand Province, dated May 30, 2007, notes that the Taliban shot down a U.S. CH-47 transport helicopter with what appeared to be a heat-seeking missile, even though a NATO spokesman told reporters at the time that it was shot down by small-arms fire. Thirty years ago, the mujahedeen used CIA-supplied Stinger missiles to shoot down hundreds of Soviet helicopters; their success in this area was a major factor behind the Soviets’ defeat. So this revelation is potentially a big deal. However, the Times writer summarizing the documents on this incident notes, “The reports suggest that the Taliban’s use of these missiles has been neither common nor especially effective; usually the missiles missed.”

It’s just not that earth-shattering:

Similarly, a “civil affairs report” from Paktia province, on Nov. 15, 2006, notes how aid is being hampered by “corrupt, negligent, and antagonistic officials.” However, the Times summary of this report concludes: “Finally, the corrupt officials were replaced. But it took months.” (I don’t mean to dispute, or at all minimize, the pervasiveness of corruption throughout Afghanistan. But if this is one of the two or three most damning instances of it that the Times could find in these documents, then the documents aren’t very useful.)

An “incident report” from Badakhshan province, dated, Sept. 13, 2009, notes that one of the Air Force’s Reaper armed drones lost the satellite link to its U.S.-based ground controller and flew, unguided, out of control. (An F-15 had to be dispatched to shoot down the drone before it crossed into Tajikistan.) This might be interesting if we knew how often this sort of thing happens, but that would take some reporting. It’s also worth noting that drones do sometimes crash or get shot down – and that’s part of the Air Force’s rationale for the drone program: When a low-flying airplane gets shot down, as sometimes happens, it’s better that it be unmanned than manned.

And so it goes. And this stuff is next to useless:

The war in Afghanistan may or may not be a tragedy, a failure, and a mistake. In any case, you’re more likely to learn that from reports and reporters, not from these random, raw files.

But see Spencer Ackerman’s here:

There’s a bias in journalism toward believing that what’s secret is inherently a hive of hidden truth. That operating principle animates reporters’ practice of breaking down governmental secrecy. But it can also create a misleading expectation that leaks represent huge new revelations. And when those revelations don’t manifest, it creates an expectation that the trove is neither useful nor significant. In this case, that would be a mistake.

The gloominess of it all, and how this reinforced that gloominess, is the actual story here.

Or maybe Les Gelb has the actual story:

The United States is giving “moderate” Pakistanis and the Pakistani military billions of dollars yearly in military and economic aid, which allows Pakistani military intelligence to “secretly” help the Taliban kill Americans in Afghanistan, which will drive America out of Afghanistan and undermine U.S. help for Pakistan.

But that’s not in the documents, only implied. But we knew that anyway.

Or you could look at another dire implication. Writing in Foreign Policy, Andrew Bacevich calls this a new type of information warfare:

Rather than being defined as actions undertaken by a government to influence the perception of reality, information warfare now includes actions taken by disaffected functionaries within government to discredit the officially approved view of reality. This action is the handiwork of subversives, perhaps soldiers, perhaps civilians.

Within our own national security apparatus, a second insurgent campaign may well have begun. Its purpose: bring America’s longest war to an end. Given the realities of the digital age, this second insurgency may well prove at least as difficult to suppress as the one that preoccupies General Petraeus in Kabul.

But are those who leaked all this stuff insurgents, or patriots out to show the truth of the matter? If you on the right, and believe in traditions and established institutions and authority, and in obedience to authority, then you’d probably agree with Bacevich. If you on the left, and into finding new ways of doing things and into questioning authority, you might not.

And if you’re a conflicted conservative like Andrew Sullivan, you just find it all extremely depressing. And that’s because of what we already know:

The notion that a professional military and especially police force can be constructed and trained by the West to advance the interests of a “national government” in Kabul within any time frame short of a few decades of colonialism is a fantasy.

We are fighting a war as much against the intelligence services of Pakistan as we are the Taliban. They are a seamless part of the same whole, and until Pakistan is transformed (about as likely as Afghanistan), we will be fighting with two hands tied behind our backs.

This is the Taliban’s country. Fighting them on their own ground, when they can appear in disguise, can terrify residents by night if not by day – and fight and then melt away into the netherworld of mountains and valleys is all but impossible. And as the occupation fails to secure popular support (and after ten years and a deeply corrupt government in Kabul, who can blame the Afghans?), the counter-insurgency model becomes even less plausible than it was before.

But other than that, we should stay and win, or maybe not:

The enormous cost in lives and money is in no way proportionate to the eradication of around five hundred Qaeda leaders, including bin Laden, who are effectively being protected by a foreign government, Pakistan, we aid with a one billion dollars a year.

And here’s a novel notion:

The troops deserve to fight in a strategy that can actually work. They deserve not to be risking their lives for bases that have to be abandoned, on hillsides where they cannot see the enemy, in a war where the enemy abides by no civilized rules but where every civilian casualty in response is a propaganda victory for the Taliban. This is a lose-lose proposition.

Would you send your son to fight there, knowing all this? If not, how do we continue to support a strategy in which other people’s sons are thrown into the wood-chipper that leads nowhere?

On the other hand, we cannot leave:

The terror threat from that region is real – and made worse by the last few years. Allowing the Taliban to come back and launch attacks with al Qaeda from Afghanistan and Pakistan is real. A president who withdraws and then presides over a terror attack will be vulnerable to cheap political attacks of the Palinite variety.

On the other hand we should:

But a mature polity will understand that just because we cannot prevent any terror attack from that region does not mean we should be occupying it with 100,000 troops in a quixotic attempt at nation-building. We have to return to the Biden option of the least worst counter-terrorism strategy. In order to defeat this terror threat, the American people are going to have to accept that they will endure, for an indefinite period of time, a level of terror that is more than zero. They are also going to have to accept that the occupation itself has become a source of terror, globally.

No politician can admit that any of that is true, even if it is true. But Sullivan does like Obama:

When one weighs the extra terror risk from remaining in Afghanistan, the absurdity of our chief alleged ally actually backing the enemy, the impossibility of an effective counter-insurgency when the government itself is corrupt and part of the problem, the brutality of the enemy in intimidating the populace in ways no civilized occupying force can counter, the passage of ten years in which any real chance at success was squandered … the logic for withdrawal to the more minimalist strategy originally favored by Obama after the election and championed by Biden thereafter seems overwhelming.

When will the president have the balls to say so?

Never, actually.

On the other hand, more and more incremental secondary evidence – that something other than what seems to be going on is actually going on – does, over time, change how you see things. After all, way back in the early eighties, Southern California was all Beach Boys and movie stars. There are some things you’re not supposed to know, and maybe you do want to know them, because dealing with what is actually going on is generally a good thing.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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1 Response to Knowing Things

  1. Rick says:

    Actually, I think this recent leak of 92,000 documents has more in common with the Pentagon Papers than is being acknowledged.

    My memory of the Pentagon Papers is that the big deal at the time was not about the content — there was nothing new in them beyond their existence; that is, the fact that the government had commissioned RAND to do a study of the Vietnam War. And it wasn’t so much that, once the Johnson administration received the report, the government then “knew” what the smart money had felt all along. After all, just because they had paid for RAND’s opinion didn’t mean they had to agree with it, or accept its conclusions, any more than it had to agree with all of us “peaceniks” and others who opposed the war.

    No, the real fuss back then was not about the content of the leak, it was about the leak itself. The point then, as it is now, was whether or not this sort of stuff can and should be “classified,” and whether or not whoever leaks it — and maybe those who publish it — should be punished under the law.

    In fact, I would think this latest leak might be more damaging than the Pentagon Papers (which, I think, was mostly just a compilation of facts already in the public domain) in that it might contain names of operatives and others who assisted America under the condition of anonymity.

    After all, were we wrong to have sent Scooter Libby to jail for outing Valerie Plame?


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