Keeping Secrets

The dividing line was June, 1981 – there was before, and then there was after. Before, it was growing up in Pittsburgh, college in Ohio, graduate school in North Carolina, then teaching English at a prep school in upstate New York. After, it was moving to Los Angeles, living at the beach, and working in aerospace – for a start. Broadly, it was moving from cold and darkness to sunshine and palm trees, from prim and proper to babes in tiny bikinis rolling by on their skates outside the window – and the small red Italian convertible in the garage. Still, there wasn’t that much culture shock – from Gidget and the Beach Blanket movies, to the Beach Boys and all the rest, everyone anywhere already knew California. Hell, it was more America than the rest of America ever could be. That wasn’t it. The culture shock was move from academia, such as it was, to the big complex where they made civilian and military satellites and, in the buildings to the east, fire-control radar systems for fighter planes. Down the street they designed and built guidance systems for intercontinental ballistic missiles – the ones in the submarines. They built the air-to-air missiles out in Pomona and the really dangerous ones out in Tucson – and there was lots of stuff no one could talk about. Even those of us who worked in Human Resources had to have security clearances – Confidential – a category long abandoned now, because it was useless. We didn’t know anything. We didn’t have access to anything.

That took some getting used to. Before, it was inquiry – know as much as you can about as much as you can, and talk about it, because it’s all cool. After, it was all don’t ask questions, and if you know something cool, keep a lid on it. Now and then the guys from the Air Force Office of Contract Compliance would show us an ominous short film and have a talk about possible spies among us – anyone could be blackmailed, so be careful. They should have showed us The Falcon and the Snowman – about the two young guys down the street at TRW who had sold some of the cool stuff to the Russians – but that movie was too long and complicated and they had another group of two hundred waiting.

It was all very odd, and it was even odder later, when married again and the second father-in-law was the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs – at the Pentagon no less. Receptions there, in the Reagan years, were always awkward. If asked, you said where you worked. If asked what you do, you said nothing. The admiral or general would nod – you were obviously one of the good guys. For someone who hung with the antiwar hippie crowd in college in the late sixties, and was still a bleeding-heart liberal, it was simply surreal, and Frank Carlucci really was a little weasel of a man. Silence was best all around, but not for national security reasons. The marriage didn’t last by the way – probably a good thing.

There was a point to all this silence of course – our enemies, as we define them at any given point, would dearly love to know what we’re up to, and what we can or cannot do at the moment. They work hard to discover what they can, and that should be countered. One cannot be too careful. Diplomats have their secrets too. If everyone knew what they said about each other in private cables – nasty stuff – no treaties about anything would be possible. There should be some state secrets. Then there’s the public, who would be quite upset if they found out what nasty stuff was being done, in their name, even if it is for their own good. No one needed to know that a few of those people in that room in the Pentagon long ago, trading banal pleasantries, were arranging to send some really deadly strains of anthrax to Saddam Hussein, because he was the guy who would give Iran no end of trouble. Yeah, chemical and biological warfare had been banned in the twenties, and the anthrax strains at Fort Dietrich were for research purposes only, but this seemed like a good move at the time, even if no one would understand. They didn’t need to know, so they didn’t know – and maybe it didn’t happen. No one is talking, even now.

It was a relief to move from Human Resources into systems work, and then into systems management, and then to be outsourced and sent elsewhere. There were no state secrets at the locomotive plant in London, Ontario – just an awful mainframe system managing assembly that had to be fixed. It was the same with the financial systems at the hospital chain based in Pasadena – lead the team that keeps things running, and talk openly about everything. It was the same managing claims systems for the HMO – no state secrets at all, just a bunch of legacy systems that wouldn’t talk to each other. That could be fixed. We talked and worked it out. It was a return to sunshine, so to speak.

Sunshine and openness are good. Any child of the sixties knows that, except there were those seventeen years in the darkness and silence of the aerospace industry, where sunshine and openness were forbidden, for good reason. That was the conflict, because it’s obvious that silence is demanded sometimes for no good reason, on a whim or to display dominance, or sometimes forbidden because what was being done should not have been being done. National Security can be invoked to cover up what is simply wrong, and illegal, or immoral, or simply embarrassing. It’s just that it’s hard to know when that’s the case, because it’s a national security issue – so only a traitor or fool would demand to know what’s up.

It’s just that such traitors and fools are quite useful. Daniel Ellsberg blew the lid off the Vietnam War – it had become an unwinnable sham early on and everyone in power had known it. They’d been covering their asses – no more than that – which was good to know. That clarified a lot, and ended that useless war earlier than anyone could have hoped, even if not early enough. That was helpful. Edward Snowden was also helpful. He seems to be a grandstanding arrogant jerk, and a whiner, and a self-righteous bore with an ego the size of Nebraska, but now we know what the NSA was and is actually doing, and we can actually have a talk about privacy and what should and should not be legal – a good open talk. That’s useful, and he can fade away and end up running a bicycle repair shop in Minsk if he likes. He’s done his job. Traitors and fools are awful – they can ruin America – but whistleblowers are good, or even heroic at times, when they’re not smirking.

That was always the problem with WikiLeaks – which started as the Sunshine Press – dedicated to publishing secret information, news leaks, and classified media from anonymous sources, on the general theory that sunshine and openness are always good. Everyone should know everything. As any diplomat or married man will tell you, that proposition is not always true, but the guy who created WikiLeaks doesn’t think so – Julian Assange is a bit of an absolutist. He’ll publish anything and everything he can get his hands on. He’s also a self-righteous bore who smirks a lot, and now one of his anonymous sources has paid the price he will never pay himself:

A military judge on Tuesday found Pfc. Bradley Manning not guilty of “aiding the enemy” for his release of hundreds of thousands of military and diplomatic documents to WikiLeaks for publication on the Internet, rejecting the government’s unprecedented effort to bring such a charge in a leak case.

But the judge in the court-martial, Col. Denise R. Lind, convicted Private Manning of six counts of violating the Espionage Act of 1917 and most of the other crimes he was charged with. He faces a theoretical maximum sentence of 136 years in prison, although legal experts said the actual term was likely to be much shorter.

Manning didn’t aid the enemy. He did break the law, and it’s complicated:

While advocates of open government celebrated his acquittal on the most serious charge, the case still appears destined to stand as a fierce warning to any government employee who is tempted to make public vast numbers of secret documents. Private Manning’s actions lifted a veil on American military and diplomatic activities around the world, and engendered a broad debate over what information should become public, how the government treats leakers, and what happens to those who see themselves as whistle-blowers.

“We always hate to see a government employee who was trying to publicize wrongdoing convicted of a crime, but this case was unusual from the start because of the scope of his release,” said Gregg Leslie of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, adding, “Whistle-blowers always know they are taking risks, and the more they reveal the bigger the threat is against them.”

Manning had access to a ton of stuff, and dumped it all on the public indiscriminately. He was a fool, not a traitor, although he came close, and the lesser conviction was a compromise, in a difficult era:

The case has arisen amid a crackdown by the Obama administration on leaks and a debate about government secrecy. Private Manning is one of seven people to be charged in connection with leaking to the news media during the Obama administration; during all previous administrations, there were three.

The Justice Department recently won an appeals court ruling forcing James Risen, a reporter for The New York Times and an author, to testify in the criminal trial of a former intelligence official accused of being his source. And it has used aggressive tactics in secretly subpoenaing communications records of reporters for Fox News and The Associated Press.

We are fighting a lot of bad guys. We can’t let them know too much, and we need to stop people from blabbing about what we do know – or that’s the general theory. Obama is being hard-assed about this, and it’s tricky:

Steven Aftergood, the director of the project on government secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists, called Private Manning’s many other convictions “a weighty verdict that the prosecution would count as a win,” but he argued that the “larger significance of the case” for open government may be limited, since most leakers do not disclose entire databases.

Months before the trial, Private Manning confessed to being WikiLeaks’ source for videos of airstrikes in which civilians were killed; incident reports from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars; dossiers on detainees at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba; and about 250,000 diplomatic cables.

Private Manning also pleaded guilty to a lesser version of the charges against him, although that was not part of any bargain with prosecutors. The move was unusual, and it appeared aimed at trying to persuade the judge to view Private Manning as having taken responsibility for his actions, while recasting the trial as a test of whether the government had brought excessive charges in the case.

The government elected to press forward with trying to convict Private Manning of the more serious charges. Prosecutors portrayed him as an “anarchist” and a “traitor” who recklessly endangered lives out of a desire to “make a splash.” The defense portrayed him as a young, naïve, but good-intentioned humanist who wanted to prompt debate and change.

He wanted to prompt debate and change, but he dumped everything he could find. At least Ellsberg stuck to one topic. Manning wasn’t that focused. That’s what did him in. Julian Assange now says he’s a martyr. Others disagree.

Paul Waldman and Jaime Fuller, however, see wider implications here:

It’s one thing to have only limited sympathy for Manning – after all, he didn’t just leak evidence of government malfeasance, he leaked hundreds of thousands of documents, most of which showed no one doing anything wrong, and the indiscriminate dump surely did damage to American diplomatic efforts. But if he had been convicted of “aiding the enemy,” it would have set an extremely dangerous precedent. National security leaks happen all the time – those who report on the topic wouldn’t be able to do their jobs without them – and if every time someone in the Pentagon passed a tidbit to a reporter they could be charged with something akin to treason, the chilling effect would be, well, chilling.

Manning was many things – you can call him misguided, overzealous, or foolish if you like. But had the court called him a traitor, we would have entered territory we don’t want to visit.

Slate’s Fred Kaplan calls this a “moderate” verdict and adds this:

Had the judge accepted the argument and found Manning guilty of the [“aiding the enemy”] charge, the implications would have been profound. By such a verdict’s logic, The New Yorker could have been accused of aiding the enemy for publishing Seymour Hersh’s article about the torture of detainees at Abu Ghraib. Hersh’s intention may have been to call attention to war crimes being committed by U.S. officers in Iraq, but a prosecutor could certainly have argued that the story served al-Qaida’s interests; and it’s certainly true that the revelations over Abu Ghraib were used as recruitment tools by jihadists worldwide.

In the Guardian, Dan Gillmor carries this further:

By finding Manning guilty of five counts of espionage, the judge endorsed the government’s other radical theories, and left the journalism organization that initially passed along the leaks to the public, WikiLeaks, no less vulnerable than it had been before the case started. Anyone who thinks Julian Assange isn’t still a target of the US Government hasn’t been paying attention; if the US can pry him loose from Ecuador’s embassy in London and extradite him, you can be certain that he’ll face charges, too, and the Manning verdict will be vital to that case.

Perhaps so, but D. J. Pangburn argues here that we actually might want to rethink the Espionage Act itself:

How could an act written in 1917 possibly address or, rather, handle the complexity of a whistleblower of Manning’s scale and intent? The fact is that the Espionage Act of 1917 was never written with Bradley Manning in mind. Its goal was not to address whistleblowing at all, but the delivery of intelligence to foreign governments. …

Now, it is one thing to create the legal mechanism to prosecute spies who deliver information to the enemy. But it is quite another to prosecute a soldier, or any American for that matter (journalists, for instance) for publishing documents that shine a light on shameful deeds. Manning wasn’t paid for his work by any foreign nation or agent. He wasn’t working on anyone’s behalf apart from his countrymen. All of this is to say that the Espionage Act needs to be amended to make room for whistleblowers – because, as it stands, any whistleblower is at the mercy of the law, and the President’s particular whistleblower policies.

That adds the element of politics, and Slate’s David Weigel offers an assessment of how this played out in Washington:

The dream of dissuading future leakers had been a goal all along – the executive branch’s goal, and the Senate’s. Convicting Manning of violating the Espionage Act was the sort of win Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Sen. Dianne Feinstein had wanted all along. “The Supreme Court has held that its protections of free speech and freedom of the press are not a green light to abandon the protection of our vital national interests,” she argued in 2010, at that time making the case for prosecuting Julian Assange, the man who took Manning’s information and spread it online. Assange called today’s verdict “the first ever espionage conviction against a whistleblower” and “a dangerous precedent and an example of national security extremism.”

But it wasn’t a new definition or precedent on “aiding the enemy.” The government had argued that Manning possessed an “evil intent” when he burned diplomatic cables onto CDs then handed the information to the Assange organization. It cited, for example, the case of Pvt. Henry Vanderwater, a treacherous soldier in the Union army who’d given a command roster to a Confederate newspaper. And had the government won, someone who revealed information later used by, say, al-Qaida, would have been as legally liable as someone who passed secrets directly to the terrorists.

The government didn’t win. The legislators and spymasters who insist that Manning was a traitor – and that Snowden is a traitor too – have a weaker case today. Feinstein insisted that Snowden “violated his oath,” and thus committed “treason.” Over in Fort Meade, Col. Denise Lind has declared that Manning didn’t truly intend to aid the enemy. That’s a major setback for intel-hawks (or whatever you can call these people), because despite the outrage generated on the Hill, there’s no real momentum for legislation to further criminalize leaking. A brutal judgment from Lind was the best they could have hoped for, and this one wasn’t brutal enough.

There’s also this curious reaction:

Sen. Lindsey Graham, a former JAG lawyer, declined to second-guess the judgment from Fort Meade. “I think it’s a logical consequence that the enemy might pick up the information leaked here, but I think the statute is written that you have to intend that,” he said. “But I can understand why the judge ruled that way, and I think the process has been fair. I respect the court’s decision. I think he should have been tried for all the crimes, including aiding the enemy. The process worked, didn’t it?”

Graham headed out of the Capitol on a hopeful note. “This is one of the more serious things that I’ve seen a military member do in 30 years,” he said. “I hope people who say he’s a hero see they’re misguided in terms of what a hero might be.”

No, he wasn’t a hero, just a reckless idealist with no focus whatsoever. And he wasn’t a traitor either, for the same reason – he meant well, in a vague sort of way. He seems to have had no particular intent about anything. He just handed massive amounts of everything he could find to Julian Assange, to see what Julian Assange could make of it. Maybe he was hapless dupe – and he’s going to jail forever and Julian Assange isn’t. He was used.

It’s hard for any child of the sixties to know what to make of all this. It’s kind of like that first year in aerospace back in the eighties. Remember, say nothing about anything. That never felt right, even if the reason was quite clear. Everyone feels that way now.

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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 Keeping Secrets

  1. Russell Sadler says:

    Nice trip down Memory Ln. and a very nice synthesis of the nuances of state secrets. Bottom line? There are too many secrets. When everything is a secret, nothing is secret. I appreciate your opinion because you’ve had several first-hand brushes with real secrets.

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