Better Not to Know

Alexander Pope was a strange little man – a four-foot six hunchback – but he could turn a phrase. A little learning really is a dangerous thing. That was a common sentiment in the early eighteenth century. There were far too many poseurs pretending they knew what was going on, causing no end of trouble, but there was a more basic idea floating around. Thomas Gray’s 1742 poem Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College offered this – “Where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise.”

Those words – ignorance is bliss – live on. Now they’re used to shut down people who ask too many questions. They’re condescending and never do shut anyone up – those three words just generate resentment and anger – but early in the century that gave us our country, and our Constitution, the conventional wisdom was that wisdom wasn’t all that wonderful. There was much to be said for ignorance. It was connected to bliss, and that had political implications. A nation whose citizens had no idea what was going on would be a happy and well-ordered nation. Later in the century that all got turned around and we got the American and French Revolutions – citizens, who knew what was going on, were perfectly capable of ordering their own affairs, and should – but that turned out to be a bit idealistic. All governments rely on the ignorance of their citizens to keep functioning. If all citizens knew what was really going on, behind the scenes, they’d be appalled, and want it stopped, and things would fall apart. That’s why Edward Snowden was such a problem. He let everyone know what the NSA and CIA were doing to keep us safe, and none of it was very nice, or very legal. It was, however, probably quite useful. The government’s argument seemed to be that while ignorance was probably not bliss, ignorance was, in this case, safety from terrible things. Sometimes it is better, for everyone concerned, not to know what’s really going on. An informed citizenry, that Jeffersonian ideal, could end up a dead citizenry.

That played out more than a generation earlier with the Pentagon Papers that no one was supposed to see. Robert McNamara created the Vietnam Study Task Force on June 17, 1967, to create an “encyclopedic history of the Vietnam War” from 1947 onward – he later explained that he just wanted to leave a written record for historians, to head off policy errors in the future. If you want to learn from your mistakes you do have to know what happened, when, and why. It was an academic exercise, and thus McNamara didn’t tell Lyndon Johnson and Dean Rusk about this massive study – they were kind of busy at the time – and those papers eventually ended up at the Rand Corporation out here in Santa Monica.

That’s where they should have been in the first place, with the experts in the analysis of effective and non-effective decision-making processes, and the Rand folks continued and deepened the original analysis of how we got into that Vietnam mess. It wasn’t pretty, and it had to remain secret. If the public ever found out about how decisions on Vietnam had been reached, or avoided, they’d be outraged. We had secretly enlarged the war early on with secret bombing in Cambodia and Laos, with coastal raids on North Vietnam, and with Marine Corps attacks all over the place, and none of this had been reported in the media. Congress hadn’t known. President after president had been flailing about and none of it had worked, and they knew it hadn’t worked, but no one else knew that. They’d better not find out. The Pentagon Papers remained under lock and key in a dark room across the street from the Santa Monica Pier.

That should have worked fine. Everyone at Rand has a top secret or better clearance, except that didn’t account for the guy who thought the American public should know what was really going on. On a fine warm evening in 1971, Daniel Ellsberg left his Rand Corporation office and walked across the street to the Santa Monica Pier, where he met New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan and handed him the Pentagon Papers, the whole big pile of them, which Ellsberg had grabbed and photocopied. The rest is history. The New York Times started publishing those Pentagon Papers, and then was stopped by an injunction the Nixon administration had won, so the Washington Post published them and forced the matter up to the Supreme Court, and won, getting the injunction lifted. Daniel Ellsberg was charged with conspiracy and espionage and theft of government property, and those charges were dismissed when everyone found out that the Nixon “plumbers” had broken into the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, hoping to find something to make Ellsberg look like a pervert or a madman. The government wasn’t playing fair, so Ellsberg was free to go, and the public was outraged at what was in all those pages from the pier. Our leaders don’t know what they’re doing, and they know that they don’t know what they’re doing, and all of them, one after another, have being lying to us all. Everything is going fine? No one would ever believe that again. Bliss was no longer an option.

At least we don’t torture people, but of course we have tortured people. We had a national policy of torture, even if we called it something else, and earlier this year, in March, there was this:

A report by the Senate Intelligence Committee concludes that the CIA misled the government and the public about aspects of its brutal interrogation program for years – concealing details about the severity of its methods, overstating the significance of plots and prisoners, and taking credit for critical pieces of intelligence that detainees had in fact surrendered before they were subjected to harsh techniques.

The report, built around detailed chronologies of dozens of CIA detainees, documents a long-standing pattern of unsubstantiated claims as agency officials sought permission to use – and later tried to defend – excruciating interrogation methods that yielded little, if any, significant intelligence, according to U.S. officials who have reviewed the document.

“The CIA described [its program] repeatedly both to the Department of Justice and eventually to Congress as getting unique, otherwise unobtainable intelligence that helped disrupt terrorist plots and save thousands of lives,” said one U.S. official briefed on the report. “Was that actually true? The answer is no.”

All this produced very little in the way of actionable intelligence and the CIA lied about all this in order to preserve its ability to torture prisoners, for no real reason:

Classified files reviewed by committee investigators reveal internal divisions over the interrogation program, officials said, including one case in which CIA employees left the agency’s secret prison in Thailand after becoming disturbed by the brutal measures being employed there. The report also cites cases in which officials at CIA headquarters demanded the continued use of harsh interrogation techniques even after analysts were convinced that prisoners had no more information to give.

We did it for the fun of it, or because it felt good, and right, at the time, even if it was pointless? Maybe the point wasn’t to get the bad guys to cooperate, because all this did little good. This report, which was a preliminary report with few real details, was a bit distressing, and at the time Andrew Sullivan added this:

So we are approaching the moment when we will have some measure of understanding of the scale and breadth and severity of the war crimes authorized by the last administration. We don’t – infuriatingly – have the full Senate Intelligence Committee report on the Bush-Cheney torture program, but we are beginning to get clues and assessments from people who have actually read the report. That means we should be careful in jumping to conclusions. But, so far, we’re seeing why the CIA has done all it possibly can to keep their war crimes hidden from public accountability. That avoidance of accountability was not just to the American people, but also to their representatives.

Ignorance is bliss, Andrew – remember that. Let’s just not think about it, shall we? That’s fine with the CIA guys – it really is so tiresome to have to keep saying, over and over, that all this worked just fine, as the evidence piles up, higher and higher, that none of it worked at all. There are some things, in that upcoming full Senate Intelligence Committee report, you really don’t want to know, and now, as reported Josh Rogin at Bloomberg View, you won’t know those details any time soon:

Secretary of State John Kerry personally phoned Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Friday morning to ask her to delay the imminent release of her committee’s report on CIA torture and rendition during the George W. Bush administration, according to administration and Congressional officials.

Kerry was not going rogue – his call came after an interagency process that decided the release of the report early next week, as Feinstein had been planning, could complicate relationships with foreign countries at a sensitive time and posed an unacceptable risk to U.S. personnel and facilities abroad. Kerry told Feinstein he still supports releasing the report, just not right now.

This then is a foreign policy issue that has nothing to do with who did what way back when, or maybe who did what way back when, if revealed, would make it even harder to conduct our foreign policy. Kerry was asking for a favor – don’t make his job any harder than it already is – hold off the full report until there is peace in the Middle East, and the lion lies down with the lamb, and there’s peace on earth and goodwill toward men. This isn’t a good time.

It’s not a good time in other ways:

Kerry’s 11th-hour effort to secure a delay in the report’s release places Feinstein in a difficult position: She must decide whether to set aside the administration’s concerns and accept the risk, or scuttle the rollout of the investigation she fought for years to preserve.

Hill staffers and human rights advocates saw the Kerry call as a stunning reversal by an administration that has publicly supported the report’s release for months. For Senate Republicans – who have warned about the potential fallout for more than a year – the administration is belatedly coming around to agree with their position.

“There’s always a lot going on in the world and the timing of the release of a report like this never convenient,” one senior GOP senate staffer said. “They should have thought about that a long time ago and advocated against the release.”

The timing of the release of a report like this is never convenient, and maybe it should never be released. Ignorance is bliss, after all, but all sorts of things are at play here:

Any delay would be a huge problem for Feinstein for several reasons. First of all, her staff just completed a grueling months-long negotiation with the CIA over what details would make it into the final release. Those negotiations were personally mediated by President Barack Obama’s chief of staff, Denis McDonough, who flew to San Francisco several times to negotiate directly with Feinstein.

Second, if the release is pushed off past next week, Feinstein will no longer head the committee, and the incoming chairman, Republican Richard Burr, could very well prevent the report from being released at all.

All governments rely on the ignorance of their citizens to keep functioning, after all, and Feinstein should have seen this coming, as there were mixed signals out there:

The State Department’s top intelligence officer, Phillip Goldberg, wrote to Congress last year to warn that such information could harm U.S. relationships and place American personnel and facilities abroad at risk, but at the time, top officials told me that his warning was never cleared at the secretary of state level. This time, the very top echelon of the Obama administration’s national security team is echoing those concerns.

They are also said to be backed up by a new memo sent to Congress from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, detailing the potential risks of releasing the report at this time. That office did not respond to a request for comment.

The State Department prepared talking points in advance of the report’s release that made the case for releasing it, despite the risks.

“America can champion democracy and human rights around the world not because we are perfect, but because we can say that our democratic system enables us to confront and resolve our problems through open and honest debate,” the State Department memo said. “Our Congress issued this report, and the Obama administration strongly supported its declassification, in that spirit.”

The State Department memo said that, but others said otherwise, and now the Secretary of State says otherwise, and Dan Froomkin suggests this:

Continued White House foot-dragging on the declassification of a much-anticipated Senate torture report is raising concerns that the administration is holding out until Republicans take over the chamber and kill the report themselves. …

Critics of the Bush administration’s torture regime are hoping the report’s release will lead to a long-sought moment of accountability. That, of course, is exactly what Republicans and people who were part of the regime – many of who are still in top positions in the intelligence community, and close to Obama – don’t want.

The plan, then, may be to delay the full report until the Republicans kill it, so Kerry and Obama don’t have to do that – and they can rag on the Republicans for the keeping the truth from the American people. Kerry and Obama wouldn’t have done that. They’d never do such a thing. That’s pretty clever, and as a bonus, no one will ever know what happened way back when. Everyone will be blissful and safe. And the Republicans will look like jerks.

It’s a plan, but Andrew Sullivan is not happy:

Of course this complicates relationships with foreign countries; of course it guts any remaining credibility on human rights the US has; of course the staggering brutality endorsed by the highest echelons in American government will inflame American enemies and provoke disbelief across the civilized world. But that’s not the fault of the report; it’s the fault of the torture regime and its architects, many of whom have continued to operate with total impunity under president Obama.

He’s not fooled:

Make no mistake about it: if this report is buried, it will be this president who made that call, and this president who has allowed this vital and minimal piece of accountability to be slow-walked to death and burial, and backed the CIA every inch of the way. But notice also the way in which Kerry’s phone-call effectively cuts the report off at its knees. If it is released, Obama will be able to say he tried to stop it, and to prevent the purported damage to US interests and personnel abroad. He will have found a way to distance himself from the core task of releasing this essential accounting. And he will have ensured that the debate over it will be about whether the report is endangering Americans, just as the Republican talking points have spelled out, rather than a first step to come to terms with the appalling, devastating truth of what the American government has done.

He’s also disappointed:

I’m genuinely shocked by this last-minute attempt to bury the truth. Does anyone doubt that one agency in that interagency review is the CIA itself? And can anyone seriously believe that if this moment passes, we will ever know what happened? I have confidence in Senator Feinstein’s backbone on this. I wish I had confidence in the president’s.

Digby (Heather Parton) agrees:

Yeah, well the timing is never going to be good for pretending that we are morally above reproach in this area or that our allies who eagerly helped us do it are either. So what? It happened…

I’m disgusted. Kerry is the guy who once had the guts to go before the congress and expose the atrocities US troops were committing in Vietnam.

Yes, on April 22, 1971, John Kerry became the first Vietnam veteran to testify before Congress about the war – he spoke for nearly two hours to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, presenting the conclusions of the Winter Soldier Investigation – all about how a good number of our guys had been doing some very bad things over there – and Digby notes what he said then:

I am not here as John Kerry. I am here as one member of the group of 1,000 which is a small representation of a very much larger group of veterans in this country, and were it possible for all of them to sit at this table they would be here and have the same kind of testimony….

I would like to talk, representing all those veterans, and say that several months ago in Detroit, we had an investigation at which over 150 honorably discharged and many very highly decorated veterans testified to war crimes committed in Southeast Asia, not isolated incidents but crimes committed on a day-to-day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command….

They told the stories at times they had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam in addition to the normal ravage of war, and the normal and very particular ravaging which is done by the applied bombing power of this country.

We call this investigation the “Winter Soldier Investigation.” The term “Winter Soldier” is a play on words of Thomas Paine in 1776 when he spoke of the Sunshine Patriot and summertime soldiers who deserted at Valley Forge because the going was rough.

We who have come here to Washington have come here because we feel we have to be winter soldiers now. We could come back to this country; we could be quiet; we could hold our silence; we could not tell what went on in Vietnam, but we feel because of what threatens this country, the fact that the crimes threaten it, not reds, and not redcoats but the crimes which we are committing that threaten it, that we have to speak out.

He’s not that idealistic young man any longer. He’s the damned secretary of state now, and the adjective – damned – is appropriate. He’s covering up torture, for the greater good, whatever that is.

Thomas Gray’s words echo down the years – “Where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise.” We have our bliss. And perhaps the American people really don’t want to know what was done a decade ago, and might even be being done now. An informed citizenry is an unhappy citizenry. Is that what Jefferson and those other guys really wanted? It doesn’t matter. Ignorance is useful to everyone.


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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One Response to Better Not to Know

  1. fRick says:

    Thomas Gray’s 1742 poem “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College” ends with this:

    “Where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise.”

    That is brilliantly observant, and seems straight-forward enough. Still, I wonder what he meant by that. Was Gray taking the side of those who believed it to be true, or was he mocking them?

    I can only guess from reading the rest of the poem and from what little I know of Eton — not really a college in the American sense, really just a prep school once attended by 19 prime ministers, including the present one, as well as actors Eddie “Stephen Hawking” Redmayne and Hugh “Dr. House” Laurie, and imaginary people such as James Bond and Captain Hook. I think it all might relate to something supposedly said (although often misquoted) by Wellington during a visit in the next century to the school: “It is here that the battle of Wellington was won.”

    The school, founded in the 1400s by Henry VI, was where all those Brits who eventually went on to wreak havoc upon the earth allegedly learned how to do that, so Gray may have been wondering out loud if these kids, frolicking blissfully in their sylvan surroundings — “Alas! regardless of their doom / The little victims play / No sense have they of ills to come / Nor care beyond to-day” — had only been aware of all the death and mayhem in their future, what difference it might have made to them.

    And I wonder what John Kerry, back when he was that “Winter Soldier”, might have thought had he been able to peek ahead into history and see Heather Parton, presumably once a fan, saying this:

    “I’m disgusted. Kerry is the guy who once had the guts to go before the congress and expose the atrocities US troops were committing in Vietnam.”

    Personally, I think we need to cut Kerry some slack here.

    As hard as it was back then to do what he did, it wasn’t nearly as hard as those decisions he faces today. For one thing, when you think about it, exposing the behaviors we had forced our soldiers to engage in was pretty much an un-alloyed good. It made us aware of our mistakes and helped us correct them, without anyone else getting hurt by it. (Yes, some swift-boat types pretended that he hurt his country, but let’s face it, those phonies were just wack from the get-go.)

    And by the way, the Pentagon Papers never actually hurt anybody either. All they did was confirm to the American public what many of their countrymen had been saying all along — the Vietnam war could not be won and was a huge moral mistake, and that those in government had to have known this for years. Like Kerry’s “Winter Soldier” stuff, it was embarrassing to certain people, but was purgative for the nation — a good thing — and really hurt no one in the process.

    Now I should confess, the fact that this all came out last March is, I find, sort of shocking, in that I don’t remember hearing about it at all! (I suspect my senses had, by that time, been numbed by all the fake scandals the Republican dream-machine had been cranking out for years, so I may not have realized that something had come along that was really worth getting excited about.)

    But the way I see this developing, we first had Dick Cheney (who, I think, really deserves more credit than he’s received in this narrative) denying something that everyone in the world but he seemed to know was true: “torture” is, in fact, torture.

    Did he get away with it? Well, not completely, but he said it with such audacious confidence that he was able to throw red meat to those who were constantly looking for a way to justify our doing things that were (a) immoral, and probably just as significant, (b) totally useless.

    Cheney’s attempts to rewrite the dictionary were unlikely to withstand scrutiny forever, of course, but by giving succor to the kind of people who, for example, don’t care a whit whether capital punishment is a deterrent but only that it satisfy the blood-lust revenge of those amongst us who love that sort of thing — the kind of people who think concepts such as “morality” and “usefulness” are for pointy-headed sissies — Cheney’s head-fakes threw up just enough road blocks to keep those sissies too busy to be a bother.

    What’s more, he was probably gambling that, when the time came for his successors — even if they be Democrats, even spineless wimps like Barack Obama — to decide whether to turn him and his boss over to the Hague to face war crimes charges, they wouldn’t have the nerve.

    And he was, of course, right. Obama, ever the pragmatist, realized early on that sometimes doing the right thing can hurt the country. Not only that, one can only guess that it might also inspire a violent revolution from those upset by such things as the first black president of the United States throwing his white predecessors into some foreign jail.

    So yes, the Obama administration finds itself once again faced with how to clean up one more embarrassing mess created by his Republican predecessor, and do so without sinking the ship.

    But then there’s this suggestion that…

    “The plan, then, may be to delay the full report until the Republicans kill it, so Kerry and Obama don’t have to do that – and they can rag on the Republicans for the keeping the truth from the American people. … That’s pretty clever, and as a bonus, no one will ever know what happened way back when. Everyone will be blissful and safe. And the Republicans will look like jerks.”

    This sounds pretty improbable to me, the sort of clever scheme the Republicans would come up with, not the Democrats.

    In fact, it sounds like most of the Democrats, including Kerry, tried to hold out as long as they could in favor of “doing the right thing”, until one briefing after another about behind-the-scenes stuff the rest of us don’t even know about, finally convinced them that nobly correcting past wrongs — even those mostly committed by previous administrations — threatens to destroy relations with allies who collaborated with us, based on their trust that even future American leaders of an opposition party would never out them. This would make it impossible for any other country to trust us ever again. In dangerous times such as these, that’s no small thing.

    I wonder if there isn’t some other way to do whatever publishing this report was designed to do. I suppose one thing it hoped to do was put to rest the argument that torture actually works. Maybe there’s a way to release a redacted version to the public that doesn’t specifically implicate any other country.

    It seems to me we also need to find a way to hold responsible all those, especially in the CIA, who lied to us about what they were up to. What’s the point of requiring officials in our government to follow certain rules if, once caught, they pay no price?

    I think it would also be nice to get some sort of censure of Bush and Cheney for acting as if the founding founders, instead of laying down sacred principles to guide future leaders, were just whistling out their rear ends, but I guess, since under our system of government, censure is something only our congress does, the chances of that are next to nil.

    But maybe we could get enough signatures on one of those petitions at the White House website to call for the creation of an Executive Branch censure — in this case, to hold the Bush administration responsible for a whole slew of misdeeds that would include the Iraq War, plus everything that went along with it, such as torture. It may not be as satisfying to many as seeing Dick Cheney doing a perp-walk in an orange suit, but it might just have to do.


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