How the News Media, and the Public, Contribute to Perpetual War

Distinguished Morton L. Margolin Lecture

University of Denver, May 1, 2019

There are basically three rules of speaking: Know your audience, entertain, and for me, don’t curse too much.

I once spoke at a Rotary Club luncheon in central Vermont, and while I observed the members conduct their business, they practiced a ritual of giving a dollar to the Sergeant at Arms every time that they either wanted to share something … or every time they said … well … some curse word like darn.

I knew I was in trouble. So after I was introduced and got ready to speak, I handed a $20 bill to my host. I figured that would just about cover it.

And then I cursed like a sailor. The farmers loved it.

There was another time I was speaking at one of the War Colleges … and I was dropping f-bombs like crazy. Some part of me thought that I was just fitting in, cursing away like any military officer would … But then afterwards the General in charge admonished me. He said perhaps I should clean up my language.

That incident stuck with me because I’ve had a few similar run-ins with military officers of this type.

Do I really just have a potty-mouth … Or does this … shall we say, stylistic control of speech …  have bigger meaning?  I’m all for respectful language, the kind that recognizes race and gender … but this is about something else …. Not just about how we speak, but also about what we have to say.

I have a long history with the military and this national security establishment … and I’m thinking that maybe this very small segment of our society … were signaling to me that I was somehow lacking in character … that maybe I was a little too vulgar and a little too disorderly of a citizen.

I know the counter argument: that my “message” – whatever it is – is more strongly received if I don’t curse and moderate my language.  I know the golden rule … that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. And yet I didn’t want to conform in speaking to that military audience, never have. And part of why I’m here in Denver is because I said get you know what to NBC News. Oh I did it nicely and I didn’t curse, but I spoke up. I didn’t seek the center. I didn’t keep my mouth shut.

That brings me back to the news media, and even to national security.  The message I took away then from that General … the one that I’ve heard many times … is that I was vulgar … and a little too loud … and a little too demanding … that somehow in speaking up, in speaking out, that I was jeopardizing my membership in some club.

And that got me thinking … that maybe not just political loudmouths like me are shut out … that others too would be shut out if the opportunity arose … that there are those who are subtlety shut out … Here I mean the Bernie Sanders of the world … and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez … that they were and would be shut out.  That they weren’t acceptable.

Weren’t acceptable … it means not mainstream enough … and maybe even not true blue American enough … that maybe we could all be marginalized by this self-appointed conduct police … that maybe being “socialist” or brown-skinned or being an activist or an advocate … that these were stamps of disapproval.

There are pledges of allegiance … not the pledge of allegiance … but ways we are expected to … forced to … behave. We can criticize the wars but we can’t criticize the troops. That’s a big one. We have to accept the proposition that we have to give up some liberties for security.  Or this one: That if we’re quote not guilty then we don’t have anything to worry about when it comes to government surveillance.  Wink wink. … That only they need to worry, the connotation of course being that we don’t want to be they … whoever they are … but also that they are lurking within our midst.

I’ve watched this national security clergy evolve … this conduct police … they are the custodians of an enduring country … that they are the referees of what is acceptable … that it is up to them to decide what is politically correct, not the politically correct of the campus of equal rights but more a definition that is stuck in the 1950’s, a white America definition, a Cold War definition, a post 9/11 definition that says that anyone who doesn’t behave in a certain way … that they are disrupting America … and thus are a threat.

And there’s one more thing: these guardians of the national security … they believe, with their oaths and their professional creeds and their ways of bland bureaucracy and centrism that they own the ideals … the values. … that polite society is supposed to follow their lead …

I know it might grate on some that I mention Donald Trump and AOC in the same breadth … but I believe that this national security establishment … see them in exactly the same way.

For the past two-plus years, I’ve been watching a weird dynamic emerge, not just in the news media, but also in society. Donald Trump is so scary that even some in Congress want to pass legislation that would prevent the president of the United States from pushing the nuclear button without their approval. It’s an insane and unworkable idea. But these are also insane times.

The search for constraints on Donald Trump’s power has also led many …. to look to the FBI or to the so-called “deep state” to save the country from this man. Liberals who otherwise hate and fear the CIA and FBI … they waited for Robert Mueller to save them.

And they hang on every word that a bunch of retired generals and CIA officials turned pundits have to say about Donald Trump.  On TV and in social media.

Who are these commentators that fill the airwaves?. … These are people who have brought us 18 years of war – perpetual war – these are failed practitioners. These are the same people who missed 9/11 before it happened, who concocted WMD falsehoods in Iraq, who missed the Arab Spring and ISIS … who condoned torture …. Or who carried out a drone campaign that was little more than aerial assassination.  They can’t say that the world is more secure today … and yet they have a virtual monopoly and are to be listened to? Because they don’t curse? Because they are judicious?  And centrist? Because they are the custodians of national security?  Of something bigger and more important than the people?

These former Obama, Bush and Clinton officials are practically all we hear from in the mainstream.  And that’s a huge and growing problem. Not just because there isn’t another voice … particularly when it comes to national security there is no other voice. And I know that a lot of this is just auto-pilot and these people are just supposed to fill the airwaves and entertain. But they are also arbiters of proper behavior, guarding against a Sanders or an AOC, excluding anyone who doesn’t comport with the mainstream and their ways of Washington.

I don’t think that there is a conspiracy afoot. Trump sells. He’s the story. He’s cracked the social media code and he’s the story. And it’s inexpensive to put on the Trump story, night after night, in the same way, with the same people. And that means … no real long-term investigations, hardly the expense of any travel … they can just sit in a studio and yell all day and all night … there’s no incentive to get off the Trump story … no incentive to hear any fresh voices … to do other stories.

I’m being unfair here to television … but I’m intentionally making a point. The mainstream is shrinking. The debate is limited.  The state of perpetual was not even a subject of basic coverage in the news.

It’s so hard to generalize about what America thinks … But most think that he needs to be stopped … and a part of that is that some center … some moderate middle ground … some vanilla … needs to be restored … the reasonable center, the conventional wisdom center, the non-confrontational center … the non-cursing center … and I hesitate even to say … the white center. But still center is the key word.

That gets me back to those military officers … to the national security establishment … and how they treat the elected president … Let me get back to them and the national security establishment because I’m asserting that’s how they would treat a socialist … a leftist … or a peacenik … if anyone of that type could even be elected to national public office.

The good news is that Donald Trump as president is not really in charge of anything. At the most extreme end, even if he wanted to push the nuclear button, he’d not only have to find it and figure out how it works, but I’m absolutely sure – absolutely sure – that he is also surrounded by those very military officers and others in the bureaucracy who possess this morally superior view of both decorum and  procedure. In other words, the powers that be have their own survival plan, and it is to protect the country as much from Donald Trump as it would be and from an AOC.

I’m absolutely sure that most in government … in Washington … disdain what Donald Trump is, how he has behaved. And though they work every day to thwart him … to passive aggressively slow roll him … to even ignore him until he forgets or moves on … we shouldn’t be happy or complacent that these guardians exist.

They don’t decide how we vote, though by setting the parameters of the debate they do limit the choices. And now that there’s been a black man as President and then this off-center buffoon, the powers that be … maybe they can’t see it themselves … deeply want to return. I’ll get back to that.

The core idea of liberty is the precept that a free society is one of laws and not of men … that the rule of law stands above the whim or beliefs of some empowered group. In our society, this precept is undermined by this governance by the national security nannies … whether they be permanent Washington or the so-called deep state …

To them, it doesn’t really matter if Donald Trump is president or Barack Obama is president.

They can be outwardly cordial to both, but these special emergency managers still control because they are empowered to control … Obama wasn’t able to make progress in actually ending perpetual war … in actually advancing nuclear disarmament … or transparency … because he either brought into the center for acceptance … because it was too hard to take on the national security establishment and get what else he wanted to get done … or because they had by 2009 acquired so much power that they were invulnerable to change…

I wrote about the actual rule of special emergency managers in a book … American Coup … about how the national-security apparatus, empowered by what I called “the XYZs of the extraordinary” had grown out of 9/11 and the state of perpetual war.

What I mean by “XYZs” is the framework that stands in opposition to the “ABCs”, the government of laws … the one that we too often take for granted.

The national security establishment … this bureaucracy and class of special emergency managers … are able to control policy on a national scale because they perpetrate and then benefit from a continuing state of emergencies. Their power is contingent on extraordinary security circumstances, and those circumstances never end … They have become self-sustaining, a shadow legal system, one that I wrote was commensurate to a bloodless coup.

A perpetual state of emergency, of threat, and of panic is the necessary precondition for this American coup to persist. We have that in perpetual war and in the constant specter that we are fed … that some thin line of their security efforts barely separates us from another 9/11. But we also have it now … in addition … in the threat of cyber everything … from election hacking to our own personal identity theft … Or substitute climate change … Any ubiquitous threat with no actual solution, one that effects everyone’s life, but one that also has an apocalyptic element to it … it is how we describe a world that is so terrifying and out of our control that we ultimately need to turn it over to technocrats.

This is not one political party. These are apparent experts … technocrats who populate federal bureaucracies … they supposedly know better than the rest of us. Resident within this knowing better … and protecting the country … is … I believe … a basic contempt for the citizens. This elite sees ordinary Americans as an “other” … to be watched and suppressed.

Donald Trump is also part of this other … he’s an awful president and awful human being as well.

But.  I’m most interested in ultimately how he is employed to disempower the public … not just how the elite dismisses and vilifies his supporters … but how his coarseness is broadcast into our society, conferring more power on this center … and ultimately necessitating a return to some golden era of civility and bipartisanship and centrism. The national security establishment is there … even on TV … whether you realize it or not. And when there’s a Charlottesville or another attack on a church, temple or mosque … these events become law enforcement and then homeland security and then national security problems … We want them to do something about the hate … about the violence.

Today it’s doing something about white nationalism … right wing violence … We want them to do something and that becomes the license for the federal government to snoop and interfere.

But tomorrow? The flip side of this same behavior is Black Lives Matter being under the federal microscope, or, as I said earlier, for Bernie Sanders and the AOC’s of the world to be suspected, marginalized, to be labeled off-center and thus dismissed. They will say … and dinosaur television watchers will say … that we need to return to some simpler time … to a time when three television networks and a handful of newspapers didn’t just report and control the news but they filtered the news … they filtered what the public needed to know, what we needed to buy, what we are allowed to see …

In journalism, that even includes a systematic effort on the part of the national security establishment to turn Julian Assange into a common criminal … to deny him the protections of freedom of speech.

This effort began before Wikileaks became a witting or unwitting agent in the Russian efforts to interfere in American politics. And it will have lasting effect beyond Assange – whatever you think about him.

They want to decide what the public can know … but they also want to have control over who talks.

Again there is so much more to say about Assange but I want to focus on what ties Bernie Sanders, AOC, Donald Trump and Julian Assange together.

In January, I left NBC News saying that the planet and the state of journalism were in a tandem crisis. For more than a year I’d declined to report on the Trump circus, trying to do news stories that I thought were more consequential … about the day-to-day war making of the United States … about the secrets and the powers of our government.

I took a potshot at the national security establishment and our military leaders when I left because I thought it was high time that we held them accountable … accountable for the fact that there was not one country in the Middle East that could say it was safer in 2019 than it was 18 years ago. In fact, I said, the world overall becomes ever more polarized and dangerous. And no one seems responsible, particularly not those responsible for the world. I said and believe that there is not a soul in Washington who can say that they have won or stopped any conflict since 9/11. And I asked, why, if they’ve done so little of consequence, that we so embrace them, even look up to them and lionize them?

I said I was especially disheartened to watch the news media somehow become a defender of this Washington establishment … and of this fraudulent system of insecurity. To me, the mainstream new media has become the proxy of boring moderation and conventional wisdom … agent if you will of that national security order … It has become the defender of our poor little government against Donald Trump. It has become cheerleader for every threat imaginable. It seems more in love with procedure and protocol than it is with accountability and results.

My view is that the news media has gotten sucked into the tweeting vortex, increasingly lost in an adrenaline rush of Trumpism … in love with the political horserace … reporting on every shift and change … no matter how consequential … in Trump’s behavior and the Mueller investigation and now report .. I the 2020 campaign. It’s become the latest car crash … the latest snow storm … a never-ending loop.

In many ways NBC and others in the mainstream media are just emulating the national security state. They are busy … and profitable. There are no wars won but the ball is kept in play.

Even without Trump, our biggest challenge as we move forward is that we have become exhausted by endless media and social media. And because of the news “cycle,” all of journalism suffers from a really bad case of not being able to ever take a breath.

I realized how out of step I was when I looked at Trump’s various bumbling intuitions and half-baked policy ideas: his desire to improve relations with Russia, to denuclearize North Korea, to get American military forces out of the Middle East, to question why we are fighting in Africa, even in his attacks on the intelligence community and the FBI.

Of course Donald Trump is an ignorant and incompetent impostor. And yet I’m alarmed at how quickly the powers that be mechanically argue the contrary of whatever he offers. We shouldn’t get out Syria? We shouldn’t go for the bold move of denuclearizing the Korean peninsula?  Even on Russia, though we should be concerned about the brittleness of our democracy that it is so vulnerable to manipulation, do we really earn for another Cold War?

Let me speak to the students in the audience, because whatever your political affiliations, and even whether you want to be journalists or not, I want you to know that I also think you can make a difference. I don’t mean the blah, blah, blah or you are the future and all hold hands. You can make a difference because we are stuck right now.

And things do change.  That’s seen in the work of Morton Margolin. When I looked him up, I saw that he also wrote about the military in Colorado. And in 1958 – sixty years ago – he wrote about the move of the Air Force Academy from Denver to Colorado Springs.

Margolin wrote an article in the Rocky Mountain News in April 1958. The headline “Love-Struck Cadets Don’t Relish Move.”

It seemed that, in the words of Margolin: “Many of the cadets are engaged to Denver girls, and both the boys and their fiancées would much rather stay in Denver.”

Apparently this was a matter serious enough that the local Congressman, saying that, and again I quote, “that the super-highway between Denver and the Academy should see considerably more traffic after the move is made.”

The Congressman in Colorado Springs said not to worry, again quote: “that the feminine enrollment at Colorado College … was sharply up for next fall.”

Then, an Air Force general is quoted as saying not to worry because: ‘All the eligible Denver girls will be married as soon as the first class graduates.”

Those words.  Feminine. Girls. Eligible.

Those words grate. Things have really changed.

And yet in that article is the same subtle offering that whatever was the definition of eligible in those days … that military officers were a prize. No gay here. No race. No inequality or matters of class. This was cute, centered, white wonderful America.

Well. No one wants to return to that golden age.  When they … the old farts … talk about the greatest generation … or even the great TV anchormen of that era … they are saying that your generation isn’t good enough, that you can’t compare, that you should strive to be like that. They don’t actively intend to constrain you but they find it inconceivable that anyone would want anything other than some concocted American ideal.

What the national security establishment fears most … what all of those who wear a uniform fear, from university police through generals and admirals … is disturbance, variability, even difference. These things are the enemies of those who want to stay at the center. And yet they are also the things that are the primary drivers of creativity … and of change. In my youth, I used to quip that if the Pentagon was for it, I was against it. It wasn’t a factual statement. It was a position, one that said I didn’t want to agree, I didn’t want to go along, I didn’t want to be like everyone else.

So … We are a long way away from resolving the rules of the road in this age of instant everything.

We’re not even able to resolve information overload in our own personal lives.

We aren’t on some straight line towards digital nirvana, where the Internet and all of this information democratizes or even improves our society.

There is smartphone and social media fatigue creeping across the land.

What the news will look like tomorrow is wide open.

I get a sense, largely because of Donald Trump and all of the extremism that he has encouraged and unearthed, that a giant hangover will come when he is gone. My guess is that nothing we currently see – nothing that is snappy or chatty – is going to solve the challenges we currently face. Oh the national security nannies will furiously try to reverse the flow back to good ole Main Street USA.

But you? Your role? You have wide open opportunity to design media that matters and to make real change.

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Behind the Assange Saga: Radicalized by Frustration

Yesterday morning, with news of Julian Assange’s arrest, I wrote the below piece for The Guardian (US), trying to explain that the real reason that the U.S. government was moving on Assange NOW had nothing to do with the 10-year old case of Chelsea Manning nor WikiLeaks’ role in the 2016 election. The news people at The Guardian passed on the article, as did the Daily Beast. I didn’t really get a reason from The Guardian, but the editor at the Daily Beast wrote: “We don’t have the bandwidth tonight to sort through your sourcing, or to separate out the parts of this that immediately make sense from the ones that seem, at least here, offputting.” Some others offered to publish, and no disrespect to them, but I decided to just publish the piece here because I wanted to add a little explanation and analysis.

The core of my reporting – and my argument – is that WikiLeaks’ publishing of the so-called “Vault 7” trove of the CIA is what propelled the United States government to feel like it needed to take action against the organization. If you are not familiar with Vault 7, don’t feel bad. Most in the national security field aren’t either.

Up until the Vault 7 leaks, which were published by WikiLeaks in March 2017, the national security lawyers within the U.S. government had been hesitant to take on a journalistic entity, even one like WikiLeaks that looked so very different than The New York Times or NBC News. But then with WikiLeaks seeming cooperation (or at least servitude) to the Russian government in 2016, that very American mainstream media became more hostile to its now separated brethren, and the general view shifted within the intelligence community and the Justice Department that the organization was more vulnerable.

With Vault 7, WikiLeaks published almost 10,000 classified documents from the Center for Cyber Intelligence of the CIA, the covert hacking organization of the U.S. government. For a number of reasons – a new president in office, WikiLeaks’ prominence in the ongoing Trump collusion circus, and the obscureness of the very material WikiLeaks was publishing, Vault 7 received scant attention. But coming on the heels of massive leaks by Edward Snowden and a group called the Shadow Brokers just months earlier, and given the notoriety WikiLeaks had earned, Vault 7 was the straw that broke the governmental back. Not only was it an unprecedented penetration of the CIA, an organization that had evaded any breach of this type since the 1970’s, but it showed that all of the efforts of the U.S. government after Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden had failed to either deter or catch “millennial leakers.”

The thinking of government officials – current and former – that I’ve talked to is that shutting down WikiLeaks once and for all – or at least separating it from the mainstream media to make it less attractive as a recipient of U.S. government secrets, will at least be one step towards greater internal security. Sure there is the bigger question of Russia weaponizing its intercepts and hacking material to do damage to the United States and the West, but in terms of what the U.S. government can do to clean up its own house, or at least to bolt the doors better, was to shut up Assange and fracture WikiLeaks.  Whatever WikiLeaks has done to itself, and whatever the United States (and its allies) have done covertly, that seems to be progressing apace.

Maybe the rejected article below isn’t worthy of publication, but my experience in closely watching the WikiLeaks story – in both its vilification and in its lionization – has made me think about this current era of homogenized news reporting. “Don’t have the bandwidth”, what the Daily Beast said, is code for both don’t have the editorial people and don’t have the headspace to entertain a contrarian thought, particularly in a big news day. By last night, both The Washington Post and The New York Times were both mentioning Vault 7 but no one has yet tied together all of these pieces of why the United States, the U.K., Ecuador, and even Sweden might have common cause in exerting more control, not just against WikiLeaks but also against those who would independently assault their systems.

The thread that ties everyone from Manning to the Vault 7 leaker to Julian Assange together is that they have all in some ways been radicalized by their frustration. Frustration with this very system, with its exclusiveness, with its lies, with its immunity to any accountability. For Manning, radicalization started as the WMD debacle in Iraq became clear and as the war dragged on, the young twenty-something (with a Top Secret clearance conferred by the system) alarmed by the carnage and the seeming inhumanity. Snowden equally conferred as one of them with an even higher “clearance” was similarly driven to take matters into his own hands, radicalized by his perception of post 9/11 abuses that he felt the NSA had taken, and hadn’t been held accountable for.

Put aside WikiLeaks and the Russians. The unsealed indictment yesterday is just the tip of a giant iceberg on the part of the U.S. government (and its allies) to fight back against these (and future) non-conforming crusaders. After Snowden they mounted a multi-pronged (and multi-billion dollar) effort – including more internal surveillance and many administrative and systemic changes to information systems – to thwart “insider threats” from again extracting secrets. But the number of secrets had grown so big, and the number of insiders needed to churn through them equally had become so massive that they were not even able to police themselves. Even here, the government failed to control its own secrets, but is anyone saying (ironically other than Assange and Snowden themselves) that the secret keepers aren’t to be trusted to do their jobs?

Assange is not a scapegoat, not only, but an activated and in some ways very frightened national security establishment, is mounting its first overt salvo against the world of anti-secrecy activists.  Even while Donald Trump lauds WikiLeaks – if he actually does anymore or even understands what is happening – the professionals need to take matters into their own hands. And Assange, so intent on self-aggrandizement and driven crazy in his incarceration, is certainly the perfect villain for the system to rally round.

Is he guilty?  I’ve been asked many times in the last 24 hours. My answer is yes, on these narrow charges, just like any protestor resorting to civil disobedience is guilty. But I say, more important than whether he is guilty and odious as an individual, he is also symbol of a bigger sickness, where we all consume today’s episodes and avoid the deeper issues of secrecy and perpetual warfare. In my mind, the mainstream news media, in not doing its job better, especially on national security, contributes to a lack of basic government accountability. That increases the power of the national security establishment – the bringers of this expulsion, arrest and indictment – a now so powerful and faceless officialdom that they have a greater vote in how, where and when we fight than does the chief executive or the Congress. Or the people.

There will be more Assange’s, more Snowden’s, more Manning’s, more assaults on the system by those radicalized by their frustrations with this state of affairs.  The very people who serve as sources for my article are no different, and I applaud them. So I can’t also at the same time blithely condemn anti-secrecy activists and facilitators, not per se.

Is it possible that the news media itself is thus the key to greater security, not just in better reporting on national security but also in embracing these voices? I don’t think Julian Assange’s arrest is a direct assault on the First Amendment or the freedom of the press. But like the official system that has too many secrets and too much to do, so the news media has become overwhelmed and normalized, and neutered.

Untitled, on Julian Assange’s Arrest, written April 11, 2019

Julian Assange’s expulsion and arrest in London will set off a new set of dramas regarding the WikiLeaks’ founder, one that could eventually land him in an Alexandria, Virginia courthouse and a trial that could surprise even close observers of his now seven year drama.

This comes after the United States unsealed an indictment against Julian Assange on Thursday, alleging Assange conspired with Chelsea Manning, the U.S. Army intelligence analyst then known as Bradley Manning.

In the new indictment, the U.S. alleges that in 2010 Assange assisted Manning in cracking a password to gain administrative access to secret networks and thus more documents, assistance that occurred after the Army Private stationed in Iraq had already supplied WikiLeaks with classified material relating to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

“It was part of the conspiracy that Assange encouraged Manning to provide information and records from departments and agencies of the United States,” the indictment says.

According to legal and intelligence documents reviewed by the author and over a dozen interviews, including with three U.S. intelligence officials directly involved in WikiLeaks investigations and damage assessments, conspiracy is at the center of what the U.S. Justice Department is trying to prove. The official American government legal argument is that Assange and his colleagues are really running an intelligence operation, one that conspired with U.S. government employees by “suborning” them to break the law, and also clandestinely conspires with foreign governments – including Russia and China – in obtaining and trading classified government materials. This argument, officials say, skirts the difficult question of whether WikiLeaks is a journalistic organization, and is thereby entitled to the protection of press freedoms.

Though Assange is wanted in a British court for jumping bail in 2012, and has become infamous for his role in publishing stolen Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton-related emails in the run-up to the last presidential election, the almost ten-year old Manning case is also not at the center of the American legal effort.

The American case, which shifted completely in March 2017, is based up WikiLeaks’ publications of the so-called “Vault 7” documents, an extensive set of cyber espionage secrets of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Vault 7 was little noticed in the emerging Russian collusion scandal of the new Trump administration, but the nearly 10,000 CIA documents that WikiLeaks started publishing that March constituted an unprecedented breach, far more potentially damaging than anything the anti-secrecy website had ever done, according to numerous U.S. officials.

“There have been serious compromises – Manning and Snowden included – but until 2017, no one had laid a glove on the Agency in decades,” says a senior intelligence official who has been directly involved in the damage assessments.

“Then came Vault 7, almost the entire archive of the CIA’s own hacking group,” the official says. “The CIA went ballistic at the breach.” The official is referring to a little known CIA organization called the Center for Cyber Intelligence, a then unknown counterpart to the National Security Agency, and one that conducts and oversees the covert hacking efforts of the U.S. government.

A month after WikiLeaks released the Vault 7 documents, then CIA director Mike Pompeo blasted WikiLeaks in his first public speech.

“It is time to call out WikiLeaks for what it really is… a non-state hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia” Pompeo said.

Pompeo’s reference to Russia led everyone to assume that the CIA director was referring to claims of collusion between Russian intelligence and WikiLeaks in publishing the Clinton-related material. But the fine print of his speech should have signaled that Pompeo’s ire had nothing to do with election meddling. That is, none of the Clinton materials were classified government secrets.

Pompeo also did not mention the obscure Vault 7 documents directly, nor any new grievance against WikiLeaks.

But he did indirectly refer to the March 2017 documents and the CIA breach.

“As a policy, we at CIA do not comment on the accuracy of purported intelligence documents posted online. In keeping with that policy, I will not specifically comment on the authenticity or provenance of recent disclosures,” he said.

Pompeo then went on to stress that the Agency did not break any American laws in its intelligence collection. According to the senior official, the Agency was still waiting for WikiLeaks to drop the other shoe, the actual “source code” behind hundreds of CIA cyber “exploits,” capabilities and actual penetrations of computer systems and the internet of things that allowed it to carry out its extensive covert spying on foreign governments but could also be used in domestic spying.

“Julian Assange and his kind are not the slightest bit interested in improving civil liberties or enhancing personal freedom,” Pompeo went on to say. “They have pretended that America’s First Amendment freedoms shield them from justice. They may have believed that, but they are wrong.”

Pompeo was alluding to the new criminal case and theory that the U.S. government wants to prove that WikiLeaks isn’t a journalistic entity. And, according to the senior official and numerous Justice Department documents reviewed by the author, the U.S. government has been aggressively building this specific case by trying to establish that WikiLeaks solicited classified information from numerous government employees, which prosecutors believe should disqualify the organization from being afforded any journalistic privileges and immunities.

“WikiLeaks walks like a hostile intelligence service and talks like a hostile intelligence service,” former director Pompeo said. “It has encouraged its followers to find jobs at CIA in order to obtain intelligence. It directed Chelsea Manning in her theft of specific secret information.”

Alexa O’Brien, the leading expert on the case, says that during Chelsea Manning’s Court Martial in 2013, prosecutors suggested indeed that Julian Assange had instructed the Army Private on how to crack the administrator password on her computer that connected to the SIPRNet, the secret-level internet protocol network of the U.S. government.

Manning was ultimately acquitted of espionage in the release of the Garani airstrike video, a May 4, 2009 airstrike in a village in Afghanistan that may have killed as many as 147 civilians. According to O’Brien’s meticulous reporting on the trial, that espionage charge was directly tied to U.S. Army prosecutors’ theory at trial that Manning was involved in a criminal conspiracy with WikiLeaks.

“Prosecutors in the Manning Court Martial made it clear that they were not prosecuting WikiLeaks,” O’Brien says. “But they also had chat logs between Manning and an anonymous WikiLeaks interlocutor that they said was Assange. In other words, they knew in 2010 all of what Assange was indicted for Thursday.”

According to a second senior official, now retired, but one who was also directly involved in damage assessments of Edward Snowden’s 2013 leaks of highly classified material from the National Security Agency, U.S. intelligence and law enforcement have also been looking into whether the Hawaii-based contractor received coaching or assistance from a WikiLeaks employee in downloading his documents and in spiriting him to Hong Kong. WikiLeaks subsequently assisted Snowden in leaving China and flying to Moscow, dispatching one of its officers to accompany him. WikiLeaks, U.S. intelligence believes, negotiated with both the Chinese and Russian governments in moving Snowden, and some analysts believe that there was an exchange of information.

The senior intelligence official who was involved in the Vault 7 case says that prosecutors are also trying to establish whether Joshua Adam Schulte, a former CIA employee who has been indicted for transmitting the Vault 7 documents to WikiLeaks, negotiated or coordinated with the organization or received coaching on how to obtain and move the materials he purportedly stole.  Schulte was arrested in August 2017 and is awaiting trial.

Writing in The Washington Post in response to the Pompeo speech, Assange characterized the Vault 7 disclosures as “evidence of remarkable CIA incompetence and other shortcomings,” focusing on the CIA’s loss of control of the documents.  WikiLeaks had previously taken the CIA to task for losing control of its secrets, which it said “circulated among former U.S. government hackers and contractors in an unauthorized manner.” Assange’s argument was that the documents could result in infection of “the public’s ubiquitous consumer products and automobiles with computer viruses.” Ignored was how WikiLeaks itself had obtained the material.

One aspect of the Vault 7 documents further obscured the scandal and muddied the waters in explaining the U.S. government’s accelerating case against WikiLeaks. After announcing “the largest ever publication of confidential documents on the agency” and referring to “several hundred million lines of [computer] code”, WikiLeaks never posted the full documents or the damaging codes. According to two U.S. intelligence officials, that certainly lessened the damage that might have been caused, even if U.S. intelligence at the same time sees some evidence that the source code leaked out in other ways, causing some U.S. adversaries to change their practices.

According to two government officials who have been involved in the now almost decade-old WikiLeaks case, a multinational investigation into potential illegality on the part of the organization goes back to early 2010. A Grand Jury began its work and the FBI, supported by the intelligence community and the governments of Australia and the UK (and then by Sweden, Germany, and the Netherlands) began intensive collection of evidence. In 2015, the investigation took a turn towards Conspiracy and WikiLeaks as a potential intelligence agency when U.S. intelligence obtained information that WikiLeaks had obtained a collection of documents on Saudi Arabia from Russian intelligence. That was a year before WikiLeaks published any Clinton-related emails.

On Thursday, the UK Home Office said in a statement that Assange “was arrested in relation to a provisional extradition request from the United States.”

The ultimate fate of Julian Assange depends upon London’s agreement to extradite the Australian on Conspiracy charges. But looming behind the 2010 case is a far broader case, one that will ultimately touch upon the fate not just of Assange, but also that of Edward Snowden and the WikiLeaks organization itself.

What to Do When You Disagree and Yet Want to Be Polite

Maybe it’s because I’ve never been comfortable being labeled, and maybe it is that I had a chance early in my career to portray myself as whistleblower and declined, but as long as I can remember, I’ve had an aversion to being a member of a certain club.

Now that club has come knocking at my door for me to join, formally and through the Twittersphere, I’ve been asking myself how to respond in a thoughtful way.

Here are excerpts from the email I received from Ray McGovern of “Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS)”:

Bill —

Thanks for your parting-NBC email.

We highly regard your work.  On behalf of VIPS, we cordially invite you to become a member… you are aware that we have done some good work.

When we in VIPS see a need to speak out corporately, we do so — usually by preparing a “MEMORANDUM FOR: The President ……” just as some of us used to do when we were on “active duty,” so to speak.  We prepare, on the average, 4 memos a year, most of them addressed to the President on key — often very current — policy issues.  We have some evidence that a couple of our memos, or excerpts from them, have been seen by Trump.

Our memos are normally published first on Consortium News, which also keeps our Archive …  Like you, we reported no-holds-barred on the fraudulent “intelligence” served up by many of our former colleagues to “justify” the attack on Iraq before it took place.  In fact, after watching Colin Powell disgrace himself on Feb 5, 2003 at the UN, a drafting group of two (out of our first five founding members) cobbled together a memo which we got out on the AFP wire at a little after 5 PM that same day. … as you will know all too well — virtually no one was interested.  (We did get a whole bunch of FOREIGN inquiries/interviews, etc.)

… You would be loosely affiliated with the likes of Larry Wilkerson, Greg Thielmann, Bill Binney, Scott Ritter, Coleen Rowley, Matthew Hoh, Larry Johnson, Ed Loomis, John Kiriakou, and myself — some combination of whom wind up as signatories, with normally just one doing the initial draft.…

Congratulations for what you just did, and the way you did it.  Let’s hope for hundreds of principled “copy-cats,” so to speak….

This is a serious invitation. We would love to have you on our (non-existent) VIPS roster.

I won’t be joining VIPS precisely because their sanity is as insane as that of the accepted mainstream narrative — fraudulent intelligence and lying – and even some set of truth-tellers who need to and are needed, to set the public (and even President Trump straight).  Central to the argument of most whistleblowers – no matter how much they do know – is not only that what they know is vitally important for all to know. And not only is it important, but that whatever it is that they do know the unmitigated truth. It is a stance that is accentuated by deep frustration and some kind of psychological makeup, and it is one that generally solidifies in the “system” reacting with indictments and banishment, a rejection often so complete and categorical that it might appear that they have nothing to say, these possessors of sanity, when in fact in many cases (in most) what they have to say is a piece of the puzzle, even if there are many others.

My problem here, besides not being a joiner, is that I don’t agree with their central proposition on the 2003 Iraq war. Even if it could have been avoided, the reason it wasn’t some evil conspiracy of a few at the top. Said another way, there was no conspiracy. Arrogance.  Group think. Ignorance. Mistakes galore. That’s my opinion. If you agree with me, you shouldn’t just rush off to try to appropriate my opinion (and expertise) to fit some pro- or anti-whistleblower narrative. The official, the conventional and the “sanity” narratives all leave much room for improvement.

First some important biographical context: I’ve never met or corresponded with Mister McGovern. He doesn’t know me and though I’ve met a couple of people on his list, I don’t know any of them nor have I sought out their help to explain anything to me. There is no “like you” in what I’ve written that corresponds to their “good work.” In fact, I’m mostly unfamiliar with their work, though I know individually what many of them argue.

So with regard to the 2003 Iraq war or probably any other subject, it is important to establish that I’ve never reported on what I believe to be “fraudulent intelligence”.  What I’ve written, and what I believe, is that the intelligence community failed to do their jobs – that is, to accurately portray the status of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction program – and they probably also failed in many other tasks over many years in conveying accurately (or with any depth) the nature of either Saddam Hussein or the country of Iraq. But the WMD failure wasn’t about anyone lying to “justify” an attack. Don’t get me wrong, some agencies (such as DIA in the Curveball episode) demonstrated spectacular ignorance and myopia, but “fraudulent intelligence” creates the wrong impression as to both the problem and thus the solution.

None of that is to say that I excuse the bumbling of the Bush administration. Colin Powell was snookered and acted as the good soldier conveying bad intelligence and false certainty at the United Nations and in other public venues. But the path towards war with Iraq was actually the Clinton administration policy of “no normalization of relations without regime change”. Maybe to the White House before 9/11 it seemed humanitarian and even a rhetorical flourish with little globe-changing consequence. Thus even though the Powell theatrics at the U.N. will go down in infamy, it was a theatrical performance to justify something that the Bush inner circle had already decided they wanted to do. And in that decision, the inner circle monumentally failed in thinking how easy an easy military victory over Iraq would equally blossom into a transformation of the country.

But on the question of lying and covering up – seemingly the favorite of VIPS and its roster of truth-tellers, their truth is wrong and the history is more complicated.

Complicated here doesn’t mean accepting the vacuous pabulum of conventional wisdom, nor on Iraq, does complicated comport with the self-justification and retelling of Powell, Rumsfeld, Cheney, Tenet or others who were the key decision-makers and have never admitted their mistakes nor the mess they created. But if the narrative is left to officialdom on one side and the “truth tellers” on the other side, we may never get to the truth. And here I don’t define truth in any other way that an accurate representation of the historical record and facts.

We need to first dispense with the intelligence community (IC). These professionals at VIPS want us to accept their characterization of the CIA and other institutions associated with U.S. intelligence. And they assert that on Iraq and WMD, that the IC is guilty of “lying” to justify the Iraq war. Now let me just say that in my long writing and reporting career I’ve been lied to many times by government officials, but I’ve never had the experience of a working analyst lying or producing fraudulent intelligence (that is, not since the Vietnam era).  There are systemic reasons why “intelligence” fails to convey the big picture beyond a narrow question.  And in many cases I’ve found analysts terrifically uninformed or myopic, surprised by their lack of curiosity or indeed openness as to other explanation.

But having said that, let me be clear: It’s been the rare CIA director or other high official in the intelligence world who hasn’t blatantly lied to sell their organization or policy preferences. But even here lying is mostly the white lying of government, a sort of game of ‘I know more’ and ‘if only you know’ that more often than not results in bad policies and actions.

I anticipate that some will still defend the characterization of “fraudulent intelligence” and “lying” on the part of the IC in the run up to the Iraq war, pointing to their own personal experiences and to contradictory conclusions reached by the CIA or other intelligence components regarding both WMD and the Iraq war.  “Proof” that the CIA lied here morphs into an argument that they weren’t listened to, and truthy types like VIPS often point to some analysts predicting that indeed the aftermath of the military battle would descend into a complicated and anarchic mess. On this, these analysts were right, and their conclusion got little traction, but as I said above, policy-makers had already made up their minds.

Policy-makers had already made up their minds. But they also knew that on some things (the war’s aftermath) that the intelligence might be right and on others (WMD) the intelligence might be wrong. They might have chosen to ignore counter evidence but they also operated from this fundamental truth: they might be right and they might not be.  So it is precisely up to the policy-makers to take the intelligence and “use it” if you will to make bigger decisions because there are too many cases on both ends of the spectrum.  So it isn’t intelligence that determines things (it rarely does).

I also know that many of those named above think they had the truth and that their truth was the smoking gun that might have saved the country from an Iraq war, avoided 9/11 or stopped NSA’s mass surveillance. But in my experience and opinion, they are mistaken. Just as a cocksure Rumsfeld or Wolfowitz are mistaken in thinking that they know it all and know better. Intelligence is not perfect and policy decisions travel in the same boat. But having said that, that doesn’t mean that I think there shouldn’t be accountability for errors. I just don’t think it is ever going to happen until we accurately convey actual malfeasance or the supposed crimes committed on the part of the powerful.

I suppose that Mister McGovern highlights VIPS’ work on the 2003 Iraq war because that’s generally pointed to as the greatest intelligence failure since 9/11.  And though I’m mildly curious about what they are working on today, what sanity they are purveying from their experienced perches, “fraudulent intelligence” conveys a message that in many ways allows the policy-makers then and now to get off the hook for the decisions they made that had nothing to do with the VIPS narrative.

Though I’m virtually declaring war on this group in either not answering or contradicting their narrative, the truth of the matter too is that my experience is also that it is the rare bird indeed that sees a big enough picture to adjudicate complex intelligence and then fit it into the larger question of American interest or war policy. I point this out because I also firmly believe that there is unquestionably American interest that might diverge from the rest of the world, even our friends. And yet the assertion of this point – by Donald Trump for instance – has been met with almost universal derision, an overall narrative that wants everyone to believe that the only policies that are sound are the ones that are the most uncontroversial, or garner the largest support group.

The narrative of the ignoramus president not listening to the experts and the intelligence community didn’t start with Trump (it goes back at least as far as Reagan), the overall message being that the experts or the system knows more and should be listened to, which is the origins of all the deep state angst we face today. Therein is the genesis of the argument I’ve made for our current love affair with the CIA and the intelligence community and the experts – as well as with procedure and protocol – above all else, something that seems to unite conventional wisdom with the war mongers and VIPS types, I imagine an unlikely and uncomfortable club.

Washington is an ugly place, and the secret recesses of Washington have gotten too used to operating in a certain way, serving the president no doubt but also manipulating and undermining public debate when they do emerge from the shadows. Rarely does a president individually cut through this permanent system. Iraq from Clinton to Bush was the same, and I wonder even if Al Gore had been elected in 2000 whether an Iraq war would have been avoided.  Obama, with all of his promises and hope and smarts, similarly found himself hostage to continuity. Trump the same; even when he trips into good ideas, the system ultimately decides.

Is the maintenance of this unchanging system nourished by lying and fraudulence? I don’t think so. And in that is a better insight into the excessive power that has accreted to the national security custodians. They do not have the answers and they are operating from a giant bubble of their own hyper-regarded information. But to call them liars and conspirators is to also to rob us – the people – from any possibility to see the truth for what it is, that they are just wrong-minded and even just wrong much of the time, a truth that might start us along the path of taking their power away.

My Departure Letter from NBC

Note to readers:  I circulated this letter to NBC colleagues on January 2 and since it quickly leaked and got recirculated all over, I’d thought I’d post it here, on my own laconic blog:

January 4 is my last day at NBC News and I’d like to say goodbye to my friends, hopefully not for good. This isn’t the first time I’ve left NBC, but this time the parting is more bittersweet, the world and the state of journalism in tandem crisis. My expertise, though seeming to be all the more central to the challenges and dangers we face, also seems to be less in value at the moment. And I find myself completely out of sync with the network, being neither a day-to-day reporter nor interested in the Trump circus.

I first started my association with NBC 30 years ago, feeding Cold War stories to Bob Windrem and Fred Francis at the Pentagon. I became an on-air analyst during the 1999 Kosovo War, continuing to work thereafter with Nightly News, delighting and oftentimes annoying in my peculiar position of being a mere civilian amongst THE GENERALS and former government officials. A scholar at heart, I also found myself an often lone voice that was anti-nuclear and even anti-military, anti-military for me meaning opinionated but also highly knowledgeable, somewhat akin to a movie critic, loving my subject but also not shy about making judgements regarding the flops and the losers.

When the attacks of 9/11 came, I was called back to NBC. I spent weeks on and off the air talking about al Qaeda and the various wars we were rushing into, arguing that airpower and drones would be the centerpiece not troops. In the new martial environment where only one war cry was sanctioned I was out of sync then as well. I retreated somewhat to writing a column for the Los Angeles Times, but even there I had to fight editors who couldn’t believe that there would be a war in Iraq.  And I spoke up about the absence of any sort of strategy for actually defeating terrorism, annoying the increasing gaggles of those who seemed to accept that a state of perpetual war was a necessity.

I thought then that there was great danger in the embrace of process and officialdom over values and public longing, and I wrote about the increasing power of the national security community. Long before Trump and “deep state” became an expression, I produced one ginormous investigation – Top Secret America – for the Washington Post and I wrote a nasty book – American Coup – about the creeping fascism of homeland security. Looking back now they were both harbingers for what President Obama (and then Trump) faced in terms of largely failing to make enduring change.

Somewhere in all of that, and particularly as the social media wave began, it was clear that NBC (like the rest of the news media) could no longer keep up with the world. Added to that was the intellectual challenge of how to report our new kind of wars when there were no real fronts and no actual measures of success. To me there is also a larger problem: though they produce nothing that resembles actual safety and security, the national security leaders and generals we have are allowed to do their thing unmolested. Despite being at “war,” no great wartime leaders or visionaries are emerging. There is not a soul in Washington who can say that they have won or stopped any conflict. And though there might be the beloved perfumed princes in the form of the Petraeus’ and Wes Clarks’, or the so-called warrior monks like Mattis and McMaster, we’ve had more than a generation of national security leaders who sadly and fraudulently done little of consequence. And yet we (and others) embrace them, even the highly partisan formers who masquerade as “analysts”. We do so ignoring the empirical truth of what they have wrought: There is not one country in the Middle East that is safer today than it was 18 years ago. Indeed the world becomes ever more polarized and dangerous.

As perpetual war has become accepted as a given in our lives, I’m proud to say that I’ve never deviated in my argument at NBC (or at my newspaper gigs) that terrorists will never be defeated until we better understand why they are driven to fighting. And I have maintained my central view that airpower (in its broadest sense including space and cyber) is not just the future but the enabler and the tool of war today.

Seeking refuge in its political horse race roots, NBC (and others) meanwhile report the story of war as one of Rumsfeld vs. the Generals, as Wolfowitz vs. Shinseki, as the CIA vs. Cheney, as the bad torturers vs. the more refined, about numbers of troops and number of deaths, and even then Obama vs. the Congress, poor Obama who couldn’t close Guantanamo or reduce nuclear weapons or stand up to Putin because it was just so difficult. We have contributed to turning the world national security into this sort of political story.  I find it disheartening that we do not report the failures of the generals and national security leaders. I find it shocking that we essentially condone continued American bumbling in the Middle East and now Africa through our ho-hum reporting.

I’m a difficult guy, not prone to either protocol or procedure and I give NBC credit that it tolerated me through my various incarnations. I hope people will say in the early days that I made Brokaw and company smarter about nuclear weapons, about airpower, and even about al Qaeda. And I’m proud to say that I also was one of the few to report that there weren’t any WMD in Iraq and remember fondly presenting that conclusion to an incredulous NBC editorial board. I argued endlessly with MSNBC about all things national security for years, doing the daily blah, blah, blah in Secaucus, but also poking at the conventional wisdom of everyone from Matthews to Hockenberry. And yet I feel like I’ve failed to convey this larger truth about the hopelessness of our way of doing things, especially disheartened to watch NBC and much of the rest of the news media somehow become a defender of Washington and the system.

Windrem again convinced me to return to NBC to join the new investigative unit in the early days of the 2016 presidential campaign. I thought that the mission was to break through the machine of perpetual war acceptance and conventional wisdom to challenge Hillary Clinton’s hawkishness. It was also an interesting moment at NBC because everyone was looking over their shoulder at Vice and other upstarts creeping up on the mainstream. But then Trump got elected and Investigations got sucked into the tweeting vortex, increasingly lost in a directionless adrenaline rush, the national security and political version of leading the broadcast with every snow storm. And I would assert that in many ways NBC just began emulating the national security state itself – busy and profitable. No wars won but the ball is kept in play.

I’d argue that under Trump, the national security establishment not only hasn’t missed a beat but indeed has gained dangerous strength. Now it is ever more autonomous and practically impervious to criticism. I’d also argue, ever so gingerly, that NBC has become somewhat lost in its own verve, proxies of boring moderation and conventional wisdom, defender of the government against Trump, cheerleader for open and subtle threat mongering, in love with procedure and protocol over all else (including results). I accept that there’s a lot to report here, but I’m more worried about how much we are missing. Hence my desire to take a step back and think why so little changes with regard to America’s wars.

I know it is characteristic of our overexcited moment to blast away at former employers and mainstream institutions, but all I can say is that despite many frustrations, my time at NBC has been gratifying. Working with Cynthia McFadden has been the experience of a lifetime. I’ve learned a ton about television from her and Kevin Monahan, the secret insider tricks of the trade and the very big picture of what makes for original stories (and how powerful they can be). The young reporters at NBC are also universally excellent. Thanks to Noah Oppenheim for his support of my contrarian and disruptive presence. And to Janelle Rodriguez, who eventually came around to understanding deep expertise. The Nightly crew has also been a constant fan of my too long stories and a great team. I continue to marvel as Phil Griffin carries out his diabolical plan for the cable network to take over the world.

I’m proud of the work I’ve done with my team and know that there’s more to do. But for now it’s time to take a break. I’m ever so happy to return to writing and thinking without the officiousness of editorial tyrants or corporate standards.  And of course I yearn to go back to my first love, which is writing boring reports about secret programs, grateful that the American government so graciously obliges in its constant supply. And I particularly feel like the world is moving so quickly that even in just the little national security world I inhabit, I need more time to sit back and think. And to replenish.

In our day-to-day whirlwind and hostage status as prisoners of Donald Trump, I think – like everyone else does – that we miss so much. People who don’t understand the medium, or the pressures, loudly opine that it’s corporate control or even worse, that it’s partisan.  Sometimes I quip in response to friends on the outside (and to government sources) that if they mean by the word partisan that it is New Yorkers and Washingtonians against the rest of the country then they are right.

For me I realized how out of step I was when I looked at Trump’s various bumbling intuitions: his desire to improve relations with Russia, to denuclearize North Korea, to get out of the Middle East, to question why we are fighting in Africa, even in his attacks on the intelligence community and the FBI.  Of course he is an ignorant and incompetent impostor. And yet I’m alarmed at how quick NBC is to mechanically argue the contrary, to be in favor of policies that just spell more conflict and more war. Really? We shouldn’t get out Syria? We shouldn’t go for the bold move of denuclearizing the Korean peninsula?  Even on Russia, though we should be concerned about the brittleness of our democracy that it is so vulnerable to manipulation, do we really earn for the Cold War?  And don’t even get me started with the FBI: What? We now lionize this historically destructive institution?

Even without Trump, our biggest challenge as we move forward is that we have become exhausted parents of our infant (and infantile) social media children. And because of the “cycle,” we at NBC (and all others in the field of journalism) suffer from a really bad case of not being able to ever take a breath. We are a long way from resolving the rules of the road in this age, whether it be with regard to our personal conduct or anything related to hard news.  I also don’t think that we are on a straight line towards digital nirvana, that is, that all of this information will democratize and improve society. I sense that there is already smartphone and social media fatigue creeping across the land, and my guess is that nothing we currently see – nothing that is snappy or chatty – will solve our horrific challenges of information overload or the role (and nature) of journalism. And I am sure that once Trump leaves center stage, society will have a gigantic media hangover. Thus for NBC – and for everyone else – there is challenge and opportunity ahead. I’d particularly like to think and write more about that.

There’s a saying about consultants, that organizations hire them to hear exactly what they want to hear.  I’m proud to say that NBC didn’t do that when it came to me.  Similarly I can say that I’m proud that I’m not guilty of giving my employers what they wanted. Still, the things this and most organizations fear most – variability, disturbance, difference – those things that are also the primary drivers of creativity – are not really the things that I see valued in the reporting ranks.

I’m happy to go back to writing and commentary. This winter, I’m proud to say that I’ve put the finishing touches on a 9/11 conspiracy novel that I’ve been toiling on for over a decade. It’s a novel, but it meditates on the question of how to understand terrorists in a different way.  And I’m undertaking two new book-writing projects, one fiction about a lone reporter and his magical source that hopes to delve into secrecy and the nature of television. And, If you read this far, I am writing a non-fiction book, an extended essay about national security and why we never seem to end our now perpetual state of war. There is lots of media critique out there, tons of analysis of leadership and the Presidency. But on the state of our national security?  Not so much. Hopefully I will find myself thinking beyond the current fire and fury and actually suggest a viable alternative. Wish me luck.

From the Arkin Archives: Why You Can’t Keep Secrets

I found a speech I gave twenty years ago to military and industry officers and officials at the annual U.S. Air Force National Security Leadership Course, Maxwell AFB, Alabama, delivered on 14 August 1996

William M. Arkin

I started thinking about this talk by polling friends in Washington to see if there were any good new jokes about secrecy.  In other parts of the world, political jokes are often the purest expression of zeitgeist, so I thought a current favorite — you know, some knee slapper about the new Executive Order on classification, or one about the latest string of Bill Gertz’ leaks —  would provide astute insight.

No dice though; people inside the beltway have never been renown for their humor.

In May, however, I was in Beirut, and the number of jokes about the Syrians were impressive.

Here’s my favorite.

Hafez Assad is with Bill Clinton and Jacques Chirac on the Mississippi River to negotiate Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon.  Assad drops his watch into the river and when he bend over the deck railing to look for it, snapping alligators thrust up from the deep.  Clinton tells one of the Marine guards to retrieve President Assad’s watch.  The Marine goes to the edge, looks over at the alligators and says to the President  Mr. President, you know we live in the greatest country on earth, and therefore I can decline an unlawful order.  If I jump in to retrieve Mr. Assad’s watch I would die, and besides I have a family…

So Chirac, thinking he can tweak the American nose says to a French soldier, jump in the water and retrieve Assad’s watch.  The legionnaire snaps to attention and runs to dive in, but he then looks over and sees the snapping alligators, and turns to Chirac and says Monsieur President, you know our democracy is even older than America, and besides, I have a family…

So Assad whispers something in the ear of a Syrian soldier, who runs to the railing and without hesitation, jumps in the water, swims through the alligators, retrieves the watch, and returns safely to the boat.  The Marine and the Legionnaire, both amazed, crowd around the Syrian to ask what Assad said.

Well, the soldier explains, I too have a family…

**

So what does this have to do with secrecy?

To me, it is a real world reminder that to level any kind of indictment about the evils of U.S. government secrecy is to be trivial.  One only has to visit places like the Middle East to appreciate how free our system is.

What is more, the very reason I assume I was invited to address you this evening is that I’ve made a living by revealing government secrets.  Throughout that career, I’ve always felt shielded by my rights as a citizen, and always felt confident that if there was public benefit resulting from my revelations, even those in government would grudgingly concede and respect my rights.

I am often asked if there is some secret I wouldn’t reveal, and the answer, frankly, is yes.  In short, it is information that has no public policy relevance.  Now granted there is lots of room for debate here as to what that means, and some right wingers have tried in the past to tar me as “the Philip Agee of nuclear weapons.”

Yet I have faced on a day-to-day basis the challenge of defining what information can do damage to U.S. national security, and what information can not.  That is because secrets have a quality like trees, and if one falls in the public and nobody hears it, I would concede that the public benefit is dubious.

Yet the process of revealing a secret, however, also provides a check and balance if you will.  Since the news media is most often enlisted to circulate secrets, in doing so, reporters and editors and publishers have to themselves make decisions regarding government harm and public benefit.  The point I’m making is that those discussions do take place, and national security concerns are taken into consideration.

In 1996, however, classic government secrecy is hardly the civil liberties and first amendment conflict that it has been in the not too distant past.  Yet it does remain in the news.  Particularly recently with the explosion of the Internet, and the new mania about information security that has emerged, extending from the counter-communication and encryption debates to firewalls to information warfare.

I’m suspicious though, because again there are Cold Warlike warnings of the dire consequences of letting information circulate too freely.  And there has also been a reemergence of 1950’slike images of hidden enemies plotting to destroy our way of life.  To me, this is a significant over-exaggeration of both the threats and consequences.

The new technologies of information might indeed involve some truly revolutionary challenges in terms of the way huge amounts of data can be gathered and transmitted, and the threat mongers of computer security and information warfare have already put us on the slippery slope by attempting to control information or access to what are now worldwide networks.  To these government threat mongers, I say operations security and systems integrity and counterintelligence, all of the things the government has been doing for decades, and is supposed to be doing anyhow, regardless of the information medium.  Let’s not create new constraints, ones that mean a reduction in civil liberties in this country and a reduction of human rights in others.

I suspect that, either consciously or subconsciously, the focus on hackers and terrorists as the Clancyesque information enemy also has as much to do with separating the public from its tax dollars, and in framing an interesting defense problem for beltway bandits and think tanks to work on and make money from, as it has to do with true threats.  Particularly when more than ninety percent of computer intrusions and security problems as plain old fashioned insider criminal activity, stealing if you will with a high tech twist.

**

As William O. Douglas said in the Pentagon Papers case, if everything is secret, then nothing is secret.  Because of the end of the Cold War and the lack of any overarching grand strategy or national security organizing principle, we seem stuck for now in a world where near everything and anything can compete for the mantle of being “strategic.”  But if everything is strategic, then nothing is strategic.

In such a free-for-all world, the consequence is that what is really important  that is, what should be secret and protected  remains poorly defined, and thus vulnerable.

Thus perhaps one answer to the question why you can’t keep secrets is that you can’t even determine and articulate what is truly important.  The public is buffeted by endless enemies du jour, never able to give their true consent regarding what they believe should be U.S. national interests  implosion in Russia, Islam, proliferation, terrorism, warlords, ethnic hatred, population explosions, resource wars, Ebola viruses, drugs, international organized crime, Asian dynamism, the Internet, militias, Freemen, “instability.”  The menu is so full, how can one possibly determine what should be secret?

**

In the wake of the FBI files flap at the White House early this year, The New York Times reported that the federal government spent $5.6 billion in 1995 to keep secret documents secret.  Beltway habitues will point out that such numbers are apocryphal, but the public message is far more simple:

First, there is the common and probably majority view that there are still lots of legitimate secrets for the government to protect; and that there are, of course, loads of threats, old and new, that we need to protect ourselves and our secrets from.

But, there coexists another deeply ingrained belief that $5.6 billion is merely another example of the government wasting huge sums of money to administer its programs; that the secrets are really just bureaucracies covering up their law breaking, incompetence, sloth, or self-interests.

And then there is a third and simultaneous corollary of these two views.  And that is that all those secrets are really dastardly and incredibly complex and competent coverups of,

A.  the existence of UFOs and aliens,
B.  the CIA’s responsibility for the assassination of John F. Kennedy,
C.  the government’s surveillance and mind control program,
D.  POWs and MIAs still languishing in Southeast Asia, and/or
E.  the latest, the truth that Saddam used poison gas, which the government also is covering up.

One doesn’t have to scratch the surface of American society too deeply to find the UFO-POW/MIA-Gulf War Syndrome-militia constituency.  These are views that absolutely cross the political spectrum and more often than not break out into the mainstream (say when 20 percent of the population votes for Ross Perot, erstwhile surveillance subject himself).

But take for a moment Oliver Stone’s movie “JFK.”  After the movie came out, it ended up that some huge percent of the public believed that the CIA might have actually killed President Kennedy.  That in itself says a lot and should be disturbing to anyone working in the national security field.  But what I would like to point out is that the movie and the brouhaha was enough to move the Congress to undertake the most rigorous and extensive declassification effort ever.

Had the CIA released those records earlier, and had the government made some attempt to answer the conspiracy crowd in the preceding decades, then maybe, just maybe, some percent of the population would have been educated and convinced.  And maybe just in general the credibility of the government and the national security community would have improved, thus making it more implausible for other grand conspiracies to emerge.

I say maybe because I don’t want to be too naive.  There’s no getting away from one immutable fact about our society: That no matter what the government says, people will continue to believe what they believe.

This is seen most starkly this summer with “Independence Day” and UFOs on the covers of Time and Newsweek and the popularity of shows like “The X Files” and the irrepressible Roswell story.  The bottom line is that some significant percent of the population is just demented.

But as with Oliver Stone’s JFK, if you can confuse and manipulate enough people so that they think that a UFO really crashed in Roswell, New Mexico, you can actually move the government.  Like the CIA, the Air Force declassified all of its files on the subject of UFOs, and wrote a Manhattan-phone book-sized White Paper on the subject, item by item refuting every last scrap of coincidence and inconsistency in the 50 year record.

Yet all to no avail.

For when life on Mars is reported in the news media, as it was last week, the kooks seem as prominent as the astronomers in offering sound bites.  The fact is that subcultures continue to believe despite reports and White Papers and Congressional investigations and commissions and blue ribbon panels.  Somehow, I lay this public confusion about reality partly at the government’s doorstop.

**

Let me switch gears for a moment to say that I’m not so sure you can’t keep secrets  particularly when a revelation like Tacit Blue, the flying bathtub, is made.  Despite all the speculation from Area 51, despite the foolish with their binoculars and discussion groups and Web sites, despite lawsuits and even a mighty Sixty Minutes expose, despite all this attention no one outside of the government had any clear notion of what was, or is, going on at Groom Lake.

I won’t even get into the question as to whether the technologies involved in Tacit Blue were worthy of the fights and the lawsuits.  Nor whether such secrecy is needed.  My cynical mind tells me that bureaucratic interests were probably served in making the existence public.

Tacit Blue reminds me of the revelation of another “black” program  Senior Surprise, the conventional air-launched cruise missile used by the Air Force in the Gulf War.  The missile’s existence was unveiled with fanfare on the first anniversary of Desert Storm  I think it was around budget time, but I’m sure that was pure coincidence.  Anyway, the industry newsletter Navy News reported that the Air Force press release came only after Time magazine crowned the Navy’s Tomahawk “missile of the year.”

So, you can keep secrets, but at the same time, you may have so squandered your credibility by playing these sorts of games that cynicism is rampant and conspiracies flourish and pseudoscience coexists with real science.  But most important, with so many secrets in the stockpile, and with so little true ranking done as to what is or should be secret, real traitors and threats, insiders like the Walkers and Ames, can gain access so much more easily and do far more complex and inscrutable damage.

So many secrets.  A couple of years ago, the CIA announced they were going to release their files on operations in the 1950’s and 60’s.  But it warned that there were just seven employees to wade through a stack of secret files taller than  I’m not making this up  50 Washington monuments.  I calculate that as 7.13 Washington monuments worth of files per employee (the WM seems always to be the government’s preferred unit of measurement).

Anyone knows that in order to preserve real secrets, they need to be identified.  If the government practices indiscriminate secrecy on this scale, sweeping up with the real secrets those things that aren’t really secrets or don’t need to be, then the end result is neither protection nor respect.  Maybe the government is a lot smarter than I think it is, and by keeping silly things like the intelligence community budget secret they intentionally divert investigative attention from real secrets.  I doubt it.  But I would submit that making routine organizational and budget information, and the policy-making process, secret only breeds trivial leaks and public suspicion.

And most important, it just makes the American public stupid.  Government shows a contempt for the public and public opinion when it acts as if details about its activities aren’t needed for oversight and consent.  This I think is at the root of the decline in government credibility.

Take the Gulf War syndrome as an example.  After arrogantly maintaining that the complaining GI’s were either suffering from post traumatic stress disorder or were malingerers and extortionists, the Pentagon has admitted that some combination of toxic substances and administered vaccines might have worked together to create an auto-immunological reaction and thus a true medical affliction.  This raises some important new questions about the toxicity of the battlefield and of other potential dangers in industrial and occupational health.  But instead of conciliation, treatment and future prevention, the media focus has been on meaningless “revelations,” such as the most recent, that the Pentagon “really knew” of the existence of an Iraqi chemical weapons dump in the far northern corner of the Kuwaiti theater.

This is a fact that is unconnected to most of the veterans problems and to the syndrome itself.  But it suggests that the government is hiding more information.  The end result is a “hard copy” free-for-all where any claim, any news story, any conspiracy, begins to seem plausible.

**

Let me speak for a moment about the emergence of the Internet and the relationship with secrecy.  I note that there have already been some secrecy flaps.  When one of Scott O’Grady’s fellow officers wrote up his exploits on Email, the Defense Department put out a warning about the use of Email.  Last year, it turned out that an intelligence document placed online in the Gulf War declassification registry contained information about “sources and methods.”  The document said something to the effect that human agents reported X, an ordinary counterintelligence blunder.

Around mid-March of this year, a San Francisco reporter wrote a story that the Department of Energy was secretly preparing new nuclear warheads.  The headline says it all: “DOE designing new bombs, Web site shows.”  The Department explained that the document cited in the article was old.  But one of the things about the Internet is that often its impossible to tell the date of a document or its origin and status.

What happened in these two cases?  The GulfLINK site was sanitized so that the declassification effort became more perfunctory than historically valuable.  The DOE shut down its Defense Programs Web site completely for a few weeks and sanitized it as well.  Now there’s nothing worthwhile on it, not even documents that if you are in Washington, you can get as a matter of routine if you know who to ask.

People acting out of their best intentions were trying to make a ton of stuff available on the Internet, and there were teething problems.  But it was the novelty of the new medium that magnified the significance of any leak.  And no one actually claimed that damage was done to national security.

The lingering message is that the Internet is a threat.   Here Internet enthusiasts and government gumshoes form a devil’s alliance, which is always dangerous.  Internet boosters  you know, the type of people who like Wired magazine  claim with wide-eyed enthusiasm that the Internet is the biggest threat to traditional secrecy that could exist.  That it portends a re-conception of national security based not on secrecy but on transparency.  That there won’t be any more secrets.  That the potential, with the Internet and high resolution imagery, will be for everyone to know everything instantly.

The same cyber utopia seems to be the operating threat scenario for gumshoes and information warfare gurus.  This is what a breathless Navy special agent assigned to the computer security said recently: “Right now, it’s bigger than all of us put together.  It’s bigger than counterintelligence, it’s bigger than fraud, it’s bigger than criminal investigations.  If Federal Agencies don’t stick with this, it’s going to eat us up.”
Internet junkies assert that the technologies for openness are growing faster than the technologies for keeping secrets and that the power balance is shifting towards individuals.  Their Pentagon analogues  information warriors  struggle meanwhile to develop new weapons, to define the military dimensions, focusing on network and essential infrastructure protection and attack.

The pace with which a new information warfare bureaucracy has taken hold in the Pentagon is astounding.  Now everything that used to be labeled electronic combat or psychological operations poses with new terminology such as battlespace and information dominance.  And old nuclear warfare scenarios and models  like the Day After game you are playing here  are retread.

Secrecy has also proliferated.  I’m sorry, but I just see beyond the bureaucratic and institutional self-interest of another new rage within the national security community, one that might have noble purpose and important justification, but ultimately just serves to frighten and thus control the public.  Not being an enthusiast though, I also admit that perhaps I just don’t understand the cult.  And cult it is, for the believers have adopted the very definition of “cult status:” It’s so good, so smart, so hip that it’s over the head of the idiot masses.

Being one of those idiots, there’s nothing like a new national security fad  with beltway bandits and defense industry swarming around the government trough  to get my juices going to find out the truth and to challenge the bureaucracies’ misguided assumption that it is in charge.

Terrorism: The Answer is the Question

William M. Arkin, 15 July 2016

Thoughts on the Occasion of the Incidents in Nice

Terrorism is forever present and the threat that exists today is no less ominous than it was on that random sunny Tuesday a decade and a half ago when 19 men changed history.  And it is not just terrorism.  The scale and cruelty of killing ever increases while the fragility of urbanized society makes civilians ever more vulnerable.  No country is immune, neither from external nor internal violence.  All of this exists despite the backdrop of vastly increased police and security activity and a constant global war, one that has consumed hundreds of billions of dollars and taken countless numbers of lives.  No wonder then that those engaged in the fight against terror see the battle as everlasting.  And because terrorists hide within civil society, no wonder those charged with security also believe that society must sacrifice liberties and freedoms in order to obtain a modicum of safety.

To be as fair as one can be while also having an opinion on the matter, this is as close as I can get to articulating what is the “reasonable” view of the challenges of modern terrorism.  Though our civilized society can hardly comprehend what passions lay behind arbitrary killing and there is a tendency to want to defeat terrorism through some reasonable set of policies involving righting wrongs and removing impediments towards conciliation, there is also the reality that day-to-day a cycle of terror and response perfectly forms its own symbiotic stimuli, stimuli that itself advances the very cancerous malevolence.

This is not to say that the problem of terrorism is unfathomable or insolvable nor that civilized society is condemned to live in a state of constant terror.  Yet we do now live in a society increasingly and completely shaped by the existence of terrorism.  One cannot travel or transact business without some continuous reminder that terrorism has a global reach and influences almost everything we do.  The assumption is as much that someone is plotting as it is that the authorities are ever present in front of and behind the scenes watching and listening to stop them.  We are told that if we see something we should say something.  That basically means something out of place, a package or a person that doesn’t belong, an outlier who isn’t complacent or anesthetized through the customary appetites of mass entertainment or team spirit.

One could get ephemeral here, but let’s be blunt: Living in a terror state means actual changes in the character of government and civil society.  The total population is potentially subject to modes of systematic cataloging and monitoring justified as a proactive necessity to find people who don’t want to be like us.  One could gloss over the hardest cases and speak of revolutionaries or freedom fighters or just dreamers who want political or social change.  And one could promiscuously label every mass murderer or arch criminal as terrorist.  Yet while we parse and debate what the situation is and what to do about, while we argue about who is responsible or even who is behind it, while we lament colonial legacies or intractable conflicts, while we decry government fitness or tinker with military strategy, policemen on the block and the soldiers and spies in the field have a job to do.  Their quest is never ending.  Because whether the number of terrorist attacks this year is on the rise or in decline, whether the lethality of individual incidents is up or down, whether the war is producing desired outcomes or not, whether it’s Spring or Winter somewhere in the world, no one in the world of pondering and punditry can seemingly control what will happen tomorrow, next week or next year.

Terrorism is merely a tactic, the critics of the war against terror say; and violent extremists are in the minority in the Islamic (or Jewish or Christian) worlds. Some adhere to the conventional wisdom that killing terrorists merely produces more.  What the world needs is: If people would just talk reasonably, if the west would be less interventionist and military force were indeed only used as a last resort, if greater care were taken in minimizing collateral harm to civilians, and if wealth and power were just properly distributed.  And if there were more fairness and justice in the world, if everyone just adhered to the universal norms of human rights, if religious zealots were deprived of a pulpit from which to propagate their hate, the allure and the practice of terrorism would decline.

And indeed all of those tracks might be appropriate and needed.  But what about those who don’t want to be like us, who don’t want to be reasonable, who don’t want to talk or even more, who get their inspirations from GOD?  Clearly the majority of Muslims decry violence, but there are also plenty who just don’t want to be a part of a standardized or homogenized one-world that the majority on the north of the planet carelessly build.  And though extremism aptly encompasses the very definition of those who refuse to be a part of the mainstream, what separates the majority of international terrorists from say local lawbreakers and what distinguishes a certain group of Muslims from ultra-orthodox Israelis who also refuse to compromise or capitulate to the State is that only Islamic extremists believe that their enemy is the United States itself, or the state of Israel, or the West, or democracy, or even modernism; and thus they justify striking out against all of those things in the name of GOD or as part of a defense of their lives.

The vast majority in government and the international community doggedly adhere to the convention that the problem isn’t Islam per se.  They voice that the problem is some deviant group or now the latest: that it is “violent extremism” of no religious or ideological rooting.  Such a formulation avoids the condemnation of any religion and seemingly preserves an inalienable right to worship freely.  But it also somewhat deceptive.  Extremism is too vague to accurately describe either the real problem or potential solutions.  And it sweeps up those who merely want to exercise another inalienable right – free speech – into a domain of state control and suppression.  And the reluctance to say that the prime problem today is violent Islamic extremism makes the fight against “terrorism” scatter into ancillary questions of whether there are sufficient investments in gun control.  We could of course digress into a discussion as to whether a lobotomized society and a citizenry powerless against the state isn’t precisely what any government naturally seeks, but that intellectual journey with regard to international terrorism has no tangible destination.

International terrorism today constitutes a definable problem set.  It takes place mostly in (or originates in) the Muslim world and the vast majority of attacks are perpetrated by Islamist champions.  Islam may not be the problem and the world is not officially at war with a religion but something about the religion itself forms the basic substrata.  Even if Islamic terrorists are unsanctioned and out of the mainstream, their violence is unique in its influence and global reach.  Whether terrorists espouse political, Sunni, or Shi’a justifications for violence, questions are obviously raised regarding Islam’s compatibility with western (and globalized) aesthetics, the role of the religion in civil society, and the international implications of the antagonistic and irreconcilable cleavages within the religion that has existed for hundreds of years.

With the attacks of 9/11, all of these problems immediately became matters of international security and stability.  There was almost instant and unanimous agreement that al Qaeda, which had found sanctuary in Taliban-led Afghanistan, needed to be eliminated.  Fighting commenced, governments’ united, international institutions strengthened; and the laws and norms to contain terrorism gained global support.  Though gross mistakes were made in the conduct of that war and correction after correction followed, though new and different war strategies were adapted, and though it took almost a decade for the intelligence and law enforcement organs to learn new ways and sharpen their skills, by 2010 or thereabouts, al Qaeda central, and the threat of an international attack of 9/11 proportions seem to be almost defeated.  The “Arab Spring” then breathed new life into governmental reform; it was as if “moderate” Islamic society itself had reached its limit and was starting to address the so-called root causes.

But stability was not to be and a half dozen decentralized al Qaeda affiliates had subsequently emerged, each exerting broader influence alongside a growing cluster of non-al Qaeda groups.  The so-called Islamic State (commonly referred to as ISIS or ISIL) then started rampaging over the territory of failed states and beyond.  Brutal and shocking acts of violence were perpetrated, many seeming to be precisely for the purpose of shocking the civilized aesthetic.

Spring faded.

There is no denying that more people were killed from terrorist acts in 2014 than ever before, then again in 2015, and now in 2016.  In the same year that the United States and its glorious coalition of reason launched its war against the Islamic State in 2014, more worldwide groups were newly designated as foreign terrorist organizations then in any previous year, including 2001.  Where just a few years earlier the demise of al Qaeda was seen as spawning “lone wolves” floating leaderless outside a disrupted network, now tens of thousands of foreign fighters, almost half from western countries, were also flocking to the war zone to join the Islamic State.  That flow has been disrupted but thousands have returned home, and tens or hundreds of thousands more already are home.  The affiliation of terrorism today is as simple as an individual declaration.

So terrorism hasn’t been defeated by war.  Not even weakened.  There is no nation in the Middle East that is more stable today than it was in 2001.  An entire generation of Muslim youth has now lived most of their life in a state of war.  They have been and continue to be radicalized online, the Internet and social media emerging as the main instruments of terrorist communications, news, ideological dissemination, and recruitment.  Terrorism has moved into a new phase, one not dominated by the brotherhood of battle that bonded the Afghan mujahedeen or the Palestinian militant united in a common cause but into a true global jihad, impersonal, dispersed and amorphous.  The old al Qaeda survives and State-sponsored terrorism doggedly persists, but the new terrorism is a vastly accelerated and grandiose crusade to conquer the lands of pre-modern Islam, an endeavor that is both possible and absurd but one that helps to clarify exactly what the problem is and what possible answers could be.

Every terror extravaganza unfolds in the same way: The act, the shock, the personal testimony of the victims, the news media saturation; government action, over-reaction, assurances and complete obliviousness; security heightened, ever heightened.  The partisan voices blame whoever is in office. The racists blame a people. The militarists decry weakness and demand a greater war effort. Then the reasonable start their seminars and commissions to ask what went wrong – for something always did – and the noose tightens, on society, on free speech, on last year’s/month’s/week’s or yesterday’s threat.  No one steps outside their allocated and adopted lane in this cycle: The reasonable, the unreasonable, the military, the news media, nor the mob. All along, the scourge and threat of terrorism grows.

“They” are winning: admit it.  One after another and then another, individuals having outsize impact through random violence. And the world is terrorized.

It isn’t the randomness of Nice or Dallas or Brussels or Istanbul that should come as a surprise, nor the willingness of this current generation to break the rules and jump the median in society’s orderly lane to bring violence and death to the most common places.  It is the rapidity of all of this that is surprising, that is, if one considers the so-called western army: hundreds of thousands of police, millions in uniform, tens of thousands of “analysts” and experts, the peta-billions of data the intelligence agencies collect.

On days like this, for now every day is that day, I feel angry at the cycle and even angrier at the systemic rigidness of how we maintain the lanes in the road. The same voices go on, magnified by social media, dangling the same bait for their consumers.  Governments act with their mindless officiousness and pretend understanding, the reasonable fight for a middle ground while the pressures of left and right (whatever they are) increase and almost overlap, crushing out anything that even represents humanity.  It happens everywhere and on both sides.  It is truly Orwellian.

On days like this, it is so easy to point at the pundits or the politicians, and then like clockwork, to punch away at the police, the psychiatrists, the perpetrators, the priests, the pornographers, even the people.

I want to decry the brutality.  I work to expose government ignorance and incompetence.  But what is needed is far more difficult: The enemies of civil society have transformed and adapted to ply their trade while the reasonable curate a remote and mechanical response apropos yesterday’s war.  We go round and round through the solutions of better intelligence, better policing, more controls on society, more bombs and even more reasonableness, all the while skirting the reality that extremists might need to be obliterated in a very unreasonable way.  They need to be because that is the only way the forces fighting them can stop being the very stimuli for their growth. Isolationism and walls isn’t the answer, but nor is merely addressing “root causes”.  Islam isn’t the problem, per se, any more than fundamentalists of any religion are claimed to be representatives of the goodness of their faith.

On days like this, I want to pause to think.  Pause.  Think.  Look inside.  Search my own conscience.  Think.  Learn more.  Cry.

It is as old as man, as old as time, this thing we call war.  From the age of 18 when I volunteered to join the U.S. Army to today, I have studied war.  I have learned that the only creed that exists to move us forward is to pay attention to the fundamental rules of war.  War is the last resort but it is also the only one.  But it is only just, can only be justified, if it holds open the possibility, the probability, that through it, both sides can hope for some restoration of peaceful relations.  I believe in just war – not for the righteousness of one cause over another, but for the restoration of peaceful relations between peoples.

It is a terrible thing, this thing called war.  It can indeed be barbaric, but the sweep of history has transformed war undertaken by the state into an efficient forever.  And on the other side?  It has transformed as well: terrorism is deadlier, dispersed and survivable, a type of war that is now being waged on society.  I myself often question the label of war, but war isn’t one immutable thing and what we now wage in contrast to 2001 is too vast to allocate solely to the police.

So we are at war, like it or not.  And I don’t like it.  But if that war demands the obliteration of one side, if that is the only choice to restore peaceful relations, it is indeed terribly unreasonable and tragic. But that is the circumstance we find ourselves in. And that stark objective isn’t some right or left wing possession, nor some pro- or anti-anything.  It is merely the reality of the history of the world, of mankind.

Who will wage this war I describe?  And how will it be fought? Those questions come later.  First, we need to recognize and admit that the war we do wage, and the war they wage, isn’t a just war, that it does not leave open a path to reconciliation.

Second, we have to understand that our own mechanics and that the lanes we have established are crowded and unclear, that the sound bites are utterly insufficient and insignificant, and that our reasoning behind what we are doing is faulty.

So I don’t like it that we are at war, in a state of perpetual war.  But more, I don’t like how it is being fought or the cause that it is supposedly advancing.  Yes on days like this, I’m tired and traumatized but I can still think clearly: So to me.  It’s simple.  We need a just war against terrorism.  And we need leaders who equally believe that what has passed for reasonable for the past decade and a half is no longer so. That doesn’t mean bombs and more bombs but nor does it mean some reasonableness test for admission to peaceful and civil society with everyone else denied admission. Think.  What we are doing isn’t working.

We have to struggle to bring dignity to our enemies’ cause, to recognize their humanity however repugnant they may be.  If we conclude after that they are just pure evil and that they have no place in society then we need to pull ourselves together and embrace an uncompromising war to better humanity.  It won’t be pretty what I’m hinting at.  But it is a better path to peace than an unjust and muddled reasonableness that we currently find ourselves in, one that destroys our own society and threatens our own security and freedoms in its ineffectiveness and carelessness.

Rodney King and War, 25 Year On

Thinking About Technology

William M. Arkin
Presentation at the DOD National Security Management Course, 10 April 2001

“In the aftermath of Desert Storm, no image of violence was as stark as that of the beating of Los Angeles motorist Rodney King.  The videotape was plastered all over television, a kind of visual catharsis to censorship and virtual, seemingly inhuman firepower.  The black and white video, shaky, and grainy, surreptitious, had instant credibility.  It was amazingly similar to gun camera video clips that had become commonplace in the Pentagon’s telling of the very unanimated story of their air war.

Gun camera video tapes, of course, are carefully chosen for the audience’s entertainment during an otherwise difficult to imagine technological enterprise.  Press briefings and video selections emphasize airpower’s perfection and downplays its destructiveness.

Is it the case that the very nature of airpower, and of emerging cyberwarfare, defies heroic description?  There is, of course, real danger for the pilots.  But bombing soon enough becomes a production process, in which the occasional pilot death is more akin to an industrial accident than the result of what we think of as military combat.

We found ourselves at the end of the Gulf War, in the midst of old-fashioned massacre called the Highway of Death.   General Schwarzkopf, adamant that he would not be another commander disgraced for letting a beaten enemy get away, let fighter-bombers be his cavalry.  Almost immediately, a panic set in amongst military and political leaders in Washington and London at the scale of killing on the ground.  They had caused it, even willed it.  But they had not imagined what it would be like.  Somehow when the video screen turned buildings and bridges in the cross hairs to human beings, a tide shifted.  Despite all that Iraq had done, death became awfully hard for the American government and military leaders to justify.

It is such an uplifting anti-heroic approach to death, one that goes back to ancient times, one that is the very basis for what we call the laws of war.  For a soldier it means that any death on the battlefield means potentially ones own death.  The more anti-heroic we are, the more we come to grips with the limitations of the use of force and our own ambivalence about casualties, the more we see this issue as not about the deficiencies of this or that administration or policy-maker, the more we recognize our developing aesthetic about war, the better we will protect human life and the environment.”